Writers of a Certain Age…Is It Too Late?

Great Big ShipsI met a woman in my first writing program who told me about her 40th birthday. She said it was the best and worst birthday she ever had. She was so happy when she turned 30, she remembered. She had a big party on the beach and all her friends came. But ten years later she found herself sobbing all alone in her bedroom the night before she turned 40.

“I hadn’t done the things I really wanted to do in this life,” she said.

And the thing at the top of her list was writing.

That was why it was also the best birthday she ever had, she explained to our group. Because the next day she scoured the internet looking for a solution and found the writing program we were in together. Now she was working on the novel she had always wanted to write, and she wasn’t so worried about what age she was turning anymore.

Big life milestones (like birthdays) creep up on us slowly and then jump out of the closet, scaring us half to death and reminding us of all our unfinished business. There’s nothing like that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you realize you’ve already passed the age when you planned to publish your book and you haven’t even written the first chapter yet.

If you haven’t yet followed up on your dreams you might feel overall depressed about life, jealous of others when they find success, or hopeless about ever accomplishing something similar for yourself. For example:

When you hear about the latest young writing phenom, do you bitterly note how old they are, and how much older you are than them?

When you pick up the latest bestseller you’ve really been wanting to read, do you wonder what magical secret the author used to finish and publish such good work? Perhaps they were lucky, you might think. Or have connections I could never hope to have.

Does the thought of your upcoming birthday—or even just the calendar year turning over—fill you with a feeling of frantic despair? Does your life feel like the hourglass is running out too fast?

These are all classic signs of a creative soul who is deeply unfulfilled. In the case of writers it manifests as crippling self-doubt. That’s why most blocked writers don’t even think of themselves as writers. And it’s why we use words like “aspiring” or “wannabe” when we talk about it, if we talk about it at all. Some of us have self-imposed rules in place, like we’re not allowed to call ourselves writers until we’ve finished something, or been paid for our work.

Denying yourself the right to identify as a writer in your thoughts and your speech is a form of self-punishment. We expected great things out of ourselves by this point in time, and this point has come—and is now going—and we haven’t lived up to those expectations, so now we’re going to criticize, berate and belittle ourselves until we end up crying our eyes out in our bedroom all alone the night before our 40th birthday.

This is a really miserable place to be in. I know because I’ve been there. I wasn’t turning 40, but I was 25 and it sure as hell felt like my life was half over. I thought about writing all the time, but I had no ideas and no motivation. When I thought about how time was slipping away from me I felt totally panicked and wanted to cry. What was really frustrating was that I could picture myself as the writer I wanted to be: typing away happily in a cozy room, telling my dad I finished my novel, answering questions about my characters when readers asked.

But I couldn’t figure out how to get from the horrible non-writing place I was in to the happy writer typing “The End” to the book I had always wanted to write.

That was when I found my first writing program and thank God I did. The program was run by a woman who became my mentor. Week after week she urged me to keep showing up to write and to get the pages down, even if they were bad. She told me that editing came later and to just focus on laying down the story, word by word. Because I had someone in my corner, cheering me on and leading me through the thorny places, I was able to keep going.

Now, nine years later, I’m still writing and I’m the happy writer I wanted to be so long ago. When I started my own writing group I modeled it on the principles I learned in that first program. I focused on getting people to actually write, rather than telling them how to do it. I acted as a gentle beta reader who gave encouraging feedback, rather than a hard-nosed editor who only critiqued. Soon I noticed that I wasn’t only leading a group, I was coaching each and every writer in it. These writers were showing up every week, they were getting the words down and watching the pages mount up. They were growing more confident and honing their skills. They were moving from the place of I-suck-as-a-writer to I’m-pretty-damn-happy-as-a-writer and the only significant change in their life was that they finally had someone else on their side.

That’s how I got started coaching and that’s what I do today. I help writers get on a writing schedule, see their own true potential, hash out their ideas, and act as their first reader when they cross the finish line.

If you’re interested in learning more about me as a writing coach, please visit my coaching page or feel free to email me at writecitysf@gmail.com to talk about your writing. Even if you’re not interested in hiring a coach right now I welcome the chance to talk with other writers on a purely friendly basis too. And if you know someone who might benefit from coaching, I’d be deeply appreciative if you would share this article with them.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

—Mark Twain

Want to know more? Check out:

Why Do Some Writers Have So Much Trouble Actually Writing?

Why I Never Got an MFA

Why I Stopped Writing for Seven Years

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  • Reply Catherine North 6 May, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Lauren, this really struck a chord with me, as I’ll be 40 in two weeks time. And I keep hearing about those brilliant writers who get their first novels published aged 27, and it does make me suspect that I can’t have much talent or else I’d have made it by now, and then I wake up at night in a panic about getting older and wasting my life, etc! But you’re right that having someone on your side makes all the difference. I often look back at the lovely feedback you gave me on my book and it helps me get a better perspective. 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 7 May, 2015 at 9:18 am

      I totally get it Catherine. I’m haunted by the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He keeps showing up all transparent and shimmery pointing to the brilliant debut novel he published when he was 21. I’m going to have to tell him to cool it on haunting me because I have my own book to write! 😉

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 6 May, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    I love your attitude to coaching and know from my own experience that this works. I was over 50 when I first really put pen to paper (or rather hit the keyboard). I gave my first chapters to two people, a friend who read a lot and a severe elderly academic woman, to find out if it was worth persisting. The friend said (in effect) ‘I shouldn’t bother’ (and has never since read anything I have written). The elderly academic asked a few questions about the character and the plot and said she looked forward to the next chapters. She became my mentor. She has long since died, but I have three books out in the world now. Believe me, it is never too late to learn to write – but most of us need that someone in our corner.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 7 May, 2015 at 9:17 am

      Yes yes yes! A mentor can change everything. I think when the writer knows that there is someone waiting to read the next few chapters it kindles their creative fire like nothing else.

  • Reply seumas gallacher 7 May, 2015 at 2:04 am

    …great post, m’Lady, lauren .. I started writing my first novel when I was 60… now I have three published novels, a self-publishing guide on Amazon and recently signed with a great publisher… 80,000+ Amazon downloads,.. and I’m only just getting started! LUVVIN IT! …it;s NEVER too late to start sum’thing yeez LUV… get into it!

  • Reply seumas gallacher 7 May, 2015 at 2:15 am

    …I’ve had to cut and paste to share this great post, m’Lady, Lauren… fabulous message … thanks for this…

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 7 May, 2015 at 4:40 am

    Although I’ve kept a blog of some sort for years, I’ve never considered it “serious” writing. I didn’t start my 1st writing project (a novel) until a year ago this last February. That project has been shelved but I’m hot on the path of a new one as of this last March. I’m 60 years old. To tell the true, I don’t think I was ready to take on this sort of challenge until lately. Sure, I thought about it off and on since I was in my 20s, but there wasn’t full passion in my soul until I was 58. And it’s not too late either.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 7 May, 2015 at 9:16 am

      Thank you for sharing your story Glynis! From all the wonderful replies to this post it appears that sometimes later in life is the BEST time to start writing. I’ll be 37 this year and I still doubt myself, wondering if I started too late on the path and wondering if I’ll ever find an agent. But after reading this response and others I’m more inspired than ever to keep on keepin’ on.

  • Reply Hannah Vanderpool 8 May, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    I started seriously writing two years ago. I’m 37 and am married with three kids. I’ve lived a lot of life already, but I’ve only recently developed the discipline and commitment to write everyday. There are times I wish I’d gotten started sooner, but those times don’t last long. I was too busy doing other things earlier in my life. Now is the perfect time to write.

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