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?
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.