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Late to the Party: On Being a “Mature” Debut Author

It's never too late to start your writing career. Shawn Nocher, author of A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, shares her journey.

I recently stumbled upon an article honoring five writers over the age of 50 who had just published their first book. Be still my heart! As a lifelong writer having sold her first novel at the crest of 60, this is welcome news.

(The Big Lie of Age and Writing)

To be fair, there are plenty of now “mature” writers I discovered years ago when they were first starting out, and they have my unrequited love and respect. I look forward to their latest releases like one looks forward to a glass of wine with an old friend—so much catching up to do! They are today’s treasures, wizened sages, and having discovered them years ago and early in their careers—back in a day when I imagined the same for myself—I can’t help but feel a tenuous kinship with them. They were an inspiration back when I started this writing journey, but as their careers bloomed, I had been abandoned. I still pined for them but had long ago let fly my fantasy of one-day discussing plot points with Anne Tyler, ringing up Alice Hoffman to check the efficacy of a particular potion, texting Anna Quindlen to assure her she nailed it on page 12 and really, Anna, you must stop borrowing from my life—write your own stories! But stumbling on an honored group of debut writers over 50 is heartwarming now that my own debut novel has come to fruition. I have struggled to find my tribe, and I am catching a glimpse of them just over the horizon.

I enrolled in my first writer’s workshop at 27 where I wrote an adequate short story that was well-received enough by the class to inspire delusions of grandeur. It would be 20 years and many rejections later before I would dust off that first story and recognize the characters who had been haunting me for years. Their stories weren’t yet on the page, but the characters themselves had come to life and were so vividly realized in my mind’s eye after twenty years that I knew their history as if it were my own.

It took a subsequent decade and an MA in writing to write the novel that was seeded in that first short story. I was 60 years old when word arrived from my agent that she had sold it in a two-book deal. I was ecstatic, of course, but also feeling like I was late to the world’s best party and all the fun and shenanigans had gone on before I arrived.

A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

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The literary world is full of prodigies, the top 30 under 30, 5 under 35, 20 under 40, ad nauseum, I often joked in graduate school that my goal was to come in among the “top 10 not dead yet.” Even at my most cynical, I know these young writers deserve the kudos. To have such wisdom and to have mastered craft so early on rightfully earns the admiration of the literary world and the tagline “writer to watch.” Mary Shelley publishing Frankenstein at twenty and SE Hinton publishing The Outsiders at eighteen both deserve all the recognition heaped upon them, not only with a nod to their youth but also in recognition of their explosion into the male-dominated world of publishing. But what I also know is that Annie Proulx’s first novel Postcards at the age of 57 was no less an achievement. Likewise, 52-year-old Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine is a stunning 2020 debut now exploding on the literary scene.

Much like Ms. Wetmore, my own writing journey was filled with distracting detours that couldn’t be ignored. I wrote, placed a story here and there, but never had the leisure—the room of my own—as I think of it, to commit full time to this writing thing. But the mothering lessons learned in those years spent raising a family—my children’s health crises, financial blows, my mother’s death, the ups and downs of marriage—all informed my characters and helped me nail the truth of them on the pages. I couldn’t have told the same story at 27 or 37. It’s not just experience that informs our writing, but also perspective along the aging continuum. A 40-year-old character looks very different to me in the rearview mirror than she did when I was coming upon her head-on in my 30s.

Late to the Party: On Being a “Mature” Debut Author

In that first workshop many years ago, Richard Bausch told our group of young workshoppers that anyone can write. You could look around the room and almost literally see a bunch of wannabe writers deflate. Wait—what? We thought we might be special. It couldn’t be true, I thought. I knew people who struggled over a note to their child’s pre-school teacher. Certainly, not everyone can write. He went on to tell us is that it is not a gift, it’s a work ethic, it’s a learning curve, it’s hard work and study. This writing thing is a craft we could choose to apprentice for. No one was getting coronated the next best thing that day.

Though much can be made of the late-blooming metaphor, it doesn’t happen in a dustbowl. We writers must be nurtured, and that nurturing can take the form of writing groups, workshops, MAs and MFAs, even social media groups. The point is that it rarely happens alone. If you want to be a writer, you have to go to the party. That party may be around your kitchen table on Saturday mornings, or in the conference room at the Y, or in the hallowed halls of a fine university—but you must go.

While we will always admire the wunderkinds of literature, there’s room for new voices from mature writers on this debut stage. In fact, we may just be among the most interesting voices out there. We older writers are lucky. Our stores are deep, our larders full, our wounds examined, and our hearts bursting. 

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