Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life
May 17, 2022 § 65 Comments
By Carole Duff
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. -Anatole France
Western culture divides life into three stages: birth/student, work/family, and retirement/death. My husband and I, moving into our retirement years and building a new house, borrowed the Hindu concept of four stages, adding a time of spiritual growth and reconnection between retirement and death.
The third stage of life, Vanaprastha, the name we chose for our mountain home, means retreat to the forest. Not retirement but time to learn, reflect, and grow. Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.
As it turned out, I became a writer.
While overseeing the construction of our mountain retreat, I read the books I’d promised myself I’d get to but never had time, walked the dog, and tried new recipes. I wrote about my husband’s daughter, lost to suicide at age twenty-four, a girl I’d never met and wanted to know about as part of my husband’s past. But while reading her journals, hearing her father’s stories, and writing, I found my story bleeding through the pages into hers, because of connections I never expected. Disruptions from when we were five: her parents’ divorce and a home-invader assaulting my mother; mental illness episodes starting at sixteen; troubles in college; rejection in love—stories begging to be written, hiding in our closets. After the house was built, I signed up for writing classes.
Being a novice was humbling after a long and successful career, teaching, designing curriculum, and publishing technical articles. I was no longer a sage on the stage or guide on the side. My teachers were often the same age as my students—my recent students. More to the point, my wants and path-to-purpose had changed. After years of forward motion, raising children, earning money to pay the bills, pursuing success and honors, I looked back and moved toward asking, Who am I?
Third-stage-of-life writers often employ creative nonfiction in memoir and personal essays. They are less interested in earning a living as a writer and more interested in the internal search on the page. This journey for self-knowledge is heroic in the Joseph Campbell sense, fraught with external and internal obstacles and resistance. We all have wounds in our past and tend to evade them at all cost. I was appalled to discover the extent of my evasions, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness, my need for approval, to be right and in control. The “clever” stories I’d told myself and others over the years were often self-serving and sometimes outright lies. My husband’s daughter took the same journey, until her mental illness exacted its toll. To become the master of my story, I had to portray myself as both protagonist and antagonist, to turn victims into actors, villains into humans, and the helpless into the able; to find a third way to manage fear, other than flight or fight. Only then could I find peace and offer what I’d learned to others.
The nuts and bolts of writing can be daunting. Pitches, proposals, publishing, platform. The bottom line of becoming a writer in the third chapter is growth, both personal and professional. Write, write, write. Take classes to grow your craft, read craft books and recommended models, join writing groups, attend conferences, create communities. Open yourself to criticism; be honest and generous in return. Study, learn something new, sing, garden, volunteer. Do all those things and more—and have a grand time!
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, serious flutist, avid naturalist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine, The Perennial Gen, for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K.A. Kenny, and two, large overly-friendly dogs. She will present a session on “Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life” at HippoCamp 2022 in August.
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Love this post and sorry I will miss your session at hippocamp.
Thank you, Stacy. Perhaps another time. -C.D.
“The bottom line of becoming a writer in the third chapter is growth, both personal and professional.” YES! Don’t I know it!
YES! Don’t we know it! Thanks, Karen. -C.D.
Your words hit me exactly where I sit at this moment, asking the question, “Who am I?” Today, I’m sitting with your words and trying to answer that question.
Take your time, Kathryn. The answer will come. And keep writing. -C.D.
Thank you, Bethanee! -C.D.
Thank you! As a third step/phase writer I enjoyed this reflection which mirrored elements in my own life. Never a teacher, always a student found the value of your words.
Thank you, Wayne. I hope you found encouragement and keep writing.
I like your acknowledgement of this 3rd stage of life. It’s where I’m at and was ignorant if it until you pointed it out. Thank you. 🙏🙏🙏
Western culture tends to lump retirement and death together. But there’s tremendous opportunity in the third stage of life. May yours be fruitful.
So far so good. Thanks. 😉
Love this acknowledgement of the third stage! So full of freedom and agency, a gift of being this ‘old.’
Thank you for your comment, Linda. The third stage is a gift for those who embrace it. May we use these years well. -C.D.
So much truth lives in this essay. I love the idea of a third stage preceding retirement/death. It is challenging to take up writing after a successful career, but worth the effort. Brava!
Thank you, JP. May you find great personal reward as a third chapter writer. Yes, definitely worth the effort.
Thank you for these wonderful words of encouragement and community building. I’ve never thought of this as my third chapter, I’ve had so many, but I guess it is. I’m so glad to finally know which chapter I’m in! What a delightful read. (Do you have a blog? I couldn’t find it, would love to follow.) Thanks again—
Good to meet you, Deb, and glad to know you found encouragement in this post. My blog, Notes from Vanaprastha, is on my website: caroleduff.com.
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Carole, I feel even luckier to know you and to share/exchange work with you after reading this. “Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.” This is what I’ve been doing, too, but didn’t realize it so clearly. You have so much to offer other writers with this philosophy and approach. And your memoir/book sounds amazing!
Ah, thank you, dear Michelle. Your encouragement is a blessing.
I was reading the comments ready to reply, when this comment said it all for me, too. I am a lawyer in New Mexico, who retired with a pension from a government job 15 years ago. I have been a full-time volunteer for 10 years, and this spring I was hired to teach an art class at the art center where my writing group meets. The writer who leads that group sent me this column. Now I am ready to move into my Post-Practice Years and do something else, primarily writing. Thank you all.
Susan – May your Post-Practice years prosper you and those you serve.
Being myself in the third phase of life, I found your reflections interesting and exciting
Thank you for reading and commenting, Luisa. Enjoy the third chapter!
Thanks a lot 💞💞💞
I like this one: ‘To become the master of my story, I had to portray myself as both protagonist and antagonist, to turn victims into actors, villains into humans …’. This is great way of seeing things for the memoirist.
Thank you, Margaret. Oh my, how long it took me to figure out how to see my self, as a memoirist. And oh the wrestling!
Same. Seems like you are doing a great job.
Hard won, and thank you again. -C.D.
Reblogged this on Someplace in Sydney and commented:
For all the third-stage creative nonfiction writers and memoirists out there.
Thank you for sharing! -C.D.
Lots of lessons in this era
Yes, indeed, Barbara. -C.D.
So nice to see you published here! Good luck on your upcoming presentation.
Thank you so much, Ellen!
Yes to this! Seeing oneself as a novice after a long career is both humbling and an exquisite gift. The curiosity and willingness to go within—to interrogate the stories we’ve always told ourselves results in an unfolding of self-discovery and emotional healing. This post conveys it beautifully. Thank you, Carole.
Thank you for sharing your affirmation and experience, Deb, your enthusiasm and encouragement. -C.D.
I loved reading this and learning more about you. It was a brief time that I knew you as a teacher at UA, but admired you from afar. Congratulations to you! Well done Carole Duff!
Ah, dear Linda, thank you so much. Your watercolor of Ursuline still hangs in my office here at Vanaprastha. My twenty-five years at UA were filled with wonderful students and colleagues like you. -C.D.
I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability in your experience of becoming a writer in your senior years. It IS so often a time of looking back with curiosity, finding new perspectives, and telling a more balanced, compassionate, and slightly different story than we may have been capable of when we were in the midst of actually living it! I too found my “voice” at age 68, writing my memoir of looking for healing and wholeness after a lifetime of chronic health issues. I took the risk of opening myself up and laying it out on the line, because I am no longer afraid of how friends and family may see me or judge me. I feel free to be me — which makes being a senior the absolute best and most interesting time of my life! I love your writing style and will look you up on your blog…
Yes, yes, Flo – you describe the third stage of life well. Clearly, you did the hard work of conquering fear, taking off “the mask” of perceived acceptability, and becoming your truer self. Brava – and thank you for your encouragement. -C.D.
Flo, you remind me that the best preparation for death is an honest, and intentional lifestyle, and writing is an integral tool. As an old priest friend of mine used to say, “When you can’t fight, and you can’t flee, you flow!”
Your old priest friend is wise, indeed, for he has found “the third way.”
Dear Carole, Today, as I drove around Albuquerque looking for my new home, I felt exuberant about my stage in my life; this elder, crone, late flowering time that is not even seen in American culture. I am committed to embracing this stage as the wisest and most genuinely creative time of my life. How perfectly synchronistic to return to my hotel room and read your article. Thank you for providing a name for this particular ripeness; this re-membrance of our true selves.
Thank you for sharing the synchronism, Janet. Enjoy your third chapter! It is a gift. -C.D.
I loved your article in Brevity: Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life.
As a registered nurse, I got a few human interest articles in nursing magazines. But my real love was humorous essay collections with a bit of memoir.
Getting published was another thing. After querying 60 agents, I found that unless you are Ellen DeGeneris or someone famous, agents are not interested in essay collections.
I self published twice with a company called BookBaby and am working on my third.
Marketing is my challenge now. Local stores are not the problem. I have been cold calling indie stores throughout the country with follow up informational emails with the book covers and my website etc.
What a learning curve this has been! And why your article in Brevity hit home!
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Mary Ann. A learning curve, indeed! Keep writing!! -C.D.
I enjoyed this essay and hope to meet you at HippoCamp. Our stories overlap in many ways. I’ve published two books after age 65. And I love the concept of Vanaprastha.
Hi Shirley, and thank you so much. We actually met last year at HippoCamp, and you signed my copy your book Blush. Hope to see you again in August! -C.D.
Funny thing, how surfing the ‘net’ for one thing leads to another. It’s a tangled ‘web’ that sometimes pulls one strand out and takes you to some of the most interesting places, all the while derailing your original objective ! Carole….your post is the essence of where I find myself in this stage of life and I thank you for sharing it so poignantly. I have no idea where I’m going to go with this WordPress thing but I intend to pursue it and see where it leads…….another strand of the web !
I’m so glad you found my post useful. Keep writing, fellow traveler in the third stage of life. -C.D.
What, Where and When is HippoCamp ? I’ll try to remember any info about it ! I assume it is a take-off on one’s HIPPOCAMPUS ? Could it be expanded to ” HIPPO CAMP U.S. ” ???? 🙂
HippoCamp is an annual conference for creative nonfiction writers, sponsored by Hippocampus Magazine. The conference takes place in Lancaster, PA, this year from August 12-14. Attendees are friendly and the community supportive regardless of your level of experience.
Now, back to that ‘original objective’….if I can recall what that was !!!!!!!
I appreciate this contribution! Like you I am in the “third stage” of life and I’ve never been happier. I moved (and maybe a move is necessary for this) and I am learning more new things than I can count. Humbling and beautiful both!
Welcome to the third stage of life, Cheryl! May you proper your self and others. -C.D.
Carol, this is JUST what I needed to read this morning as I turn 66 and dive back into the 7th revision of my memoir. I have appreciated your insights as a fellow CNF flash reader (Hey!) and love learning more about your story, especially this perfect description of the fourth stage of life. I look forward to your session — and meeting you in person — at Hippocamp!
Hi Eileen, fellow third-stager and reader. Can’t wait to meet you at HippoCamp! -C.D.
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Thanks for sharing this!!!!
You are welcome! -C.D.