Thursday, September 3, 2009

Life Begins at 60 by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

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Beating Time at Its Own Game

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Sometimes the big barriers in life aren’t abject poverty, dreaded disease or death. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones set upon us by time and place. The ones that can’t be seen and can’t be acknowledged because we don’t know they are there. They creep up silently on padded feet and, if we sense them at all, we choose not to turn and face them.

The decade of the 50s was a time when these kinds of barriers faced those with dark skin, those who lived in closed religious communities, and those who were female.

When I applied for a job as a writer at Hearst Corporation in New York in 1961 I was required to take a typing test. I was piqued because I wasn’t applying for the typing pool; I was applying for a post as an editorial assistant.

I was told, “No typing test, no interview.” I took the test and was offered a job in the ranks of those who could do 70-in-a-minute. I had to insist upon the interview I had been promised. I was only twenty and had no real skills in assertiveness. Today I am amazed I had the wherewithal to do that.

The essentials of this anecdote lie in the fact that I was upset for the wrong reasons. My irritation was a reflection of hubris. However, that pride was probably what goaded me into speaking up; pride is not always a bad thing to have.

It never occurred to me that this requirement was one that applied only to women much less that I should be angry for the sake of my entire gender. Prejudice is sometimes like traveling on well-worn treads; you have no idea you’re in danger. It also feeds on the ignorance of its victims. They benignly accept their lot because they know no better.

Something similar was at work when I married and had children. I happily took a new direction to accommodate my husband’s career and the life the winds of the times presented to me. I left my writing with hardly a backward look. Back then, in the days before women had been made aware, the possibilities were not an open book to be denied or accepted. I just did what was expected by the entire culture.

Things are so much better now; I don’t think women younger than their mid-fifties have any idea or how ignorant most women were to their own possibilities. That there was a time when we didn’t even know we had choices is not fiction. Most women were full time mothers and often didn’t drive or have their own transportation.

I had always wanted to sit in a forest or an office or a newsroom with a pencil in my hand. I dreamed writing, lived writing and loved writing. I wanted to write the next “Gone with the Wind” only about Utah instead of about the South. I had a plan that was, itself, gone with the wind.

It was the 1950s and women in that time, and especially in that place, had no notion of who they should be, could be. It was difficult to think independently; most everyone around them had difficulty seeing the difference between society’s expectations and their own.

“You can’t be a nurse,” my mother said. “Your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” I also was told I couldn’t be a doctor because that wasn’t a woman’s vocation.

“Be a teacher because you can be home the same hours as your children, but learn to type because every woman should be able to make a living somehow if their husband dies.”

Writing was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements. So when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much.

When I began to put myself through college I took the sound advice and studied education so I’d have a profession. I made 75 cents an hour (this was, after all, the 50s!) working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me. I met a handsome young man and we were married. His career took precedence; that was simply how it was done. Then there were two children, carefully planned, also because that was how it should be done. By the 70s we both yearned for a career with autonomy, one where we could spend time with our children and be in command of our own lives.

My dream was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction when my husband and children needed me. The pain was there. I just didn’t recognize it so I could hardly address it and fix it.

My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a sociologist, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, enjoyed travel. For forty years I didn’t write and, during that time, there were changes. Women had more choices but more than that they had become more aware. The equipment—the gears and pulleys—were in place for a different view on life. In midlife I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been but also that the hole was more vast than the space vacated by them. I knew I not only would be able to write, I would need to write.

Then I read that, if those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year. That meant that I might have another entire lifetime before me—plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. In fact, it’s my belief that women in their 50s might have more time for their second life than they did for the first because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.

One day I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature.

It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have. It was a discouraging time. I might not have to learn speech and motor skills and the ABCs but there sure was a lot I didn’t know about writing.

Somewhere after writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong.

I took classes at UCLA in writing. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills that had been honed in the days of the Apple II. And all the while I wrote and revised and listened and revised again. This Is the Place finally emerged.

It is about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, who is a half-breed. In Utah where she was born and raised, that meant that she was one-half Mormon and one-half any other religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her own internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history—several generations of women who entered into mixed marriages—and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.

Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction.

I think I bring a unique vision to my work. Utah has a beauty and wonder of its own. The Mormons are a mystery to many. I tell a story about Utah in the 50s that could only be told by someone who lived in that time and place and who was a part of the two cultures—the Mormon and the Nonmormon—that make it a whole.
I am proud that I did it. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. Forty years brought insight to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days.
I also like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the award-winning author of This is the Place, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, and Tracings, a chapbook of poetry. She is also the author of The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't. and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success, both award-winners. This tip sheet is one of many she uses to share her publicity secrets with fellow authors. Learn more about her at or


  1. Thanks for visiting me this week, Carolyn. It's been great fun. I particularly like your perspective on turning 60!

  2. Carolyn, really interesting read. I'm 63 (just had a birthday) and so I started working at the beginning of the feminist movement. In spite of that, my first job was as a secretary -- this in spite of having graduated with a BA in mathematics. At my first job, I worked for NBC in the Unit Managers department -- secretaries were all women, bosses all men.

    Boy, have times changes.

  3. It's funny, moms and kids are your worse critics.

    Carolyn is such an inspiration and talent. We're not getting older, we're just getting better...certainly wiser anyway!

    Thanks for a great post, Nancy.


  4. Carolyn, you really touched me by your authenticity and passion. The line about how all of your experiences were needed for you to be the writer that you are now, gave me a sense of joy! It really shares that no matter when we jump in to writing--life is waiting to catch us!I am inspired and encouraged by your story.

  5. I always enjoy reading anything HoJo writes, and this one did not disappoint. and this-

    "I also like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream."

    Amen and true dat!

    Marvin D Wilson

  6. The big 6 - 0. I have something to look forward to, like a fine wine getting better with time.

    stephen Tremp

  7. I just turned 66, and I'm in my third life, I believe.

    Life can begin all over again at any time, as Carolyn has shown.

  8. Awww, you're all so sweet to come by and take the time to write passionate comments. Isn't it true that so much is in our attitude. And thanks for finding that picture, Nancy. I was a guest lecturer at UCLA that night. How I love teaching.

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging at Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites pick

  9. I love that picture-you sure don't look 60. You're a ball of energy and you have a love and passion for life. It's evident in all you do.