I had the chance to be introduced to Prill Boyle through a mutual friend. She told me that not only did Prill have her own Chapter Be story, but she had also written a book about women who had “accomplished incredible things at an age when most people are beginning to wind down.” A self-described late-bloomer, Prill graduated from Georgetown University at age 38, became a high school English teacher at age 40, and published her first book at age 50. In writing Defying Gravity, she was inspired by the persistence and courage other late bloomers.
Our interview did not disappoint. I felt as though I had found a kindred spirit in Prill, and our conversation flowed like we had known each other for years. She instantly put me at ease and not only took the time to share her own story, but also wanted to connect me with people who might be able to help me in my own process – a true educator at heart. She was open, honest and willing to share. I found myself thinking about things that she said week’s later – recognizing that they resonated with me on a level that kept me thinking and reflecting…
One of the things that I came across while on your website was a quote from your book that referenced people who are in jobs that are smaller than their spirit. I really loved that line. It really resonated with me, and I think encapsulates a lot of what Chapter Be is about. I am interested in how that line came to you and what your own personal experience with that line is?
Wow, how did that line come to me? This one sort of flew out of my fingers as I was typing. In essence, I wrote the introduction last and in about 4 hours before the book was due at the publishers! I felt like I needed to write the book to understand what I wanted to say in the intro. In terms of the ideas that it encapsulates, I feel that so many people are pinched at their work. They are not really doing what they love. They don’t even know what they love in so many cases. The basic issue is that we don’t really know. It springs from that. I’m not saying that I completely know now and you certainly have admitted that you are still in a process yourself. I’m continually just trying to stretch and grow.
I think sometimes, and I guess it depends on the person, there is this notion that if you are constantly seeking, you will hit some sort of knowing. I like that you point out that life is about constantly seeking and that it is a continual journey. It is not something that you come to a final destination and have some kind of grand epiphany.
I said in later years that I think there is a danger in people thinking they are going to find a calling or a passion in the same way that they think about finding a soul mate. Even that term, soul-mate, sounds like there is one person out of 6 billion who is there for you. I think some people naturally do have callings and some people do know what they are passionate about, or they stumble into it, and that is fine but for people to sit there and rack their brains and try this and that to find what their passion is (like a needle in a haystack or a soul mate) it can be fruitful but it can also be an exercise in frustration.
People started reading my book, and I started going around the country and going on radio and TV speaking about it. I started to realize that in some ways that was exactly what I wanted, which was for people to be inspired and not to give up on their self and their dreams. In other ways it was putting a pressure on people that I didn’t intend to put on them.
That is interesting. I like that analogy of a soul mate. I think there are a lot of similarities in how we seek a partner and how we seek a profession. What made you decide to write this book?
Oh, now that is a question I can answer! Talk about epiphanies! One day I was sitting at my kitchen table, and I can still picture looking at my kitchen table as I am saying this. There had been a recent snowstorm and there was a lot of light in the kitchen. I was reading the paper (I’m a New York Times junkie), and I read an article about a woman named Wini Yunker. She joined the Peace Corp as a volunteer that day. She was 65. It was like the last piece of a puzzle coming into place for me.
I had been teaching community college English, and I had been assigning my students to write their obituaries. I since started terming it my “Imagine You Are 90” assignment. I had people saying, “I don’t want to write my obit. Imagine your dead?” So, okay, imagine you are 90. Who do you want to become? What kind of person do you want to be? It gets back to our jobs being smaller than our spirit. I felt like we get so caught up in what we do just like so many of us get focused on what we have. I wanted my students to think about what kind of people they want to be. What kind of human beings did they want to be in their lives when they looked from 90 back? So, I did this assignment with them to very narrowly get my students to ask themselves what they were doing in my classroom, so that what I was teaching them would have some meaning and so that maybe they would choose to take another class if it didn’t.
I was also finding that I had students who were 18, but also students who were 35. I had one student who at 35 decided he wanted to be an architect and was taking English 101 at the community college. I wanted to find ways to keep him motivated. I didn’t want to dampen them; I wanted to inspire them and to keep them motivated for the long haul. I read this article about this woman, this Peace Corp volunteer, and thought these are the stories that I want to write to inspire my students and it felt like such a wild thing. I thought I’m going to write a book about people like this, people who don’t give up on themselves. This didn’t start out about a book for middle-aged women; it felt like a book for teenaged college students in the beginning.
How did you narrow it down to these 12 women and why did you decide to focus primarily on women in a certain age group?
I had an agent in New York who worked for Trident Media Group. He convinced me in terms of the market place that it may be good for me (especially as a woman) to focus on other women. I don’t know if that is a right decision or a wrong decision. I don’t know if I should have been flexible or not with that because the way my heart was going was more humanist.
In any account, as I started going around interviewing both men and women, the women’s’ stories totally resonated with me. I had gone to college in my late 30s. I got my first full-time teaching job at a community college in Virginia teaching English at 40. In starting to hear the stories of others I realized that I had more exploring to do, that I had more desires and other aspects of myself to explore. Anyway, as I started to hear other women’s stories they really resonated with me. Plus the men weren’t as forthcoming as the women.
How did you find the women that you interviewed? Did you interview more than 12 and just chose the 12 from a group?
I interviewed many more than 12. I wanted a certain rhythm and flow so I tried to get a cross section of women. There are a number of women, for instance, who go back to school because whatever they wanted to do required more education. I didn’t want all of the stories to go that way, however, so not every story is about going back to school. Some people did things that might seem quite intimidating, like becoming a doctor when they are over 50. Some people did something less intimidating, like opening a bed and breakfast, though it was quite difficult for her. It was written so that the people who read the book, could find one story that completely resonated. I didn’t see it as a book where you had to read the whole thing. If you look at the table of contents you might think, oh, that looks good, and then read that story.
The Internet these days is such a huge resource. I didn’t have any of that back in 2000 when I started this book. I put an ad in the International Women’s Writing Guild eNewsletter that called for “late bloomers” (that’s what I called them). 100 applied from that ad and one of them ended up in the book because everybody was a writer. I just started asking people if they knew anybody like this. Lots of people did. As people started getting it on their radar that I was interested in the topic then people would contact me saying they were interested.
You did all of this later in life, how did you realize that this was something you wanted to do?
I remember 4-5 months before the school semester started, I was thinking to myself that I always thought I could teach history, I could teach English, I could teach math. I just like to teach, but…what is my gift? What do I have to give that makes me feel good? What part of what I am doing do I really like? I don’t know what other people would say about me, but I came to realize that my essence and my gift is that I can see the best in people. I thought, wow, that’s kind of a cool thing. Not everybody sees that. That is the essence of it for me. Whatever I do, I want to put myself in a position where seeing the best in people will help people to move forward in their life and do whatever they want to do. The process that I went through was tuning into what was organic for me. It just sort of came to me.
That is probably what drew you to be an educator. To me, the heart of being an educator is that you believe in the people you are teaching and you really want to inspire in them a love for learning. Part of my reason for leaving the classroom was that teaching became so much about teaching to the test that I never really felt like I got to tap into the things that I personally loved about teaching. Sometimes making a change from a career can feel as though you are starting over, but I’ve been reminded that you take the many years of experience with you, no matter what it is that you do.
Exactly! What I found in doing all of the interviews I did, and one of the sweetest things for me that I saw, was that people didn’t really make mistakes or take detours or what they thought were detours as they told their stories to me. This is something that I loved – when you give people a chance to tell their stories it can be very powerful for them. People would start out and I would spend the day with them, or maybe an hour. Invariably, in telling their own story, they would get a new perspective on their lives and would look at themselves with such kinder eyes. They would see that the secretarial job that they had and hated and felt like they wasted 5 years there, now they looked at it and really saw that they took this and that from it. It wasn’t wasted at all and it wasn’t really a detour. It was just a journey in their life.
Sometimes it does take looking back to realize that. What I’m constantly trying to do is not wait until I’m looking backwards to depend on that, but to try and trust in that on an everyday basis…which is challenging.
Right, it is challenging, but it is worth working at. I was older than you when I finished college. I look back and remember feeling that I looked so much older than the other people who are trying to do this. I felt like I was so far behind because all of these other people looked to be about 19 and they seemed to know where they were going. I went back to school because I had been volunteering in my kid’s schools and I decided I wanted to teach.
At 60, I feel like one side of my face is kind of sagging, and I fear that I am looking older. What I keep saying to myself is, “Prill, remember when you were 32 at Georgetown and you felt like you looked so old?” Now I look at pictures of myself from that time and think, “Wow, why did I do that to myself?” I wasted the enjoyment of my supple skin, my hair that I didn’t have to color, my white teeth. I never appreciated it. I just kept thinking that my best years were behind me. Now with the wisdom (hopefully) of these years I think to myself, “Wow, Prill, look how beautiful your skin is and you can still touch your toes. Look at how you’re not feeling aches and pains.” Just appreciate what you have now and live. I say that to myself, and I try to practice it. I’m more successful some days than others!
I read that you looked at 14 publishers before you found one for your book – is this true?
My agent did, yes. It was 2003 when they started pitching the book. Po Bronson had just come out with a book called What Should I Do With My Life and it had gone to #2 on the bestseller list. My agent felt like nobody was really writing about this yet, but the boomers were coming into their age. It is just interesting the whole pitching and publishing process. A number of people just couldn’t figure out where to put it in the bookstore. Is it Women’s Studies? Is it Self Help? What is it? That was part of the problem of getting it published.
At any point did you just feel like, never mind, and feel defeated? How did you continue to push forward and keep going?
I felt defeated a number of times. That is part of why I put in my own journal entries between each chapter. I tell my own story, because it’s a story in progress. You find out somebody has become a doctor at 50, and it is inspiring but still I don’t think I could do it. I tried to give a little more of a play-by-play of what was happening with me through my journal entries. The whole purpose was to make people feel like they could do whatever these women could do.
I lost heart a number of times, though. When I lost heart with writing, I just gave myself a prescription (like a doctor). The prescription was that I just had to write something each day. You don’t have to write 5 pages, you don’t have to write 20, you don’t have to do a chapter, you don’t really even have to write, but you have to do something related to the book every day. You could make a phone call. Then you could live your life and enjoy it and not feel guilty. So, every day for two years I did something on the book. When I would get stuck and think, “Oh, I’m a terrible writer” or when a person backed out because their story was too powerful and too real and I didn’t know how I was ever going to find a replacement for them. The deadline is coming, and I just need to call my agent and say I can’t do it. I just had to do something related to the book and that kept the inertia going. So, that really helped.
I also am part of a group with 3 other women, in which we are a group of creative women who serve on each other’s Board of Directors. We really spur each other on and that is very helpful. Not only is it helpful to have the support of others’, their points of view and action steps, but it is also helpful to see these other women (who I love and care about) go through the ebbs and flows in their own lives. It made me much more conscious of my own fallow period. It made me just feel like I could give myself a little space – like maybe making phone calls instead of writing chapters – and just have a little patience. With the agent situation, that shielded me from a lot of it. He would call me up with a bunch of rejections and say that they are not just rejecting, they are giving comments, and that is positive. The only negative comments I really got were devastating as it said that the writing was less than great. That was my biggest fear. So, when I heard that I translated it to – “the writing is shit.”
So, you were focused on the one negative out of thirteen. There is always going to be at least one. I would focus in on the one that was negative, too. It’s easier to do that sometimes, then focus on all the others that are positive!
That’s what most of us do. I got personal feedback. One woman even wrote to me in an email saying they were so sorry they couldn’t publish it because they just couldn’t figure out where to put it on the shelf at the bookstore. She said that when it comes out she wanted me to send her a copy for her mom because she found the book so inspiring. That was the best comment.
It makes you realize that some of these things are just out of our control. It’s not about the piece of work. It is whatever is coming down the pipeline or that they have an idea of what they want. I imagine that that can be hard sometimes to have that completely out of your control.
It is. I think that having an agent that believed in me and that I respected really helped. If I had been on my own and pitching (which a lot of people do) and then sending out a query letter or three chapters for pitching that would have been even more difficult. I would say if you send 25 out and get 25 rejections that you might want to go back to the drawing board and ask yourself if there are any common themes within the rejections that you are getting?
It is important to talk about the rejections, though and the fact that there are peaks and valleys in the process. People are inspired when they learn that while it is hard, they can do it. Sometimes hearing other people’s struggles can make it okay when you struggle and let you know that you can still continue on with your Chapter Be.
I think the thing that is great about stories is that stories resonate more than self help. I feel like you pick stories you are ready to hear at that time. You can go back and read them a second time or later in life and get something different.
If you had a piece of advice for someone who is in a job that is smaller than their spirit, what would your advice to them be? What would a first step be for them in making a change?
One thing I would say is if you don’t know what you want to do then ask yourself what you don’t want to do. If you really feel that you don’t want to do your job, then you can probably easily identify what it is that you don’t want. I think that is a good place to begin. In other words, begin with clarity. Find your point of clarity and go from that moment wherever that clarity is no matter how large or small it is. That is the thing to grab hold of at first. That is your rope. That is your lifeline. Then start pulling on that and see what happens on a very practical level. You could do something part-time or volunteer work. You don’t have to think of it as either/or, like you have to quit this immediately and see what happens. I mean if you have the financial freedom to do that go for it. I actually did that with my teaching versus writing. I just told my department chair that at the end of the semester I wasn’t going to come back the next semester. I was going to just write.
I just took a leap of faith. I think it is very helpful for people to think of it like the soul mate thing. Instead of thinking of what is the perfect job and what am I going to do, just be in the experimental role and date a lot. Try different jobs. If you don’t like what you are doing then dip your toe in a bunch of things and see what happens. You’ve got to get yourself out there to find mirrors to let you see who you are and what you want. You get those mirrors by putting yourself out there, not by closing your eyes. The world will mirror for you if you will just get out there and try this and then try that. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Take some different jobs. Do volunteer work. Paint pictures. Write a little bit. Whether it is creativity or science or math (or whatever floats your boat), take a class. Mix it up a little bit.
What is your advice to people on how they can continue to pursue their dream without succumbing to societal pressures? I see that a lot when I talk to people. They say things like, “Well, I couldn’t do it because of x, y, and z.” I think that is more because of the expectations that are placed on them than their reality.
That is part of why I call my book Defying Gravity. I thought of gravity as the weight of societal expectations – age, gender, family and family history – and of defying the ideas that are emotional and the way we define ourselves. Ultimately, if you have a strong sense of self and a strong belief in yourself, you can turn a deaf ear to other people’s thoughts about you. I think that is a rare and uncommon quality. I would say that none of these things are easy things and everybody has to sort of navigate their own way through it.
You have to just deal with it in the fact that you have to clear a path by whacking away some of the weeds and figure it out for yourself. For me, I do a bold thing every day. Every day I try to do something that scares me a little bit. I’ve done it since 2000 and that is how I’ve gotten where I’ve gotten. It’s just so easy to put off things. It’s like, “I’ll call the AT&T guy tomorrow.” If you are thinking that I am going to do something bold today then you are more apt to put yourself out there a little bit. It could be riding down the road on my bike because I’m kind of scared while riding in the bike lane. It could be calling Oprah. It could be anything huge or little tiny but just keeping yourself stretched really helps. I also think that it helps at each juncture as you are making decisions, even on a micro-level, to just stop and say, “Is this really what I want?” Take a breath. Is this what I want to do today? You always have choice but some choices you feel like you have more freedom than in others. Stop and ask what you want.
The third and final thing I would say is that persistence is amazing. Persistent resilience in doing things that are connected is huge. Resilience cannot be over estimated. Resilience is becoming a denominator. I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of men and women that fall into this defying gravity book. Resilience is the key. It is something to try to consciously cultivate in your life. Persistence is something that you need a little bit of self-awareness. In other words, it is not enough just to keep doing the same thing again, and again, and again. Sometimes you really have to ask yourself if this is the best way.
The best example I give is this woman who became a flight attendant at 70. She was knocking on a lot of doors to get airlines to hire her. Nobody wanted to act like they were being discriminatory so she had several interviews but ultimately nobody hired her. Instead of just trying more airlines, after about the 5th airline she decided that they really were discriminating against her because of her age. She said that she couldn’t blame them because she was 68 and thought, you know, I’m going to get a job as a gate agent. I’m going to tell the people when I am trying to get hired that what I really want is to be a flight attendant but I’m doing this so that you can get to know me and see how great I am with people and how energetic I am and that I would be fabulous. She had no trouble getting a job as a gate agent. Most people don’t want that job. There is no travel that goes with it. She got hired 6 months later for US Air Express as a flight attendant. So, in other words, she was creative and intelligent about her position. She didn’t just keep going and get 60 rejections, she asked herself what else she could do.
Yeah, at what point do you have to stop and reassess and see that this isn’t working so how can I rethink this?
I think that depends on each person and it certainly depends on the profession. That is something that you can ascertain a little bit just by asking around. Publishers, you can ask around to people who are in publishing how many rejections they think are reasonable? I mean you are going to get them, 20 is perfectly reasonable and not at all bizarre. I can’t tell you how many famous authors I have heard of who have been rejected more than that many times before they got their initial break.
How do you not see those rejections as complete failure and try to restructure it and move forward in a different direction rather than seeing it as the end?
This is where having a group or just doing your research to understand what the market place is can be helpful. Some of it has to do with self-esteem and that is where doing something bold really increased my esteem. I thought, well, if I could do this then I could do that.
Something you have mentioned a couple of times in this interview is that a lot of the process is just knowing yourself. To me, that is a life’s journey. I don’t think you ever get to a point where you completely know yourself and you are always changing and learning. It seems like you do a lot of wonderful things to stay in touch with that, including going to a 7 day silent retreat and doing something bold every day. Is there anything else that you would say is helpful in really making sure you are staying in touch with who you are?
Silence really helps. It puts me in touch with my essence. I think this is bringing it around full circle to the first question that you asked of where I came up with this line of people being in jobs that are smaller than their spirit? I think I was about 4 years old when I sensed in a very tangible way that I am love, that I am light. It is not “I” because I am you, and you are me. It is bigger than Prill.
Just give yourself the space – whether you do a walking mindfulness or just sit in silence. Just let your mind calm down in that silence, that walking meditation or whatever it is you gravitate towards. Maybe you meditate in painting and lose yourself in it, and in that you will find yourself again. Painting is a great way to do that. Writing is another. You don’t care what you look like or what people think you look like. You are writing about the experience of being so completely in your body and yet outside of yourself all at the same time.
Notes of Reflection:
- Prill and her book prove that age ain’t nothing but a number! So often the older we get, the more we think that change isn’t possible. Prill’s story and those that she shares in her book prove that this is not true. It is never too late to make a change and live the life you want to live. Don’t be confined by conventional thought.
- Love the idea of creating your own Board of Directors. It is just another way to approach accountability partners, but they are people that you can self select, who you know are both advocates of you as well as people who will challenge you when need be. Like Prill mentioned, it doesn’t always have to be about business, either. Sometimes just having someone else to reassure you that what you are feeling is normal can be worth its weight in gold!
- How do we allow space to accept ourselves exactly where we are? If we are always judging ourselves based on our past or our future, then we will always find ourselves in a state of flux and discontent. So often we do not see the present moment accurately. Then upon reflection we notice that we wasted a lot of time thinking about things that were only self-fabricated. Allow yourself the room to me exactly where you are – recognizing that it is okay to not have all the answers, because most likely you will look back and realize you were in a much better place then you ever gave yourself credit for!
- Since my conversation with Prill, I have kept in mind the idea of doing something bold and brave every day. It doesn’t have to always be something huge, but it just needs to be something that pushes you to challenge yourself and keep learning. It can be very easy to become complacent in our lives. We get our routines, our structure and we don’t deviate too far from it. But – this is what can make life become stale and tiring. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone a little bit each day. When I start feeling as though Chapter Be might be flat lining, I think of this concept, and think about what I need to do to push myself to the next level. It is when we step outside of our comfort zones that things move forward.
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie
- No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
- The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
- Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin
- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
*Images via Prill Boyle