Yes, friends, it’s true: I shall reach the exalted age of sixty soon. Very soon. Very.
Recently, I watched an episode of “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte announced that she was not going to turn 36 on her birthday because “I’m just not where I thought I’d be at 36, so I’m sticking at 35.” Granted, she was in a tough spot: her marriage had crumbled under the stress of infertility, and her efforts to resume the career she’d paused for babymaking had proven fruitless. Still, it set me to wondering: am I where I thought I’d be at 60?
Answer: it depends when you asked.
If you’d asked me on my 21st birthday where I thought I’d be now, I’d have said, “Married with children and grandchildren.” I grew up in a traditional family, and I attended a traditional Christian college where fully one-third of our class graduated married or engaged. As far as a career was concerned, I didn’t have any compelling plans, but I did assume that by 60, I’d be heading into retirement from whatever.
If you’d asked me on my 33rd birthday, I’d still have figured marriage and children were in the picture, because I was seriously involved with a man who wanted children. Since I was less than two months from my law school graduation, presumably a brilliant legal career was also in my future.
If you’d asked on my thirty-seventh birthday, I’d have stared at you as if you were completely nuts. I wasn’t thinking decades ahead; I was trying to get through the next month. Because in late January that year, mere days after I signed a new lease and moved into a new apartment, the partners at my firm informed me I wasn’t going to be a partner, which was code for “start job-hunting” because back then, the only choices available to law firm associates were to make partner or leave. So by the time my birthday rolled around in March, my attention was focused on figuring out not only where I wanted to work, but what I wanted to be doing there (not to mention how I was going to pay the rent while I sorted it all out).
Then, on a sunny day in April, I stumbled upon an ad in the job book at the law school’s career services office. A small firm was looking for someone to do legal research and writing. The ad was for part-time work, but I thought, “If only I could string together a bunch of jobs like this. . . .” And with no more forethought than that–no business plan, no safety net, no entrepreneurial experience–I left behind the security of regular paychecks and insurance and leapt into the exhilarating, nerve-wracking world of self-employment.
My forties were brought lots of changes, some good and some not. That was the era when I first began to come to grips with the notion of singlehood as real life rather than a temporary state of affairs. As a result, my forties were a time of exploration and growth. Just before my fortieth birthday, I bought a house—just me, no husband or co-signer—and in my forties, I managed all sorts of homeownership issues, from painting to planting to finding the well to repair a leak (who knew wells could even have leaks?). I made two trips to Thailand as a short-term missionary. I went on vacation by myself. Most importantly, I began writing for the first time since college, and when I posted my stories on a fan site, people actually liked them.
By the time I turned fifty, I was reveling in the freedom that comes from knowing that the world pays no attention to middle-aged women, which means that you can do whatever the hell you want because nobody’s watching. On the other hand, it also means that if you have plans for your life, you’d do well to get on with them. For me, this meant finally recognizing one summer day that if I wanted to write a book, it was high time I started. I knew plenty of people who talked about writing books “someday,” but they never seemed to do anything about it. My practice was in its standard summer slowdown, but I knew from experience that autumn would bring a rush of new projects, so if I wanted to take the plunge into fiction writing, I should take advantage of the lull. Aloud I said, “It’s time to pass or play.”
I decided to play.
Once I made my decision, the first thing I did was to poke around online for resources. It took about five minutes to find Duotrope, and about ten seconds after that to realize there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of publications, from “extremely approachable” (they accept a relatively high percentage of submissions) to “extremely challenging” (acceptance rates of less than 1%). I figured I wasn’t quite ready for the likes of the Paris Review (extremely challenging), but plenty of other publications sounded like real possibilities.
A few months later, in November, 2013, my first story was published in On the Premises. Not only had my story won second prize in their contest, but I actually got paid for it. Around the same time, I sold my first story to Spark: A Creative Anthology; that one was published in the spring of 2014. Over the years, I’ve had other stories published, but I’ve learned the hard way that there will always be many, many more rejections than acceptances.
And then, there’s The Book.
I finished writing my first novel at fifty-eight. I submitted it to the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, which I heard of from my friend, author Susan Schoenberger, whose first novel won for its category. Mine was a 2018 finalist. One of the best things about that experience was a note from the contest organizer who sent me an email with this statement:
“I don’t get involved in the judging per se but I do go through all of the entries and the title of yours caught my eye so I read yours and loved the concept.”
I’d say I’m currently searching for an agent, but the truth is that I’ve done some of that searching on and off, and it’s both time-consuming and discouraging as hell. One agent was kind enough to tell me why she was passing on my book, but she’s unique. Most times, I receive the standard form response, i.e., it’s not a good fit for them, but this business is very subjective and I should keep trying. Some never bother to respond at all, which irks me because after all, they’ve solicited the very submissions they’re apparently too busy to acknowledge.
Of course, there are alternatives to traditional agented publishing. Some smaller presses will deal directly with the author–no agent necessary. Another option is self-publishing a/k/a independent publishing. Many people publish beautiful, well-edited books on their own. Case in point: my dear friend and critique partner, D. Margaret Hoffman, published the award-winning essay collection, Saving Our Lives, on her own. In fact, she’s published two volumes, and volume three is in the works. She has editors, design assistance, and a guy in Australia who handles all her tech needs so the books will look fabulous no matter what device they’re downloaded to. The hard copies are beautiful, comfortable in the hand and to the eye. (As I get older, I become increasingly grateful to authors and publishers whose work is in print large enough to read without strain.) In addition to selling books at locations like the Eastern States Exposition a/k/a the Big E, she has parlayed her love of teaching and writing into workshops and seminars on how to write your own story; one of these classes turned itself into a writing group that now has its own blog.
While I could publish my book on my own, I’m hesitant for a number of reasons. One is ego/insecurity: I want an agent and a traditional publisher so the world knows that somebody who could have rejected my book didn’t. Another is the uncertainty: if I publish as it is (or with one more edit, just for luck), will the book truly be as good as it can be? Agents and editors routinely ask authors to revise (and revise, and revise) before the book is deemed ready for publication. Can I do this on my own? I’ve hired editorial help already, but should I do it again?
Another major issue is how daunting indie publishing feels. The sheer time commitment I imagine it involving makes me want to crawl under the bed. Not only do you have to manage all the logistics (or pay someone to do so), but you are solely responsible for selling your book. Obviously, in this era, all authors are expected to be involved in selling their own books, regardless of whether you’re published by Simon & Schuster or doing it on your own, but at least the Big Five have marketing and publicity departments who know where (and when) to start the ball rolling.
Of course, all this is happening while the day job, concerns involving my aging parents, voice lessons, cats, chorale rehearsals, home maintenance, and occasional social engagements are competing for my time, energy, and attention. Plus, I’m working on my next book, in part to keep myself from obsessing about the first and in part because it’s a story I really want to write. In between, I’m writing stories, submitting, taking classes, and applying to writing conferences.
All of which explains, at least in part, why I’m turning 60 without having published a book. To be honest, when I was fifty-three and taking the plunge, I figured the first book would be out by now. On the other hand, I knew practically nothing about what it takes to publish a book. Silly me–I was still laboring under the delusion that writing would be the hardest part.
I know what the solution is, of course. It’s the same as the answer to the age-old riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: one bite at a time.
And so, as The Day approaches this year, I shall take bites—maybe nibbles, maybe chomps—of the elephant known as publishing a book. After all, plenty of writers published their first books in their sixties or later:
- Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he published Angela’s Ashes, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book, an autobiography called “Pioneer Girl,” in her sixties. When she had difficulty finding a publisher, she reworked it into the novelized version we know as the Little House books, which she published at sixty-four.
- Katherine Anne Porter, a noted short story writer, published her one and only novel, Ship of Fools, when she was seventy-two.
- Millard Kaufman, one of the creators of Mr. Magoo, published his first novel when he was ninety.
- Harriet Doerr published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at seventy-four, and she won the National Book Award for it.
So if you’re wondering where I see myself at seventy, it’s as a published novelist.
And if I haven’t published a novel by then, I’m sticking at sixty-nine.