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Second Act: When Success Comes Late

by Suzanne Woods Fisher

My dentist likes to ask about my writing whenever I come in for my six-month check-up. Toward the end of the last visit, he made a grave error. “Imagine,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Getting published at your age!”

I was outraged! Silently, of course, because his tools were in my mouth.

First of all, I am not old. Not by a long shot. Secondly, the average age of writers who topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List, from the years 1955-2004, was 50.5 years.

Third, I think there’s something that happens in mid-life that causes a creative streak to break loose to have its day in the sun. Contrary to thinking that a late start might hold a person back, it can have the opposite effect. There’s a surge of energy, a hungry enthusiasm that can propel someone beyond his or her wildest dreams.

I love collecting stories about those who change paths in mid-life and reinvent themselves. Julia Child was forty before she ever took a cooking lesson. Italian tenor Andrea Boccelli was a lawyer who sang in piano bars on nights and weekends. Pulitzer prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon was a middle-aged flautist who had never considered composing music until her flute teacher told her to create something. In an interview with classical radio station KDFC, Higdon said she felt she benefited by getting a late start. “I was exploring things when I was at a more mature age. For me it was all brand new, and to this day it still feels a little brand new.”

So what happens, creatively, at mid-life to inspire artists to reach beyond themselves?

It might be as simple as having a few battle scars from life. Writers, in particular, need life experiences-love and joy, grief and loss-to write credibly from a variety of points of views. Obstacles, big and small, have been overcome by the time one reaches age forty, fifty, sixty, and even seventy.

Or it might be as simple as King Solomon’s words from the book of Ecclesiastes: “There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

Author Sarah Sundin spent ten years attending writers’ conference before she sold her first historical fiction manuscript to Revell Books. Looking back, she’s grateful for the wait. “I wasn’t ready!” she said. “I needed that time.” Had it come sooner, Sarah felt she wouldn’t have been able to sustain success. An acclaimed writer, she’s now contracted for her sixth novel with Revell. “I talked to so many young writers at ACFW in their twenties and thirties, still with babies at home and full/part-time jobs, longing to be published. I wanted to say (but I didn’t) – ‘Slow down! Take a deep breath. You have plenty of time ahead of you when your babies are older.’ What I did say (pointedly) was how writing is a full-time, 40+++ hrs/wk job for me now. I am so, so, SO glad God made me wait!”

Success not only can come at mid-life, but it might come quicker and stick around longer. So the next time you’re worried that your ship has sailed and you missed it, consider Grandma Moses, who picked up a paintbrush in her late seventies because arthritis made embroidery too difficult. She painted until her death at age 101 and is considered to be one of America’s most renowned folk artist.

So after taking sometime to think through why mid-life is not only a good time to start expressing oneself creatively-but maybe the best time-I just might not switch dentists, after all.

Suzanne Woods FisherSuzanne Woods Fisher is the bestselling, award-winning author of ‘The Stoney Ridge Seasons’ series and ‘The Lancaster County Secrets’ series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace. She has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Amish proverb to your phone. Suzanne lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area but can be found on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com.

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9 Responses to Second Act: When Success Comes Late

  1. Ane Mulligan says:

    Ha! Wait until my dentist hears I’ve finally got a contract. I passed that 50.5 make about the time I started writing novels. :)

  2. “It might be as simple as having a few battle scars from life. Writers, in particular, need life experiences-love and joy, grief and loss-to write credibly” I think that’s true for many writers ~ a richness comes from those years of living through all of those seasons. My dad was 86 when he began his first novel, and though he had a stroke during that time, by the time he finished he was only 89! His example of perseverance and overcoming life’s trials still amaze me!(His novel does too!)

  3. Sue Beasley says:

    I may not be a published writer or an accomplished artist and needless to say I am no Julia Childs ( you don’t need to ask my family about that; just take my word for it) but God has blessed me with many trials in my 60+ years that have enabled me to empathize with others who are facing tough times. So as a baby boomer I agree that often life becomes richer later in life. Sometimes we just need to stand back and realize that God has a purpose for us at every age.
    By the way I have a wonderful dentist if you need a recommendation.

  4. Absolutely! I was talking to an octogenarian friend, whining that I wished I’d started in this crazy writing business 20 years ago. She said, “You wouldn’t have had as much to say.” That stopped my whining. Indeed, wisdom comes with age.

  5. Lorna Faith says:

    I just published my 1st novel this year at 45. I don’t believe I would’ve been ready before that…now I’m finally finding my voice and my rhythm as a writer. I love what you said about the battle scars from life…and all the experiences that help us discover who we really are…our voice:) Great post…thanks!

  6. I will be 69 before my first book hits the market. And it’s at a perfect time in my life. Like Sarah Sundin said, any earlier and I wouldn’t have been ready.
    Wonder what your dentist would say to me?

  7. Love your comments, ACFW friends! Keep writing!

  8. Linda J Truesdell says:

    I think as the writing journey is prolonged, especially for all of us more mature folks, there is this urgency to complete it before it’s too late. Before our health is gone or something else interferes. Reading your blog reminds me that God’s timing is the most important timing. If God desires and wills our writing to have the impact it needs to have, then we need to be patient and believe that He is lovingly and very carefully arranging all the details for that perfect time when what we write will reach who it was meant to reach. And, yes, mature writers often have a lot of life to bring to the story. I am also reminded that God uses the weak and lowly of this world. It makes me smile just to think of Grandma Moses. Thank you for an insightful blog!

  9. Well, you know I was 73 before I got my first contract 4 1/2 years ago. All those stories building in my head for all that many years are paying off now as I have so many ready for my editor when she asks, “Do you have….or could you write….” Book 13 releases in February and #14 book will release next fall.

    BTW: My dentist is fairly young and he is delighted at my success and says his wife loves my books.