In 2018, poet and writer Priscilla Long gave a talk at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. celebrating the second edition of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). She used her platform to discuss creativity and aging. “I think it’s time to talk about this, partly because I turned 75 this year,” she said at the lectern, and the audience erupted into cheers and applause.
Now, Long has written Dancing with the Muse in Old Age (Coffeetown Press, 2022) – an anti-ageist manifesto that debunks the myth of peak creativity from ages 39-42 with inspirational anecdotes about writers, artists, scholars, and athletes who work long into their 90s…and beyond.
“I’m going to be 80 next year, and that’s pretty shocking, and the reason it shocks me is I grew up in the same ageist culture that we all do,” she explains. “I thought I wouldn’t live past age 30. I’m a pretty contented person, but it was time to actually pay attention to the research around aging – which tells us, among other things, that old people tend to be happy – in contrast to what we might think.”
I caught up with Long via a Zoom conversation in late September. At 52, I’ve been guilty of deflecting when someone asks how old I am. But listening to her wisdom on the importance of openly embracing our age and serving as role models no matter our birthdates, I felt a shift in my perception.
Older people tend to care less about the opinions of others, Long points out, and so have less anxiety about how other people view them and their creative work. That is very freeing for a creator and helps the work go forward.
We need positive images of aged creators. By including examples and photos of creatives in her book, poet John Wright, who wrote into his 90s, and writers Bessie and Sadie Delany and artist Marilee Shapiro Asher, who all worked past their 100th birthdays, Long proves that age is literally just a number.
MH: What was the catalyst for writing this book?
PL: Due to my forthcoming old age, I felt I should approach this new era of my life proactively, with both knowledge of the science of aging as it is developing and with models of creative old persons whose lives are to be envied and emulated. Let’s consider brain health. I learned of neuroscientist Rachel Wu’s work at CALLA (Cognitive Agility Across the Lifespan via Learning and Attention) at University of California, Riverside. We hear about working to maintain cognitive functioning, but she and her team have studied the importance not of maintenance but of cognitive development in aging persons. As for models, oh my, I found so many amazing ancient and powerful artists and writers, from the painter Wayne Thiebaud, who started a new body of work at age 98, to writers and poets Maya Angelou and Penelope Lively and Derek Walcott. I had no trouble finding models and, in fact, found so many that I have a thick folder of amazing elders that I couldn’t fit into the book.
Some of these world-class artists and writers live with disabilities. I’ve known about the French Impressionist painter Renoir since I was 14 but had no idea that he was severely disabled with rheumatoid arthritis for the last 30 years of his life. Yet he kept on painting.
However old we are, or however able-bodied or disabled, let us continue learning, growing, and developing new skills. As an older poet and writer, I am concerned about not repeating myself and about discovering new forms and exploring new ideas.
MH: What advice do you have for writers wanting to find a writing community?
PL: Often we writers start alone. We scribble in our notebooks and hide it from people. Certainly I did. But we need community – it’s not really optional. Take classes so that you’re writing with other people. Zoom makes it easier, and often writing groups form out of these classes. See if you can find a writing buddy for a limited time. You’re not asking someone for a long-term marriage; you’re simply saying, “May we try this and see if we’re compatible.”
If you’re a poet, there are open mics and poetry readings all over. After I got my MFA in 1990, I decided I must learn to read in public, because poetry is an oral form, meant to be read out loud. Let me tell you, I had stage fright. To get over it, I began reading at various open mics about once a week. I became part of a group of poets, The Seattle Five Plus One, and for years we workshopped our poems and practiced performing them and did perform them.
You can start by reading out loud to your cat; cats make great listeners! But you must move on to people. It takes courage, but you do get better at it, and another advantage is, there’s your community.
MH: You make a good point about the importance of courage in the creative process. Can you elaborate?
PL: We all have moments of timidity and fear, but what are you going to do, just sit there and do nothing? In Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, I tell the story of Giuseppe Paterno, a 93-year-old Italian man who’d always wanted to go to college. He’d always loved to read. But he came from a poor family and had to quit school in the eighth grade. He spent his career as a surveyor for the Italian railroad and got married and helped to raise two children. Then, he got his high school diploma, and he wanted to go to college in philosophy and history. He applied to the University of Palermo and was accepted at age 93. Early on, he faltered: everyone was so much younger. He went to a dean to question this big move, and, crucially, this dean encouraged him. Before long, he felt perfectly comfortable, the other students accepted him and he them. He graduated at the top of his class at age 97 and planned to go on for master’s degree. Talk about courage. Wow, he is a model for me.
MH: In chapter two of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, you talk about attending classes through Mindfulness Northwest, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Tell me more.
PL: In the chapter titled “Brilliant Old Brains,” I talk about how we need to move more, how we need to learn, and how we need to reduce stress. Now, I’m a high-strung person, often stressed out! Mindfulness Northwest’s classes and retreats have nurtured and helped me. Participants can be of any religion or of no religion. I’ve learned to take a deep breath. To stop to become aware of the present moment.
I used to write with a fair amount of anxiety, especially when I was in the MFA program. One thing about getting older is that eventually you have lots of publications (as improbable as this seems when you are starting out), lots of water under that bridge, and you’re not so uptight anymore. Writing is just what you do. There’s almost always a point, especially in the middle of a long work, when it seems that some ridiculous person had this ridiculous idea, which is never going to work out because it’s ridiculous. But at this point in your life as a writer, you begin saying to yourself, “Okay, now in this piece, I’m at that stage.” You get through it.
MH: I just listened to Jack Kornfield’s wonderful lecture series The Roots of Buddhist Psychology, and I’ve been thinking a great deal about the importance of compassion in our society. Will you tell me a little more about how self-compassion can benefit writers?
PL: In the discovery phase of writing, if you’re practicing self-compassion, you’re not thinking about what somebody else is going to think or “Is this going to be any good?” Instead, you’re sitting down every day, even for a short time, and putting in your best effort.
Getting the inner critic to step down takes self-discipline. Imagine if you were a bricklayer, and you said, “Oh, I don’t know if this is going to work or not. What if I put a brick in crooked? What if somebody trips on my brick?” When you think of the inner critic in terms of other occupations, it makes no sense. Keep in mind that no work starts out good. It’s just an idea. You work to make it good.
MH: What do I say to my 60-year-old student who’s just started writing and told me she couldn’t write a memoir or a novel because she’d have to learn too much and it would take too long?
PL: Tell her to read my book! The first and second pieces of information this writer needs is that to preserve the health of our brains, we need to move, and we need to learn. What could be better for learning than learning to write because in writing, the learning pretty much never ends. And what does “taking too long” mean? We are advised – especially by financial advisors! – to think of our life span as 100. And, by the way, what else does she plan to do? Grandkids are, of course, important, but they do not take up every minute of every day. What is her plan for the future?
I also want to say this. If you’re waiting to retire before you start writing or waiting till the kids are out of the house or waiting till you have more time, think again. Begin now. Do a little work every day.
MH: Why did you include photos of some older writers, musicians, artists, etc., in the book?
PL: Images are powerful. It’s important for us to see photos of accomplished elders who are active, who are productive, who are creative, who are connected. In the media, you see zillions of pictures celebrating young people. We need zillions of positive images of old people.
MH: My mother-in-law is a professional painter specializing in wildlife and landscapes. She just turned 90. She has a brain tumor, and she recently had a stroke, and she’s determined to learn to paint cats. On the flip side, my father’s 82, and I see that he has let society’s views of old age pile up on him. He seems defeated.
PL: Becca R. Levy at Yale School of Public Health found that negative attitudes toward aging can actually be a cause of decline, can make you lose seven years of life. This completely makes sense to me. If you’re struggling with ageist beliefs, you don’t really take care of yourself. You think, “Oh, gosh, I’m too old to (fill in the blank).” If that’s your thinking, why would you be concerned to get your 10,000 steps? Why would you think of going back to school or taking up dancing or pottery or writing a novel? Why would you begin writing poetry?
I know people who say, “Oh my god, I’m 50, and I’ve never done anything, and my life hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped. They think the whole thing is over (at 50!). I hear so much negative talk about aging. I have a good friend who just turned 80, and to her, she has met her doom. And she’s in good health! She has years ahead! I think, “Oh my god, read my book, please.”
MH: You note the importance of being a mentor and giving back to your artistic community. I’m wondering, whom do you mentor up in Seattle?
PL: I teach and coach adult writers, and I participate in poetry readings around town. Part of my mission is to help other writers and to be a positive role model. In my classes, I do all the assigned work, which is a lot. I hand my work to them as they hand theirs to me, having done the best job I could within the time limit.
MH: Tell me about the book you’re working on right now.
PL: I always work at more than one book at the same time. In poetry, I have a good friend who’s an excellent poet, Bethany Reid. During the pandemic, every week, we’ve taken turns choosing a model poem. The poems have been extremely varied in terms of form and subject matter. We study them, and then we each write a new poem that relates somehow to the model. We might take a word; it can be a simple as that. Or we use the structure. Or whatever. We write a poem every week, and then we have our two-person workshop and revise.
My new poetry book is one result. Titled Somewhere / Nowhere / Here: Cartographies of Home, it explores themes of home or no home or finding home or searching for home or losing home. It’s making the rounds of editors now. I’m also working on a book titled Chambers of Being: Reflections on Spaces and Colors. I’m working on another book about rivers in Washington state. I’m not in retiring mode and plan to never retire. I plan to write 10 more books. Retiring is not in my vocabulary.
MH: Dancing with the Muse makes me happy to be alive. I’m so glad to have it as a resource to hand to so many different people, especially because of the writing prompts you include at the end of each chapter to help us define our relationship to age and creativity. Any final thoughts?
PL: My deepest hope is that people reading Dancing with the Muse in Old Age will get something from it for their lives and for their creative work. I hope people of all ages will read it. If it helps you even half as much as it has helped me, I will be happy.
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the middle grade novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the World. melissahart.com