You’re Only as Old as You Write

This week it’s about age. How old we are. How old we feel. How old we write.

I am the oldest Deb. I also waited the longest of any of us to start writing. I was 43 when I typed “Chapter One”, and 49 when I typed “The End.”  My novel will be published when I’m 51. I am, by default, the best authority among us on what it’s like to publish your first novel in your second half century.

I’ve thought about this a lot in the past few years, as I imagine many do who find their passion late in life. I wonder what would have happened if I’d followed my gut in college and gone for the Journalism major instead of choosing the more practical Economics/International Relations/law school route. Or if I’d tried to write a book in my off hours as a young law firm associate, even though the only thing I wanted to do after crouching in front of my computer writing document production requests all day was go outside. Or if I’d written during the 100 minutes my baby girl spent napping each day, as so many published mothers have done. I could be an established writer by now, with several books and dozens of magazine articles in my ledger, instead of an middle-aged newbie talking about my first novel with a bunch of twenty-something Lit majors at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop cocktail parties (that served only beer and wine, never cocktails).

When I think about these things, I always work my way around to the same conclusion. I do wish I’d started earlier, because if I had, I’d have more years to spend doing this thing I love. There is an hourglass in my head, and as I watch it spit out its sand I wonder how many books I can write in the time that remains, and wish I’d given twice as much time to writing.

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My 27-year-old self

But I also know that if I’d started writing in my twenties, I wouldn’t have told the stories I’m writing today. I remember what I was like then: joyful, shallow, in love with life and my new husband, in love with my new city and my new friends. I was in love with seeing the world I’d never glimpsed before I got on my first international flight at age 22, in love with biking, camping, going to baseball games, and dancing until two in the clubs south of Market Street. My writing would have reflected that blithe existence, and though I would have tried to describe the experiences of pain and loss and broken relationships, I was not empathetic enough — some young writers are, but I was not — to do it in a way that would resonate with truth. My stories would have been superficial and generic, the sorts of stories any 25-year-old white professional woman living in a large city could tell. Or worse, they would have been hollow, filled with facsimiles of emotions I could not fully imagine.

In my thirties, though, life began to unfurl some of its terrible cruelty. I could not conceive the children my husband and I, toasting my thirtieth birthday with champagne, giddily decided it was time to have. For half a decade I endured unsuccessful fertility treatments that tested my marriage as never before. When I was 34, my younger brother got melanoma, and I watched it ravage his strong young body until he died in a hospital bed in the family room of the house he grew up in, two weeks before his 31st birthday. When my son was six months old he had a grand mal seizure so severe the doctors told me it had likely destroyed the entire right side of his brain. Though an MRI later showed it had not, the doctors still could not promise he would develop normally, so I walked away from my law career to stay home with him. Meanwhile, in the world I had so greedily explored in the relatively peaceful 1990s, there was terrorism, and 9/11, and wars upon wars upon wars.

When I turned 40, I was not the same person I was at 30. Not only had I experienced deep loss and periods of great despair, I had also experienced joys unlike any of the facile pleasures of my youth. I held my firstborn child in the hospital, tears running down my face, and told her how long we had been waiting to meet her. When I called the fertility doctor from the emergency room 500 miles away to tell him I was miscarrying my second pregnancy, he said don’t let them do a D&C because the other embryo might still be alive–and he was right. The MRI technician, breaking all the rules, told my husband and me that our son’s brain was undamaged, and my knees buckled. I helped my brother laugh through his pain, a melancholy but salving grace only I could give him. My husband and I learned that our love was strong enough for all of it.

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My 50-year-old self

So I think: life happens, whether you write about it or not. I think: if I could undo even one of the tragedies, I would put down my pen forever. I think: I would not trade any of the joys. I think: since I have to carry all of it, I will mine the channels it has carved in my heart for the stories only I, after 50 years of my very specific life, can tell.

Do I wish I’d begun when I was younger? Yes. Do I regret that I didn’t? No. And that is a distinction it took me half a century of living to understand.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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Author: Heather Young

After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

11 Replies to “You’re Only as Old as You Write”

  1. Oh Heather, what a thoughtful post. I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother and your fertility struggles (which is one we can commiserate about over the bourbon we’ll share some day).
    Sounds like you wrote when you had something to share that the world needed to hear. Can’t wait to read it!!! My preorder is in 🙂

  2. Oh, how your post resonates with my 49…less than a month away 50 year old self. I started writing…really writing two years ago. I since have finished two novels and am working on two simultaneously. I don’t think I could have worked so pointedly on these with my younger self. Too busy living, like you, through it all. You are right, a younger self could not embrace all that you are now. I write with so much behind my characters because of the life I have lived. I am not sorry that I didn’t write a novel sooner. I think I would have cringed at the lack of knowledge, wisdom, and insight. I am ready now…as my work is proving. I am ready!!! And as the clock ticks away at my “youth” I am more eager than before to start my second half…or I might add, my better half! : )

    1. Elizabeth, I love this comment! These are exactly my thoughts as I enter my 50s: ready, but also aware, in a way I could not be as a younger woman, of the quick passage of time. I think that ticking clock gives all older writers’ work a sense of urgency that inhabits every story, even every line. There is no more time for bullshit. There is only time for the real.

  3. A poignant, beautiful post, Heather. Strikes so many chords. It’s a sad truism, perhaps, that a writer who’s a bit on in years benefits from the agonies and struggles and frustrations of her past. I like to think so. Makes me less hard on myself for taking so long to get to where I should have gotten much earlier.

    I feel the same weight of encroaching age and of the constant “if I had to do it over agains”, but like you, I am grateful for the milestones and simple joys in a way I may not have been when I was younger. I’m also much more hard-nosed about the process and the writing life–another mid-life quirk that’s all to the good. I hope!

    Thank you for this.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Heather. My debut will be coming out next year– as I turn 49. I’m sure your novel is greatly enriched by the wisdom that that has inevitably been sculpted from real pain and true joy. And something tells me you will appreciate this launch year much more than your 25-year old self might have! Congrats!

    1. Katherine, congratulations on your debut! And you’re right, the joys taste much sweeter at 50 than they did at 25. What is the name of your book? When does it launch? I’d love to read it.

  5. Hi Heather, really enjoyed your post! I know I just commented to you last week and it sounds like I’m playing favorites (ha!) to rush back in here with another comment a scant week later… but… I just have to comment. Because your post speaks to me on many levels 🙂 I, like you, am picking up the pen later in life, having just turned 47. Then again, it’s hard to believe (and more than a little sad!) that we’re even calling ourselves “older” in our late 40s/early 50s! With today’s advances, many of us are positioned to go at least another 50 years. I plan to keep traveling the world and working and rocking out at minimum another 50… if not more, God willing! Your life experiences and the grief you felt at times (as well as the joy) definitely, as you put it, allow you to mine stories that you’re now emotionally qualified to tell. As you wrote, you now have the empathy that enriches your writing — something that just wasn’t there at 25 due to a carefree youth. I had to almost die on an operating table and come back from a brain injury rehab hospital having learned how to walk and swallow and make myself a cup of coffee again (never mind be able to keep that coffee down after months and months of dry-heaving) to realize that I was qualified to share a story that no one else could tell quite like I could. That makes me no better or worse than another writer: it’s simply my perspective based on having lived through it. Hemingway is my favorite scribe. It’s hard to choose from his amazing treasure trove of quotes… but this one sticks out as appropriate for your blog post, and appropriate to what I’m trying to do with my memoir: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” It took me almost five years of “marinating” my thoughts and deciding how to tackle it before I even started writing about it… but on the sixth anniversary of my life-saving surgery, I got real about what I want to accomplish. That was just two months ago. One month after that, I turned 47. If I have a completed memoir in hand by 55, I’ll feel like I met one of many purposes I’m here for. And, I certainly won’t feel like an “older” writer… just a wiser one. 😉 ~Ann

    1. Thank you for reading, Valerie. And I’m glad to have helped. There are many more of us writers of a certain age out there than people seem to think, and we do have such meaningful things to say. We have to remember that when we start to feel uncomfortable about being older writers, or envious of the young ones with all the time in the world

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