Naomi Shippen ~
This year, at the ripe old age of 56, I will be making my debut as an author. This seems ironic, given that as most women my age are being relegated to the sidelines, I am being given a voice. Fortunately, I am not alone. In her article in The Guardian of 25th February, Amelia Hill writes about the new wave of women authors being published for the first time. Although I consider myself an older writer, I am at the younger end of this cohort, which includes women in their 60s, 70s and beyond.
The attraction of older women writers is our lived experience and unique voice. Stories from women who have loved and lost, had careers, families, and experienced the minutia of everyday life offer authenticity and insight. In my own writing, it is not just the big life events that have informed my work, but also the knowledge of things as prosaic as invoicing and shift work, timesheets and mortgages.
Over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading the work of women my age and older. I did not deliberately seek them out – their books have simply captured my attention. They cover a wide variety of genres and subjects, including stories where women share the experiences of their bodies, relationships, and finding their place in the world.
In her book, Queen Menopause; Finding Your Majesty in the Mayhem, women’s health advocate Alison Daddo recounts her own experience of menopause. Like many women, she was unprepared for the overpowering physical and emotional effects of menopause, and they hit her hard. Added to this, the changes in her body brought on feelings of shame and self-loathing as the former cover girl believed she was letting everyone down by not “keeping a youthful image” and remaining frozen in time.
In sharing her experience of the physical changes in menopause and challenging the notion that a woman’s worth is tied only to her fertility and physical attractiveness, Alison shines a light on this important transition in a woman’s life that is often dismissed and trivialised.
In A Question of Age, writer and broadcaster Jacinta Parsons examines the experiences of getting older in a society where “no one wants women who are over fifty.”
Jacinta looks closely at the phenomenon of invisibility that comes to women as they age, and while the catcalls stop and the ever-present threat of sexual attack is allayed, she is stung by “the callousness of being discarded.” No longer required as sexual conquests or mothers, women over fifty are given their ticket of leave and sent on their way. Initially, Jacinta found the freedom liberating, until she discovered that there would be no recompense for years of faithful service and no one would be there to help because “no one needs anything from you…anymore.”
In recent literature, many mature-age women writers have produced work featuring older female protagonists who step outside the role society has designated them to play. Kitty Hawke in Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island is a self-sufficient artist who turns her back on societal expectations to pursue the work she is compelled to create. A refreshingly unsentimental mother and grandmother, Kitty lives life by answering to her true nature and living as one with the land she loves.
The Mother by Jane Caro tells the story of Miriam Duffy, a successful real estate agent, who steps in to protect her daughter and grandchildren when the law will not. Despite having a secure home, money, and education, Miriam and her daughter, Ally, are powerless to stop the abusive son-in-law and ex-husband from making their lives a misery. Miriam and Ally go exhaustively through all the right channels to stop the abuse but when all that fails, Miriam decides to take matters into her own hands.
Joanna Nell has created many funny, wise, and delightful elder characters in her novels, starting with her best-selling debut The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village. Joanna shows her older female protagonists living vital lives filled with hopes and dreams. While they must negotiate the changes that come with getting older, they are still the people they have always been and pursue the passions they have always had.
These works of both fiction and non-fiction show that rather than being a time of ostracism and loneliness, a woman’s post-youth years can be a time of renewal and empowerment. Free from the responsibilities of caring for children and outgrowing the need to please others in favour of pleasing yourself, these years can be a time of growth. Comedian Billy Connolly, once said that women were like trees, spreading their branches and reaching for the sun as they grow older as his wife, psychologist Pamela Stephenson, took up salsa dancing and sailed around the world. It’s as though the love and nurturing that we once spent on others is finally available for ourselves and frees us up to pursue our dreams.
A few years ago, when my marriage ended and my children left home, it felt as though my life was over. My identity, time, and energy had been devoted to my family for decades, and without that sense of purpose, I didn’t know what to do. The emotional turmoil of that time saw me turning to a passion that I had denied myself for years, resulting in my debut novel coming out in 2023.
Perhaps it was naïve, but when I first started writing, I believed that the literary world was a place where external factors didn’t matter. It didn’t take me long to realise I was wrong.
It is a lucky accident that I belong to a cohort that is on the rise, but I still believe there is room for writers of every stripe. We all have our own unique story to tell, and when we include as many different points of view as there are people to hold them, then the world of literature will be all the richer.
— Naomi Shippen
Naomi Shippen lives in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and has two adult sons. Although she has always wanted to write, it was not until recent years that she began pursuing her passion. The dramatic events of 2020 inspired her to write about her own experiences and several of her short stories were published in the anthology, Life in the Time of Corona, the Warrandyte Diary, and oranges journal. Her debut novel, Far From Harm, is a domestic suspense set in the High Country of Victoria, Australia, and she is currently working on her next book.
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4 thoughts on “On Debuting After 50 – Guest Post by Naomi Shippen”
Appreciate this post—always glad to see anything that bolsters me in the face of what often feels like invisible but present age bias. I’m a poet and children’s author, and I was seventy-two when my debut novel in verse came out—unluckily with ARCs sent out during the first months of the covid shutdown—that was the first book for younger children that actively challenged the damage done by the diet industry during a time when bodies are changing, developing, and growing. There’s no question in my own mind and experience that my work is more accomplished than it ever has been, and that if I can continue writing until the day I drop, I will.
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Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts, Carol. Well done on your debut novel and commitment to writing. Now that I’ve started, I too will keep going till I drop. Have a great writing day!
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I love to read of the writing successes of late starters. Naomi is quite right that we bring a different viewpoint to the world and that this more often than not is reflected in our writing. When we consider that a huge swathe of readers are – ahem – older women, it ought to make sense for publishers to cater for this cohort in a meaningful fashion.
I started seriously writing fiction at 58 and my first publishing success (a story in an anthology) came about when I was 63. My short story collection was picked up by a publisher when I was 70. I do sometimes wonder why I didn’t start earlier but if I had done so, the stories I would have written wouldn’t be those I now write.
As for Naomi’s comment, ‘Perhaps it was naïve, but when I first started writing, I believed that the literary world was a place where external factors didn’t matter. It didn’t take me long to realise I was wrong,’ I heartily concur. Publishers and agents aren’t keen to invest in older writers whose careers aren’t going to be as long as those of 20-year-old wunderkinds. Ah well.
Congratulations, Naomi, and more power to your elbow!
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Thank you so much, Marian, and congratulations on your writing success. Yes, publishers ignore as at their peril. We are committed readers and writers, and personally, I think I’ve got many good years ahead of me yet.
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