Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Career Peaking

Sharon Wildwind

This morning we’re starting with a pop quiz.

How old was dancer Martha Graham when she created and danced what critics called her defining work, Chronicle?
a. 32
b. 42
c. 76
d. 91

If you answered “b,” congratulations. Chronicle came to the stage in 1936, when Graham was 42 years old.

Ten years earlier, at the age of 32, she established the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In her thirties, she created 19 dances; in her forties 23, including Chronicle; in her fifties 8; in her sixties 13, including her longest work; in her seventies 10; in her eighties 17; and in her nineties 6. She was working on a seventh production, The Eyes of the Goddess, when she died at the age of 91.

She became director of the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel in her seventies and finally gave up performing herself when she was 76 years old. In her late seventies she almost died from depression and alcoholism, became a recovering alcoholic, and reorganized her dance company.

Twenty-five percent of her lifetime achievement came after she began to recover her health at the age of 77. This was thirty-five years after critics had said that nothing she did would ever equal Chronicle. I can’t help thinking that she showed them.

As writers we joke about writing the Great American—in my case, the Great Canadian—novel, the seminal work to which our name will forever be linked in a knee-jerk reaction.

Try thinking about Mark Twain without linking him to Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Alice Walker without The Color Purple. Our own Edgar Allan Poe without The Raven. Stephenie Meyer without Twilight.

This probably doesn’t matter much to Twain and Poe, since they are likely enjoying a good cigar, brandy, and each other’s company on another plane, one than involves neither body scans or a search of their luggage.

At sixty-six, Alice Walker has published, in addition to The Color Purple, 13 novels and short story collections, 9 poetry collections, and 11 non-fiction books. Like Martha Graham, her creativity has taken her onward and upward since The Color Purple.

What about Stephenie Meyer, who is a young writer? What about the rest of us?

Writers face the page most mornings with co-joined terrifying thoughts in our hind-brain that a) we will never write a seminal book to which our names will forever be ever linked, and b) that we will write a seminal book, which will be the only thing people remember about our writing.

We live in interesting co-joined society that crazily embraces both a been-there, done-that philosophy, and a more-of-the-same hunger. A couple of months ago another writer told me that her agent actually said to her, “I hope your next book is exactly like your last three, but completely different, of course.”

People wonder why writers go mad.

Personally, I think that we should all aim for both things: write that seminal work, then go on and continue to create for decades after it. If Martha Graham could show the critics, we can, too.
Quote for the week:

The sustained creativity and intellectual energy required to explore an idea fully is at least equal to—and often greater than—that required to launch it.
~Dr. Gene L. Cohen (1944 - 2009), founder of the Center on Aging, Health, and the Humanities, Washington, D.C.


Julia Buckley said...

Interesting facts about Martha Graham. And yes, this is a paradoxical business. I wonder why its duality is still so appealing to us?

Sandra Parshall said...

What really irks me are stories celebrating young writers and the statement (repeated by a lot of otherwise sane people) that no one past a certain age -- sometimes it's 30, sometimes 40 or 50 -- has ever produced a great book. Every day we see the evidence of how absurd it is to look only to the young for great writing. Some writers "peak" in their eighties!

lil Gluckstern said...

To me, the wonder of our life today is that the young-and the old-continue to surprise us. What I particularly enjoy are authors who have had a career in something, and then begin to write because they just have to. As fresh as young writers can be, mature writers often have the insight, and the detachment, that makes a fun, fine, and moving book.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the reasons behind all the things you have mentioned is that there are a lot of younger people who have absolutely no contact with older people.

Also, long-term marketing plans are intended to look 10 to 20 years in the future. That plan won't include consumers in the 55 and older age groups because it is thought that the majority of those consumers will have either greatly reduced consumption or be dead in 20 years.

Yes, you do see a lot of companies today marketing to the current 55 to 75 year olds, but those long-term marketing strategies were developed 20 years ago.