“Works against ageism and for creativity”: A Review of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age by Priscilla Long

So what of limitations visited upon us by illness or old age? The fact is that a life of creativity—a life of artmaking or photographing or poem-making or novel writing or filmmaking—does not require us to be able-bodied.”

p. 23

“… and I myself, rather than slowing down in my 70s, have sped up … of my seven books to date, five … were published after I turned 72. At my present age I possess two things I had considerably less of in earlier days: time and confidence.”

p. 97

Priscilla Long’s Dancing with the Muse in Old Age belongs in the hands of any adults ready to contemplate their futures. No matter whether you yet consider yourself old, this book may enhance how you live, and you might enter old age with richer intention and be a fuller and happier member of society. One early reader, mythologist Allison Stieger, said, “I would give this book to anyone turning fifty,” and promptly pre-ordered multiple copies. She sees the book as an informed response to the barrage of fear-laden and negative press about old age and a meticulously-researched path to productive creativity. This book belongs even in the hands of the most contented elders. No matter whether you feel your life to be its shiniest, this book may present you with novel possibilities. For every reader, this book is interesting: thick with data and wisdom drawn from the experience of scores of artists of all kinds.

Did Priscilla Long choose this topic because mortality reminds her to be productive and celebratory with this one life? That would explain her deep interest and her expansive research into creative old people but not the writing of the book. Writing may be Long’s primary medium of expression, but why a book? Why this book? Because it may serve as guide, manual, resource, and inspiration. This book-ness can best be explained by Long’s advocacy for all, for her desire that as many around her discover fulfillment by creating and by living wholly for the remainder of their lives. She wishes her readers to contribute to their communities. She wishes to spread happiness and consideration for others. I believe she wishes also to see what will come if more older people believe in their ability to generate new works or to launch new enterprises. And I believe she is bent on improving society. This book promotes taking responsibility such that health, happiness, goodness, and productivity may reign.

The publisher of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age categorizes this paperback as “self-help/creativity” and certainly Priscilla Long intends to inspire her readers—to help them help themselves—to create until no longer able to create. I have a penchant for books that nudge my purpose. I eat up writing craft books (e.g. Diane Lockward’s The Strategic Poet), investigations of human creativity (e.g. Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit), and time-management how-to’s (e.g. The Get-It-Done-Guy Stever Robbins’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More). Priscilla Long’s Dancing with the Muse… rolls these into a single volume. But one need not be a devotee of these genres to enjoy this book. One could pick it up for Long’s cogent defenses of the value of the elderly to society, for its biographies, for information on the brain and aging, or for its contagious positivity.

The six chapters that follow an introduction are: “Creating while Aging,” “Brilliant Old Brains,” “The Happiness of the Old,” “Resource Drain or Resource?,” “Peak Ages of Productivity?,” and “Advantages of being an Old Creator.” Each chapter contains arguments supporting creative productivity in old age. Many contain data and information from studies on the old and on the brain. (e.g. with continued learning and exercise the hippocampus can produce new stem cells.) All contain a plethora of exemplars in the form of brief biographies or quotations from creators. A few of my favorite quotations: “You don’t have to throw your leg over your head to say what you want to say. The vocabulary changes …” (from dancer, actor, and choreographer Carmen De Lavallade), “Age is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. Stasis is the enemy …” (from Twyla Tharp), “… artmaking is the visual history of our experience on earth …” (from Kay WalkingStick), “Never stop being curious.” (from Judy Collins), and “I want to get better!” (from Pablo Casals about his continuing to practice). After the acknowledgments, she provides notes and resources (e.g. on technology services for older adults). The gorgeous cover, a photo of “Crossroads 2, 050520” by Carol Nelson, imparts a sense of the richness of the book’s interior.

As in her earlier books on becoming more effective creators, Minding the Muse and The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long, a Seattle writer and teacher, relies on research. None of her assertions could strike a reader as whimsical. This author persuades readers to see from her positive perspective. For example, she flips certain data to clarify that a minority of elders suffer from dementia or require assistance to live alone in their own homes, for example: “64% of persons 85 and over in 2021 did not have dementia.” (p. 63) She necessarily includes the familiar recommendations to exercise, eat right, reduce stress, and connect to others. To these she adds pursuing goals with a passion, continuing to learn in new directions, and volunteering. New input, individual scaffolding, a growth mindset, a forgiving environment and attitude, a seriousness, and a desire to learn multiple skills may all work toward keeping individuals more alive in older age because “making art is absorbing, engaging, challenging, exhilarating, and yes, it exercises the brain.” Long stretches beyond these more imaginative prescriptive recommendations and asks her readers to think about amplifying the world’s beauty.

Long urges her readers to answer, in writing, the questions she poses at the end of each chapter.

The writing process individualizes the experience of the preceding pages. No two readers can share every attitude, plan, or purpose; each will have her own takeaways. Because of this reflective element of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, this review dips into personal territory. My evaluation of the book as energizing, if a bit overwhelming, springs in part from the numerous, numerous topics I considered as I wrote my answers to Long’s end-of-chapter questions. She calls these prompts “a series of questions for you to explore in relation to your own life.” Answering them enabled me to see which areas I feel I address already and which I might investigate further. I imagine the same will happen for you.

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age also prompted me to look up artists to see more of their work and learn more about them, add to the list of places I’d like to visit (e.g. I want to see Noah Purifoy’s Joshua Tree museum), acquire books (e.g. one by a poet I had not heard of before—John L. Wright—and Timothy Clark’s Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything), write poems based on a prompt described in a exemplar’s biography, and more. Long’s book taught me new things. (e.g. There are three kinds of happiness! 1. hedonic happiness—pleasure and the sensations of now, 2. life satisfaction—evaluative of the whole shebang, 3. eudemonic happiness—living with purpose, finding meaning.)

My hair has been gray for years. I’ve reached the age at which I can purchase a National Parks Forever Pass (which I’ve done). I think about my mortality often, especially when older family members have died or upon the death of a college friend from an illness uncommon in young folk, and it motivates me to produce, to do things that interest me, and to take the time to figure out what these are. Priscilla Long’s book ramped up this focus and added her thoroughness to it. Alone, I would never would have arrived at many of the considerations I’m now plotting. Dancing with the Muse… has me jazzed. I want to instigate the many tentacled to-dos generated from answering all (!!) Long’s chapter-end questions with as much vigor as I can muster, daily, from now until I die.

Spoiler alert: Priscilla Long ends Dancing with the Muse in Old Age with the word begin, which is very charming: “Remember to take small steps. Remember to work every day. Begin.”

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age
Coffeetown Press 2022
Epicenter Press, a division of Coffeetown, Kenmore WA
211 pp
ISBN: 9781684920204

Categories Literature

Pamela Hobart Carter loves Seattle as much for its water and mountains as for its bustle and creativity. She explores the Emerald City daily while walking her dog. Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side.

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