One more naysayer was the final straw for Lynne to quit her job and devote herself full time to writing, in her 50s. She became passionate about empowering women to celebrate growing older through her writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
Tell us about your background…
I grew up in Southern California, in a loving family headed by a violent father and a codependent mother. My life has been a series of steps in becoming free of negative childhood influences. As a kid I escaped into work. I babysat, worked retail while in high school. I also tried my hand at selling cosmetics and tending bar before starting in Human Resources at a very low level, as a filing clerk in the payroll department. I attended college in the evenings, picking off one class a semester, sometimes two (I graduated at age 36, after 18 years of night school!). At the same time, I worked my way up the ladder, applying for promotions or changing employers for promotional opportunities. At about 1/3 of the way through my 30-year career, I entered management.
When did you think about making a change?
Although I was following a career path that would pay my bills, I wanted to write from the time I was a child. While working full time, I was too exhausted and used-up to write, but I kept the dream alive by writing bits of stories, taking occasional classes, and reading about the craft. And I never stopped dreaming about being a writer. Never.
I always hoped and prayed that, having gone to work so early, perhaps I would be able to retire early by some miracle. And after 30 years in HR, my miracle arrived in the form of my third husband. My first two husbands refused to work. They were bad mates but good teachers, in the sense that they taught me much about human nature and about life. From them, I learned the importance of valuing myself, fighting for myself. I think the two most important lessons were (1) to judge people based on their actions rather than their words, and (2) that no matter how hard we try, how much we sacrifice, or how brilliant our lectures, we cannot change other people. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” So when I met my third husband, I took my then-fiancé to meet my therapist, really to get his opinion. After talking with both of us together, Dr. O turned to me with a chuckle and said, “He’s got a job, Lynne. What the hell do you see in him?”
When a law firm offered me a consulting job, I quit my full-time career. After three years of that, my work partner, a man who was ten years my senior, opined that, “You’ll never write that book.” That’s the magic phrase, and that was my “Aha!” moment. Tell me I won’t ever do something, and I’ll prove you wrong. I hadn’t known this about myself, but it had a certain ring of truth, because I suddenly remembered in my early 40s, an older man had tried to dissuade me from learning to play golf. It made me mad enough that I not only learned it, I became a 19 handicap, shot under 90 four times, and once even got a hole in one. Not bad for an older novice.
But when that man told me I would never finish my novel, I quit that consulting job to devote myself to my writing. A couple years later, I published my first novel, at the age of 58.
What is your next act?
I am an author and advocate for positive aging.
Dakota Blues is a novel about two women, one 50 and one 90, who take a life-changing road trip together. It incorporates themes of self-discovery, particularly later in life; family ties, including our ancestors; individuality and sacrifice; and love. It was awarded Honorable Mention/Finalist by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
My second book, Middle-Aged Crazy: Short Stories of Midlife and Beyond, is a collection of short stories and essays. The shorts all feature main characters who are at least 45, and most are older than that.
I also blog (on Any Shiny Thing – Life After 50) and speak about the positive aspects of aging, with the goal to raise awareness about ageism. And of course I write stories about it. My process is to gather information, assess it, and disseminate it.
What led you to become passionate about positive aging?
As I prepared the manuscript for my novel, I delved deeper into the experiences of older age and became intrigued. I began to think there are two “coming-of-age” stories in American life: the first is arriving at adulthood, and the second is post-adulthood. After we’ve accomplished our goals—typically marriage, children, home, and career—what then? When we reach the second half, do we just keep doing the same thing, or do we review our circumstances and change? Do we take a great leap or a small one? What are our obligations at this point? What do we do with our newfound independence? And in a more pragmatic sense, perhaps, how do we deal with the new challenges of older age?
I am driven to write stories—fiction—about this time of life. So many questions arise for people in this stage, and yet the prevailing culture tells me it’s not a topic of interest. I am told it’s better to focus on youth. And I am sorry to say that when I talk about Older Adult fiction, some of my friends and colleagues have responded negatively. They wonder why I am so sensitive about perceived ageism? I am told I should lighten up, have a sense of humor, and not make a big deal about it. I assume this is based in fear, but denial isn’t a strategy.
I began to learn about brain development in older people, and was astonished at the positive changes. I was further astonished that no one seemed to be celebrating these changes, and I vowed to start talking about them. You can read one of my essays, “10 Reasons to Be Happy About Getting Older,” here.
Last summer, I began to wonder why I was spending so much time and money on the process of coloring my hair. Who was I doing it for? What was I trying to accomplish, beyond looking nice? Couldn’t I do that without color? And what was my color? It bothered me a little to think that I didn’t know what my natural hair looked like. It felt inauthentic. In all honesty, I realized that I—and this is true only of me; I don’t want to speak for any other woman—was coloring my hair because it was a habit of compliance. I was complying with some vague sense that it was what the culture expected, but really, who cared?
This awakening jarred me, because if I have one core value about aging, it is to be awake and aware about my life. I fear having some great realization on my deathbed that I wasted my opportunities, that I wasted my one precious life. Now that I realized I was coloring my hair out of mindlessness, I contemplated stopping, which was frightening. AND THAT took me even another step into self-study: Why was it frightening? What was I afraid of? The answer: I would be announcing to the world that I was old. Call it older, oldish, aging—it’s still the same, and that is to step into a group that is not valued by this culture. Yet I was the one supposedly celebrating aging! I became angry, and thought, “F### you, society. I am going to do what I want. I am no longer going to color my hair for you.” For me, going gray was nothing less than an act of anarchy. I wrote about going gray here.
What challenges did you encounter?
Sometimes I felt like giving up. Being a pro-aging advocate is sometimes difficult, but more and more people are coming onboard. I think Baby Boomers are helping. They were the worst, at first, with their attempts to remain young. But now so many of us are old-ish, and regardless of surgical, cosmetic, or other interventions, we’re accepting that we can’t stop time. As a result, I see us becoming more organic, more accepting, of this stage of life. And it’s so empowering! Only when one stops feeling as if one must apologize and bow to the Gods of Youth does one come fully into one’s own.
One of the most powerful emotions is gratitude. Seeing our peers pass on has a way of centering us. Now, looking and acting “young” isn’t the standard. The new standard is to look good and act any way you please; to celebrate the freedom to decide for yourself; and to feel grateful for the strength of mind, which is a gift of a long life.
And my close friends and my family have been 100% supportive. People who don’t know me as well may wonder what the big deal is. Guess which group’s opinions I care more about?
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Don’t go crazy. In the new book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, author Barbara Bradley Hagerty suggests the most successful reinventions are when we try things out incrementally, nudging up beside a new idea and trying it through volunteerism, for example.
Another idea I like is to remember what we were passionate about as kids, and build on that core. (For me, it was writing). I have given a talk called, “Who You Were at Eleven,” taken from Dr. Christiane Northrup who said that after menopause, when our chemistry changes and we are no longer in a reproductive fog (I’m paraphrasing) we become more like our girlhood selves, more like the person we were at eleven (i.e. before puberty).
What resources do you recommend?
I would like to recommend a very empowering new book: This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite (and her website Yo Is This Ageist?). It is funny, smart, and enlightening, and will change the way we think about aging. Do you know there are 70 million Baby Boomers in this country? What if we stopped criticizing ourselves for being older, and began to celebrate the good things about having made it this far, this well? In the 1970s, we stopped a war. We have no limits, except those we place on ourselves.
Other books: Dr. George Vaillant’s Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development and Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.
Websites I enjoy:
Changing Aging (and Dr. Bill Thomas in general)
I would also recommend watching the Amy Cuddy Ted Talk about how changing our posture for two minutes can create success. It’s a fantastic life hack for building self-confidence. It has helped me as I prepare to do speeches about positive aging, and would be useful for any person of any age, who is facing a challenging task and needs a boost.
Lastly, here’s a quick trick for motivating myself. I sometimes lose my initiative, wrestling with the eternal question: at age 62, have I worked enough to be able to rest? Or should I put the pedal to the metal, because who knows how much more time I have? Ultimately, the answer is individual, but for me, I found my answer by Googling “famous people born in 1954”. When you realize that Oprah Winfrey or the chancellor of Germany are your age, you do feel like getting up off the couch!
What’s next for you?
My next act is twofold: First, to publish a dozen novels about people over fifty triumphing in the second half of life. And second, to engage in what psychologist Erik Erikson calls generativity, the giving back to society. In my case, I helped birth the Diamond Valley Writers’ Guild, a warm and nurturing central gathering of writers in the Inland Empire of Southern California. I hope to step away from leadership after it is off and running, and simply be supportive. But we’re having a blast trying out new ideas and seeing what works. My greatest joy comes from seeing the enthusiasm with which the writers visit with each other after the monthly meetings.
My third act will consist of the fairly selfish pursuit of learning to play the piano. It is a lifetime dream, and I began lessons just before I turned 62. My goal is personal satisfaction, but I also hope to demonstrate positive aging to my adult kids and grandchildren. I want them to look forward to this stage of life, rather than fear it. If I can inspire my peers to take up this cause, we could change the culture to treasure and enjoy aging. What a worthwhile effort that would be!
Contact Lynne M. Spreen at LMSpreen@yahoo.com