Free at last to find your creative spark

October 21, 2013
best older singers

Gary Withyman’s secret passion was singing. Not even his wife had an inkling. He didn’t sing in the shower if anyone was home. He sang when he was alone, anything from Pink Floyd to choral music. It wasn’t until he was 62 that he finally came out of the closet as a singer. “I’d always had this hidden desire but I didn’t do it,” Gary told me. “Like many in my generation I got married, was a father at 26 and 28, and worked hard all my life.”

Then his cousin, who sang with the Sydney Male Choir asked Gary if he was interested in joining. Gary was tempted but terrified. He couldn’t read music and an audition was involved. But like a lot of people in their 50s and 60s, he knew the time had come. If not now, when. Five years on, and he’s the vice-president of the 63-member choir. He says of singing, “It just opens you up; it’s the most tremendous feeling. Joy – I don’t know how else to describe it.”

At 3 a.m. recently I woke up and put on the radio. Usually the BBC World Service or Radio National at that hour is like Mogadon. This time I was zapped into alertness. “Instead of joining a book club, write a short story,” a man was saying. “Instead of going to an art gallery, paint a picture.” The man being interviewed was urging everyone to find their creative self, the self most of us left back in childhood, or like Gary, have suppressed. Don’t merely be a culture-vulture, he was saying, be a creator. Was this disembodied voice in the dark talking to me?  “Can’t sing, can’t draw” me?

As children in primary school most of us sang, danced, drew pictures, and wrote short stories. Then someone told us we were hopeless; or we could see for ourselves that compared to others we were tone-deaf, colour-blind and clumsy. We put away the paint brushes. At parties we sang Happy Birthday sotto voce. We were the ones, standing in the corner glass in hand, while others took to the dance floor.

For a myriad reasons it can take people till the last third of their life to discover or re-discover their creative side. It’s only then, with the children grown, and careers in wind-down, we have the time, freedom, lack of inhibition and sometimes the desperate need to explore lost or buried potential. Several people I know in their 50s and 60s, including unlikely ones, have taken up painting, life-drawing, quilting, singing or creative writing. My oncology surgeon, a dear man but of necessity a workaholic over the ten years I visited him, took up painting with a passion on retirement. Gary is right. Joy is the reward.

Some people in their youth wanted to compose or paint but were told to get a “real job” or needed to do so.  Anne Kempton 57 was in her early 30s when she discovered a gift for fibre art – in particular felt-making. But after her marriage broke up, she went for the big, demanding jobs at the top of state bureaucracies and the reliable income to support her two daughters. Art went by the wayside. “It seems to me by the time women hit their 50s, we’ve lost ourselves,” she told me. “We did the superwoman thing to death, giving out to everyone else.”

Five years ago, she changed tack, and opened Timeless Textiles, a fibre art gallery in Newcastle. Her aim, through the gallery’s workshops, is to help women “re-stitch their lives.” Through creativity, she says, we find ourselves; we can make better sense of the world. All we have to do is turn off the inner critic that says we’re no good.

Older people are flocking to life-writing and memoir-writing classes. “They say they always loved writing at school, but because of their jobs, children and lack of confidence, they didn´t pursue it,” Patti Miller told me. She runs classes for the Australian Writers’ Centre. “People seem to come back to life, to glow, when they rediscover that endless creativity inside themselves. I think it´s about returning to the dreams and hopes we had when we were young.”

Recently I’ve met a bunch of lively women who have taken to the stage. They’re members of the theatre group run by the Older Women’s Network. They create their own shows – musicals with a satirical political message. The latest was Don’t Knock Your Granny – a sharp take on elder abuse. Rita Tratt joined the troupe when she was 62 with no theatrical experience. She liked to dance but didn’t think she could hold a tune. “I got better,” she said. The whole experience has been “freeing, totally enjoyable; it was a great transition to retirement.”

Must being creative involve the arts or literature?  It’s what the disembodied voice on radio was implying. But some people, the practical, the mathematical, the ones who’ll always sing off-key, may tap their creativity in other ways: gardening and cooking come to mind. And maybe journalism and blogging count too. What’s undeniable is the flowering I see around me of happy people in later life discovering: Hey, I can draw, I can sing, I can dance.

Have you found your creative side later in life? Please leave a Comment.

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