One of the women that I know at the gym is an avid reader. I enjoy talking about books with her, even though we only have a few minutes in the day to do it. The other day, I said, "That would be my dream job, reading whatever I wanted and writing about it."
She said, "Working for a publisher?"
At the same time, we shook our heads. "You'd have to read so much bad stuff," I said at the same time as she said, "The slush pile!"
"No," I said, "I want to read what I want to read and write about it once or twice a week. And to get paid $150,000 a year. If I'm gonna dream, why not dream big? And I want to go to a conference or two a year, with expenses paid."
And then I spent the week-end rereading Phyllis Tickle's Prayer is a Place. I read it years ago when it first came out. At that point, I had just recently discovered her 3 volume version of the Liturgy of the Hours, The Divine Hours. I was fascinated by her discussion of the writing process.
This time, I noticed how much of the book revolves around Tickle's post mid-life career. She has a full career as an academic, teaching and being a dean. Around the age of 45, she quits those paths to found a press that has multiple focuses and is fairly successful, especially as small presses go.
Then, around age 58, she gets the call that will change her life. She's asked to be the editor-in-chief for the soon-to-be-created religion section of Publishers Weekly. She gets to read books, meet authors and publishers, and go to huge festivals and conferences. In short, she has my dream job.
And here's what made me most hopeful: she got that dream job late in life.
We're surrounded by stories of young stars. We're inundated by stories of Ph.D.s that have an expiration date. We're swamped by stories of mid-life and later job seekers who can't find anything.
I loved reading Tickle's memoir because it reminded me that those stories are not the only stories. A world of stories exists where people find that doors open when they need to, that a human that you knew briefly decades ago will come back into your life when you need that person, that there's a shape and a pattern to life that isn't just chaos theory and apocalypse.
I also noted that Tickle often felt like she needed more and more writers. She recounted one story of hiring a woman who sent her an unsolicited resume and that woman became one of her strongest employees. Note to self: don't discount sending off my resume/CV/information to places where I'd like to work, even if there are no published openings.
And then, even later, she wrote The Divine Hours, the project she considers to be the reason she was put on the planet. It's been wildly successful. It's not a project that anyone would have forecast to be wildly successful, but several people had a shared vision, and thus, success.
Literary historians might remind us of many similar trajectories, especially when we consider the path of women writers and artists of all sorts. Just because you haven't produced your most successful work by the time you're 25 doesn't mean that you won't. Lots of people have done their best work at midlife and beyond.
It's important to remember that point, as we move into the Autumn awards season. The MacArthur Genius grants have just been announced, and it's a fascinating list of people and their interests. Soon we'll have the Nobel prizes.
You might be like me; these awards might lead to painful introspection, to that infernal question, "And what have I done with my life?" My answer changes from day to day. On days when I've redone an assessment report for the 5th time or revisited the schedule yet again, on those days I feel most like I'm in a play authored by Beckett, a play which mocks the idea that life can have meaning.
But on days when I write a good blog post or carve out a poem from interesting ideas, those days are good days. On days when I help facilitate some sort of reconciliation, those are good days. On days when I assist in developing workable solutions to real problems--those are some of my favorite days.
I wonder if those problem solving days come after a morning of good writing? I've never kept track, but it wouldn't surprise me if that was the case.
And it's important to remember that MacArthur grant recipients don't always/often start out with their genius recognized. They often labor in obscurity or isolation. They devote themselves to subjects that others have rejected as useless.
It's not about winning a grant. It's about following the passion.
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