Is it too late to begin writing?
Giving yourself permission to write at any age
Years ago, 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’m no youngster, although I was seven years younger when I received Christine’s email. 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. I found Christine’s question particularly refreshing, because it wasn’t about the business of writing or even the process of writing, but about the permission to write–that thing we all have to grant ourselves before we can begin.
So, for anyone who wonders if it’s too late to begin writing, I thought I’d share my response here:
Yes, Christine, you can begin writing at 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.
One other thing you may have that many younger people do not? Time. This sounds strange, but let me explain: You’re probably retired, or nearing retirement. You’re probably not raising small children. You may be caring for aging parents, which takes an enormous amount of time, or for grandchildren, which takes buckets of energy, but much of the work that you did for decades may now have fallen off your plate, giving you more time than you had when you were younger.
So Christine, no, you are not crazy to want to begin writing at the age of 60. Far from it. Writing at any age is, indeed, an act of sanity and perspective; 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.
It was 2012 when I received this email from Christine. I’ve thought of her often since then. Christine would be 67 now. At this point in her life, sixty probably seems much younger than it did when she was actually sixty. If she started writing then, she now has seven years of writing under her belt. You can write a lot in seven years. I’ve gone back in my emails and can’t find her. If I could, I would ask, “Did you begin writing?” I hope the answer is yes.
If you’re asking yourself the same question, “Can I begin writing now?” the answer is YES, you can begin writing at any age.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of two story collections and five novels, including most recently The Marriage Pact, which has been published in 30 languages. She mentors writers through her online novel writing classes — Novel in Nine and Novel in Five. She lives in Paris.
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