When I was a lawyer, there was a dress code. It was a different code in Washington, DC, where I first started practicing law, than in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I ended up. Americans are more prudish when it comes to office attire. Yet there are common taboos everywhere if you’re trying to make a career.
a working woman
Kitten heels for example. Jewelry that makes a lot of noise. I could get away with a low-cut blouse since I was already a partner and head of the corporate department. But someone working for me better not pull that shit. God forbid that anyone should confuse a working woman with a working woman.
The day I quit my lucrative law practice, my tired old wardrobe heaved a huge sigh of relief. I was 52 years old at the time, young enough to take fashion risks. Hell, I’d just thrown away a career that had lasted 25+ years and spanned 2 countries. And I didn’t have a new job lined up.
out of the box
There was some method to that madness. I wanted to stretch my brain again. Use the skills I had acquired in a different way. My gut told me that, if I looked for that mythical new position from the safety of my law firm, I’d end up at another law firm or a general counsel’s office. I wanted to think outside the box and the only way for me to do that was to get out of the box.
So I talked to anyone I knew who had a cool position. I asked, how did you get there? The response floored me. My contacts shared insights and let me tag along for a day to walk in their shoes. I talked to investment bankers, sat in on a coaching session and interviewed for a job as the CFO of a sustainable incubator. A new career seemed well within reach.
too old for the kitchen
A headhunter friend got me an interview for the general counsel position at a major Dutch company. I didn’t get the job. I wanted to apply for a position in the kitchen of my favorite Michelin star restaurant. My son, who’s worked in professional kitchens, said:
“Mom, you’re too old to work in a kitchen. Even my back hurts at the end of a shift.”
While I was out looking for the right career move, I started work as a consultant. Of course, I didn’t earn very much, but it kept my hysteria under control. I positioned myself as a negotiator. At least it was something I knew I could do.
But time was running out. I had given myself an arbitrary period of two years to jumpstart my new career. Nothing floated my boat. Except for that one thing: writing. I had started a novel and found myself devoting more and more energy to its conception. It gave me energy and challenged me in ways I hadn’t experienced in years. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment every time I completed a page or a chapter.
Of course, the pay sucked. And my career prospects were dismal. I heard terrible numbers. 1 in 10,000 manuscripts get published. It takes an average of 10 years to bring a novel from first draft to publication. And even if I could make this all happen, I’d be in my 60s by then.
I did it anyway. I chose to become a full-time writer. What started out as a very bad first draft in 2011 became my debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, published in 2017. It’s set among the dance halls and opium dens of Shanghai in 1937. That may sound invitingly exotic, but I’m digging deep here, too. Looking past the glitz and the glamour at those working women: the trauma of prostitution, rape and self-harm.
Those are not topics my 17 year old self could have tackled. Nor would I have been able to articulate either my rage or my sorrow at age 27. This novel could not have been published at any age other than the age I am now, 57.
Others have defied the age barrier to start a new career as a writer. There are even websites like Bloom, dedicated to the celebration of writers over 40. This is founding editor Sonya Chung‘s love song to latecomers like me.
“I’m interested in writers who perhaps had the inkling, or the deep desire, to write, to pursue a creative life, for a long time, but for myriad reasons were impeded. […] I am excited and inspired by individuals from whom a determined self-reinvention – a digging in, a deep breath, an about face or leap off a cliff – has been required […] to pursue the vocation that has called from within.”
Now that I can, I don’t wear kitten heels. No need for a wardrobe that makes me look sexy or powerful. I already am.
Editor’s Note: Read Karen’s wonderful new book! It’s a great book club read.
If you click on the book and purchase through Amazon, Fiftiness does get a small percentage. It’s not why we do it, wouldn’t keep the lights on! We do it to share our writers and their work with you, but thank you in advance for any purchases you do make!