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Opinion Create till you drop, and other lessons from late bloomers

Illustration for Elizabeth Renzetti column by Hanna Barczyk

When I visited Diana Athill in her north London flat in 2009, she had just become a literary star at the age of 91.Her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, was a surprise bestseller; it would go on to win Britain’s Costa biography prize. We trudged up four sets of stairs to her apartment, and I would have had more trouble than Diana if we’d been asked to inflate a paper bag at the top.

We sat down to talk about her extraordinary life as an editor at the publishing house Andre Deutsch, where she’d been the midwife to writers as different as Jean Rhys and Mordecai Richler. We talked about aging and sex and mortality, the subject of Somewhere Towards the End. The British press seemed shocked at how candidly Ms. Athill had written about her lovers – she would count them like sheep when she wanted to go to sleep. She wrote with sadness about how her flesh no longer felt sexual desire, and yet she told me, briskly, how grateful she was that all other systems were functioning: “No dementia, thank God, and no incontinence.”

Ms. Athill, who died this week at 101, would go on to publish four more books, including another memoir, Alive, Alive Oh! The books she wrote in her 10th decade brought her more success than the ones she had written when she was a younger woman. She was like a clock in reverse, not winding down but speeding up.

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She had told me she was lazy, and we bonded over this shared affliction, but I’m not sure the evidence supported her claim. I added her to my list of heroes who came into their creativity late in life. In my head I named this file, “You’re not dead yet, so you might as well pick up that pen.” It included Annie Proulx, who published her first work of fiction at 53, Frank McCourt, who was 66 when Angela’s Ashes came out, and a surprisingly (hearteningly) long list of other writers who only found their feet when their peers were falling off their bar stools.

At the top of that list, of course, is the peerless Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote her first novel as a story to entertain her dying husband and published it at the age of 60. Over the next 20 years she would write eight novels, culminating in her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, when she was 80. Her middle years were marked by poverty and hardship, her late ones by a creative blooming that caught the public by surprise. Shouldn’t this charming elderly lady be at home knitting? Clipping coupons? Organizing village fêtes? Instead, she unfurled on the page what she’d been containing her whole life.

This is a subversion of cultural norms; very few magazine stories are written about the latest hot old thing. But these success stories are an inspiration to late-starters, zigzaggers, and others who discover that the bit of life where they were meant to slow down is the bit where they choose to run. Retirement now lasts 20 or 30 or 40 years; there’s only so much golf you can play.

Canadian writer Katherine Ashenburg was 72 when she published her first novel last year, the wonderful Sofie & Cecilia, which is about two women in early 20th-century Sweden whose ambitions are thwarted when they marry famous artists (full disclosure: Ms. Ashenburg is my former boss and a friend.) “One of the things I really wanted to write about was two women who flowered in old age,” Ms. Ashenburg told me. “Which I think can happen especially to women, once their domestic responsibilities lighten up or are gone entirely. Housework and mothering give you a lot of time to think up stories and to mull things over.” The last section of the novel, when the two women age into the dreams and work once denied them, is called Red, “for great sunsets, for passion in love and work.”

This late creativity can come at a price. As Nell Irvin Painter recently said in an interview with NPR, “being old in our society – it’s not for sissies.’’ Dr. Painter, a professor of history emerita at Princeton University and author of the bestseller The History of White People, found this out the hard way when she decided to pursue her early-life passion for painting and enrolled in a fine arts degree program.

She was 64 at the time, a number so vast and unimaginable that it elicited a gasp of shock from a fellow art student (very young) who asked “How old are you?” The anecdote is contained in Dr. Painter’s book Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, which has just been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.

It isn’t just the young woman’s shock, either. As she works her way through an undergraduate, then graduate degree in fine arts, Dr. Painter has to contend with all kinds of ageism, from the sense that she looks wrong (comfortable shoes, baseball hat) to one teacher’s dismissive claim that she lacks the “right nowness” that the art world seeks. “All the better to die young,” she writes with martini-dryness. “Too late for me.”

She had been reduced to one label: ”It wasn’t that I stopped being my individual self or stopped being black or stopped being female, but that old, now linked to my sex, obscured everything else beyond old lady.”

Has there ever been a more suffocating phrase than old lady? It is a pillow to murder ambition, historically. But perhaps not any more, as we choose new directions for these long, long lives. Maybe we can take back the phrase, break it and shape it anew. Old lady painter. Old lady writer. Old lady, victorious.

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