Can fifty be the new thirty?

March 21st, 2011

Writing is hard work. It eats up huge amounts of time and energy. And when we get rejections , are dealing with long waits, or the wonkiness-in-process just isn’t working out, it can be sooooo tempting to question why we keep doing this to ourselves.

Those days when we think even WTF Press will reject us, when we feel like complete eejits to dare to think we can write, when everyone else but us seems to be getting The Call or at least revise and resubmit letters, it’s easy to get disheartened.

Especially for those of who are older. I’m not going to give away anyone’s secrets, but I’ll just whisper quietly that at least one of the Sassies is over forty. I turn fifty-one this year. Fifty-fricking-one!

Age can seem like a sentence sometimes, as those self-imposed milestones come and go without reaching  our goals- published by thirty, published by forty, published by fifty. And we hear the editors say they are looking for fresh new (read young?) voices, compare ourselves to wunderkind like our Maisey with her Call at 23, and wonder if it’s too late for us.

Wonder if it’s worth bothering, if we have anything to offer a genre full of heroines in their twenties. Wonder if the dream of giving up the day job and being a full-time writer is something we can only have once we’re over sixty-five and retired? And then no-one will want to read us unless we switch from writing hot romances to cosy mysteries about retired ladies solving murders while tending their rose gardens?

I need to laugh at myself for that one! Sure, it’s good to start young, but loads of romance writers (and writers of any genre) keep writing long past regular retirement age. Sometimes it’s possible from their style to tell they are an older writer, sometimes there’s no way of knowing if they are twenty-five, forty-five, or sixty-five. It’s all in the attitude, all in the voice.

I do actually think I write more traditional style romances. Maybe instead of targeting Harlequin Mills &  Boon I should be aiming at the publishers who do the large print romances for the libraries! But I know other writers older than me who write as sassy as a seventeen year old would, with the added benefit of all that wisdom and life experience.

Forget age.

It really doesn’t matter.

I read here that in the US, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity is in the 55-64 age group. The 20-34 age bracket, surprisingly, has the lowest rate. Entrepreneurs have a lot in common with writers. Creativity. Thinking differently. A willingness to take risks and face challenges head on.

I’ve seen it said that creativity and imagination drop off after forty. Crap!

There’s good evidence from business and inventions that breakthroughs today come at older ages than they did a century ago, that the older person’s breadth and depth of life experience actually give them more chance of being innovative and original.

Certainly, instead of doubting ourselves because of our age, we should be celebrating what we have to offer.

I did some research, and came up with a long list of writers first published in their forties or later (in some cases, far later!). Many of these went on to have hugely successful careers, not just one book wonders.

Here are a few of them-

  • Penelope Fitzgerald- UK Booker prize winner, first novel published at 60
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder- wrote a weekly local newspaper column from age 44, but didn’t publish the first of her hugely successful series of autobiographical children’s books until age 55
  • Norman McClean published his first book “A River Runs Through It” at 74
  • Mary Wesley published 3 children’s books in her late 50′s, then her first adult novel aged 71. She then went on to sell millions of copies of her next nine books
  • Karl Marlantes took 35 years writing his acclaimed Vietnam novel, published in his 60′s in 2010
  • Harriet Doerr started writing at age 67, her first novel published age 74 was made into a film, Stones of Ibarra. She had two more books published.
  • Helen Hooven Santmyer, 88 when her breakout novel, “And the Ladies of the Club” published.
  • Richard Adams, 54 when he was first published with Watership Down, and finally was able to become a full-time writer 2 years later.
  • Mary Higgins Clark, 48 when her first successful novel was published (after one flop in her early 40′s)
  • L M Boston (who lived and wrote in the same village my mother-in-law lives in, in the gorgeous Manor House on the river) ”She was also a natural born writer. It just took her a little time to get her thoughts in order.” Her first book, The Children of Green Knowe, was published at 64. She then had fifteen more books published and huge sales.
  • A lot more authors with their first novel published after 40 here- 41 over 40

I couldn’t track down any examples of late blooming romance writers, but they must exist!

Robert Mc Crum in The Guardian says that older writers tend to write best about love-

On the very short list of timeless themes, “love” must come near the top. Experience, plus maturity, mixed with love, can sometimes achieve the most astonishing results.

That’s what I want from my writing, astonishing results. Though some days, even half-decent results would do!

Joe Wallace whose first novel Diamond Ruby was published at 54 wrote- 

It took a lot of growing up–and the developmen­t of a lot more nerve than I used to have–for me to be able to write a book from the perspectiv­e of a teenager. I needed the distance, the experience­, the time to write to my ability.

I like that quote. Some of us do need time to truly write to our ability. Some of us need time to grow into the confidence to write the authentic and honest stories we want to write, rather than the stories we think will get us published.

Maisey (I hope she doesn’t mind me using it here, she has a lot more direct experience with editors and publishing than I do yet!) says

The simple truth is this: In this business, like any, there are factors we can control, and factors we can’t. An editor may reject us because of age, or they don’t like our blogs, or our face, or the fact that we use run on sentences as a style choice. (that would be me) They’re human, and while I don’t think it’s rampant, it’s possible for them to have prejudices.
THE ONLY THING we can control is when we write, when we submit, and what we choose to do with successes and setbacks.

I’m going to remind myself of that when the insecurity hits, when those “You’re too old,” and “There’s not enough time left for you to build a career so why bother,” nasty sneaky little voices start to whine in my ear. Ultimately, it’s up to me. Up to me to keep writing. Up to me to keep submitting. Up to me to decide to either rewrite or resub somewhere else when a story gets rejected.

I’m also going to remind myself that “Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly at first.”

That’s for first drafting and for wild loose rewrites. That’s for when I need reminding not to control the writing, not to overplan and second guess and follow the rules too tightly. When I need to remember that in first drafts and first rewrites anything goes, anything has to go, if I want my authentic, creative, and life-experienced voice to shine through!

I sure hope fifty can be the new thirty.

I think I have at least thirty years of productive writing life ahead of me, and fifty years of valuable life experience to mine behind me! One of the things I noticed reading about these older writers was for so many of them, what interesting lives they lived. Maybe that’s the number one thing we can all do for our writing.

Live deep. Live wide. Live emotionally. Live with love.

Then use that, when we come to that blank page.

16 Responses to “Can fifty be the new thirty?”

  1. Great post! I’ve seen the last of my 20′s but I plan to write for as long as I can pound away at the keyboard… and then they have voice activated computers too, right? So who knows? I think you’re right. It’s the attitude, the voice, the drive that counts. I also love Maisy’s comment. Spot on. : )

    There’s something to say for experience so why can’t 50 be the new 30?

    Lynne

    • I don’t see why not, Lynne. It’s never too late to achieve a dream.

      On the other hand, boy do I wish I’d stuck to it in my teens, when I subbed a few short stories and gave up when I got R’s, or in my twenties and thrirties when I tried again a few times but gave up when the first chapter wasn’t “good enough” to keep writing. Eejit ideas that it should come easy straight away if one has any talent that stopped me dead before I started.

      Now I need to joyfully write crap, let it be crap, and hopefully as I keep doing that and edit and rewrite and reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, sometime I’ll end up a better writer.

  2. I think I was too busy doing other things in my twenties and thirties to devote the time and attention to my writing that I have in the last few months. I don’t regret those things. They were great while they lasted.

    If I have until my fifties to hit big, that gives me several years to practice still…

  3. I hope to be one of those authors who discovers success in her fifties! Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m wasting my time, if I shouldn’t be using the hours I spend writing doing something with a greater likelihood of success.

    • Anne, that’s exactly how I’m feeling today, oddly enough. It’s a difficult and painful place to be, because the writing and success seems to come easily and naturally to some writers, and yet for others of us it takes so much work and yet we still feel we’re getting nowhere, and we have to ask if it’s worth it. It wouldn’t be human not to ask ourselves and get discouraged, really. It’s natural to start to wonder if it’s worth putting in that necessary 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. I could be doing a lot of other things with those 10,000 hours besides bashing my head on the keyboard.

      Yet I keep coming back to it. Writing is woven into the fabric of my life.

      I do believe you CAN do it, absolutely! It’s a matter of if you want to, if the personal price is worth it for you.

      Because no matter what it is we want in life, there’s always a price. My lovely husband gives me so much, yet to be with him I give up my freedom and independence, lose the solitude I crave just as much as togetherness. My Day Job gives me the opportunity to save for my long term dreams, and have the money for travel now I wouldn’t have in a different, lower paid job, but in return it eats huge chunks of my life I’ll never get back.

      The difference with these is, I can see what I’m getting back. With the writing, it can be so much harder at this stage to see what we’re getting in return for what we are giving up. The only payback is thaose lovely Aha moments when story elements click into place, when we get a dazzling insight into our characters, when we read back a page or a paragraoh and can actually like what we’ve written. It’s hard when the writing isn’t going well and those things aren’t there, or they are but we’re too close to what we are doing or too self-critical to see them.

      There was a fascinating and emotive discussion on eHarl a while back where several people were wondering if they should keep targeting Harlequin Mills & Boon when the rejections made them feel like failures. People were talking about subbing to epublishers instead, even though HMB is their ultimate goal. I’m seriously considering that. I feel in severe need of a little bit of win in my writing, some positive feedback, the chance to work with an editor, even if it’s at the epub that’s fifth on my list!

      That’s my strategy, my way of hopefully getting some return on my time and work. I hope you find one that works for you. Because my gut feeling is that you are close. So close.

      Have you read Shirley Jump’s Giving Up story? I posted it here, when we first started the blog. It’s a hopeful thing to read when we feel like giving up and need someone to talk us out of it!

      • Thanks for the response Autumn. I’m not at the point where I’m thinking about other options than Hlq, but it’s good to know that there are other roads to take

        And I LOVE that post by Shirley Jump. I think sometimes I forget that although it might look easy from the outside, it’s HARD for everyone.

  4. Autumn, what a great and inspiring post. Mary Higgins Clark at 48, huh? I have a few years before I hit that. :-)

    Thank you for doing the work on this. Loved it.

    Abbi :-)

  5. Chelsea Finch says:

    Autumn, well that’s just great! Pffft, if fifty really is the new thirty then I’m still in my twenties and have NO excuse for a down day. It’s 7am already here and I feel as if I should have the file open and chapter four half written by now ;-)

    Seriously though, it’s a post full of hope and optimism, and I think we could all benefit from a dose of that. Thanks for spending your day researching :-)

  6. Aideen says:

    Autumn,

    I think this just might be my favourite post here to date.

    What is age really, when you think about it? Nothing except some digits. Age does not and should not define us. It should not decide our abilities. Ok, so we can’t exactly go and climb the jungle gyms in kiddie parks and expect people to think we’re adorably cute, but that’s not the kind of ability we’re talking about. Our talent and our wisdom (not sure I possess this one, see sentence above for proof) does not necessarily come with age. All of those writers you listed didn’t suddenly wake up one morning, full of clever insight and brilliance. Most likely they worked very hard, but took a couple of wrong turns over the years. Not reaching where they finally ended up until they reached their 40′s plus means diddly squat.

    Age should be respected, but it should, absolutely, never ever ever stop anyone reaching for their dreams. I imagine success is all the sweeter when you’re that bit old enough to appreciate it.

    Well done on the research and just to say, if you ever decide to fill a book with articles and observations like this one, I’ll be first in line to buy it. Awesome post.

    Aideen.

    • Aideen, you mean people don’t think I’m adorably cute when I hang upside down on the jungle gym? *pouts*

      LOL, I think that’s how I first knew I’d crossed that line into middle age.

      Thanks for the kind comments. I agree, success will definitely be sweeter when it comes.

  7. barb wallace says:

    I absolutely believe it! I didn’t get the call till I was 44 and it was after 15 years of rejections. But I also didn’t get the call till my son was grown and I had the opportunity to truly focus on MY dreams and aspirations. That’s something we women forget – that in our youth, so much of our time is spent nurturing others’ dreams and needs. It’s not till we’re 50 that we have the freedom to do both. (At least for our generation. The younger generation is different, I believe. Those women were — thankfully –raised to go for it far younger.)

    As for continuing with M&B or going somewhere else like self-publishing: Well that’s a call everyone has to make for themselves. Lord knows, it’s becoming a very viable alternative these days.

    • That’s so true, Barb. And then the elderly parents needing support kick in in our fifties! We need to give ourselves permission to make time for ourselves and nurturing ourselves and our dreams, at any age.

      I’m not giving up on HMB at all- that’s still the ultimate goal. But there may be other things to do in those long waits after submissions…

  8. Janet says:

    M&B Romance author Betty neels didn’t start wriitng until she retired from nursing then she wrote until she was about 94. She must have been about 60 when she started.

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