Age Makes You Wiser, But Is Time Running Out? On Writing and Aging

April 23, 2015 § 31 Comments

unnamedGuest blogger Nikki Stern on the challenges of writing past mid-life, adapted from a panel discussion at the recent Out of the Binders Women Writers Conference in Los Angeles:

All my life I’ve been trying to communicate. The funny thing about wanting to say something is that no matter how articulate you become, how presumably skilled in getting across your point, you may never feel you’ve nailed it. I’d guess most writers are plagued with the impulse to make themselves understood. I know I’ve been that way since, well, forever.

I wrote my first short story when I was six. By the time I was sixteen, I decided music was the medium and wrote all sorts of original songs, including music and lyrics for school productions. After graduate school and a short stint on Capitol Hill, I was slaving away as a “singer-songwriter” before falling back into the less glamorous but more lucrative career of public relations. Along the way and relatively late in life, I got married. I was forty.

A dozen years later, my husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Impelled by the need to express my sorrow and find my healing, I wrote. The very public death of my husband along with thousands of others gave me a platform. I produced essays, editorials, speeches, delivered via major outlets. I was fifty-two.

I then wrote a book about post-9/11 contemporary culture. Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal, published in 2010. I also began publishing on a now-defunct platform called Open Salon. Two years later, another book I wrote was published about my search as a skeptic for a version of hope I could believe in. Hope in Small Doses was published when I had just turned sixty-three.

After nearly three years of practicing on short stories, some of which were published and many of which were not, I published my first novella, Don’t Move, a suspense thriller. Now I’m working on a novel.  I’m . . . well, you do the math.

Second chance vocations, avocations and passions are all the rage nowadays with organizations like ENCORES and AARP promoting opportunities. A recent New York Times article focused on people finding (and defining) success “well past the age of wunderkind.”

Silver linings.

I have yet to discover whether I have a literary career ahead of me. I’m occasionally appalled to find my chosen field so very crowded. Everyone is a writer; really, ask anyone: they will tell you they’re writing.  #amwriting is a more popular hashtag on Twitter than #amreading, which begs the question: are there any readers for all the writing being put out there?

No matter—well, most of the time, no matter. I’m human after all, still searching for a way to be heard above the din. Age has possibly made me a little less competitive, though, I never really was.

And I’m financially secure enough in my retirement that I don’t need to scramble for $50 in order to supply “content” to some website that makes no distinction between good and not so good writing.

Good writing—including my own—is paramount to me. I delight in putting words on paper but I’m a deliberate sort. Although I’ve written dozens of essays and short stories, I;m not a “high producer.” Not only that, I’m a very compact writer—I say what I have to say in a few lovingly crafted and carefully edited words.  Industry standards say 40,000 (sometimes 50,000) word count is the necessary minimum for a non-fiction book and 80,000 words for a novel. E-publishing and even improvements in printing, along with varied delivery systems allow us to blur, if not challenge those numbers.

Good, because I’m not about to spend ten years on a novel.

Age is not just a number; it’s reality. I have fewer years ahead of me left to write and possibly fewer than most of you. I fight some anxiety about having the time and the cognitive ability to send into the world a decent number of thoughtful, interesting and above all entertaining things to read. Writing helps, though; it gives me purpose and focus.

Age may make you wiser, but in my case, not less sensitive. I sense my age may make me irrelevant to the world at large, until I turn eighty-five and turn out a book and have everyone ooh and ahh and say, “Isn’t that amazing! At her age!” probably while I’m in the room and can hear them saying it.

Oh well. I need writing and I hope to discover that writing needs me.  So full speed ahead.  BTW, I’m almost cool with my impending role as elder writing statesperson, should that be an option. Almost.


Nikki Stern is the author of Hope in Small Doses, an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal Finalist and Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal. She’s also written several short stories published at Fictionique Magazine and elsewhere and has published Don’t Move, the first in a trilogy of novellas about a retired assassin. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, Humanist Magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, Salon, and many other venues. Follow Nikki @real nikkistern or visit

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§ 31 Responses to Age Makes You Wiser, But Is Time Running Out? On Writing and Aging

  • Jan Priddy says:

    A friend recently made a comment on Facebook about “approaching middle age” and I thought: You are not that much younger than I am, so I looked up her birthday. She is 56. David Long wrote a craft book about aging, wrestling with his age and what authors had written when they were older than his next birthday. And then he wrote The Inhabited World, which the New York Times Book Review called “terrific.” We are a youth-obsessed culture, which doesn’t mean we can’t ignore our own age. But pretending to be younger—who has time for that?

    “It’s not over till it’s over,” declares Olympia Dukakis’s character in Moonstruck.

    We are who we are, older, perhaps wiser, but certainly with more life experience to clutter up our hearts.

  • L. N. Holmes says:

    Nikki, please do keep writing! What you have to say IS relevant and I thank you for writing it down for us to read. 🙂

  • This could have been written by me! Thank you so much for articulating what I–and I’m sure many writers–feel. It’s frustrating to feel like a writing career is no longer possible just because I’m older, especially when I feel like I have so much to offer. Why should being a young writer be such a source of amazement when the truth is, good writing is amazing at any age. Period.

    This came at a good time for me–I needed the encouragement and inspiration.

  • miteypen says:

    Reblogged this on Femagination and commented:
    This isn’t about feminism per se, but it is about empowerment at any age, a lesson we will all need to learn sooner or later.

  • Mary Scherf says:

    Inspiration for someone finding her voice only in hindsight.

  • Allan G. Smorra says:

    Reblogged this on Ohm Sweet Ohm and commented:
    Write On!

  • ryder ziebarth says:

    On the one hand Nikki, we have so much more to say, and of course on the other, as you state here, less time to say it in. Age gives mid- life writers a unique perspective of time’s rapid passing, and forces us to be more succinct in our work, and select in choices for publication. Sometimes, when I am feeling not quiet as edgy or as good as my younger peers in grad school, I remind myself that experience is a writer’s best friend and that age should never be a barrier to creativity or learning. The world needs our perspective, no matter how or when we “get it out there.”

  • ailsatims says:

    This is a great piece, I am also finding age has improved my work, I like your style, age has given me confidence to write, my latest post is here -I hope you like it!

  • shirleyhs says:

    I’ve discovered, by taking up blogging at age 60 and publishing a childhood memoir at age 65, that writing makes a great “encore career.” But if we see it as an encore vocation, it takes on a deeper, less anxious, dimension. We’ve been writers all along. Now we have time, whether short or long, to become even better writers.

    I’m off to go explore your website to find the ways you are doing that, Nikki. Thanks for combining the subject of writing and age. I think there are millions of us traveling some version of this journey.

    Let’s hope they are #amreaders also. 🙂

  • Reblogged this on The DailyJunior Blog and commented:
    We are reblogging this wonderful post on writing and aging. Little known fact:
    Although she has been writing ever since she can remember, one of us here at The Daily Junior only just ound her muse again about the same time she found her grey hair , her Medicare card and a certain golden retriever.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful piece, I do wonder myelf if anybody reads what I am writing, but I guess that what really matters is the reason driving me to do it, the understanding I gathe of people and events.
    It feels good to know that so many people take up writing later in life, in some traditional societies only elders could tell stories to the young ones, they were the treasure chests of the tribes sharing the gems of wisdom distilled into pleasant tales.
    This is how I see my writing as well, thanks to all of you.

  • clayfoot2 says:

    Great insights, Nikki!
    With my own writing, I discovered my characters–both protagonists and antagonists–became more well-rounded as I aged (60 this year). They’re no longer talking/acting labels, not so easy to pigeonhole. It’s because of the difference between the head-knowledge and knowledge “in the bone” that only comes from life experience.

    As I venture into new genre territory (new for me) of creative nonfiction, I also find that the years gave me more material than I could write in 10 lifetimes. How much I actually get done always depends on how many other jobs I have to juggle to put ramen noodles on the table. But that’s cool–struggles feed life experience.
    I’ll never have writer’s block. 🙂

  • utahrob says:

    I started late as well. I think it’s easier, after living life, to find something to write about–it’s something to be excited about, anyway.

  • Sammy D. says:

    I think we aging are completely off-base to think we are becoming obsolete as writers. We grew up in the age of reading, not to mention spelling and grammar. If anyone is yearning for good writing so they good reads, it’s Baby Boomers. I’ve tried some of the newer, younger best-seller authors – oarticularly non-fiction essayists and novelists, and I find little of their writing relevant to me. I want to hear from my peer group – your memoirs; your life’s loves; your adventures and misadventures. I want to hear your take on the changes in our culture and societal norms, not to mention what we are seeing in our global communiity. I want to know how our transition to old age differs from that of our Greatest Generation, and how we feel about the generations coming after us.
    I cannot be the only one seeking ‘new’ relevant authors striving to emerge in the last third of our lives.

  • My inspiration is Harry Bernstein who published his wonderful memoir The Invisible Wall at age 90 and went on to write two more books. I still have time!

  • Thank you for this. I’m 63. If you’ll keep going, so will I. There are so many stories to tell and I don’t think good writers retire.

  • Sumanya Raman says:

    Reblogged this on World of ramble-bamble and commented:
    #amreading now! Older means more experience which beginners need to be exposed to and take in. Keep on keeping on! @realnikkistern

  • Rebecca Gummere says:

    Time is always running out. Might as well make some noise while it happens. ; – ]

  • Nikki,
    Reading your post today was just what I needed. At 67 I put down the novel that I’ve been writing for ten years and started a blog to give myself permission to write about other topics and regain my confidence. I awakened this morning with a clear idea for a new nonfiction book. Any doubts that may have followed me from the bedroom were just put to rest. Thank you!

  • Tracey-Lynne says:

    I found your words, along with the follow-up comments, inspiring. I just started writing and I’m 45 — I say it’s just for me, but of course that’s not completely true.

    What is true is I get a kick out of writing. It makes me feel good, it exercises my brain, and it makes me less anxious about getting older.

    Thank you!

  • Great to hear some thoughts on an issue that no one seems to talk about. Thanks for a terrific post and best of luck with your writing.

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