Late Bloomers are guest blog posts at A is for Aging—sharing thoughts and insights from individuals who have launched notable creative efforts in the arts in their Third Age.
Today’s post is by children’s author Paulette Bochnig Sharkey.
I’m a rule-follower, always have been. I color inside the lines. I follow recipes exactly. When I play the piano, I stick to the notes on the sheet music, without improvisation. When I write, I carefully attend to word count.
With all that worry about following rules, it took me a while to find my creative side. And it took me a while longer to let others see it. Classic late bloomer behavior.
I went directly from undergraduate to graduate school, earned a master’s degree in library science, and became a university reference librarian. The job fit me well. I loved solving bibliographic mysteries, researching esoteric topics, decoding complex journal citations. My natural attention to detail paid big dividends. Looking back, I can see that—especially in those pre-Internet days—the work also required a big dollop of creative thinking to find the information patrons asked me for.
I started writing for publication in the late 1980s. I was living in Reno, Nevada, having fun staying home with my young daughter. Every two weeks, the bookmobile parked at a nearby shopping center and we checked out as many picture books as we could carry. I became fascinated by the minimalism of the picture book form. I wanted to write one. I dabbled, but didn’t get far.
I had better luck with the nonfiction articles I wrote for children during that time, making dozens of sales to magazines like Highlights and Cricket.
Years passed. I retired and became a volunteer pianist in assisted-living and memory-care facilities in my community, something I’ve been doing now for fifteen years. Instead of the classical music I grew up studying, I play mostly World War II–era songs for the residents. Stories unfold around me as they respond to this music of their youth. I created a blog to share my volunteer pianist experiences. I’m still blogging. It’s what really got me writing again.
And I still wanted to write that picture book …
So in February 2017, I signed up for Writer’s Digest University’s “Writing the Picture Book,” and completed a draft of what turned into my debut, A Doll for Grandma: A Story about Alzheimer’s Disease (Beaming Books, May 2020. Illustrator Samantha Woo). Inspiration for the story came from my volunteer work with memory-care residents and from caring for family members with dementia.
But of course before the debut came the rejections from editors and agents, about ten of them. I entered A Doll for Grandma in contests, too, and often made the list of finalists but never won. My critique group helped me refine and revise, and I paid a couple of picture book experts for feedback.
But getting older has made it easier to give myself permission to view rules as merely suggestions.
Then in October 2018, while I was in Alaska awaiting the birth of my first grandchild, I received a book offer. I was 65 years old.
Developing my writing voice has been a process reminiscent of developing my distinct touch at the piano, an instrument I’ve played since the age of seven. My piano touch has to do not only with my technique, including the particular way I strike the keys, but also with interpretive elements like phrasing and expression. Put it all together and you get my sound, different from other pianists. People say they know it’s me at the piano even before they come around the corner and see me.
It was the piano that gave me a way into the story I tell in A Doll for Grandma. The piano has provided inspiration for several of my other manuscripts, too, including a picture book biography of Clara Schumann, a 19th century pianist who was definitely not a rule-follower.
Getting older has meant accepting that certain things probably aren’t going to happen for me. For example, despite a year of jazz piano lessons, I still can’t improvise.
But getting older has made it easier to give myself permission to view rules as merely suggestions. At least sometimes.
And with age has come better understanding of my own needs. Some people thrive on chaos. I am not one of them. Quiet and calm nourish my creativity and let me hear my own voice.
My grandson and my first book offer arrived together, forever linked. Two joys of my Third Age.
Paulette lives with her husband in the college town of East Lansing, Michigan. When life there gets too hectic, and household chores get in the way of creativity, she heads to Lake Michigan to reflect and recharge.
To order A Doll for Grandma: paulettesharkey.com/books/
piano blog: PauletteSharkey.com/piano-blog/
Late Bloomers defy age stereotypes and help show us the way to tap into our creativity using life experience, energy and positive attitudes.
“Creativity keeps us fresh, keeps us alive, keeps us moving forward.”
(Rollo May, psychotherapist and author of Courage to Create.)
Find more late bloomers guest posts here. (For further resources, see books Secrets to Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary ordinary people on the art of staying creative, alive and aware in mid-life and beyond by Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler; The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life by Gene D. Cohen M.D.; What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life by Bruce Frankel.)