Sixties and Starting Over – Six Steps to Beginning Anew
The older I am, the more I’m sure that there is no expiration date on desire. After pressing the brakes on a 35-year career, I found that the drive for achievement and contribution didn’t end when I hung up that jersey. So, whether you yearn to advance a cause, turn your garden into Giverny or become the next podcast queen, my bias is clear: defer no more.
My own ambition picks up where it left off decades back when I worked as a writer. Reporting, profiles and editorials were bread and butter, but the impulse toward more literary work was what had set me going. In those years my outlet was personal essays for popular magazines. Alas, those platforms required ventriloquism. At Cosmo in the mid-80s, for instance, one had to mimic the house voice: breathless, salted with italics and exclamation marks. At other popular publications, complex truths had to be simplified. My own voice was blunted.
There were other challenges. Money, for example.
I often had to decide whether to spend my last dollar on a yogurt for dinner or bus fare home. Finally, isolation did little to help me become an adult when I had so much growing to do. Reluctantly, I deferred my literary dreams to join a marketing agency.
Well, forget those tropes about selling out to The Man. My job opened vistas I could never have imagined, and I leaned into the woman I could become, working with global clients on campaigns in healthcare, finance and cause-driven work, employing and mentoring dozens of people. I was tested in ways that chastened and matured me, thrived in the collaborative and structured environment and rose through the ranks. A fortunate consequence was that my job and colleagues became a ballast through times of personal turmoil: infertility, an ill-fated marriage, divorce and the loss of my stepson, ruptures within my family. The fact that I could reliably put a roof over my head allowed me to journey alone, half-way around the world, to adopt my daughter, the supreme joy of my life.
With a deep bow to what my career has conferred, I now turn back toward my first love.
But this go-around, I will no longer self-censor: not my voice and not what I’ve come to say. My only goal is to create and publish good work. Initial forays have met with both success and frustration. Although I’ve published essays in The New York Times’ Modern Love column and in McSweeney’s, my vision often stumbles on deficits in my craft. In addition, my fast-twitch fluency has slowed a bit (What’s that word I’m looking for?). So now, in my sixties, I’m submitting to the rigors of a take-no-prisoners MFA in Creative Writing to strengthen skills, try new subjects and search within myself for possibilities I don’t now see.
When I first hatched this plan, I feared that my age would be a hindrance and that no prestigious program would accept me. I found myself arguing in admissions essays that those of us with decades of adult experience have much to offer. Years of discipline and putting ourselves on the line tend to build character and confident interior selfhood. We can now be more authentic and generous contributors. As a writer, I’m better able to create more nuanced, complex narrators and more deeply appreciate the wide range of human experience portrayed in the work of others.
In hopes of supporting other women to find and fulfill their own “Starting Anew,” here, with the help of Dr. Ilene Nathanson, therapist and former professor/chair of clinical social work at Long Island University, are a few principles that may provide starter fuel:
Six Steps to Starting Anew
1. Self-Affirm: Scan your own personal history. Identify strengths, interests, desires. My own process took some time as I first dipped a toe with a single storytelling class while still working full time. It affirmed that my old desire was alive and kicking. I had to remind myself to respect and nurture it, despite all the “but’s.”
2. Define Your Aspiration: Whether you do some coaching sessions or sit with a large piece of paper and doodle your way to clarity or survey your closest friends for their view of your strengths and contributions, eventually, you’ll need to define where you’re going in order to get there.
I took the gradual route, continuing one class at a time and, finally, began submitting work for publication. I soon realized that I could succeed but needed more craft and experience than I had to meet my goal. This coalesced into the idea of doing an intensive MFA program. I found “low residency” the best option for people with busy, committed lives who cannot up and leave to live on campus as they might have done in their 20s.
3. Pitch to Your Strengths: This is a great advantage of starting over in your fifties and up. Chances are you know yourself pretty well and may pick up on earlier passions or continue existing ones. Among my own friends is a trial lawyer who always loved theatrics and became a voiceover artist and a physician who just joined a healthcare nonprofit focused on a disease state that she, herself, has lived through.
That said, there are also many exceptions. In asking: Who am I now? Which strengths do I want most to employ and develop at this stage of life? you may be surprised at the answer. I recently met a woman who ran a major financial institution and initially believed that joining boards would be the natural next step. She found the work less compelling than she’d imagined, and finally, in defiance of negative judgements from some former colleagues, she determined to deploy her fanatic work ethic to become a serious golfer.
4. Cut Your Losses: Nothing is promised and there will be perceived failures. I have troves of my own to share. When I submit an essay or story, I keep an ordered list of where I’ll try if/(when) rejected by the first, second or third publication. The point is to keep going. Cutting your losses also involves staring down doubts and fears, all the negatives and “why not’s” that can keep you stuck.
5. Be Bold and Don’t Go it Alone: Make connections with supportive groups of colleagues, friends and like-minded others. Mutual reinforcement and networking can lead to the self-validation you need to make bold steps toward starting anew. LEANING OUT is here to help.
6. Continually reassess and readjust: Along the road toward any goal there’ll be unexpected discoveries and curve balls that may lead you to pivot or even change course. Assess these with care so that you’re not deterred from your ultimate goal by an obstacle that may feel, in the moment, insurmountable, but with focus and persistence, can actually be overcome.
Brand Strategist, Writer and Storyteller: After holding leadership positions in global brand engagement agencies for three decades, Robin currently is a senior consultant at The Artemis Partnership, a growth and bid consulting practice. She continues to coach senior women as well as write for publications such as: The New York Times' Modern Love column, McSweeny’s, and Yes! Magazine. Robin has just been accepted to the prestigious MFA in Writing program at Bennington College.