Old Stories, New Adventures
December 17, 2018 § 20 Comments
By Colby J. Barak
Most have heard the story of Grandma Moses, a painter who found success in her 70s. Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 70s when her daughter Rose convinced her to write down her stories of growing up in a Little House on the Prairie. In fact, you can Google “late bloomer artists,” and get almost eight million hits, although some sites think success in your 30s is “late.” These anecdotes and statistics are little comfort, however, when you are the one sitting in a classroom full of people the same age as your children, trying to learn something new.
This is how I still feel sometimes in graduate writing classes, which I began taking a few years ago for fun. Sometimes there were other “older” students, but when I found out some were there as part of an outreach program to senior citizens, I went back to feeling sorry for myself. I am still hanging on to my 40s by the stubs of my fingernails, but with a fair amount of grey hair, and some extra weight I can’t find a good reason to lose, I can get a senior discount if I really want one. Besides, they say it’s not the years, it’s the mileage, and I have some miles on me.
I felt I had nothing in common with these “kids” except an interest in telling our stories. At first, I didn’t think my life story would be of any interest to anyone but my children – like the story of putting my first child up for adoption and how that led me to the life that created them –and even then, I imagined, they would only be curious after I was dead. Then I started to dissect my life and more closely examine certain parts, and I realized that I did have an adventure or two worth relating.
There was, for instance, the time I “accidentally” moved from Nebraska to Florida by going down for the weekend and staying for three years. Or, there was the one when I was working in the Omaha Mayor’s office in 2009, during the worst winter since 1962, and kept track of all the bad words people yelled at me over the phone – and turned that into a drinking BINGO game. I saw too that I had gained enough distance that I could tell these stories better than ever before.
I took more classes about spirituality, autobiography and nature. I learned techniques, terminology, and found my own voice. I began to see past and present events through the lens of a creative nonfiction writer. I squeezed homework in at work when my boss wasn’t looking and spent weekends reading and writing in between laundry loads. I discovered that as much as I loved reading in the past, there are at least a million books I haven’t gotten to yet, and they all have something to teach me.
Finding the writing of David Sedaris, and learning that you can be funny even when discussing unfunny subjects, was alone worth the price of tuition. I had a natural tendency to conquer misery with humor in my life, and it sometimes felt inappropriate until I “met” Sedaris. Now I embrace my humor in every story. I learned that writing helps me understand myself better through the process of explaining my life events to other people. I learned that these wonderful young adults in my classes were also my teachers, because they would read my stories and help me to make them better. Some of them are truly brilliant, gifted, and wise in ways that to not come with age.
I am sure most of you reading this knew before you got this far that I was going to tell you that we are never too old to create. That is exactly what I am saying. What I hope you do now is believe it for yourself.
There was a time I couldn’t walk, but I learned. There was a time I couldn’t drive, and someone helped me. There was a time I thought I was too old to start something new, but I will turn 50 just before I graduate next May.
Colby J. Barak is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is currently completing a book of essays titled, There are No Christians in the Parking Lot, which looks at the changing nature of family in the 21st century. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, Doug and kitten, Maya Grace.