I began writing and publishing fiction after my seventy-sixth birthday. Like so many very late bloomers, I never took a creative writing class, attended a conference for writers, or enrolled in a MFA program. Creating fiction as a senior-citizen writer was not in my retirement plan. My intention was to write a memoir.
When this became an ethical nightmare resulting from family members’ concerns, I switched to fiction and poured a lifetime of emotions into sixty short stories. Many were published in literary journals. About half were connected enough to form the basis of a debut novel, set for publication in 2020, when I will be seventy-eight.
I am old and I write, but I don’t like being called an old writer. It’s an image thing. “Old” sends a depressing message suggesting a lack of creativity, hands too arthritic to type, being closed to new ideas, days in a rocking chair doing nothing. In this stereotype, life near the end means the end of life before it ends.
Think again, younger people. This image may apply to those with certain diseases that typically afflict the over-eighties, like late-stage Alzheimers, but many of us healthier seniors who write are in desk chairs, not rocking chairs.
There are obvious advantages to beginning a writing career in youth. Years to develop writing skills. A better knowledge of 21st century culture. The expectation of living for the decades it may take to find an agent and publish a body of work. But there are also advantages to being a senior-citizen writer, both for those of us who never wrote before and for those continuing an established practice.
Assuming we are not still working or taking care of a significant other, we seniors can write 24/7 if we choose. Most of us do not have a full-time job. When was the last time any of us slept for eight hours straight? We do not leave our homes as much in cold weather (or at all when writing during the pandemic) or drive at night. Simply put, we have more time to write than those in the workforce or raising children.
After the children grow up and leave home, we often wind up with a room of our own. Yes, we are encouraged to down-size. Whether this leaves us with an empty kitchen table, a recliner, or an actual room, we no longer have to fight for a quiet place to write. A designated space helps us establish a writing routine.
Having a voice means knowing who you are and how to express yourself in your own unique way. Most seniors have achieved this. We have put identity issues to rest. Our preferences (gender and otherwise), tastes (in music and otherwise), values (religious and otherwise), likes, and dislikes are settled. We may have achieved a comfort level with the more unsavory aspects of our past that still alludes younger writers. This can prevent writer’s block caused by internal conflict many seniors have had the time to resolve.
We do not have as many distractions, as long as we do not let TV and social media absorb us. Health issues and complicated self-care are our biggest distractions, but sorting medications into pill containers is not comparable to chasing a toddler or trying to pass the bar.
History to draw from
We elders have lived. We have experienced jobs, relationships, deaths, traumas, and celebrations multiple times. We were there when a president was assassinated, when a space shuttle exploded, and when the twin towers collapsed. We may have a better understanding of human nature than we did when we were young. Our history is what can make our writing authentic when we write about what we know.
Our goals are probably not the goals of youth. We do not typically hope to build a writing career. Many of us do not care about publishing. The most common reason we take up writing is to have a legacy that will be read by our descendants—our own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Writing is like the gold watch that has been in the family for two or three generations and is still cherished, ready to be passed down one day. Even for those of us, like me, who publish and seek a wider audience, the end game may still be the creation of a legacy.
This attribute comes with maturity. If we were easily embarrassed by the shortcomings of age—memory lapses, thinning hair, an erratic bladder—we would be devastated by publisher’s rejections and bad reviews. These still hurt, just not as much. We already know if we have the talent of a Toni Morrison or the marketability of a Stephen King. By this point in our lives, we are who we are and no longer judge ourselves harshly.
Many of us have these advantages, but not all. We older writers are as different from one another as younger writers are. Our personalities are as varied. Some of us are extroverts, some introverts, some melancholic, some alcoholic. Our situations are also diverse. Some of us create in spite of battles with pain or financial distress. Not all of us have lives of privilege. My own writing has the added advantage of keeping my anxieties in check. It is typical for my characters to face grim situations, including bloodshed, addiction, and mental illness. I leave troubles and worries on the page as a senior-citizen writer.
Younger writers—what we may share with you is that we write because we must. For many of us, no matter what our age, it is an obsession. Whether we have a long time ahead of us or just a few years, writing gives those years a meaning. We all, young and old, belong to the tribe of storytellers and wordsmiths who define what it is to be human and alive.
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