Despite long-standing aspirations of writing a book, initial successes with short stories and essays, and a healthy career in publishing, Andrea Jarrell published her first book at age 55. But of course, she got through it. Here, she shares her experiences and offers principles for achieving your writing goals.
Given that I published my first book at age 55, some might call me a late-blooming author. I am. But not because I suddenly discovered writing and decided to write a book. I am a late bloomer because I finally stopped sabotaging myself and did the work needed to realize life-long ambitions.
Writing books is all I ever wanted to do. Yet, for many years, I wore my writing dream like a costume—acting the part but never really committing to the work. Throughout my childhood, teens and 20s, I might have looked like someone working for her dream: sending earnest poems to teen magazines and entering contests, majoring in the right subjects, founding student publications, and working in New York City publishing jobs.
Sometimes a glimmer of the dream would start to come true: winning the Rotary Creative Writing Contest in junior high, getting into selective writing workshops, getting my first byline in a national magazine. But instead of these little wins driving me towards my dream, they often caused me to back away and to talk about the dream more than to go after it.
In my late 20s, I got jobs alongside my dream—jobs in marketing and PR that required a bit of writing talent. These jobs felt safe and productive. I got married and started a family. By my early 30s, I had fashioned other goals that took me up a management ladder as I pretended the original dream to write books no longer mattered. I felt vaguely depressed every time I went into a bookstore but didn’t examine this feeling too carefully.
Of course, my nemesis was fear—fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being told I didn’t have talent, that I wasn’t the best, that I had to work harder. Harder? The truth is I hadn’t been working at all.
I had been blessed with a bit of talent. I had been treading water in that same little puddle of talent all my life, and when teachers or bosses or circumstances indicated my ambitions would take a lot more than innate talent I found some other path where the people would praise me and say “good job” and I didn’t have to grapple with my fears.
They say we recover when we get sick and tired of being sick and tired. My “recovery” as a writer began in my late 30s when I went back to school to get my MFA. Yet even after working my tail off for two more years, earning the praise and encouragement of my mentors, graduating at 39, and winning a fellowship the following year, I quit writing again. The second time I stopped, I was 41. I stopped because my stories weren’t getting published and I couldn’t handle the anguish of rejection and the fear that I would never make it. I stopped writing for another five years. Once again, I sought the “atta girls” and financial security of my career to boost my self-esteem.
I started a marketing business focused on brand storytelling. I poured all my creative energy into my client work and became very successful at it. Then one day, circumstances aligned to help me seize the opportunity to change. I was 46 with the big 5-0 on the horizon. My oldest child was in her last year of middle school and my son would be there in another year. I’d weathered the turmoil of starting a business so that my creative energy wasn’t exhausted all the time. I was sitting in my office and I spied my box of MFA stories—a box I’d been avoiding the way I avoided bookstores.
I pulled out the file folders and turned the pages of my drafts and then I got to my teachers’ final comments when I graduated. Each of them had been so encouraging. One, in particular, jumped out: “Just keep doing what you are doing.” Sitting on my office floor, I broke down in tears because I had done just the opposite: I’d stopped.
That summer at 46, I started writing again and immediately began to be published. What I want to describe now is the change in me and how my changed attitudes relate to the change in my writing success. Because we all tell ourselves—just do it, just go for it, just write the freakin’ book! And yet even in the face of new resolve, our lives (marriage, kids, job, caregiving, health or money problems) and the shoulds and don’ts and what-ifs and fears get in the way. For years, I did not have the fortitude to keep my personal writing going even though the dream remained: I wanted to write, and I wanted that writing to be published.
The exact things I did to change might not work or appeal to you but the principles of what I did might.
Steps for Achieving Your Writing Goals
Set incremental, achievable goals, and relish success.
We often hear that we need to go after the audacious, big hairy goals. But as I was sticking a toe back into my writing career in my 40s, I didn’t start by sending my work to The New Yorker. I noticed my local paper The Washington Post ran a regular column about neighbors. I wrote a voyeuristic tale of watching through my kitchen window the two young women and their father who rented the house next door to ours. I’d noticed garbage bags piling up on their deck. One day the family vanished leaving most of their belongings behind. Mysteries in ordinary life fascinate me, and when this piece—300 words or so—was accepted, I was over the moon.
Shortly after that, I took an editorial carving knife to one of my MFA stories so it would fit the submission guidelines in a Bethesda Magazine fiction contest. The story received an honorable mention. Then I submitted an essay called “Lice Season” to Literary Mama. The acceptance email said, “We’ve read a lot of pieces about lice but never one like this.”
Recently Roxane Gay wrote a great advice column in the New York Times to so-called late bloomers. She talked about her own path and said, “I kept whittling down my dream from literary fame to modest riches to just getting a book deal to, finally, simply writing a good book.” Rather than whittling—especially for a recovering writer or new writer—I see it the other way as a “building up.”
My small early wins kept me going. When the voice inside my head started to say, “Well it’s not The New Yorker,” I told that voice to shut the hell up. I enjoyed each victory. With incremental successes mounting, I gained the confidence to set more ambitious goals.
Keep getting better.
Back in my teens and 20s, I could write lovely sentences and select choice sensory details but I didn’t have a clue about how to tell a satisfying story. In my 30s during my graduate program, I made a big leap. My stories began to have an internal drive they hadn’t had before. Indeed, one of my mentors said, “It’s as if you just needed to be pointed in the right direction.” I got promising rejection letters from The Missouri Review and The Atlantic but I was too impatient for success so, as they say, I “quit before the miracle.”
The second time I came back to writing, in my mid-40s when I was sending out my little essays to The Washington Post and Literary Mama, something significant had happened without my even realizing it. I’d gained a ton of practical skills during my hiatus focused on my writing for clients. My marketing business trained me to write every day, to write on deadline, to listen to peoples’ motivations and make sense of them, to hook my readers and keep them interested. I’d learned how to cut to the chase using one sentence rather than three. I’d learned a lot more about narrative arcs and effective pacing. This, I believe is why my pieces started getting picked up right away.
When I was a young writer I thought having to improve meant I wasn’t any good to begin with but now I’m excited to build on my skills and talent. I take writing workshops and regularly work one-on-one with a mentor—a formula that has never failed to make me a better writer.
Choose good mentors.
Working with a more experienced writer has been an essential part of my path. While I have learned to better trust myself in terms of what’s good and what’s not I value an “authority” to help direct me. Taking a class with a prospective mentor first gives me a good sense of whether we’ll work well together. Does their feedback excite me with new ideas and make me eager to revise? That’s what I look for.
It’s important to say that I am paying to work with these mentor-writers. This is an investment in my writing career just the way any career requires professional development. Just as I support myself through my consulting business, these mentors are supporting their own writing careers. If we expect to be paid as writers we should expect to pay the writers who teach us.
All that said, mentors are like midwives; they can help you, but they can’t do the birthing for you. I really understood this when Dani Shapiro with whom I’d worked at Hedgebrook read my book. She said, “You’ve gone and done it. You’ve written a beautiful book.” Then she added, “One always hopes.”
Her comments made clear to me that mentors really have no idea if their mentees can actually pull off writing the book they want to write. I had naively thought these wise ones could tell who’ll make it and who won’t. But they are standing by with bated breath, hopeful but ultimately as powerless as parents. In the end, it’s only you who can make it happen.
Make writing a top priority.
A talented writer friend of mine, the mother of two teenagers, and someone who has some impressive writing credits recently posted on Facebook that she had determined she could not write her book until her kids went to college. She cited sports practices, homework, dinner making, and grocery shopping. And maybe that is a good choice for her, but she also continues to post about the frustration she feels about not writing her book. All I can say is that as I was building my writing career and finishing my first book, my husband cooked a lot of meals and my family ate a lot of take-out.
Maybe that is not an option for everyone or the choice that every writer wants to make. My point is that for me something had to give. What gave was grocery-shopping, dinner making, socializing with friends, and home improvement. What stayed was family time, dates with my husband, writing, work, and yoga. I also stopped making my writing my reward after I finished all my other work. I moved it to the top of my work list and made it my most important client. One of the very first things an early mentor said to me was this: No one will care about your work more than you do. Not your family. Not your teachers. Not your friends. So it is up to us to make our work a priority—that most important client.
The year I started to get a little success with my essays, I decided to write a novel. I took a novel writing boot camp and then hired the novelist instructor to work with me. It took me two years to write the novel. My mentor loved it and said it was ready. Several agents were interested but then one by one they started rejecting the manuscript. I was 49, desperate to publish by 50, and I’d lost faith in my book. I wasn’t sure I liked it anymore and if I didn’t like it how could I keep pitching it.
But here’s what changed—I didn’t quit!
I set the novel aside and went back to what had been working and what I’d loved—my essays. The very next year—literally the day I turned 50—I got an essay acceptance from Narrative Magazine. Later that summer one of my essays was accepted by The New York Times “Modern Love” column, one of the most coveted outlets for any personal essayist. Age 50 was turning out to be my best year yet as a writer.
Places that excited me were accepting my pieces: The New York Times “Motherlode” column; Full Grown People; Brain, Child Magazine; Brevity Magazine’s blog; two more pieces in The Washington Post and several in The Huffington Post, as well as many anthologies. Editors were starting to come to me to ask for essays. That’s when I got serious about my memoir.
The year I turned 54, my memoir was finally done but I was loath to go through what I imagined could be another year or more trying to find an agent and then more time trying to get a publisher. I decided to submit only to presses that didn’t require an agent. My submissions resulted in three offers.
Here’s the weird, beautiful addendum to my book publishing story: Shortly after my book came out a wonderful New York City agent saw one of my essays in Harper’s Bazaar. She sought my memoir out and loved it. This agent now represents me. All that distress years before over trying to get an agent. Then getting the book published without an agent. Then a wonderful agent finds me and wants to work with me on my next book.
Do the work.
What I know today is that as much as I wanted to publish a book in my 20s I’m not sure I could have handled it. I think I would have been so undone by what other people thought—the bad reviews withering me and the good ones panicking me about being able to live up to them. This is one of the perks of being a late bloomer—feeling more deserving of whatever you’ve accomplished because you’ve done the hard work to get here.
Thank God that teenage girl rushing to her mailbox hoping for an acceptance from Seventeen Magazine didn’t know how many years it would take to feel the satisfaction of “yes” from an editor. But that 37-year-old who sat typing with a baby on her lap, even if you’d told her it would take nearly 20 more years to publish a book she would have thought yes, thank you, a million times yes.
What I know today is that I no longer fear rejection and failure as much as I fear the regret of sitting on the sidelines.
So to achieve your writing goals, bring yourself to the page and write, write, write. Dig deeper than the neat and tidy good draft. Disagree with feedback and then admit it’s right. Believe you can do better. Handle rejection. Write a whole new book and another and another. Apply for residencies. Find a publisher. Do your day job without resentment. Leave the dinner making to someone else. Accept success. Make your writing your most important client.
As Jesmyn Ward recently said in an interview with Vogue Magazine: “Persist. If you stop, then you’re removing yourself from the conversation. You have to keep going and weather rejection … Become the best writer you can because nobody owes you anything; you owe that to yourself.”