Never Too Late

This week I’m re-posting a recent blog entry by my fellow writer and editor, Carol Roan, from her site, The Stage Fright Whisperer. Carol and I collaborated on the creation of  When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50. Her essay, part of a series she is doing on creativity, is inspirational for me because, like the anthology, it celebrates the life and work of older writers. Some of us have just been so busy living our lives that we haven’t always had the time to write and publish our stories. Yet it’s never too late–as the life of Smith Hagaman reveals.People-are-capable

The Creative Experience Has No Age Limits

by Carol Roan

Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you’re from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.

He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, “If not now, when?” He was a reader; but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if he had worried about how he was writing, he would have given up.

But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings; he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. “Why?” That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn’t work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.

And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn’t know existed, even though I’d sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.

Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked “why?” throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish prist—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don’t want to give away the ending.

When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of Off the Chart by Smith Hagaman.

A wannabe writer at 86, Smith published two books and was at work on a third when he died.

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About Carol: 

With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and testified about esoteric gold trades before the CFTC. Her writing career began with the publication of her first nonfiction book at the age of 62. She has since authored two other nonfiction books and co-edited three anthologies, including When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.

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For Writers or Aspiring Writers:

If you’ve been meaning to pick up a pen and write, well, pick up a pen and write–one memory, one letter, one observation from the day, one story. Today. It’s not too late to start or to start again. Just set aside ten minutes and write without judging yourself or what you write. Then try it again tomorrow–and the next. I’ll be doing that too. So you’re not alone.

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“Those who pass by us, do not go alone, and do not leave us alone; they leave a bit of themselves, and take a little of us.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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10 thoughts on “Never Too Late

  1. I have the book, When Last on the Mountain, and really enjoyed the stories by older people. I like to read about people in my generation, and memoirs appeal to me.
    I relate to your student who began writing at 86. I had a student, a vet of WWII who took my writing classes and his entire life changed. He isn’t publishing books, but when he wrote about the war and found that people were touched by his words, he became a huge advocate for WWII veterans and has accomplished so, so much since 2008 when I met him. He is 91 now, healthy and full of life.

    • Hi, Glenda, I’m so glad to hear from you and that you enjoyed the anthology.
      Your student is another example of where writing can take us. One of my writing workshops was titled “A Note in a Bottle” because we never know where our writing will end up or who might read it and find our words meaningful. Sometimes it’s like putting our message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. Someone recently found such a bottle here in Florida that had washed up on shore from the Gulf of Mexico. In it was a note and a request for a pen pal.

      • I remember ‘a note in a bottle’. A great post as was this one. I’m reading Girl in the Dark now… great writing. But I’m keeping Carol’s post so I can find Smith’s writing next. Thank you. And thank Carol.

        • When I was leading that class, I became interested in the whole concept of a “a note in a bottle” and looked for real stories of people finding such bottles all over the world.
          Interesting.
          In the class, we talked about how the bottle for our writing could be the particular genre we use to contain our message. A poem is one kind of bottle–a small one. A novel would be a really large bottle–in fact, so large that it might sink unless an extra effort is made to get it to float to shore. I’m afraid my novel sunk– “sunk”? “stunk?” Something like that–but maybe it’s not too late to get it afloat again. : )
          Thanks for your comment, Janet, and for looking for Smith’s book. I put a link to Amazon for the book.

  2. Now there’s a role model, Vicky. What an interesting and inspiring person Smith Hagman was. I’m going to Amazon right now to get that book. Pity he didn’t discover his talent sooner, but wonderful that he found a passion for writing while he still had a few years left to make his mark. That’s a good lesson for everyone.

    • Thanks for your comment, Arlene. It’s all about the journey. I so enjoyed the stories you wrote. I’ll never forget the one about Ben. And then there’s the one you wrote about what it was like leaving Rhode Island and moving to Kansas. Our walks and talks always make for good days here in Florida!

  3. Smith’s story isn’t over yet. Yesterday I applied to give a talk at “Aging Re-Imagined.” a symposium sponsored by Wake Forest University and its Medical School. I applied as a “community member,” not believing that my talk, “We Can All Sing,” would make the cut among all the scholarly papers being presented. Lo and behold, I heard right away that it had made the first cut and was being passed on to the review committee. I was asked if I’d be willing to do a poster/table presentation. I’m meeting tomorrow about a possible poster with a friend who discovered, after retiring, that she’s an artist. And they thought I’d get a lot of interest if I presented “Off the Chart” and “When Last on the Mountain” at a table. Smith’s publisher is now defunct, so his daughter and I are scrounging around trying to find more copies.

    • What good news! I expect to see you do a TED talk in the future!
      If you need more copies of “When Last on the Mountain,” let me know. I like the title, “We Can All Sing.” Writing is a form of singing.

      Also I’m sorry to hear about Smith’s publisher. I hope his daughter can regain the rights. As you can see from the comments above, several people were interested in his book.

  4. I’m getting excited about the idea of a table presentation. I’m realizing how many people I know who have embarked on new careers after “retirement.” The head of a money management company who has had 2 exhibitions at the Smithsonian and has a stunning new book out; a professor of French lit who just won an award for her 1st poetry book; an engineer who now performs and records Rumi’s poetry.

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