Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
Our latest inspirational Fab Woman demonstrates that there is no age limit on ambition. Septuagenarian Dorah Blume publishes her first novel Botticelli’s Muse to critical acclaim – and shares with us her journey, and her motivation. Just goes to show that you can be sensational over 70 as well as fabulous over 50!
About Dorah ( her pen name, her real name is Deborah Bluestein)
I live in Boston, Massachusetts in a 390 square foot studio condo. It is in the heart of the city a few minutes’ walk from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Symphony Hall, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the Boston Public Library. I will turn 74 this December. I am divorced with two grown sons who I raised as a single parent from the time they were three and five years old. I have one granddaughter who is 27 months old. Both sons live in Los Angeles so I try to make frequent visits there. Son Michael plays keyboards and does background vocals for the band Foreigner, and my other son Aaron is a polyglot who teaches Spanish in a private middle school while building his business as a dialect coach to the TV and film industries.
What were your main activities before turning 50?
My first job in my 20s was as a visiting art teacher in several public primary schools. In my late 30s and 40s I ran a graphic design business that employed seven people. Before that, I was the only female shop hand in a kitchen cabinet company in rural New Hampshire. I returned to graduate school in my late 40s when my youngest son was about to graduate college. I published my first personal essay under the name of Dorah Blume the year I turned 50.
What have been your main activities since turning 50?
At the age of 50, as part of my MFA degree, I studied screenwriting one semester at the Emerson College Los Angeles Campus. I served three internships, two at film development studios, and one at a Beverly Hills literary agency reading and reviewing novels and screenplays (coverage) for the industry. While in LA I was introduced to Bikram Yoga and began to practice yoga regularly. Once back in Boston, I completed my MFA degree—thirty years after earning my undergraduate degree from Bennington College in 1965. I continued to freelance as graphic designer to pay the bills and soon expanded my design assignments to include interior design after a short stint as a store interior designer for the Home Depot. At the age of 57 I returned to Los Angeles to become a certified Bikram Yoga Instructor and began teaching yoga in the Greater Boston area in addition to my design work. In 2002, I resumed work on my novel which was to become Botticelli’s Muse and rented an artist studio where I facilitated writing workshops for adults until 2012. In 2013, I earned a TESOL teaching certificate and began to teach ESOL (English to Speakers of other Languages) in the Greater Boston Area. In addition to teaching in a live classroom setting, for the last four years, I have taught creative writing in a virtual classroom to Chinese students (ages 7-13) until June of this year when I took a leave of absence to concentrate on the release of my debut novel Botticelli’s Muse and to commit to promoting my writing career.
What prompted you to follow your dream?
After graduate school, I continued with my freelance assignments, but decided to give more time to my writing. I completed a first draft of a memoir called Confessions of a Self-Help Junkie, a collection of short stories called Acts of Rebellion, and a series of personal essays some of which I published in local newspapers. In 2002, I resumed work on a novel that had been calling to me since my days in graduate school. That is the novel that became Botticelli’s Muse.
How old were you when you started?
I was a visual artist for as long as I can remember but the urge to understand my world and my life through writing came to me at the age of 18 while a student at Bennington. Most of my writing was in the form of journals. Years later, while in my 40s and as a single parent of teenagers, I felt a calling to write things that had a beginning, middle and an end. And after taking various adult education courses, the desire to focus and concentrate on writing grew exponentially.
Did you have to take any courses or training to do this?
After the adult educations courses, I applied to and was accepted into Emerson’s MFA program. Four and a half years later I received my MFA. My thesis was a full length screen play “Sawdust” based loosely on my experiences as the only female shop hand in a male-dominated world. I also became a certified AWA (Amherst Writers and Artists) facilitator to run writing workshops designed around prompted writing.
What does your business /dream look like today?
I want concentrate on building my writing career. This means focusing on continuing to work on the sequels to the trilogy that began as Botticelli’s Muse. It’s a story still calling to me to be continued. In addition, I hope to polish and release many of the pieces in my body of work including the memoir Confessions of a Self-Help Junkie, and my screenplay Sawdust. I also have another short story collection cooking in my imagination: Interiors. It is based on my observations as an interior designer of how surroundings lives and relationships. I am prepared to do freelance assignments in graphic design and interior design if I must, but they will be activities configured around my writing career goals rather than the other way around as was the case, most of my life, when paying the bills trumped my creative work. In order to finance this switch in priorities I will be entering contests and applying for artist grants and residencies.
What has been the best aspect of your journey so far?
Knowing that I am investing in my personal human capital in a way that brings happiness, challenge, and constant renewal as I face the unknown. Not only am I speaking of the unknown in the stories I write, but in the life I craft to support it. Following my “bliss” has forced me to strengthen my resilience, stretch my creative problem solving, and to be a lifetime learner and explorer. Before I gave energy to pursuing my own art of choice, my creativity was mostly in the service of other people’s projects and thereby demanded multiple revisions and decisions and ultimately design by committee. With writing, there are multiple revisions, opinions of editors and readers, but unlike selling my creativity to the service sector, this input serves to clarify meaning. Compromise and collaboration for the purpose of clarity is very different from compromise and alteration to a perfectly good design idea because of monetary constraints, personal taste and competing visions. Making something that didn’t exist before and having that product emanate from my imagination mixed with history has been a great joy.
What was /is your biggest fear?
Not living long enough to get all the things out in the world that I want. Not achieving financial independence that would enable me to encourage and support other artists and writers.
Did anybody in particular inspire you?
Studying with the writer Bernard Malamud in undergraduate school, being in the presence of living history in Italy at the age of nineteen, reading Tolstoy and Mark Twain for the first time in graduate school all contributed to my turning toward writing.
What difference has it made to your life?
In my late 30s I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I endured 3 major operations in 18 months. Up until the diagnosis, I felt myself a caged gerbil on a wheel—meeting payroll, deadlines, plus parenting. After that experience all my decisions were about healing. After that I began to say no to clients and yes to that voice inside that heard the creative call. That’s when I formed my philosophy by coining my personal quote, “Creativity unexpressed turns to poison.”
What challenges did you initially face? How did you overcome them?
Money has always been a challenge but I have found ways to be resourceful in spite of that. An example is a trip to Europe last summer. By renting out my tiny apartment as an Airbnb destination, I was able to finance the trip as well as lengthy stays in Los Angeles.
How did the opportunity come about?
Starting in the 90s I rented out part of my earlier home as a B & B and have continued, no matter where I lived, supplement my income that way. Student loans enabled me to attend graduate school. After the yoga teacher training in Los Angeles I was determined to earn my way around the world and was hired for a short period of time to do promotional materials for Bikram which brought me to India.
What other opportunities have materialised as a result?
The connections I have made in graduate school with some of my professors and classmates have strengthened my sense of community of writers and inspired me to have more confidence in the importance of writing and the creative arts.
Which of your previous experiences (if any) did you draw upon the most?
My love for Italy, its language, its art, and its welcoming people have had a profound effect on my entire life and my writing
What are your next steps?
As I mentioned above, I plan to concentrate on building my writing career. This means that I must keep the new writing coming but also engage in as many steps as I can to get the word out. I would like to see Botticelli’s Muse and its sequels translated into Italian and also adapted for a TV series.
How have friends and family reacted?
Luke warm encouragement as I worked in solitude. Now that the actual book is finally out, I think they are feeling some pride in my accomplishments, though my sons worry about my tendency to live on the edge financially.
No major regrets. On days when I feel remorse and regret about something, it’s usually a day when, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve stopped taking actions to move my life forward toward where I want it to go.
What 3 tips would you give other women over 50 looking to do something similar?
- Let go of any externally imposed timetable and trust your process.
- Don’t ever underestimate minute actions toward your dreams. Break up what seem to be overwhelming tasks into tiny, achievable steps.
- Stay in touch with your mind/body connection so that you get the proper rest, relaxation, and refuelling you will need for this journey.
- Know that going for your dreams is the best antidote for depression and premature aging.
A little bit more about you……
I draw zentangle doodles and mandalas to relax and that technique inspired the illustrations for my novel.
All-time favourite book or film?
Whale Rider, Cinema Paradiso, Anna Karenina
How would you describe your own style?
Multi-faceted which people will realize if/when I release other writing.
Three words that sum up your life over 50
Resilient, Inventive, Fulfilling