A while back, a reader named Christine emailed me the following question:
Do you think a person can begin being a writer at age 60? You’re so young and have such a solid educational background in literature. I know I want to write, and have a folder of snippets, unrelated, but think I’m crazy to start at this age!
Well, I should admit, first off, that I’m no youngster. I grew up in the South, where a lady is never supposed to reveal her age, but since the publisher of my first novel decided to put my birthdate on the title page way back in 2001, it’s pretty much out there. Matters of youthfulness or lack thereof aside, I get a lot of questions from aspiring writers, frequently about publishing, sometimes of the “I want to write a book, and I’m sure it will be a bestseller if you introduce me to your agent” variety. I found Christine’s question particularly refreshing, because it wasn’t about the business of writing, but the process of writing, and, more specifically, the beginning of writing–you know, that thing you actually have to do before you go out in search of literary fame and fortune. So, for anyone who wonders if it’s too late to begin writing, I thought I’d share my response here:
Yes, Christine, I do believe a person can begin being a writer at age 60! Certainly, you’ve seen more and done more than someone who sets out to be a writer at the age of 20 or 30. More important, you’ve already met the first two requirements of being a writer: one, you have the desire, and two, you’re a reader.
Desire comes first because, unlike reporting to a job you don’t like in an office you find stifling, it’s almost impossible to write if you don’t want to to do it. I know this because, way back when, I was a telemarketer. I never had the slightest desire to be a telemarketer, and in fact I found the conversations on the flimsy headset quite embarrassing and unpleasant, but I managed to do it anyway, and collect the meager checks that paid for my meager duplex in a meager neighborhood in Knoxville, across the road from a dismal shopping-center, where I spent my first paycheck on a smelly sectional sofa from the Salvation Army, which I dragged home, piece by piece, and turned into a bed. Meanwhile, I wanted very much to be a writer, and though writing did not result in a paycheck, meager or otherwise, I wrote anyway, early in the morning and late at night, and on snow days when I dodged work by claiming to be unable to extract my Toyota from the driveway. I wrote in the cold, because the duplex had no proper heating, and I wrote on a Mac duo-doc (which was not meant to stand alone, but I had only the duo doc, not the docking station), and I wrote despite the fact that almost every story I sent out got rejected. Back then, it was desire, and little else, that kept me going.
As for formal study, anyone who has spent a life reading has a background in literature. Although I studied literature in college, I honestly think I was too young, and too scattered, and too overwhelmed with waiting tables and cobbling together other minimum wage jobs to take in a lot of it at the time. Most of it simply looked like a syllabus to me. A far better education has been the last twenty years spent finding and reading books and authors that were not assigned to me in any class, many of which have, I’m sure, influenced my writing.
So Christine, no, you are not crazy to want to begin writing at the age of 60. Far from it. It could be argued that writing at any age is a very sane act, as it requires us to make sense of what we see in the world, to put into words our own unique perspective, our own experiences, and to make concrete and tangible art out of the messy abstractions of our lives.