Saturday, May 10, 2008

Life Begins at Sixty: Beating Time at its own Game

by Carolyn Howard Johnson

Sometimes the big barriers in life aren’t abject poverty, dreaded disease or death. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones set upon us by time and place. The ones that can’t be seen and can’t be acknowledged because we don’t know they are there. They creep up silently on padded feet and, if we sense them at all, we choose not to turn and face them. The decade of the 50s was a time when barriers like these faced those with dark skin, those who lived in closed religious communities, and those who were female.

When I applied for a job as a writer for Good Housekeeping (Hearst Corporation) in New York in 1961 I was required to take a typing test. I was piqued because I wasn’t applying for the typing-pool, I was applying for a post as an editorial assistant.

I was told, “No typing test, no interview.” I took the test and was offered a job in the ranks of those who could do 70-in-a-minute. I had to insist upon the interview I had been promised. I was only twenty and had no real skills in assertiveness. I am amazed I had the wherewithal to insist on anything.

The essentials of this anecdote lie in the fact that I was putout for the wrong reasons. My irritation was a reflection of hubris. However, that pride was probably what goaded me into speaking up so I guess pride is not always a bad thing to have.

It never occurred to me that this typing requirement was one that applied only to women, much less that I should be angry for the sake of my entire gender. Prejudice is sometimes like traveling on well-worn treads; you have no idea you’re in danger. It also feeds on the ignorance of its victims. They benignly accept their lot because they know no better.

Something similar was at work when I married and had children. I happily took a new direction to accommodate my husband’s career and the life the winds of the times presented to me. I left my writing with hardly a backward look. Back then -- in the days before women had been made aware -- the possibilities were not an open book to be denied or accepted. I just did what was expected by the entire culture.

Things are so much better now. I don’t think women younger than their mid-fifties have any idea how ignorant most women were to their own possibilities. That there was a time when we didn’t even know we had choices is not fiction.

I had always wanted to sit in a forest or an office or a newsroom with a pencil in my hand. I dreamed writing, lived writing and loved writing. I wanted to write the next Gone With The Wind only set in Utah, instead of the South. (I figured enough had been written about the South and hardly anyone knew anything about the unique culture I was raised in.) That was my plan but it was soon gone with the wind.

It was the 1950s and women in that time, and especially in that place, had a notion of who they should be, could be and, mostly, they got it from those around them because many of them couldn’t see the difference from society’s expectations and their own.

“You can’t be a nurse,” my mother said. “Your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” I also was told I couldn’t be a doctor because that wasn’t a woman’s vocation.

“Be a teacher because you can be home the same hours as your children, but learn to type because every woman should be able to make a living somehow if their husband dies.”

Writing was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements. So when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much.

When I began to put myself through college, I took the sound advice and studied education so I’d have a profession. I made 75 cents an hour (this was, after all, the 50s!) working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me. I met a handsome young man and we were married. His career took precedence; that was simply how it was done back then. Then there were two children, carefully planned, because that was how it should be done. By the 70s we both yearned for careers with autonomy. We wanted to spend time with our children and be in command of our own lives.

My dream was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction when my husband and children needed me. The pain was there. I just didn’t recognize it so I could hardly address it and fix it.

My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a mathematician, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, enjoyed travel. For forty years I didn’t write and, during that time, there were changes. Women had more choices but more than that they had become more aware. The equipment, gears and pulleys were in place for a different view on life. In midlife I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been but also that the hole was more vast than the space vacated by them. I knew I not only would be able to write, I would need to write.

Then I read that, if those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year. That meant that I might have another entire lifetime before me -- plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. In fact, it’s my belief that women in their 50s might have more time for their second life because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.

One day I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature.

It wasn’t long before I realized that writing a novel wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have. It was a discouraging time. I might not have to learn speech and motor skills and the ABCs but there sure was a lot I didn’t know about creative writing.

Somewhere after writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong.

I took classes at UCLA in writing. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills that had been honed in the days of the Apple II. And all the while I wrote and revised and listened and revised again. THIS IS THE PLACE finally emerged.

It is about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, who is a half-breed. In Utah where she was born and raised, that meant that she was one-half Mormon and one-half any other religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her own internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history -- several generations of women who entered into mixed marriages -- and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.

Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction.

I think I bring a unique vision to my work. Utah has a beauty and wonder of its own. The Mormons are a mystery to many. I think I tell a story about Utah in the 50s that could only be told by someone who lived in that time and place and who was a part of the two cultures—the Mormon and the non-Mormon—that make it a whole.

I am proud that I wrote this book. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. I believe that forty years brought insight to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days and a gentler perspective of the culture in Utah.

I also really like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson's first novel, This Is the Place, and her creative nonfiction, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, are both award-winners. Her fiction, nonfiction and poems have appeared in national magazines, anthologies and review journals. She speaks on culture, tolerance, writing and promotion and has appeared on TV and hundreds of radio stations nationwide. She is an instructor for UCLA Extension's Writers' Program and has shared her expertise at venues like San Diego State's world renowned Writers' Conference and Call to Arts! EXPO. She was recently awarded Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment by the California Legislature and her city's Ethics award for her work on promoting tolerance. Her nitty gritty how-to book, THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER won USA Book News' Best Professional Book 2004 and the Irwin Award and her THE FRUGAL EDITOR: PUT YOUR BEST BOOK FORWARD TO AVOID HUMILIATION AND ENSURE SUCCESS was also a USA News winner and a Reader Views Literary Award winner. Her chapbook of poetry, TRACINGS, won the Award of Excellence from the Military Writers' Society of America and was a Compulsive Reader Best Read. She loves to travel and has studied writing at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, UK: Herzen University in St. Petersburg, RU; and Charles University in Prague.
You can read the first chapter of THIS IS THE PLACE free, by emailing: or learn more at

Check out Carolyn's blog for writers:


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Carolyn, even though I'm on the husband's side of this life journey, I am right with you in philosophy. I'm 55, and plan to finish 100 mysteries by the time I die. That shouldn't be too hard, right? Just a couple a year til I'm 100. Heck, I've already got 12 down. Only 88 more to go!

Thanks for a lovely article - I'm sure many of our readers will relate and take comfort in it.

Marta Stephens said...

Carolyn, I'm 53 and started my writing career in 2003 so I too look forward to another lifetime ahead of me!! Of couse, I could relate to everything you mentioned, but I especially like this line:

"I also really like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream."

Ditto, ditto, ditto!

Kim Smith said...

Carolyn, well-done! Well-said, too. I believe our greatest accomplishment in life is to just allow ourselves to "be".
Best, Kim

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Thank you so much Aaron and Marta. I am proud to be part of your blog. You do a great job. Put a big smile on my face.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Anonymous said...

I'm 55, Carolyn. One thing I've notice about women just a little bit ahead of me on life's pathway, including colleagues, friends, and a sister who's older by 7 years, is a tendency many still have to deny that they, personally, could possibly have experienced discrimination. When I talk about it as the fact of our lives that it was, and sometimes still is, they try to shush me as if I'm telling a mortifying secret to the world. In private the same woman may admit that she, too, went through being limited by cultural expectations (in which she sometimes participated without even thinking about it); but in public, they're afraid to talk about it. I wonder why that is?

I was the only woman in my college accounting classes, often. As a student teacher (teaching for me was "going into the family business"), I had to argue with the dean to get assigned to Bookkeeping and Business Law after being automatically assigned to teach Typing and Shorthand. That dean's first name was Jacqueline...for me this is still the hardest part. The collaboration, to use a real hot button word.

You are an inspiration, my dear!

Best as always,


Marta Stephens said...

Nina, I agree with what you've said. I've seen it too. I recall when I was in high school the boys were given a wide range of career opportunities to consider. We girls we nudged in the direction of, nursing, teaching, or home economics.

I know of one girl in our class who became a lawyer, but she's the exception and not the rule.

Our children (a daughter 22, and a son 19) are both in college and because of our experiences growing up, we've made it a point to encourage them to dream and dream big. Thankfully it's a new age.

Allyn Evans said...


Thanks for a great article. We've had this discussion before. I'm a generation younger, but grew up in the South. Interestingly, I feel as if your story was mine (in many ways) and heard the same messages.

Although, I agree...yes, things have and are changing.

My wish is for all women and men to follow their hearts!

Anonymous said...

As always, you are an inspiration and a wellspring of the "can-do" attitude so important for success. 58 myself, just 3 years into my brave new world golden years career as an author, I thank you once again for who you are and what you do. Great post!

Marvin D. Wilson, Author

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and commenting. We hope Carolyn will come back soon to post another gem. ;o)