I didn’t think I would become an author after 50. My first career was in business. I left that world after my mother died, her death making me realize in my mid-forties that my life, too, was finite. I’d always wanted to write a novel, but had never had the benefit of even one creative writing course. I started taking fiction classes at my local adult education center and schools around town. Soon I had to admit that while I’d been considered a good writer by business colleagues, expository writing and fiction resembled one another as much as architectural plans do an artichoke. I stunk at fiction.
I took more classes. Sadly, I’m not the type of learner who picks up the craft merely by reading good novels. I needed technique explained to me, and opportunities to practice. And deadlines!
I struggled along with my novel, on-and-off for a few years until I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. By the time I finished surgeries and chemotherapy and began adjuvant therapy, a large project like a book was too daunting for my chemo-addled brain. I tackled short stories, a form in which one must create a whole world and tell a story, in very few pages.
Now I took a short story class. And wrote. And rewrote. At 52, I was lucky enough to get a story published in a literary magazine you’ve never heard of. Then some poetry in other literary magazines. A few years later I wrote an article for a magazine about leading an arduous hike for mothers and daughters (including my own 15-year-old) up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
To refresh my creative spirit, I decided to hike. I’d learned about the mountains 4,000 feet and higher in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There were 48 of them and, apparently, some people opted to hike them all. When they did, they could join The Four Thousand Footer Club. I determined to do that, too. Each hike exhausted me physically but gave me a burst of energy. Not to mention being out in nature all day helped me heal from cancer. As did writing.
Around age 55, I decided to write a book about my life during the ten years it took me to hike all those mountains, the vast majority of them post cancer. You guessed it: I started taking memoir classes. I also participated in writers’ groups in which we’d meet once or twice a month without a teacher, having read each other’s works and commented on them in writing.
Reading other people’s work honed my editing skills. More importantly, I began to see that some of their mistakes were the very same ones I made. The groups offered me a community and another precious commodity: readers. Readers who told me what they thought; readers whom I could question about a passage or a character. They helped me learn to set up a scene, to build tension, to maintain a consistent tone.
I had never committed to being a full-time writer, but I worked on this memoir for years. After all, I also spent time with family and friends, took care of myself, attended classes, ran a household, worked on political campaigns, helped at my daughter’s schools, and hiked. During the three seasons I hiked, I rarely wrote at all. It takes a long time to write a book this way. I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish. Neither was my family.
Here’s the bare truth: writing is the hardest job I’ve ever had. Going from well-respected professional to baby writer challenged and frustrated me. I constantly questioned myself and my skills. One day, I’d perfect three paragraphs and think the prose was shot with gold. The next day the same prose read like lumpen lead. I started and re-started the book. I alternately felt excitingly brilliant and fiendishly stupid.
At least once a week I thought I’d never make it as a writer; I just wasn’t good enough. I wondered if I’d ever understand concepts like “narrative distance.” Maybe what I had to say didn’t matter. Probably my work bored everyone but me.
I started keeping a file of every bit of praise for my writing from other students, my writers’ groups, or teachers. I’d haul up that file on my computer and read it through on bad days, just to keep myself going. How did other writers ever stick to a writing schedule? How are they so productive?
When I was 61, I applied for and received a grant from the Vermont Studios Center. For nearly a month, far up in the frozen North Kingdom, all I had to do was work on my memoir. Everyone around me was a serious visual artist or writer who disappeared after breakfast into their studios. What could I do? I went to my own little studio equipped with a desk, an armchair, lamp, and bookcase. Cross-country skiing took up some of my time, but mainly I sat with my book. My writing progressed from two hours a day to seven, breaking only for lunch.
In short, I developed my writing muscles the same way I built up my physical ones to hike. In both endeavors, the mental game is paramount. Now I wouldn’t let myself worry about whether my work was good enough; I simply had to finish it.
For the next five years, I wrote at least five days a week, at least two hours a day. By now I had finished hiking my 48 mountains, and though I continued to hike, I even wrote during hiking season.
When I finished my manuscript I took off a few months to celebrate, but also so I could return to it with fresh eyes and mind. I revised the whole thing. And revised it again. The fourth full draft, when I couldn’t do a single thing more to improve it, I felt amazing. And amazed. I submitted it to the press that would become my publisher, She Writes Press.
They accepted the manuscript, but advised shortening it. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own; I hired an editor who was my final professor. She taught me that, despite prose she exalted, the book could be pruned. She made suggestions, which I took, and out came a leaner, more muscular book: 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains.
A year later in the fall of 2018, just before I turned 68, my memoir hit the market. I’ve never been prouder.