Grey Ladies and Gymnastics: On Ageism at Writing Conferences

January 16, 2023 § 74 Comments

By Julie Ushio

In November, I hopped on a plane and took the forty-minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue to attend the Kauai Writers Conference. It was my third time at the conference and I looked forward to a week of Master Classes and the Conference.

As usual, women of a certain age filled the chairs. Not all had grey hair, but it was easy to see that demographics were heavily female and well over the age of fifty. I was not surprised. After all, this was Kauai and the cost of a plane ticket and the luxury hotel rooms (though heavily discounted for the conference), excluded those who could not afford the trip.

Of the fourteen people in my afternoon workshop, there was a man in his seventies and two women who might have been under forty, but most of were female and sixty plus. One afternoon, Dee, a white-haired firecracker of seventy, told me about her recent pitch to an agent.

“I asked him,” Dee said, “about ageism in writing.”

Dee said the agent had responded, “Well, it’s not as bad as gymnastics.”

Her comment took me back to a column I read years ago in a leading writing magazine. A well-known male author said he felt ambivalent about encouraging older women writers he met at writing conferences. He didn’t state why, but much was implied. Was it their shortened time horizon? The diminished possibility of finding an agent or selling their book when the publishing world embraces new voices under 30? What I do remember clearly, is that the writer did not say “older writers” but “older WOMEN writers.”

Over the past thirty years, I have been to conferences and retreats across the mainland and Hawaii. I often go alone and the night before the conference begins, I am filled with anxiety and doubt. What am I doing here? Why spend all this money, this time, away from work, from family, chasing this futile dream of writing a book. The next morning, I walk in and find a chair and sit down. I turn to the person sitting next to me and introduce myself and tell them where I am from. Then I ask them what they are writing.

And the door opens.

It could be memoir, mystery, romance, or poetry, but when they start to talk, I feel an instant connection. When they talk about their writing, I know it is something they hold close to their heart. They ask what I am writing, and in a few moments, we have peeled away our veneers. Over the next several days when we pass, I often do not remember their names, but I do not forget their stories. A wispy blonde, writing about the baby she lost while living in Samoa with her husband’s family. A veterinarian volunteering in Africa, who finds herself operating on the chief’s son, the chief wondering why a doctor tries to save cats. Memoirs of adoptees, of abandonment, divorce, and illness. Survivors all.

In sharing our writing, we connect with others, on a deep, intimate level. So rare in today’s world of short tweets and social media connections.

I have noticed over years of attending conferences here in Hawaii that many writers and agents return, year after year. I see their connections. An agent who reps a featured speaker, as well as the top editor at the publishing house that publishes the writer. Writer friends who speak on the same panel or give the same workshop, year after year. They blurb each other’s books, appear in acknowledgments.

We newbie wannabe writers are not the only ones making connections at conferences.

And I think, for those agents, editors, and authors, flying in and spending some time on Kauai or Maui in the middle of winter, is a welcome respite from the grey cold of the East Coast. I don’t begrudge them the sun and ocean, of mingling with their industry peers but wish they cut back on the sarcasm and show a little more “Aloha Spirit.” Maybe the agent talking to Dee thought he was being witty, but at whose expense? Dee paid money to talk to him. For fifteen minutes.

Our conference fees and Master Class expenses paid for his hotel room.

We Grey Ladies buy the books of the writers he represents. But we are buying less.  

A January 10, 2022 Gallup poll states that, “Americans Reading Fewer Books Than in the Past.” “Reading appears to be in decline as a favorite way for American to spend their free time…The changes are especially pronounced among the most voracious book readers, namely, college graduates, women and older Americans.” It might be we Grey Ladies are buying less, because we are writing our own books.

Four years ago, at a workshop at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer, Alaska, we participants shared what we were writing and why we wrote. One of the last to speak was a white-haired woman who owned a remote lodge across the bay.

Tough and independent, she simply said, “I write to give me a reason to go on living.”

We Grey Ladies have been around for a long time. Throughout our lives, we have planted flowers interlaced in our vegetable gardens, cooked a favorite family recipe, pieced together a quilt. Writing, like other creative pursuits, is a part of our lives. Some of us may or may not have a goal of publishing a book. Writing itself is the journey. Because within creativity is timelessness.

So, to the agent who talked to my friend Dee. Yes, we Grey Ladies do not do gymnastics. You do not have to give us false encouragement about our publishing prospects. Just sit and listen to what we have to say, then send us gently on our way.

And we will continue to write.


Julie Ushio has been published in Bamboo Ridge Journal, permafrost, and Noyo River Review. She is currently querying a novel based on her Japanese grandmother’s life in Nebraska. The first chapter of the novel won first prize at the 2019 Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is also writing a series of essays about growing up Japanese in the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @JulieUshio, and Instagram @julieushio.

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