A review of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age by Priscilla Long

Reviewed by Karen Franklin

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age
by Priscilla Long
Coffeetown Press
Nov 22, Paperback, 220 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1684920204

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age is a provocative and practical guide to living a creative life until the end of life, even amid untold challenges of growing old. Priscilla Long asserts in her big-hearted new book that old age is a time of creativity, exploration, growth, and joy—or should be. This compact 204-page handbook exhorts elders to manifest their creative passions, regardless of their past experience in creativity. The book is an invitation and a call to action. “Old age is a prime time to flourish in creative productivity,” Long says. “It is also a time to begin creative work.” 

When I read these words they felt like a breeze at my back, a whisper in my ear, a hand on my shoulder. I had just retired from a grinding high-pressure career when Dancing with the Muse in Old Age arrived in my life, as if preordained. I had survived the power dynamics, the bureaucratic quagmires, the psychopathic boss, and the merciless pounding to get ahead, but not before the psychic toll had all but stoppered my creative juice and my capacity to write. Long’s fresh take on creativity helped me shake off my malaise and recharge my battery for the life of writing I crave. 

The book visits dozens of old artists and creators in their 80s, 90s, and 100s who share reflections and teachable glimpses into their remarkable lives. Artists like octogenarian Philip Glass who has composed music throughout his life, and artists like Anna Marie Robertson “Grandma” Moses, who started painting in her 70s and painted until she died at 101. Artists like Twyla Tharp, Igor Stravinsky, Georgia O’Keefe, Mick Jagger, and throngs of old painters, filmmakers, potters, weavers, photographers, dancers and choreographers, composers and musicians, sculptors, writers—living and dead, well known and unknown. 

The book is a needed corrective to incessant messaging that aging is taboo. The old artists who populate the book narrate a heartening story that creativity brings happiness and deepens meaning in old age. Moreover, creativity is available to old people. 

Long holds up the old artists as a counterattack on ageism. Her a full-frontal offensive against biases that saturate our youth-worshipping culture—and our own deep-rooted ageism—explains her choice of the in-your-face phrase old age. “Consider the expression ’90 years young,’” she says. “What underlies this kindly-intended phrase is the notion that it’s better to be young than old. My entire work here is to challenge such an idea.” She succeeds, handily. Pushing 80 herself, her own artistic production has soared, with five books and many other written works published during her 70s alone. And she has big ambitions. She embodies the notion that aging can be a period of exceptional creativity. Research finds that her baseline self-described happiness and positive outlook can inspire such accomplishment. 

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age shatters ageist myths one by one. Ranking high among the falsehoods is a familiar tale that creativity peaks between ages 39 and 42. Long crushes this old idea that has hung around for decades. Consider Philip Glass:

The list of works he composed between the ages of 70 and 82 comprise: 

  • 1 work for the Glass Ensemble
  • 4 operas
  • 1 chamber opera
  • 2 piano works (different from 2 works for solo piano)
  • 2 works for 2 or more pianos
  • 3 string quartets
  • 4 works of chamber music that are not string quartets
  • 5 works for solo instruments
  • 4 symphonies
  • 4 other works for orchestra
  • 1 concerto for piano
  • 1 concerto for violin
  • 1 concerto for cello
  • 2 double concertos
  • 1 vocal work
  • 3 compositions for theater
  • 13 film scores

I have known Long as a teacher and kindred writer for many years. I know her as an avid learner of art, science, history, and memoir, and as a master of craft. She deftly packs data into her work, which is never dense and is always absorbing. In this book, she backs up her points with scrupulously cited scholarship, findings, and facts. The book brims with shocking and delightful stories about unimaginable feats. Many people know, for instance, that Mick Jagger, 78, maintains a rigorous fitness program to continue satisfying fans with his signature strut. But how many know that he covers roughly 12 miles per performance—nearly a half marathon!  

Even as the book lifted me up, though, my resistance insisted on dragging me down. But with Long’s abundance of compassion, she meets readers where they are. She intuits their apprehensions and coaxes them through their doubts. Discovery prompts invite them to mine their values, desires, motivations, and fears—critical steps in clearing away barriers. Writing prompts invite readers to indulge in their hopes and to formulate ways to fulfill them. She cautions readers to baby-step with self-compassion, and to remain flexible when conditions change, as they assuredly will.  

Still, I wonder if prolific artists like Long can completely comprehend the arduousness of launching (or relaunching) a late-in-life creative practice. What about inertia brought on by trauma, emotional blockages, or overwhelming events? Author Matt Richtel points out in his new book, Inspired: Understanding Creativity, A Journey through Art, Science, and the Soul, that trauma can cause a genuine hindrance. Richtel finds that creating requires a sense of safety from threat, be it actual or perceived. Long shows that the act of creating lessens fear. (Richtel agrees.) Creating brings beauty and engagement, and releases a potent restorative for depression, illness, and loneliness often associated with old age. 

Our culture teaches us to dread getting old. Indeed, old people experience loss—loss of family, loss of friends, loss of income, loss of health. The prospect of death becomes ever more real. Long and the artists in this remarkable book hammer on one overriding message: To greet the day with eagerness, to adopt a lifestyle of curiosity and discovery, yields fulfillment at any age, including old age. Twyla Tharp’s wisdom applies to any number of scenarios: “’Aging is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. Stasis is the enemy.’”

If we can’t control our future, Long says, we can affect it. Dancing with the Muse in Old Age glimmers with possibility, optimism, and yes, even enthusiasm about growing old. 

About the reviewer: Karen Franklin’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Raven Chronicles, The New Republic, The Progressive, Prick of the Spindle, and many other publications.