“If You Don’t Like Starting Over, Stop Giving Up”

I recently read somewhere, “If you don’t like starting over, stop giving up.” At first, I was taken aback. After all, I’d only just started a blog on the subject of starting over in mid-life. But then I thought, “Wait—there can be all sorts of reasons one might start over that have nothing to do with giving up.”

I’ve started over several times in my life. I don’t care how many people say it’s exhilarating; putting oneself out in the world in a new way is always hard, and I find harder as I get older. I’m not sure if that’s because I don’t have any personal role models for starting over late in life; among my family and friends, everyone did what they did until they died or retired.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert—a person who recharges their batteries by being alone, as compared with extroverts, who get their energy from being with people—and starting over typically requires energy to put oneself out there. It’s not unusual for people to have less energy as they get older, whether from a naturally slowing metabolism or because they’re dealing with personal, professional, or health issues.

More likely, I think anyone who starts over in mid-life finds it hard, in at least some respects, but doesn’t necessarily talk about the hard parts. I’ve never been a member of the say-only-positive-things-all-the-time school of thought. Almost inevitably, when people subvert so-called “negative” feelings and experiences because everyone else would rather only hear about the “positive” ones, they enlist unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The problem, of course, is that difficulties only become more difficult when they’re not talked about, but it’s all the more difficult to talk about them when no one else is taking a risk and talking about them lest others target them for not being positive enough. North American culture, I find, is as obsessed with non-stop positivity as it is with relentless self-sufficiency, effortless perfection, and endless youth and beauty. But that’s a whole other rant.

Getting back to the many reasons one might start over, I started over as a youth worker after university because I realized that, although I loved studying anthropology and archaeology, I wasn’t as drawn to the career options as I’d thought I’d be (and wasn’t aware of some of the other options that might have been open to me).

I stumbled from there into youth work almost accidentally. It influenced the course of my life in countless ways, but after seven years I was burning out. Besides, I’d always wanted to be a writer; it had been in the back of my mind for years, but I’d always felt like I needed more life experience. After university, archaeology, travel, youth work, and marriage, I felt ready. It was time to start over again.

I set about to be a freelance journalist around the same time I started my family and stuck with it for 12 years, until our third child came along. At that point, I still wasn’t making a living—freelance gigs were already becoming scarcer and more poorly paid, and I finally had to admit it wasn’t just a personal failing and put my family first. So I started my fourth career, as the sole proprietor of a communications business, working with small nonprofits, with a long-term goal of getting back to creative nonfiction writing after the kids were older.

That’s what I’m doing now, though it feels more like “starting over” than “getting back to it” at least partly because the publishing world has changed much more than I anticipated 20 years ago—and, frankly, so have I. And all those changes make it more difficult than I thought it would be, to the point that I have many moments of regretting that I ever left writing behind.

When I look back with hindsight, I can see there was a third road. On my bad days, I feel bitter because the choice not to take that road wasn’t entirely mine. On my better days, I remember doing what I felt was best for everyone and I remind myself that harbouring anger over old choices doesn’t change anything, past or present.

I imagine a lot of people have those sorts of feelings, which is why I think talking about them is a good thing. The point is, though the statement “If you don’t like starting over, stop giving up” took me aback when I first read it, I soon realized it only sounds true until you think about it.

Anyway, I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article in the Globe and Mail last weekend about an accomplished writer who started over as an Anglican priest in her fifties. It was something she’d always wanted to do, something related in many ways to what she’d been doing all along, something that continues to carry on aspects of life she’d started much earlier. I found it a good read.

It sounds like a completely joyous journey for her, and maybe it has been. Some people really are relentlessly positive, while others battle depression and “negative feelings.” But maybe more of the latter would find the courage to start over in mid-life if they knew more about others who are doing it, and that having/sharing fears and negative feelings about it is not a bad thing. It’s not a sign that the only reason you’re struggling with starting over again is that you’ve spent a lifetime giving up.

I’ve started over many times, for many reasons. None of them had anything to do with giving up. It’s difficult starting over now, but I want it, so I’ll stick with it. I hope it will be my last start-over, but if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you never know what’s coming up. You never know when life is going to throw a start-over at you, you never know how you’re going to feel about it until you get there, and it’s probably better not to judge people who are in the process of finding out.

“If You Can’t Start Over, Start Now”

That, basically, is what a Facebook friend wrote to me a couple of years ago when I was feeling really crappy one day and wrote for my status update, “I wish I could start over.”

When I look back at it, I could have, and probably should have, started this blog two years ago, which I realize in hindsight is when I actually did start over. (I was accepted into the UKing’s MFA program in May 2013, if I remember correctly.*) Or maybe I should have started it in April 2013, when I applied for the program. Or maybe on February 22 2013, when I saw the email announcing the brand, new, unique-in-Canada program and looking for applicants.

Maybe I should have started this blog right then, as I sat in my desk chair staring in disbelief at the screen. At that point, I’d almost stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But right then, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life landed in my inbox.

Maybe I should have started this blog then, but I was still living in a pretty deep fog of confusion. I’ve never in my life been more confused than I was in the decade after I fell and hit my head, especially after the lawsuit settled.

At least while the lawsuit was ongoing, I had a focus. Once it was over, I had no idea what to do next. Nothing fit anymore. I wasn’t enjoying most of the work I was being offered as a communications consultant, but I didn’t have the energy or confidence to go out and sell myself to do the kind of work I wanted, even if I could have figured out what that was.

Although I remember the years between the accident and the settlement reasonably well, and have journals, emails, and other documents to corroborate and sometimes correct my memory, I don’t remember a lot of what happened after the lawsuit settled. I have to work at recalling landmarks from that period between the March 2007 settlement and the February 2013 email.

I remember taking the family to Costa Rica for Christmas 2007. I was trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t spent with them in the previous four years, and for all the mistakes I’d made while my focus had been almost entirely on trying to recover from the accident and pursue compensation for my losses.

I remember in 2008 walking away from my failing business and taking a full-time job. I was trying to find a way to bring some kind of meaning back into my life. But all I remember is how surreal it felt to be working in an office tower after years of working from a home office.

I remember in 2009 walking away from that job after less than a year and being unable to get another job, or even many interviews, as the recession settled in. Who wanted to hire a fifty-something consultant who’d only ever worked at home and didn’t yet know what the term “social media” meant?

I remember in 2011 deciding to work with a business adviser, which I know now was one of the best  decisions I’ve made in my life. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but what I ended up learning was how to have a little self-respect again.

I remember in early 2013 realizing that, despite all my adviser’s good advice, I wasn’t getting anywhere because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had almost stopped* trying to figure that out when that email arrived and I found myself thinking, “Maybe it’s not too late.”

Maybe I should have started this blog—which is about starting over in the middle of my life to pursue the goal I’d set out to pursue 30 years earlier—right at the moment I started over. Maybe if I had, I would have written a lot more about it than I have here in this one post.

But I didn’t. So instead, I’m starting now.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post. This week, today, I wrote a blog post. Tomorrow, or the next day or next week, I’ll write another one. And I’ll just keep going like that, one sentence at a time, one word at a time, until I have a blog post or an essay, or maybe even a book.

I didn’t start this blog two years ago when I actually started over. So instead I’m starting now. And really, what more can any of us do?

[*Edited.]

A Missive to the Class of 2015

I was terrified. That first evening we all met at the grad pub in August 2013, I was terrified. I couldn’t possibly live up to the high standards the rest of our class set, and I vowed to stay to myself, go to class and back to my room, not get involved, not give anyone an opportunity to know me, or dislike me.

But you drew me out. You didn’t mean to; I didn’t give you a reason to. I tried not to let you. I think it was your sheer enthusiasm for what we were all doing there, for the shared dream inside each of us. Not “just” to be the writers we’d all already been for anywhere from five to thirty-five years—magazine editors and broaMEC_1600dcast journalists and communications consultants and, and, and—but “real” writers, people who write those anachronistic things called “books.”

As thrilled as I was to be accepted to the brand new program, first of its kind in Canada, I felt in my bones I didn’t belong there, not the way all of you did. I still feel that in some ways, still feel like an outsider. But I had to do it anyway, had to try. I was—am—at that stage of life where it’s really now or never. No more putting it off until I have more life experience, until after my time with my mother has run out, until after the kids have grown, until after the mortgage is paid off.

I have life experience, my mother died in 1991, my kids are 29, 27, and 19, and my mortgage, well—let’s just say I seem to be considerably further away from that goal than I was two years ago. But it was worth it.

I didn’t know that then, though. I almost didn’t get on the plane. Almost dropped out halfway through the first term. Almost didn’t show up for the second residency.

Then, to my surprise, I got through the first year. We were halfway there. I didn’t know where the money for second year was going to come from, didn’t know how I was going to cope with the headaches for another year. I considered taking a break and doing the second year later, but I knew that would never happen. As an old friend said to me recently about some challenges she’s been taking up, “It’s never going to get easier.”

So I went back, went on, as did all of you, and here we are. Two years ago, on one of the earlier middle pages of my life, I wanted to be a better writer but I was terrified of being found out to be a terrible person. Two years later, I am a better writer. I don’t know if I’m a better person. Or rather, I don’t know if anyone around me thinks I’m a better person. But I know it doesn’t matter to me as much anymore. And that’s not an insult to any of you. It’s a gift I gave myself, and you have all been part of the gift.

Because to me, becoming a Master of Fine Arts and making it to the middle pages of my book manuscript has not been the only thing to come from the University of King’s College Creative Nonfiction Writing program. I’m also, on these middle pages of my life, surprised to find myself, if not a better person, at least a calmer one. A more confident one. A just slightly less neurotic one. A person who can say, it’s okay if not everyone likes me. Because somewhere in the last two years, I’ve learned to like myself again.

It’s not that I don’t still sometimes wake up in the morning in sheer terror at the thought of just getting out of bed. But then I get out bed and start writing another page of my life. The beginning of my life is long since over, and I trust the end is not as near as I’ve so often hoped it would be. I’m just on one of many pages in the middle of my life, much as I’m on one of many pages in the middle of my book.

Two years have gone by so quickly. I’ve been so proud to see us all closing the back cover of the program, one by one. Master Gough. Master Cole. Master Levangie. Master MacDonnell. Master Simon. Master Osberg. Master Gould. Master Bruhm. Master Duncan Bruhm. Too many to name, but Masters, all. And the title fits. You were all writers of the highest calibre to begin with. Now . . .

I look forward to being less overwhelmed with work all the time (though I don’t really know if being a writer and making a living means ever not being overwhelmed), but I am truly sorry we’re parting company. You are some of the wisest, most talented people I’ve ever met. I think so highly of all of you, and I look forward to seeing you again, whenever, wherever, on one of many more middle pages I trust we all have ahead of us.

Congratulations to the Class of 2015, the inaugural class of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. Well done. Bravo. See you on your book tour. Or mine.

And so it begins . . .