Monday, April 6, 2015

Silver Linings: Benefits and Challenges of Writing at Midlife and Beyond

BinderCon Recap #3

Your book is not your baby.” – Eileen Rendahl

Elizabeth EnslinWhile the Gods were Sleeping 
Amy Pence - Armor, Amour 
Eileen Rendahl (Eileen Carr) - Veiled Intentions
Nikki SternDon’t Move: A Novella
Naomi WilliamsLandfalls  

It’s never too late to start publishing your work. That was the theme of this informative, inspiring session at BinderCon LA about writing and publishing after 40. Panelists said they didn’t publish their first books until 51, 54, and even 61.

At 41, I am just now starting to hit my stride, so this was nice to hear; I felt motivated and not alone. Plus, the panelists were hilarious.

Score one for late bloomers.

“I was already well past my three score and ten, and I had fuck-all to show for it,” Naomi Williams said. She’s publishing her first novel in August at 51.

“We’re not role models for writing gracefully into our dotage,” she joked.

Last year, Elizabeth Enslin published her first memoir, While the Gods were Sleeping, at 54. The book, she said, “took between seven and 20 years to write” because she was a single parent.

“The passing years gave me so much perspective. It would have been a very different story if I’d written it when I was younger,” Enslin said. “Aging helped me to learn how to forgive a bit. I could add more dimensions, layers, the nuances in between.”

Enslin said the passing years helped her “move to tentative insight. I learned to be a better writer to achieve the complexity I wanted to tell with each passing year. The story is more complex.”

However, she said, “Writing at a later age is still a lot of work.”

“I came out of the womb trying to say something and not sure how I was going to say it,” Nikki Stern said. “I was always trying to communicate.”

Stern explained she became a reluctant voice of the 9/11 tragedy when her husband died that day. He was killed “a dozen years after [they] got married. Then [she] started writing and speaking.

“I was self-conscious about being the 9/11 spokesperson,” Stern said, “because I was already older then. People don’t take you seriously when you’re of retirement age.”

She said when editors look at you as a person past retirement, they think, “It won’t be so bad if we don’t take her on.

“My first book was published when I was 61, my second when I was 63. So, you kids…” she joked. Stern went on to “self-publish a novella. At 99 cents, it’s doing pretty well,” she laughed. “I wouldn’t do it again.”

She said, “You disappear between 60 and 80. You come back when you’re 80 because some of us are still standing, and they say, ‘Oh, she wrote a book! How cute!’

Writing has given me purpose and focus like nothing has,” Stern said, a musician as well. “I hopefully will write until the day I drop dead. I need writing. I hope writing needs me.

Eileen Rendahl, who also publishes as Eileen Carr, published her first book at 40. She went on to publish 10 more novels.

“I came to writing a little later because it took me a long time to figure out what on earth I wanted to say—and to put it into perspective.”

But, “I’m as neurotic now as I was I my 20s,” she said. “I’m stuck with that. But I am more focused. I’m less moody than I was. My family would be shocked to hear this.”

She advised, “You need some sharp elbows. There are enough barriers out there. You don’t need to make more for yourself.

“I do think there is a slight preference toward younger writers and YA. It’s easier to market."

Rendahl urged, “Don’t let age affect being a student of your craft.

The "silver linings" author panel. "Crone power!" they said.
“Finding my midlife voice has been a process of letting go,” Amy Pence said. She reiterated what Anna March said about not being attached to the outcome. “At 49, my first book of poems was published. When young, I was isolated. There was no Internet then.”

She’d moved to rural Georgia for her husband’s job and “didn’t have a way to find a community.”


She also “listened to too many voices as a young person.

“I was often told my work was too obscure. Now I’ve made it much clearer.”

She quoted Carl Jung, who said that “in midlife, we individuate all over again.” Pence added, “We get rid of illusions.”

She was glad her first manuscript of poems wasn’t published.

Time gave me the distance to really see.

Pence referenced a Malcolm Gladwell piece called “Late Bloomers” that says Cezanne didn’t produce his first masterpiece until after 60.

“It wasn’t that he wasn’t discovered until his 60s; he wasn’t that good until he was in his 60s,” Pence said.

“I love the revising part more now,” Pence added. “I used to hate to revise.”

“It’s easier to hear criticism when you’re older,” Rendahl said. “Your book is not your baby.” Although, “if there’s something wrong with your baby, you want to fix your baby.”

“I go through life being a late bloomer,” Enslin said. “I’m comfortable with late blooming. I still envision myself as a young person.”

She’s having a hard time reconciling the young person she is in her mind with her new, older body. “I need to work on it,” she said. When she looks in the mirror, she’s “horrified.”

These fabulous women are indeed "writing gracefully into their dotage."
"A few years ago, I stopped getting my hair colored,” Williams said. She was becoming resentful of the time and cost that went into hair maintenance. She also had a realization and thought, “I do not want to keep up with my author photo. I will be chasing that image for the next 10 years if I use the photo of the pretty, colored hair.” 

Williams didn’t get her MFA until she was 43. “It’s really hard to be the oldest person. I had to take two years off my life. I was lucky I had a spouse with an income and benefits.”

While her MFA program made her a better writer, Williams said, she “didn’t get an agent until seven years after.” Getting an MFA “had nothing to do with it.”

Don’t isolate yourself from younger writers,” Rendahl advised. But then she joked she once opted out of going dancing with her fellow MFA students because “they didn’t go out until 10 o’clock! I would have gone if they’d gone by 9:00!”

“The young MFA students in my program are now getting older,” Williams said. “We have more in common.”

The panel continually stressed the importance of revision and promoting yourself.

“There’s no substitute, no way around revising. Hone your craft,” Enslin said. “Open yourself up to younger writers. It’s good to have inter-generational interaction.”

Market four to five days a week,” Stern said. “Just do it. I spend two hours a day on marketing. I hate PR, but I’m good at it. The appearance becomes reality.”

Finally, Rendahl suggested a book called Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. (“Yes, her last name is really Prose,” she said.)

“Critical reading,” she explained, “is taking something you took great joy in doing and ruining it.”

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