Annette Dunlap is an independent scholar and author. Her book, Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady, was published by SUNY Press in 2009. She lives in North Carolina and is hard at work on her next book (because she’s not getting any younger). She and her husband have four children, one grandchild and another one on the way.
My 50th birthday occurred 10 months after my father died. Those two milestone events – passing the half-century mark and losing a parent – starkly reminded me of my own mortality. My new mantra was, “I’m not getting any younger.” Writing a biography had been a dream ever since I was in elementary school, and it was now time to move from ‘dream deferred’ to ‘dream realized.’ My new mantra became, “I’m not getting any younger; so, if I’m serious about writing a book, I’d better get with it.”
The book I planned to get serious about was a biography of the nation’s youngest first lady, Frances Folsom Cleveland. I had begun researching Frances’ life in 1994-95, when I was a marketing professor at a small liberal arts college. The school laid off all of its non-tenured faculty in 1995, and I went on to run a consulting business for the next six years and dabble in a career change or two. My 50th birthday occurred at a time when I was in the throes of deciding what I was going to be “when I grow up” (read: I was unemployed). For once, issues of impending mortality took precedence over how much money was in the bank account.
Two months after my 50th birthday, (which, for the record, was five years ago), I attended a women’s writers’ conference at Salem College. One of the break-out sessions I went to was entitled, “How to write a Book Proposal.” An hour later, I had my game plan. For over 10 years, I had written strategic plans for businesses as my business, and that, I had just learned, was all a book proposal was: define your target audience, describe how the book meets the demands of the target, tell how you’ll market the book, and show why you’re qualified to write it.
I dug out my research on Frances (there are certain benefits to being a pack rat), drafted my three sample chapters, wrote the book proposal, and sent the material to one of the agents who had been at the conference. She contacted me within the week and suggested I consider a university press. I took her advice, selected three possibilities, and had the proposal accepted by SUNY Press.
In retrospect, I think I did a better job of writing biography at the age of 50+ than I would have done had I written it in my 40s. Being older gives me more perspective and a better framework within which to examine and handle the experiences of someone else’s life. For example, Grover Cleveland, who was 27 years older than Frances, died when she was 39. He left her with four children to rear on her own, and the youngest was only five years old. At 40, I certainly could have understood the challenge of rearing children alone, having four of my own. At 50, however, I could sense, even more, how demanding it had been, and I could also understand Frances’ line to a friend upon her re-marriage (at age 50), which went something like this: “I feel like an entirely new person.”
When we are fortunate enough to be healthy, there is a mental sharpness about being 50 that only comes with age and experience. As I like to put it, we have somewhere to “hang our hat.” In other words, our half-century’s worth of life experiences has given us a way to view and understand this crazy and unpredictable world we live in. In writing biography, 50 years of living gave me an invaluable tool for developing insight into, and compassion for, another’s life experience.
The other day, I took time off from work to go to Chapel Hill to do some research at the Davis Library at UNC. Jane had already asked me to write something for this blog, and I was thinking about it as I walked, lugging the stack of library books I needed to return, from the parking lot to the library – a distance of just under a mile. I thought about the physical side of my research life. To research Frances, I drove from central North Carolina to New Jersey in one day. From there I drove to upstate New York. To research my current book, a memoir, I’ve been on research trips to New York City and Washington, DC, walking to subway stations, catching trains, walking to libraries and archives, spending time in research. My innumerable trips to Davis Library (both for the Frances book and my current research) inevitably mean borrowing books and carrying them between the library and the parking lot. As I walked the campus on the lovely, sunny Thursday we just had, I marveled at my physical stamina, the ability to stroll at a rapid pace, the strength to carry a load of books. I did not feel 55, and that is, in itself, a gift.
If there were one central observation I would want to make in this blogpost, it would be this: if you are fortunate enough to have the resources and the energy to pursue your dreams, do so. Turning 50 was one of the most liberating events in my life. The fulfillment of a life-long dream, publishing a biography, has been intensely gratifying. If there’s a brass ring you’ve been eyeing, reach for it, because, as I am now very fond of saying, we are not getting any younger.
Readers:check out Annette’s blog at http://annettesobservations.blogspot.com/.