Alumni Feature August 2015

It’s a tough gig when you’re past your prime

By Guest Contributor, Varuna Alumna Elisabeth Hanscombe

Introduction by Diana Jenkins

past prime I’m turning 43 in September, a fact that’s endlessly surprising to me. It’s also frustrating, because I sometimes feel I haven’t properly established myself professionally – at least not to my satisfaction. To have been unable to get so much as a short story published since I stopped faffing about is an ongoing agony to me. I feel so many things about it, including shame. And there’s no doubt my acute sense of failure is tied up in my age. This is how I berate myself:


I’m nearly 43! No one’s ‘discovered’ at 43! Jesus Christ! Look at all those Bright Young Things! Fuck them! I hate them! Oh no, I don’t. Not really. Good on them, I suppose. It’s just that once I thought that would be me. Me, me, meeeeeeeee! So fuck me for being so grandiose! Delusional! Stupid! Embarrassing! Aaaaargh! Who thinks that about themselves? What sane person looks at someone with a once- in-a-million publishing deal and honestly thinks, ‘That could be me someday…’? Fucking ridiculous! And the misplaced confidence is only as bad as the total and utter failure to convert. It didn’t happen? OF COURSE IT DIDN’T HAPPEN! It won’t ever be me. Not at 43.

See how this line of thought conveniently loops back to pin itself to my age rather than to my shortcomings as a writer? My age barks through me like an angry dog, forever whining and nipping at my heels.

So I understand precisely what this month’s Alumni Guest Contributor is talking about. I hope you enjoy Elisabeth’s piece – and please don’t forget that I am looking for current members of the Varuna Alumni Association to contribute to the Monthly Feature in addition to the Alumni Interviews and my features on the writing life. Please email me if you’re interested. Guest Contributors will be paid an honorarium. Meanwhile, please welcome Alumna Elisabeth Hanscombe to Alumni News HQ.


It’s a tough gig when you’re past your prime

By Guest Contributor, Varuna Alumna Elisabeth Hanscombe

Elisabeth Hanscombe Lately, I’ve been overcome by a feeling of being past it. I’m an emerging writer: plenty of short publications, but my first book is yet to see the light of day (though not for lack of trying). My writing – informed over the years through my reading, not only of the classics, but also more recently by contemporaries – begins to have an old-fashioned ring in my ear. Not quite Dickensian in style, but bordering on something that shows my age.

They used to say you could tell whether a woman had written a piece of prose, as against a man, and many a woman disguised her identity behind a man’s name in order to pass herself off as the ‘real’ thing. Women were – for a long time and still – deemed second-rate in the literary world. The industry still holds its patriarchal edge.

Lately I’ve wondered: is age a feature, too? Can you tell the age of a person from their writing? It’s easier to do so with memoir. We memoirists date ourselves the moment we set words on the page. We date ourselves as soon as we begin to describe our childhood homes.

I’ve read pieces where the person was a 10-year-old in the mid-70s. It’s easy to guess their age now. They’re on the cusp of disappearing. Whereas those of us born during the ‘50s, ‘60s and earlier are already flipping over the edge.

It’s the same with fashion. There’s an optimal time when yesterday’s fashions, at the height of their popularity only 5 years ago, are now passé, old hat, so embarrassingly out of date you might only wear them to a fancy dress party. Something from the 1930s or earlier becomes fashionable again in a retro sort of way. You wear it with pride. Those of us in between begin to give off an aura of too-old-to-be-fashionable, but not-old-enough-to-be-hip. And that’s before any of the publishing industry or people who promote writing have laid eyes on us.

Knowledge and Power cover As Lynne Kelly writes, the definition of emerging is, ‘to come forth into view or notice, as from concealment or obscurity’. Lynne tells me she’s hardly an emerging writer, given she’s about to launch her fourteenth book, but she’s still ‘obscure’.

‘None of my books have attracted broad attention,’ she writes, ‘and my name is not known beyond the small subcultures of people I have worked with. Every book was going to be the big one, the one where I emerged from obscurity, and none quite made it. At 63, I’m starting to feel that emergence better start soon or my concealment will be permanent.’

Things tend to go downhill fast, though not always. There are a few writers over the age of 60 who have a significant profile, even as they’re emerging, but none come to mind. We’ve grown old with others, like Helen Garner, now in her 70s. She exists as a fully emerged writer over many decades: young and hip in her formative years, and now sage and persuasive, but it’s not so easy when you take to writing later in life. By the time you’ve reached a publishable standard, you find you’re too old to be considered.

I asked a few Facebook friends about their experiences as emerging writers over 50. We are the ones who, more than half way through a century, live on the scary side.

When I was a schoolgirl, I remember thinking when I reached 60, I’d like to die. To live to 60 would be good enough. By then I would be past the best of my life and ready to go. I imagined myself frail and tired.

Now that I have reached this age and find I am not so frail and tired, I find I am far from ready to die.

The idea of ageing first hit me as an adolescent, when my skin erupted and my body lost its shape. In those days I wanted it to happen fast. I wanted to get beyond the awkwardness of pimples to the dignity of the women on the television screen who smoked cigarettes, their fingers poised in the air, the last one perched like an alluring question mark.

Such a gesture, while I sat curled up in a ball and watched television, checking underneath my fingernails for dirt I could never be rid of and then digging my fingers into the flesh of my thighs that seemed to have magnified in the space of a single school term.

It triggers such washes of jealousy, this business of being an ageing and emerging writer. Whenever the next young person wins an award of significance, I think back to when I was her age and paid scant attention to writing.

Why did I leave it so late? Too late to ponder now, but still the thought rankles.

I could not write then as I write now, and yet, there are these young women who stun me with their capacity and wisdom, despite their years. They must have started early.

I live and work in a world of women, every one of us dogged by an internal discussion that runs along the lines of, am I good enough? Am I too young, too old? Accustomed to being looked at and measured on where we fit in the beauty scales of another’s desire, it’s hard to allow for a conversation about those inner voices.

But I hear them all the time. In a conversation with my writing group the other evening, for instance, one woman reflected on her memories of growing up and her longing that one day someone would come along and hand her a pile of money with which she might buy herself a flash wardrobe. An adolescent fantasy she wanted to explore in her writing.

I, too, dreamed of someone coming along, but not so much to give me money for clothes as to recognise my talent for singing. He’d come round to the back garden where I pegged clothes to the line.

This person, a movie-making man, would recognise my singing from the front street as he walked by. He would ring on the doorbell and ask my mother for an introduction, or he would walk down the side driveway to approach me directly, my arms filled with washing.

“You have the voice of an angel,” he would say. “Come with me and I will make you famous. Such a voice should not be kept hidden.”

I glowed under the weight of his praise and the daydream went on and on until every last sock was pegged on the line. When the basket was empty I lifted it to my hip, looked longingly up the driveway for the man who would arrive only in fantasy, and took myself back to the television set, where I curled up in my chair and wished once again to get inside that television with all the glamorous people. I comforted myself with five slices of bread: three with golden syrup, and the rest with cocoa sugar.

Later, as a young woman starting out in my chosen career as a social worker, I still longed to be older. Only then would I be taken seriously. Now I am older and command a degree of authority in my work as a therapist, but I find myself less confident in my writing life, almost fearful to go out to literary events because I am too old.

Yet, let’s face it, writers’ festivals are filled to the rafters with women, and a few men, from my age demographic. We far outstrip the number of younger folks at such events.

Autobiologies cover A Darker Music cover So why the shame? Why the feeling I must hide my face and its wrinkles inside the pages of a book? Why hesitate to talk about myself as an emerging writer, when the word ‘emerging’, as the not-yet-old, Alexis Harley writes, ‘seems such a gentle word’ with ‘implications of butterflies unfurling from chrysalises, taking as long as it takes.’ Yet, as Alexis warns, ‘the word’s just a notch away from “emergency”, with all its connotations of urgency’?

For others, like Maris Morton, a writer who won the CalScribe prize for an unpublished manuscript while on the cusp of her 70s, her age was an advantage, insofar as journalists could include that detail in the pitch. An older woman, who not only writes well, but wins prizes.

Floating Garden cover In the end, most of us persevere for the love of writing. As Emma Ashmere, just 50 and with her first book out, tells me: ‘The word [emerging] feels a bit like being at a forward lunge/lean, a bit like trying to get out of a deep chair for hours on end.’ And so she goes on, ‘I’ll just keep on permanently emerging/learning or something.’

grandson It’s possible. We old and emerging writers can continue to emerge, halfway out of our cocoons into the sunshine. Even though, as everyone knows, butterflies only live for a short while before their beautiful lives are snuffed out.

So let’s enjoy the sunshine, while we can. Just as, on a recent visit to the zoo with my grandson, we admired the wonders of a butterfly, even an ‘old’ one with a tattered wing.



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Read 3627 times


  • Hey, hey hey!!

    Maybe you've never heard of me but I exist!
    Two years ago my first novel, The Beloved, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and won the Kibble award. Two years before that, it won the Qld Premier's Literary Award for an Emerging Writer.
    I am still emerging and will continue to do so until I fall off my twig or no-one will publish me. My second novel, Last Day in the Dynamite Factory has just been published. It's in bookshops. People are buying it, loving it, hating it, as they do. But here's the thing:

    Soon I'm 66. I wasn't published until I was 63. I don't buy that you're ever too old to write, or be published. Even if you lose your marbles, who knows, maybe you'll write something bizarrely sensational.

    I an overweight and have too many wrinkles and often despair at the vision in the mirror but I AM NOT TOO OLD TO WRITE! And neither are you. So "put on your big-girl panties and get on with it!" Now.

    Annah Faulkner Friday, 31 July 2015 14:21 Comment Link
  • Don't get hung up on age. I know quite a few people who first became published in their fifties, including me! It was quite a surprise to get a publishing contract with Penguin - I thought I was too old. Nobody else did. I've never once felt that my age was an issue with agents, editors or publishers. I was the only one worried about it. Part of that negative, self-deprecating narrative that women are so good at.

    Spending a lot of years raising children can suck the creativity out of you. I didn't start writing again until my kids were older. I'm 58 now, and rushing to finish my fifth novel for Penguin. My publisher has just offered a two-book deal to woman in her sixties, whose debut novel was a runaway best-seller for them this year.

    In my experience, our age doesn't matter nearly as much to the rest of the world, as it does to us.

    Jennifer Scoullar Friday, 31 July 2015 15:45 Comment Link
  • Dear Elizabeth,
    As a man I regretfully feel the sentiment that 'The industry still holds its patriarchal edge' should be consigned to the history bin. There are multiple prominent female writers (you mention some), editors are overwhelmingly female, the publishers are mostly filled with women, there are prizes open only to women (but none only for men), women are among the most prominent literary editors and the SWF is mostly run by women. If you are a man, the picture looks very different from the one you paint. If I were counting, and I'm not, by far the majority of my rejections have come from female commissioning editors because they mostly are women. The book industry in Australia is today clearly more female than male. I do think that line, once valid, should now be buried.

    And I am not complaining about the structure of the industry. I have found both males and females encouraging and supportive, actually more often females than males - if we must pursue this line of thinking - perhaps because there are more of them in this business. And with that, I'll drop this gender issue. I do not think it is relevant.

    But age is relevant. The words flow less easily. Sentences that once emerged fully formed, rich and complex, now arrive needing more work. That word that you know exist with just the meaning you want, takes longer to find.

    But hang in there. Keep writing. My first book was published in the last 12 months and I am now over 70. Age has advantages, too. The most important is that you have insights you once lacked, the wisdom of ... oh I better not go there!

    If I have a general observation to make, and generalisations are very dangerous, it is that Australian writers struggle to find good stories. We live in such a fortunate and peaceful society that life serves up few dramas. So to get into print, have a look at how different and diverse the material is that our prominent writers serve up and go find your own good stuff, something really distinctive and out of the ordinary. There are many good writers out there, there is far less distinctive material.

    Robert Eales Friday, 31 July 2015 15:57 Comment Link
  • Fabulous piece of writing Elisabeth. Thanks for sharing. If you love it just do it. Each day you'll get a little better no matter your age. You were probably too busy living to the fullest your younger years gathering all the stories and becoming the you of today. It's to be celebrated. Happy writing.

    Anne Myers Friday, 31 July 2015 16:21 Comment Link
  • Thanks for your frank essay, Elisabeth. I can resonate with some of it but not all. Although in some ways I dislike ageing (more wrinkles etc.) I like it; I like the coming into myself that has happened gradually over the years, and my life force has grown rather than diminished. I am, like you, a would-be published writer, and have several essays/articles/chapters published, but so far have not published a book. I attribute this more to the way publishing is now than to my age or the quality of my writing. And I know many younger women (and men) are in the same position. I read/don't read many books that I think either shouldn't have been published, or that needed a serious edit, or that are overrated. I don't think age comes into it. And I don't think that my writing is past the use by date because of my age.
    What to do? I think e-publishing/self-publishing is the answer. Don't give up! You are a beautiful writer.

    Christina Houen Friday, 31 July 2015 20:09 Comment Link
  • Enjoyed your piece Elisabeth. Middle age begins at 60. Though not butterflies any more, your wisdom and experiences beam through, even under the sunshine.

    Andrew Kwong Saturday, 01 August 2015 08:42 Comment Link
  • I relate to this, Elisabeth, as I sometimes feel that I'm an unfashionable, middle-aged writer, way out of touch with younger, popular culture. Maybe some of it is, as Diana says in the intro, because it's easier to blame my age rather than anything lacking in the quality of my writing.
    I relate especially to that sense of urgency that's starting to build, and I sometimes have to cork. That my time left is finite and passing ever quicker, and what if something happens and I don't get to finish my novel, or all the other novels I want to write.
    I know I'm a better writer now than I would have been in my twenties, but the price of wisdom is, alas, the time it takes to acquire it.
    I guess, we can only push these thoughts aside, and glue our bums to our chairs and our eyes to our screens, and keep tapping our keyboards.
    Best wishes and I'm sure you'll get there!

    Louise Allan Saturday, 01 August 2015 10:31 Comment Link
  • Dear Annah "The Beloved" Faulkner, I thought of you as I read this piece and was delighted to see you'd fed back to Elisabeth on that school. Thanks for this excellent and enjoyable journalism, Elisabeth, and Annah, your book takes pride of place on my shelf as a reminder you're never too old to win prizes. Some books cannot be written until you've had a certain amount of distance from the experiences that inspire you to write. If that means you're 40,60, or 80, so be it. Focus on the writing and everything else will follow.

    Alison Quigley Saturday, 01 August 2015 19:29 Comment Link
  • Jolly good article Elisabeth. Never miss one of your posts on Blogger because they're so well thought out and beautifully written.

    I don't think age matters a great deal. We're all much like the Mayfly, here today - gone tomorrow. Life is a flick of the eye-lid when compared to when this world was formed. When I was about four or five I thought there were just children and grown-ups. I didn't know that children became grown-ups. The hours and days were so very LONG back then and tomorrow never seemed to come.

    But now, eighty super-fast years later I just feel content that I've at last 'grown up' even though my dear wife thinks I'm so childish at times. And she's right of course; she's been with me for the past 57 speeding years.

    You're a talented writer Elisabeth. Be happy with that affirmation.

    Philip Saturday, 01 August 2015 21:33 Comment Link
  • I enjoyed your piece, Elisabeth, and wanted to tell you, don't despair! I didn't hit my straps as a writer until I was over 50. My writing career until then was fragmented and bitty, interrupted by life, relationships, a child, the need to work, lack of confidence... And lack of focus. Well, it took the death of my parents and a whole lot of health problems but I know now that I will always keep on plugging away, no matter what, because I love what I do. My 10th published book was the first to gain any notice.
    Good luck and keep going!

    Susan Green Monday, 03 August 2015 17:59 Comment Link
  • Thanks for the comments everyone. I'll try to pull up my 'big girl pants' as Annah recommends, and get on with it, but I refuse to desist from reference to the patriarchal imbalance that still exists, despite brave people like you, Robert. We don't need a Stellar prize for men any more than we need an award for white anglo saxon types who dominate. Structural inequalities can't be shifted if we don't at least recognise them. As for the rest, I hope I don't sound like I'm too much in despair of my age here. It's a good thing to age, as people suggest and yes, the quality of the writing and the fact of persevering in the process are of essence. However, there are other structural issues at work, like the publishing industry itself and its commercial imperative, which tilts at things that will in the marketing department's opinion 'sell', as a first priority. This in turn makes other variables such as age and gender, and ability to perform in the public spotlight significant features on the road to publication. It's complex.

    Elisabeth Hanscombe Tuesday, 04 August 2015 11:53 Comment Link

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