My started late, stop-start writing “career”

I’ve enjoyed these tweets from different writers who’ve shared their stories of not being straight out of the cradle when their writing received recognition.  Here are a few of them:

The writer Joanna Walsh (@badaude on Twitter) has written this article on The Guardian books blog, arguing that “all awards for young writers amount to discrimination” and pointing out that  “authors under 40 get disproportionate support and their valorisation tends to push women and minorities to the margins.”

Other people on Twitter have pointed out that it would be better to think about “new writers” or “early career” writers rather than “young writers” since writers “emerge” at all ages!

Age restrictions often exclude people who are disadvantaged or who have been disadvantaged in their youth.  Increasingly, it seems ridiculous to include age restrictions at all.

Lots of people have mentioned that The Turner Prize has just scrapped its age limit, with exciting results.

I thought I’d write something about my own writing journey which, again, is proof that it’s never too late to put pen to paper.  It’s also more evidence that people who start off from a less than privileged beginning don’t always have the opportunities to develop their talent when they are young.  In addition, people with caring responsibilities (often women) need time, and help, to reach their potential.

I come from a low-income family which fell apart a bit when I was twelve and my mother died.  I left school when I was sixteen with very few qualifications and worked in many different jobs until I was able to return to full-time study at the age of 30 in 1992.  I would never have been able to return to study if I’d left it any later.  In 1998, tuition fees were introduced in the UK and I know that I wouldn’t have considered being a student if I’d had to take out student loans.

As it was, my tuition fees were paid and I received a maintenance grant from my Local Authority.  I first signed up for a degree in Film and TV Scriptwriting at Bournemouth University and then transferred, after a year, to an English degree at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now Chichester University).  Amazingly, I was allowed to change courses without forfeiting my fees or grant.

Although I’d always written or “tried to write” from a very young age – I still have some of the notebooks to prove it – I’d never completed a piece of writing or seriously applied myself to writing anything in a committed and organised way.  Now, as a student,  I had to finish pieces of writing – poems, scripts and short stories – for various Creative Writing assessments which formed part of my degree!  For the first time in my life, I received feedback and advice about my work in progress, from my tutors and from other people in my writing workshops on my course.  I was massively encouraged by brilliant, kind, supportive and resourceful tutors at Chichester  (wonderful Alison MacLeod, John Saunders, Hugh Dunkerley, Vicki Feaver, Hugo Donnelly, and others).

During  my second or third year at Chichester, I began to submit stories to competitions and for publication.  I was lucky enough to win First Prize in the Ian St James Awards in 1996 (and won £2000 which was a lot of money back then – a lot of money now, in fact) and I had a story broadcast on BBC R4.

I knew I wanted to continue writing, so I was encouraged by my tutors  to apply to study for an MA in Creative Writing.  With their help, I applied for and was awarded a Studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  With this grant, I was able to take up my place at UEA where I completed my MA.

I had a stage play, Jocasta, produced at The Chelsea Theatre in London in 1997, and my radio play, The Songs that Houses Sing, was broadcast on BBC R4 in 2000.  By then, I’d married Andrew (in 1997, at the age of 35, always late for everything) and by 2001 we were parents to two children.   I wrote another radio play, sent it to the BBC and was called in for a few meetings at Bush House, but I didn’t get another commission.  Another couple of stage plays were shortlisted in calls for new work but didn’t get any further.  I really wanted to keep writing but I lost my momentum.

I was full-time carer for the children and trying to find part-time paying jobs that fitted in with their schedule.  I worked as a Teaching Assistant in a local comprehensive school for three years, and taught Creative Writing in the local Adult Education College.  It was while I was a TA, and working with students studying for their GCSE in English Literature, that I began to read and write more poetry.  In 2010, a whole ten years since I’d last had any kind of writing success, I sent my poem ‘Honeymoon’ to the Bridport Prize and it was a Runner Up, winning £50 and published in the anthology.  I’ve been writing every day (more or less) ever since.

My first poetry pamphlet was published when I was just a few weeks short of 53, in November 2014,  and I will be 56 and a half when my first full collection is published by Nine Arches Press next June.  I feel that I’m only now really getting going with my writing.  My children are 16 and 18, so much more independent, and my financial situation is reasonably secure.  I am aware that I am now in a privileged position, in terms of household income and security, and this has helped me enormously.

This proves nothing, of course.  Every situation is different.  But I’ve been heartened by the many stories of late success.  Do share your thoughts and experiences if you’d like to.

 

23 thoughts on “My started late, stop-start writing “career”

  1. reubenwoolley says:

    I started writing poetry when I was 16 in 1968 and wrote, with ever longer interruptions till 1985. For various reasons I stopped completely till 2013 when a student of mine and also a good friend both read some of my earlier work and told me that I should start again. I found tremendous support and resources on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet and since 2014 I’ve had three collections and one chapbook published and been runner-up in two competitions. I’m not going to stop this time!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. msjinnifer says:

    Hooray — what a tale! I started writing poetry really late. I was 58, and only got seriously into it at 63. Some successes with magazines and competitions, and an urgent need to get a pamphlet out asap! Will a publisher accept a manuscript from a geriatric emerger? Will I live to publish a collection? It can be dispiriting to see the slant towards youngsters, but hey ho. At least now I’ve retired — juggling with work or kids necessary. I’m looking forward to your collection 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark Fiddes says:

    Hi Josephine, like you, I was encouraged by this outbreak of honesty on age and writing. I did Philosophy rather than English at college because the Professor of Poetry told me to forget all thoughts of studying literature if I wanted to write it. Since then, I’ve gone from journalism and speechwriting in the US to copywriting and creative direction in Europe. It’s all been very satisfying professionally but there was always something missing.
    So I returned to poetry around 7 years ago before turning 50. It was like meeting an old friend after a long journey. Since then I’ve published a pamphlet, a full collection and won a fair few prizes. What’s most surprised me has been the number of kindred spirits and new friends I have found through poetry, particularly through media like this one where we can share insights and ideas. Thank you. You’re right. There’s so much more to write.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. jaynestanton says:

    Heartening to hear your writing journey Josephine. It’s a pity that ‘young writer’ awards aren’t fully age-inclusive.
    I’m so looking forward to reading your forthcoming collection 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    Thank you for sharing your story – it is so encouraging to all of us. I wrote poetry and fiction in secondary school, and always thought I’d get back to it eventually, after finishing my studies. But then life got in the way – and I had to write lots of corporate stuff, which drained any creativity I had in me. So I only came back to poetry by accident (because I couldn’t get into a prose class) at the age of 44 – and this time I am not going to let it go! Incidentally, I just read this interview with one of the women who inspired me to start writing again:
    https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/expats-in-switzerland_-i-am-american–i-write-from-my-american-soul-/43739582

    Liked by 2 people

  6. john foggin says:

    Really enjoyed the story….and the sign-off. ‘This proves nothing at all’. I like the relativity or ‘late-coming’ that your respondents turn up. What they all did was make me see that you write when you really need to, which I guess is when you’re ready to. I did an MA in Creative Writing in my late 50s. Waste of time. What I was really trying to do was fill the void of unemployment. I went regularly to The Poetry Business Writing Days for several years. I liked the company. I wrote maybe a dozen poems a year. None good. I tried an Arvon course in 2012. It was a waste of time. In 2013 I turned 70. Something shifted in my life. Stopping drinking was part of it. Maybe the greatest part. Since then I’ve written between 80 and 100 poems a year. Dam broke, I suppose. Four pamphlets and two collections. But what it came down to was getting validation from folk I respect. That includes winning prizes. Which relies on chance and luck and the gods smiling. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if they hadn’t. Like you say, it proves nothing at all…..except that if you write a lot, you need to need to say something, and have something to say. I’m very grateful for a lot of things. Including your blog xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      What a lovely, kind and generous comment, John! It’s brilliant to hear of how much you’ve achieved since turning 70. You say the MA and the Arvon were a waste of time – but perhaps they sunk in and you needed time to process something you’d learned. I still use stuff I learned on my first course at Bournemouth even though I abandoned it after a year because it didn’t feel like the right fit for me. You’re right about validation. All kinds of encouragement have helped me to keep going, even a simple “I like that” in a workshop. Thanks for this contribution and for all of the times you’ve called in here! I hope to see you at a Writing Day in Sheffield again one day, or some other place. Love, Josephine x

      Liked by 1 person

  7. vanessagee says:

    I was quietly astounded at the response to a bit of age-honesty on Twitter. It was wonderful, and I’ve met a lot of people in the last few days. Been thinking about this a lot – and I do think there is an implicit encouragement to look as ‘unold’ as possible (especially for women, it has to be said) on author photos. The logical result will be someone posing in nappies after a Booker win… Thank you for your own terrific story, and the blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. emmalee1 says:

    Good post. I’ve long argued that awards, etc shouldn’t be based on a writer’s age but on the stage they are at in their writing. Sometimes life has to be lived before you can write. Amy Clampitt was 63 when she made the transition from magazine poet to poet with collection. Mary Wesley’s first novel was published when she was 70. Although I started getting published young, I didn’t benefit from any of the awards aimed at emerging writers who happen to be young and it wasn’t an easy transition from getting poems in magazines to getting a first collection published.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jean Atkin says:

    Yes, all good overdue stuff, this! I also am a late starter, in my forties (years of teaching and family responsibilities). I’ve been lucky enough to publish a first collection (with Oversteps), and several pamphlets – second collection on the way. It’s lovely there’s such support for young poets and writers – but I am conscious that my age (58 now!) isn’t an advantage! Well it doesn’t feel like one. Would be good if there was more recognition of later starters! Thanks Josephine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      I think Joanna Walsh makes a strong case for age restrictions in prizes and development schemes discriminating against women and minorities. It’s hard to argue otherwise. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Aldeburgh Eight Scheme and our group was the most diverse in terms of age – from 24 to 68! We all got on really well and still support each other. More schemes like this would be welcomed. Thanks for commenting, Jean! Good to hear of your next book. X

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sean Wright says:

    I’d also like to see age restrictions lifted for mentorship programs(and moved toward a career stage model). I started seriously writing poetry (with the intention of getting published) four years ago in my late 30’s. My difficulty has always been in finding good poetry education for myself – I graduated with a teaching degree before University became really expensive in Aus and sadly before creative writing degrees were a thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josephine Corcoran says:

      You’re not alone in wanting this, Sean. The Poetry School offer a really exciting range of face-to-face and online courses although they can be expensive. Ditto Arvon (they offer some funding). The Poetry Trust (now closed down) and Aldeburgh Poetry Festival used to offer a brilliant development scheme. The Poetry Business offer a ‘Poetry School’ – something like a Masters degree in Poetry spread over 18 months but you need to be resident in the UK and it’s competitive. Primers, a scheme run by The Poetry School and Nine Arches Press offers mentorship and publication but, again, is for UK residents and is highly competitive. Sometimes you have to find mentorship where you can, via workshops and online courses, and on top of that, obviously, continue with extended reading. Re CW degrees, they can be great, but so many talented writers studied something else, it’s worth remembering. Thanks for commenting and I wish you good writing in 2018! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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