In the past few years, I have met quite a few authors, including self-published ones, who began writing late in life, in other words, in their late forties or early fifties. Many of them still have careers, sometimes professions. In some instances, they use pseudonyms to separate their work life from their life as an author or as an artist, because they still have a career that may be completely different. I am often surprised when I find out what my colleagues at work do for hobbies or interests at home – some paint or sculpt, others play in bands or orchestras, some sing and compose, and some have written books while others are just starting to discover the pleasure of writing. There are too many people with these “second lives in the arts” for this to be just a fluke. Why do people turn their hand to writing late in their careers? And what can you do to make sure you succeed in your second career?
The answer to why, and how, can be found in a somewhat depressing but very interesting article that appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic, called Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, by Arthur C. Brooks.
Life sucks after 50
“The field of ‘happiness studies’ has boomed over the past two decades, and a consensus has developed about well-being as we advance through life. In The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and an Atlantic contributing editor, reviews the strong evidence suggesting that the happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s. Nothing about this pattern is set in stone, of course. But the data seem eerily consistent with my experience: My 40s and early 50s were not an especially happy period of my life, notwithstanding my professional fortunes.” (Arthur C. Brooks, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, The Atlantic, July 2019)
Apparently, late in one’s career, one starts to feel less relevant, less able to make a contribution or a difference at work. Not being able to make a difference is to be expected from someone who is inexperienced, unknowledgeable, untalented or unqualified, but unfortunate and distressing for someone who has a lot to contribute after decades of being successful at work.
There are long arguments about how and when one peaks in terms of achievements, but the consensus is that if you haven’t done your thing and been successful in the first half of your life, the odds are against you that you will do so in the second half.
“Call it the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation: the idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige. Problems related to achieving professional success might appear to be a pretty good species of problem to have; even raising this issue risks seeming precious. But if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up, you can suffer mightily when you inevitably fall.” (Arthur C. Brooks, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, The Atlantic, July 2019)
This does explain why, if someone was very senior when they retired, they may now be at a complete loss about what to do with their life. They may try long-term travelling on a boat or a motorcycle, or still keep their hand in as a “company director” for a few hours per month. It is then that people suddenly discover their inner author or artist.
People thinking about becoming authors at this stage of their lives, must bear in mind that the idea of being a writer or a painter, etc., has something to do with the awareness that your life is winding down and you are approaching your own demise. As Paul Dirac, a winner of the 1933 Novel Prize in Physics, wrote:
“Age is, of course, a fever chill
that every physicist must fear.
He’s better dead than living still
when once he’s past his thirtieth year.”
Thirty?! Oy veh.
Poets peak in their 40s – novelists in their 50s
“Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern. [Research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis] has shown that poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer. When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70.” (Arthur C. Brooks, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, The Atlantic, July 2019)
Oh my – the clock is definitely ticking.
What can you do?
Brooks suggests a few approaches to this existential conundrum, and I have added some examples of my own.
1. Use your crystallized intelligence
Brooks refers to “crystallized intelligence”, the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. That is what you have gained late in life. You’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt and know how things hang together, therefore you can write about it better than other people.
For instance, Gordon Mohs, former Principal Aboriginal Relations Specialist and Representative for a Canadian firm of consulting engineers, used his specialist knowledge of Sto:lo life on the Fraser River for his “anthropological murder mystery”, Devil’s Run. You will probably not read many other novels on the subject with such an abundance of insight and detail.
2. Focus on personal satisfaction and achievement, not “earthly rewards—money, power, sex, prestige”.
As Jon Gliddon, former Mining Engineer, said of the process of publishing his first novel, Break in Communication, that the novel was something inside him that he felt compelled to express, to get on paper and to publish. It was a deeply personal thing. It was not, in the first instance, about getting rich and famous.
“With your first book there is no objective bench-mark you can judge it by. I felt very protective of the first draft; are people going to laugh when they read it or just shake their head? It sounds strange but the book was part of me.” (Interview with Jon Gliddon, July 6, 2018)
3. In answer to the question “Who am I?”, consciously assume a new identity as an author
New authors find that it helps to stop calling yourself what you once were, and call yourself “a writer” or “an author” (or as “Brian” says in Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston, he is “someone who writes poems” – as opposed to “a poet”.) People will look at you differently then. You might even like your new persona. You can do stuff like pose with a pipe, or revert to using a typewriter (like Tom Hanks), or wear a beret and a smoking jacket, or learn to emote in French, or act eccentric! Your author persona can be the direct opposite of your professional persona.
Ruuf Wangersen is the pseudonym of someone who has another career. In 2018 he published his first novel, The Pleasure Model Repairman, which means that he is now an actual author, by name of Ruuf Wangersen.
When asked about his persona as an author, he responded:
“Ruuf Wangersen is a pen name, or at least it started out that way. The name came to me in a ridiculous dream that I can only vaguely remember. Over the last few years, Ruuf’s become more of an alter ego, funnier than I am, far more jaded, more fearless, more reckless. He lives in my basement, doesn’t pay rent. He doesn’t even take the garbage out!” (Interview with Ruuf Wangersen, May 19, 2018)
4. Pass on your skills and keep learning
The process of working with young writers can be quite informative and satisfying, especially when they succeed. You could imagine that you are an author in your twenties or thirties, and take advice from published writers who have already done the learning. And when you have got it made, return the favour by mentoring younger authors.
It is amazing how many different questions established writers get asked when they provide the opportunity to do so. On platforms and websites that make those conversations possible, for instance Goodreads, Q&A sessions with authors deliver remarkable insights. It is always interesting to see how the younger authors respond versus the ones that have turned their writing into a second career. Times change, so do technologies and methodologies. The questions vary from which software they use to work out plots, to which narrative voice to write in, how to make a deal on Amazon, how to deal with their new identity as an author – for instance in interviews and public appearances – to how to get reviews and how to deal with fans.
5. Develop your “eulogy virtues”
Through this process, you will eventually become the mentor but you will also develop your own writing skills. You will develop “eulogy virtues” rather than “résumé virtues”. In my day, we used to say, make an effort for what’s going to be on your gravestone, not on your CV:
“New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about the difference between ‘résumé virtues’ and ‘eulogy virtues’, he’s effectively putting the ashramas in a practical context. Résumé virtues are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others. Eulogy virtues are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison. Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral. As in He was kind and deeply spiritual, not He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.” (Arthur C. Brooks, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, The Atlantic, July 2019)
6. Get back to the books
The fact that you are past middle age does not give you licence to produce something and expect it to be successful. Those miracles happen but the chances are a gazillion to one. Professional skills are only helpful in select aspects of writing, for instance developing settings and themes – the factual aspects of fiction (as Greg Hickey proved in The Friar’s Lantern), or in doing the marketing. Even artistic skills are not easily transferrable from one medium or genre to another. Therefore, your second career will go better if you study and research your field.
All of this being said, the bottom line is still – Hurry up! Clock’s ticking! Jump in and do it – and all the world of good luck to you, Young Padawan.