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 put out 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. The two of us (often with our children’s help!) opened an art gallery and it grew into a chain of gift shops, so 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.
As a shop owner, I was often surprised—even after it happened many times—when suppliers wouldn’t talk to me. They insisted on talking to the “decision maker,” presumably someone with a masculine voice. Once I met disbelief when I told the person on the other end of the line that I was it.
Things are so much better now. I don’t think women younger than their mid-fifties have any idea of 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.
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.
Since then I’ve written books of poetry, a series of HowToDoItFrugally books for writers, and a series for retailers. The nonfiction books are the result of many of those experiences, the wafting and ebbing of life. They wouldn’t have been possible had I not been led off track. I guess that realization is a form of the wisdom people say we get as we age.
I am proud of my novel and poetry. 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. But I’m also proud of my nonfiction books, my efforts to share what I learned through all of my careers. Each was valuable.
But mostly I like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream.
Be sure to return Friday for a review of Carolyn’s latest book: Frugal and Focused Tweeting for Retailers:Tweaking Your Tweets and Other Tips for Integrating Your Social Media. And don’t think this book doesn’t apply to you because you’re not a retailer. The information can be used by authors or anyone trying to promote a product or service.
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 award 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.