I come from a family of late bloomers.
Or at least, that’s the story I tell myself when I try to deal with the disappointment of not having been an outrageous success in my 20s and 30s, when I was precocious and expected so much of myself.
Not that I’m expecting to be an outrageous success in my 60s. But I think I’m letting go of the disappointment of my “failed precociousness.” I’m letting myself admit that things are coming together now in a way that is making sense.
My grandmother was an editor and magazine writer, but she was disappointed in herself until she published her first novel at 80 years old. Was That You at The Guggenheim is a story that she could only have written at that stage of her life. It was a novel that synthesized how she had come to look at her life and her motivations. She went on to publish a semi-autobiographical novel Always and After when she was 89. Again, it is a story about being human. Not about being old, not about looking back at being young, but about what it meant to be a woman coming of age in the Depression.
My mother was a book designer and wrote as part of her job. She didn’t start writing seriously until she retired. Her first creative memoir, Little Comrades was published when she was 80. It, too, is memoir based. It’s a book that tells a complex story of a poisonous web of politics and family. It is a book that she had to wait to write, but when she did write it, she had all of the tools. The Globe and Mail included it as one of the 100 best books in Canada in 2011. She published a second creative memoir, Love and All that Jazz, when she was 83. At that age, she could begin to understand and tell a hard, personal story.
My mother is 91 now, and her first collection of poetry, Second Wind, has just been published. It’s a collection that shines a light on the unique vision of an octogenarian and nonagenarian. It is not looking back. It is working with 90 years of experience to try to understand this thing we call life.
Being an older writer doesn’t give you any special claim to wisdom. But it does mean that you have a lot of years and experiences to bring to what you write. Your perspective is wider, longer.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot these days. We celebrate youth culture. Everything new and shiny dazzles us. As it should. Youth brings new stories, new ideas, exciting energy and vision. But it is also a time of desperation and disappointment. I was one of those new and shiny things once, desperate to be noticed and celebrated, and disappointed when I wasn’t. “I could'a been a contender!” is a familiar rallying cry by the women in my family.
However, I’m starting to realize that the best revenge on my younger self is the fact that I’m still here, still searching, struggling and creating. My new novel is, I think, the very best of me. I could not have written it when I was younger. I feel like I am finally hitting my stride. That may be because my book, too, comes from an autobiographical source. it isn't a memoir, but it certain was inspired by some true events.
It's eerie to look at these books side by side –– my grandmother's my mother's and mine. Until I wrote this blog post, I hadn't realized that we'd all used photos from our lives on the covers. But I think we were all ready to claim our own stories and mine them for whatever nuggets we could find.
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I'm glad I didn’t have to wait until I was 80 to write mine. In my family, that makes me downright precocious!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Amanda West Lewis is the author of seven books for young readers, including September 17, which was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Her new novel, These Are Not the Words, is available from Groundwood Books. She is a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, and drama teacher. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New York City, she now lives in Brooke Valley, Ontario, with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones.