Tuesday, 3 May 2016

DON'T CRY OVER SPILT SHRIMP - Umberto Tosi

The other night I found myself in a crush of shoppers at a big-top market. Its cavernous space cheerfully illuminated: Murmurs blended into the ambient up-music amid a kaleidoscope of kiosks, redolent with exotic victuals. I was bringing an order of barbecued prawns to my inamorata and a couple of friends who sat at a food court table chatting merrily.

As I approached, someone informed me that I had dropped something. Shrimp were falling from the soggy bottom of my bag, one-by-one, leaving a trail behind me. Then the bag gave way and the rest plopped to the tiled floor in a slippery mess at my feet. There was a hush. People tried not to stare. No use attempting to salvage anything.

I could just hear, “Clean-up on aisle 4,” over the loudspeakers.

Tooozi again! Get that Toozi off the court!” I remembered my red-faced high school basketball coach blowing his whistle and yanking me out of practice games for passing the ball to opposing players.

I grinned feebly at my friends and went back for more shrimp. On my return, the same thing happened. Jumbo shrimp all over the floor! Back for another order. Same thing. On and on, over and over: bright pink prawns and gooey orange sauce everywhere!

UT confers with staff
Then I woke up.

Just like writing, I thought.

It was a typical anxiety dream, of course. With seafood – but at least I still had pants on.

Another May and I begin my 80th year on this iffy green earth.

Even in reasonably good health – knock wood – I'm wondering how many more books, short stories and shrimp I can bring to the table before the Big Top closes down.

Rationally, I realize that such thoughts are pointless – scripted neurotic distractions from my inner anti-writer. I could just as easily been hit by a bus after high school basketball practice on my 17th birthday. But that was when I still thought myself immortal.

The merry month of May also marks a year that I have been privileged be a regular with this accomplished, innovative circle of 29 indie writer-publishers at Authors Electric.

Conclusion: One is never too old for new beginnings.

Pablo Picasso
Self-Portrait,
as a young genius, 1907
I haven't been exactly a prolific writer – not of fiction anyway. I didn't undertake the art of storytelling in earnest until seven years ago. Even pro-rating that, I can't say I've filled bookshelves.

Not that I'm new to writing itself. But decades of journalism, feature writing and other nonfiction forays in print and later online have proved a mixed blessing when it comes to storytelling. I gained confidence or temerity, discipline or rigidity, clarity or obviousness, authenticity or preoccupation with petty details, passion or obsessive-compulsive disorder – all depending on the day of the week and how I'm doing with a given story.

Paradoxically, though "the days grow short when you reach September," as the classic song by Kurt Weill says, I have a lot more time to write creatively now in my dotage than I did in my younger days behind various desks woking to keep the lights burning and kids fed best I could.

I've read up on late bloomers – a popular subject among aging baby boomers looking for a second act. Me? I'm on my third act. We're familiar with the roll call. Joseph Conrad wrote his greatest masterpieces between the ages of 40 and 50 as a retired merchant seaman.

The list of revered writers who started late and/or did their most memorable work later in life is impressive – George Eliot, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Laura Engalls, Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Bram Stoker, Robert Frost, Frank McCort, Toni Morrison, Charles Bukowski, Helen De Witt, Deborah Eisenberg, George Saunders to name a few.

And there are the directors who've given us their best films in later life - Ang Lee, Hitchcock, Terry Gilliam and Hayao Miyazaki for examples. And consider the late-blooming artists:  Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Louise Bourgeois, Bill Traylor, Mary Delany and Noah Purifoy and so on. The Internet abounds with such lists to buoy the spirits of aging surfers, it seems.

George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans)
It gets a bit harder to find examples of those doing their best work well past 70 like Verdi or Delany. But 70 is the new 40, or something like that. Right?

Malcolm Gladwell did a fine job sorting myths from the actualities of creativity and age in his 2008 New Yorker piece, Late Bloomers. “Genius, in the popular mind, is inextricably tied up with precocity,” Gladwell wrote. “Doing something truly creative, we're inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth” (I could use a little more of that energy myself, I thought, reading Gladwell's piece.) 

He cites the “incandescent prodigy” of Picasso and, of course, Mozart. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, Melville, turned out a book a year through his 20s, T.S. Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (about getting old) at all of 23.

Paul Cézanne
Self Portrait 1880
On the other hand, Gladwell says that proves nothing. He goes on to cite plenty of plodding, experimenting, persistent, artists like Cézanne who created their most powerful works late in life. In typical nerdy Gladwell fashion, he points to corroborative statistical studies, most notably, that of University of Chicago economist David Galenson, author of Old Masters & Young Geniuses.

I was a newspaper reporter working with daily deadlines on whatever my editor assigned when I was in my 20s and early 30s. Comparing that with my writing routine today would be apples and oranges – or fast food and pot roast.

My inamorata, artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, one of whose many symbolist images graced the cover of Ophelia Rising,  continues through her seventies creating and showing her fantastical narrative paintings. We discuss issues of age and creativity a lot, alternatively talking each other down from the occasional edges of frustration and discouragement endemic to our respective trades. She could write a book on the subject, and in fact, has taught drawing to adult students – many of them reviving creative callings at midlife – for many years at Evanston Art Center just north of Chicago.

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris
In many ways, it's no different now than when I was younger. Half the time I think I don't know what I'm doing. The other half I believe I'm an impostor with a soggy bag of barbecued prawns, who is about to lose it. But I keep dreaming and going back for more.

A few days ago, a dear friend, writer, designer, marketing consultant Marsha Coupe, sent me a quote from Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost that sums up what writers of any age need:

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”
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Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. During the 1980s and 90s, he played with several improvisational theater groups in Northern California, while editor of San Francisco magazine. He has written extensively for newspapers and periodicals nationally.

10 comments:

Susan Price said...

That'a beautiful quote to end with - and Umberto, may you and Eleanor continue creatively for decades yet.
My mind is pretty popular, but I don't think I've ever thought that genius equalled precocity. Some genius is precocious, that's all - and because people are surprised, it gets a lot of attention.
But genius is close allied to madness - it doesn't care where it strikes.

Mari Biella said...

As someone who wasted much of her misspent youth, Umberto, I can only hope that this is true! And yes, a beautiful quote from Rebecca Solnit.

Sandra Horn said...

Great post, Umberto! It reminds me of a favourite quote from and 80-something friend: 'inside this old woman is a young girl dancing' - and/or 'there may be snow upon the roof, but there's a fire in the cellar' (I don't know where that's from).Rock on!

Bill Kirton said...

Excellent, Umberto. The NOW is all that matters. I did my PhD on Victor Hugo in my twenties and reckoned that (marital infidelities apart) he wouldn't be a bad role model. Arguably his best novel, Quatrevingt-treize, was written when he was 72 - that was 51 years after his first - and he was still publishing drama, poetry, pamphlets and stories right up to the end. His cure for writers' block may be apocryphal but it was interesting. He'd write naked in a room and instruct his servants not to bring him any clothes until he'd finished a chapter. I'm not recommending that, but as a last resort... Have to get some servants first, though.

Penny Dolan said...

What a great post to read and so many positive things to think about, especially close to certain birthdays. Thank you very much, Umberto.

Kathleen Jones said...

Brilliant post, Umberto!! Please keep steaming on and never mind the shrimp!

Wendy Jones said...

Love this post Umberto. Having had a birthday in April this was something which ch resonated with me. Thank you

Dennis Hamley said...

Yes, Umberto, what a marvellous post which, speaking as one who crossed the dreaded barrier eight months before you will, has made my day. When I was 70, I said to my daughter, "I may be entering my eighth decade but I still have ambitions.' Ten years on and I still do. So you are dead right - one really is never too old for new beginnings, though I've dropped quite a few metaphorical shrimps in my time. I think it's wonderful that your inamorata (great word, which I haven't heard for years) is creative too. So is mine. It sure keeps us going!

Reb MacRath said...

Lovely post, Umberto. And long may your flag wave.

Marsha Coupé said...

Marvellous essay, Umberto, as always. Like many of us, I'm inspired when reading about creatives like 90-year-old poet, essayist, artist Etel Adnan and writer English Diana Athill, who continues chronicling life at 93. Her memoir, "Somewhere Towards The End," won the Costa Book Award when she was in her late 80's.