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So, what are you writing today?

20 April, 2008

What an inspiring story, from the Australian government’s publication, News for Seniors (Autumn, 2008, Issue 73). An article titled ‘So, What Are You Doing Today’ focuses on Mrs Phyllis Turner as an example of never being too old to follow your dream.

At 95, Phyllis was awarded a research-based Masters degree in medical science. (See this youtube news item.) This feat has resulted in her being nominated for the Guinness Book of Records and the South Australian government naming her its Adult Learner of the Year.

Her story is even more inspiring when you read that Phyllis left school at 12 to help look after her siblings when her father abandoned the family. Later, while raising her 7 children and 2 step-children, she kept learning on her own. At age 70, she applied to an undergraduate degree and topped the essay exam as part of the entry requirement. When she was 90, she finished her Honours degree in anthropology. She enrolled in the Masters degree after her husband died.

Explanation: In the Honours degree, you must complete an independently researched thesis. If you are successful, you can go on to undertake a research Masters or a PhD, which both require independent research. You normally do not attend any classes but have occasional meetings with your supervisor. This kind of research is challenging and confronting–it’s just you alone, wrestling with your topic, month after month. For the PhD, it’s usual for students to study part-time and complete it in 5 years. And Phyllis’s supervisors are now encouraging her to enrol in a PhD!

When I read about Phyllis, I was reminded of older ‘new’ writers who think they’ve left it too long, that they’re too old to start scribbling down their thoughts and stories. When someone tells me this, the stories of two inspirational older women come to mind.

  • The first is a well-known fiction writer, Helen Hooven Santmyer. She wrote throughout her life but success came late. Finally, in 1984, the big novel she had worked on for decades, And Ladies of the Club, hit the bestseller lists. It is still a favourite of mine. I heard her being interviewed shortly after its publication, and she said she was already at work on her next novel. At that time, she was 88.
  • The second inspirational woman was not a writer. She was in a class with me at uni. In her 70s, and with a strong German accent, she told me one day that she had recently won the high dive championship in a masters athletic event for older athletes. I asked when she had started diving, picturing her as a strong, young woman chosen in pre-war Germany to become one of the State-trained sporting elites. I even felt some envy, her having all those years to hone her diving skills. What a shock when she told me that she had not taken up the sport of high diving until she was in her 50s.

These two examples have impressed upon me to not waste energy on worrying about getting old, but use that energy to pursue loves and interests.

So, if you truly like writing, go for it. Yes, you may be too old to be a wunderkind–but some early achievers burn out early. And you have something that the younger writers don’t have–years of experiences, your personal writer’s treasure trove that you can draw upon whenever you write.

So, what are you writing today?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ariel permalink
    21 April, 2008 4:42 pm

    The most unmotivating thing I find, ironically, is really amazing story-telling. For example ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt, or Annie Proulx or Elizabeth Jolley’s work. I read these things and think there is no way I could write that well. I know it’s a defeatist way of viewing things, but I really don’t want to write rubbish.

    Have you ever felt like that?
    Hi Ariel. Who hasn’t felt at least a little like throwing in the writing towel after reading the work of a writer who delves below the commonplace to create thought-provoking nuances about a character or situation? Who works with language like a painter working with the richest palette? Who writes about life’s elements in a way that resonates in readers’ hearts?
    But remember, these famous writers didn’t start as polished wordsmiths and probably wrote tons of ‘rubbish’ as they learned their craft. Elizabeth Jolley wrote for most of her adult life but her work was repeatedly rejected. She finally published her first book when she was 53. Annie Proulx started out as a journalist, then wrote and published lots of stories before she finally found fame with a collection of stories and then a novel. Maybe it’s best to think of these great writers as models, who create the kind of written work we respect and want to emulate. We may never reach their level but how inspiring to know what’s possible.


  2. Ariel permalink
    20 April, 2008 5:47 pm

    Great blog–thank you for the inspiration. I’ve put you in my Google Reader. I’ve been a frustrated wanna-be writer for years now and blogs like yours help my motivation.
    Yes, it’s so easy for the motivation to trickle away, isn’t it? I’m always looking for things that inspire me–people, places, books, blogs. And one of the most important is labeling. If you’re writing and especially if you are writing regularly–whether for yourself or showing what you write to others–go ahead and call yourself a WRITER, not a would-be, wannabe, might become writer. It’s a giant step for some people, but when they do it they usually find it quite motivating in taking up the challenge of becoming the label. Good luck with your writing!


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