There’s no shortage of publications highlighting our youth—child prodigies, early entrepreneurs and the best 30 under 30. That’s great, but that’s not me. Most of my success was achieved later in life, and I am certain it is the better one.
Being a late bloomer, most rites of passage were belated. I learned how to ride a bicycle at 24. I ran my first race at 38 and got published (outside of school papers) at 45. It’s never too late to do something you love. In fact, it’s sweeter when you wait for it.
A passion for writing
I wrote for school periodicals in college and loved it. I called myself “Scoop” and went around campus interviewing sources and writing about rare book rooms, educators and anything else I was assigned. I enjoyed meeting new people and figuring out ways to present their points of view. However, once I graduated, I gave it up. I felt I could never compete in the “real” world of writing. That was a place reserved for Ivy League graduates and people who quoted Shakespeare, not for a loquacious girl from Brooklyn. So I left it behind and pursued other interests.
At first, I tried to find other creative career paths like public relations and dot-coms. I eventually landed on teaching and wrote lesson plans instead of stories. But something was missing. I yearned to tell stories like I did in school. After all, Malcolm Forbes said it best in his 1988 Syracuse University commencement speech, which was featured in Onward!: 25 Years of Advice, Exhortation, and Inspiration from America’s Best Commencement Speeches: “You have to do, in your life and with your life, what turns you on. Anything else is a waste of time. If you know where your own button is, press it.”
But I was in my 40s and wasn’t sure how to become a writer. Was it too late in my life to start and achieve success as a writer?
A life-changing writing class
I’d taken classes throughout the years for fun. We’d get an assignment, share our stories and then leave. Sometimes I’d make a friend or two. We’d meet up in the city and share essays over drinks or coffee, but I never went anywhere with it. I nearly gave up, but then I signed up for a unique class that changed everything. I’m not sure if it was the professor or the timing in my life, but something clicked.
Instead of being offered at a university, the class was taught out of the professor’s apartment in the city. I entered her home and sunk into a chair while other students read their published pieces like Pulitzer Prize winners. As they spoke, I lingered on every word, every anecdote. I was shocked by both their level of intimacy with their prose and the fact that they were regular people whose work was published in The New York Times and Cosmopolitan. Maybe it was possible for me to be a published writer. I just needed to delve deep, like the students before me.
Becoming a published writer
The writing class had caught my attention with its insistence that you could get published; you just needed to find the right market. A few weeks after the class ended, I took my most personal story and sent it out to a few editors—just like the class taught me.
When my story was accepted for publication, I was overjoyed and terrified. After all, this wasn’t a story about college courses. This was an essay about love, obsessions and a devastating loss. I wasn’t sure I wanted the public to read it, but soon enough it was released on the Internet. And I was instantly addicted to the feeling of having it published. Once I got over the initial embarrassment of having my story out there, I began to feel a freedom in releasing it. In fact, I had stored so many stories in my head that I wanted to write. I now had a reason to.
People often told me it was luck when I was published, but luck had little to do with it. It was tenacity. Perseverance. The ability to handle rejection. I started spending hours scouring the Internet for calls for submissions. I participated in a special seminar for women op-ed writers, which was intimidating. The other participants were CEOs, Ivy league grads and entrepreneurs. I quickly realized that I’m an expert on education. I brought up the topic of the personal essay, how I thought it was outdated for college applications. I ended up writing the op-ed and got it published two days later in USA Today. That experience taught me that an elite education could only get you so far. Persistence and timing had a lot more to do with it.
Achieving dreams later in life
They say that to write about your own life, you need to be at least five years away from it to distance yourself. I don’t know what the magic number is. What I do know is that all those stories I scribbled in notebooks, journals and on pieces of looseleaf paper written when I was younger were weaker than I am now. Not only was my spelling deplorable (OK, maybe it still is), but the way I saw the world was limited. It wasn’t until my 20s and 30s that I began to travel, live abroad and develop a perspective of myself and my place in the world. And it wasn’t until my 40s that I understood the greater meaning of heartbreak and loss that I thought I would never recover from. In some ways, writing helped me.
My younger self could write, but not from the perspective that you only get with time. As I started taking more writing classes, I realized that everyone has a story to tell and most people really want to be heard. I had become so successful I began teaching a class to help other writers.
I went from wishing I was a writer to being published on the front page of The Washington Post. I was a long way from my days working at the college paper, and I waited 25 years to do it.
It has been over seven years since I got my first acceptance email and to date have published over 100 essays, all while working full-time for the Department of Education.
You, too, can achieve success later in life
I believe many people have stories to tell but may feel if they did not go to a certain school or start by a specific age, it may be too late. I am living proof that it is never too late to do what you love. The stories I write are not always unique. In fact, I think the best writing explores everyday things and universal themes that people can relate to. My essays run the gamut from bad dates, to failed fertility, to social justice. If it happened to me and I grew from it, I want to write about it. Now that I have both life experience and distance, it is easy for me to share my stories.
Having so many pieces published still amazes me. I was published in The New York Times four times, surpassing my wildest expectations. My words have led me to interviews on CNN and NPR. It is flattering to be accepted to so many well-known publications and be a part of the conversation. But for me, the greatest part of writing is when a stranger reads my story and writes to tell me how it affected them. My words have even made it to Australia and Sri Lanka.
Some people say I inspire them while others can’t stand my point of view. Believe it or not, I like the latter readers, too. If a girl from Brooklyn can be heard across the world and affect that many people, then it’s all worth it. Everyone has a story to tell, some just take longer than others to tell them. I am glad I waited.
Photo by simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock