Bloomers At Large / Features

BLOOMERS AT LARGE: “Retiring Young and Working Old”

by Vicraj Gill

At Scratch, Carolita Johnson writes about “retiring young and working old”—recalling her determination to get all the life experience she could before she settled down, past her mid-40s, to find her artistic voice as a New Yorker cartoonist and aspiring writer. You’ll have to log in to the site to read the article, but doing so is free, and Johnson’s piece is well worth it.

Ari L. Goldman’s memoir The Late Starters Orchestra strikes a similar note to Johnson’s story. In it, Goldman, who played the cello as a boy, returns to the instrument in his 50s after joining the titular musical group (whose motto is “If you think you can play, you can”). And his time with the Late Starters makes it clear that what keeps its members playing isn’t the promise of glory, but joy.

Rachael Schwartz first appeared on Jeopardy! in 1993, while working as a lawyer. Now, as the show brings her back for the ’90s edition of its “Battle of the Decades” tournament, she’s in completely different circumstances. After appearing on the show, Schwartz quit her law practice after 31 years to start a new career working on stem cell research for the National Institutes of Health. She also hopes to apply for PhD programs in biology; if she’s successful, the focus of her research will be human longevity.

Of course, success in later life isn’t limited to art or academia; it happens in athletics too. Case in point: Joe Pavey, a 40-year-old runner who won her first gold medal at the 2014 Final European Athletics Championships, making her Europe’s oldest female champion. Check out video of Pavey’s win here.

At The American Scholar, a great take on the way age can change one’s perspective on the world. Willard Spiegelman, writing about high school reunions, comments that “At the 50th, no one cares or asks, ‘What are you?’ . . . They ask instead, ‘How are you?’” He goes on to paraphrase Voltaire’s observation that everyone over 80 is friendly with each other because “They know where they are going, and they are going there both alone and together.”

Classicist and critic Mary Beard displays a refreshing candor in her self-presentation that’s very like that of Spiegelman and his contemporaries. As Annalisa Quinn notes, Beard’s “messy gray hair” in particular “seem[s] to say, I have much better things to worry about.” Quinn and Beard sat down to talk about Beard’s late-blooming status as a feminist icon and “mascot for older women” in this great piece for the LA Review of Books.

E. M. Forster was 26 when he published his first novel but 45 when he published his last and most famous one, A Passage to India (1924). And that book only came out after 11 years in which Forster didn’t publish much at all. At The Guardian, Damon Galgut investigates what happened during that time: travel, time in the civil service, a war; and love, both requited and not.

As regular readers of Bloomers At Large will know, writer Julia Fierro also took a hiatus after graduating from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and completing her first novel, which didn’t sell. As she writes in a recent piece for Poets & Writers, she ended up creating her own writer’s workshop, Sackett Street, and spent years there reading and editing others’ work—worrying all the while that her own lack of publication meant she was a failure. But she came to realize that it was the time she spent working with the students that gave her the strength to return to writing after early disappointment—as well as the skill to make good on her own promise.

A. X. Ahmad, a Bloomer previously profiled on this site, recently wrote a great piece for The Millions about the contemporary literary thriller. Ahmad describes how the Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, and John le Carré novels he grew up with, whose plots tended to fall along ideological lines, were gradually replaced by the thrillers of today: books by writers like James Church and Mukoma Wa Ngugi, whose stories hinge instead on explorations of place and culture.

This isn’t to say that thrillers can’t still take on states and governments. David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does, albeit through the lens of a protagonist with debilitating paranoia. Shafer recently sat down with William O’Connor at The Daily Beast to talk about his book’s examination of the security state. He also shares his literary influences, which include many of the thriller writers Ahmad names in his piece, and discusses the writers he’s been reading recently, like Bloomer Jo Ann Beard.

We at Bloom have written about Beard before; click here to read Amy Day Wilkinson’s great profile of the author. We’ve also spotlighted Louise Bourgeois, another artist who worked old, having started her career as a sculptor in middle age. At The LA Review of Books, B. K. Fischer discusses the “feminist energy” behind Bourgeois’s work, and the way that energy informs the ekphrasis of Bourgeois’s art in the work of female poets like Mary Jo Bang (yet another writer featured and interviewed at Bloom) and Camille Guthrie.

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Homepage photo credit: Pandora’s Perspective via photopin cc

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