The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Maya Angelou

This piece originally appeared in the ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News, June 13, 2014.

Like many other people, over the past few weeks, I have been remembering Maya Angelou and mourning the loss of such a tremendous creative force.

Dr. Angelou was a teacher, writer, healer and lover of life until the very end. I discovered her work in college and remember performing her poems “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” with other powerful women at various gatherings. As a young woman, I found her work accessible, rich with positive female imagery, sensuous and often jubilant.

Maya Angelou’s death has made me think about aging, writing and being a creative “late bloomer.” What many people don’t know about Angelou, and I take great comfort in, is that she didn’t publish her first book until her early 40s (although she longed to do so before this).

She was an actress and performer for many years and then left the United States in 1960 to live in Cairo, Egypt, where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Her next stop, a year later, was to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She continued honing her writing there by working as a features editor for The African Review and also wrote for The Ghanaian Times.

She used her years abroad to great advantage by studying and taking classes in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. After her return to the States, with encouragement of her mentor, the esteemed James Baldwin, she started work on her famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became an international bestseller. And once those creative floodgates opened, she didn’t stop, writing seven memoirs in total (with an eighth underway at the time of her death), a cookbook, television and film scripts, music scores, and more.

Angelou’s writing trajectory that began later in life makes me grateful about manifesting my creative work in my early 40s. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to appreciate that the path to your heart’s desire is rarely straight and narrow, or progress easily demarcated strictly by one’s age.

Enchantment with child stars and people who seemed to achieve big things early in their careers used to fascinate me. And, it’s true that as an academic, I’ve had solid and early professional success, so I can’t complain on that front. I’ve written creatively all my life, but it is has only been in the last decade that I’ve made more space for that identity to flourish. When younger I was convinced that something needed to happen at a particular age – 20, 25 or 38. I’m now less worried about age being a gauge of inner or outer success. If they have been blocked, by midlife, people often open to inner prompts, urgings and guidance about fresh directions. This leads to new commitments to pursue buried or unrealized dreams.

I am also cheered by examples of writers including Sapphire, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison that didn’t start their writing careers until their late thirties and early forties. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a remarkable memoir. The skill and focus it took to craft it might not have been there if Angelou had not lived a full and complex life (i.e. sex worker, sexual assault survivor, performance artist, world traveler, and teacher), and faced her internal demons and doubts as a mature woman.

A writing life in middle age, though, demands mandatory self-care. The average life expectancy for American women is 80 years. It will take all the mental and physical courage I can muster to meet the page every day for the next 30 or so odd years; I want a supple mind and a healthy body. I have embraced a preventative regimen: a weekly schedule of yoga, exercise (to counteract all that sitting), meditation (to counteract loud inner critics), eating right and easy on the alcohol.

Watching Dr. Angelou over the years, it seemed that she found a balance between work and deep pleasure. She taught until 2011, but had plans to go back into the classroom later this year. Angelou appeared to be as delighted by the language of aspiring poets as she was by the writers she deeply admired including Shakespeare and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And, her dinner parties in Winston-Salem were legendary.

If I die at my desk, at 80, with a pen in my hand, a gorgeous journal in my lap, surrounded by my published works, I’ll be a happy woman.

And, if I can get a few fabulous dinner parties in before I go, I imagine Maya would be proud.

Like many other people, this week I have remembering Maya Angelou and mourning the loss of such a tremendous creative force. Dr. Angelou was a teacher, writer, healer and lover of life until the very end. I discovered her work in college and remember performing her poems ‘Still I Rise’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ with other powerful women at various gatherings. As a young woman, I found her work accessible, rich with positive female imagery, sensuous and often jubilant.


Maya Angelou’s death has made me think about the ways in which we honor and remember great creative folk. I have writer friends who have made pilgrimages to famous writers’ houses. I also remember being inspired by Alice Walker’s quest to honor the then forgotten Zora Neale Hurston. Walker chronicled this journey in the essay, “Looking for Zora,” that appeared in her pioneering collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Zora Neale Hurston’s last years were difficult. She suffered a series of strokes, had become indigent and forgotten by many. Walker’s dedication to honoring Hurston helped bring her back into the public eye.

The outpouring of heartfelt love and admiration for Dr. Angelou that circulated through social media was palpable. I am thinking about how best to celebrate Maya Angelou’s life as well as other writers who have inspired me that are no longer living. Should I read all of their work during a certain time period? Should I visit their birthplace? Should I devote several blogs to a particular author?

What is a good way to truly honor an artist’s work that has made a difference in one’s life? I believe that this is an important question to ponder further.

My dear friend and writing buddy Al Capeheart is guest posting today about a woman writer who continues to inspire.

Maya Angelou wrote, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use the more you have.”  Hearing her presidential inauguration poem she calls us all forward by the belief in a just and peaceful future. She lives her commitment, her words are everyday, and in her wisdom she calls to all human kind to be inspired by faith.

My main inspiration came from Ann McRae Kennady, my Mom. She had the most profound influence on me. She insisted that we speak proper English. We might not be rich, but we could talk like we were educated. She finished high school in 1937, but unlike her siblings she did not go to college. She ran away to marry my father. She would say, “I can learn to do anything as long as there is a book written to tell me how to do it.”

She was PR director and editor of in-house publications of a regional life insurance company. She was the second woman in Virginia to earn the title of  “Charter Life Underwriter”; she called it her Ph.D. She edited and published the national award-winning “Southern Exposure” magazine of the Richmond Camera Club. She was the first person I knew to use word processing. She studied photography in the city she loved. Her curiosity was about all facets of history from free-standing renovated town houses, to ancestral monuments from the Civil War.

To earn money after retirement, she became a City of Richmond tour guide for the historic society. The green tour type bus/trolleys had regular schedules leaving from the Virginia Museum of Science, the old Broad Street Railroad Station where in the 1940s and 1950s she’d board the train for New York where she was the ‘ready to wear’ purchasing agent for Thalheimers and its mid-south department stores.  But it seemed she was always late.

I remember Pop racing the north bound train to Ashland, VA its first stop 18 miles out.  She never missed a train that I know of but it always seemed like a panic to catch it.  My sister said, “She’d never get anything done, if it weren’t for the last-minute.”

Her reputation as a Historic Richmond tour guide brought her many specific requests. Her description of historic characters was so engaging it was as if she’d had lunch with them the week before.  Busloads of tourist and history buffs were her guests.  Of particularly note were her ghost tours and knowledge of southern Jewish communities. She always used, encouraged and appreciated proper grammar. She continues to inspire.

AL Capehart aka Santa AL

AL Capehart  is a retired social worker and a professional Santa. AL is working on a memoir about his 20 years of Santa Claus work as ‘Santa AL’.  Visit him at


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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