There is hope for those of us who will never again qualify for a “Top 40 Under 40” list.
Our society has such a fascination with child prodigies that those of us over the age of 15 can often feel forgotten. Haven’t belted out a tune with Lady Gaga by the age of 14? Haven’t mapped a new genome by age 25? No magazine covers yet, and you’re already 30 years old?
There’s no hope for you. You’re over the hill – and you have a long, long, depressing ride down into the distant sunset. That’s certainly the message we receive from pop culture.
If you’re a real human leading a real life, it’s good to turn off all that messaging once in a while and look back. Look to our elders for examples. And discover that great new endeavours can be undertaken at any age.
I recently came back to “creative” writing after an intentional absence of 15 years. Way back in the 90s I realized that I would drive myself crazy if I tried to start and build a successful consulting company while also keeping up a literary life.
The good news, for me, is in the stories of people like Mrs. Delany and David Thompson. Mrs. Delany is the subject of one of last year’s best reviewed and best selling books of nonfiction, The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock.
“Imagine starting your life’s work at 72,” it begins. “At just that age, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (May 14, 1700 – April 15, 1788), a fan of George Frideric Handel, a sometime dinner partner of satirist Jonathon Swift, a wearer of green-hooped satin gowns, and a fiercely devoted subject of blond King George III, invented a precursor of what we know as collage.”
Peacock’s fascinating book interweaves the story of Mrs. Delany’s late discovery of her art with the author’s own life story to produce a compelling exploration of life patterns. Yes, it says, you can start late and accomplish great things.
If you’re interested in a shorter version of that story, I would highly recommend Peacock’s essay, “Passion Flowers in Winter”, which is included in The Best American Essays, 2007, edited by none other than David Foster Wallace.
One of the writing projects that I have returned to, 15 years after stashing it in my basement, is an exploration of western central Alberta and the waves of people who have passed through it, pulled by the promise of often elusive treasures – fur pelts, oil, tourism, industry.
The North-West Company fur trader, explorer and map maker David Thompson plays a central role in that story. Thompson traded and mapped his way through the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
A remarkable map-maker, Thompson mapped over 3.9 million square kilometres of North America.
Then, at age 75, he began writing what has been called one of the central narratives of Canadian writing. At age 75. With failing eyesight.
What’s more, Thompson was much like any struggling writer. He couldn’t find a publisher. He proposed many different forms for his book. He suggested a publisher might want to serialize it. He changed the price. He wrote and rewrote it.
Thompson’s eyesight failed and the work had to be set aside. When, after a series of mysterious treatments, his sight returned, he launched right back into the writing. Then cholera hit his household, necessitating another pause. But he kept returning to his story.
An excellent new edition of his writings, edited by William Moreau, was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (with two more volumes to come). As Moreau points out in his introduction, “Thompson had a deep need to narrate.”
You or I may or may not have the talent of a Mrs. Delany or a David Thompson. But their examples tell us that whatever talent we have, 72 or 75 or any other advanced age is not too late to let it shine.
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