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I read that in 2005 a new author called Bertha Wood published her debut book titled - Fresh Air and Fun: The Story of a Blackpool Holiday Camp. Being described as ‘A treat of a tale, telling of life and general tomfoolery of the day’ - the book was based on her experience of running a holiday camp.

So what, I hear you saying, nothing too amazing about that. Well, except for the fact that the book was launched on her 100th birthday, and had been created from memoirs she’d been writing since she was 90 years old.

Bertha Wood was at that time the world’s oldest debut author, although there are others not much younger. Margaret Ford’s first novel, A Daughter’s Choice, made its literary debut when she was aged 93.  

A more recent best-known debut author is probably Australian writer Vicki Laveau-Harvie, whose memoir The Erratics, published in 2019, won her the Stella Prize. But by the standards of Bertha Wood and Margaret Ford, she was a mere spring chicken at the age of only 77.

In a piece for Griffith Review, Laveau-Harvie wrote that the story of her success was a publishing fairytale, “complete with obstacles, sudden reversals of fortune and carriages full of fairy godmothers”. What nice wording. Also, how it surprised her at an age when the unexpected is rarely good news.

Now, we should appreciate that older debut writers’ work may and probably will vary considerably, but in many cases, they are telling tales of their own lives. Often marred by hardship, misunderstandings, neglect, or abuse, which can take nearly a lifetime to process.

You can read these styles of works in the tradition of A. B. Facey’s 1982 classic, A Fortunate Life, published when he was 87, and a few months before his death. He went to work when he was eight and lived a rough frontier life. He fought at Gallipoli, so was a late starter at writing anything in literacy. Despite much pain and loss, he always felt his life had been fortunate.

Processing a past on the page, with its mix of good and bad, does not necessarily lead to grim reading or, even grim writing.

“When you hit a seam of truth, an underground reservoir of pain, you may experience the pressure building, which means that you will be more inclined for your story to be written spontaneously,” Laveau-Harvie writes. “When this happens, strangely the writing is a pleasure.”

We at Mentoring Writers believe that writing such painful memories is a lethargic, healing process that will allow you to make peace with yourself and your past hurts. Having helped many writers through this type of writing process means we have seen joy and relief as the outcome.

Ruth Wilson says she derides pleasure from recalling experiences within her life and then matching them to Jane Austen’s wisdom in her memoir, The Jane Austen Remedy, published when she was 90. Why a remedy? It is written with the memories and pain of a time when she felt mysteriously sad, having recurring dreams of losing her voice. She decided to move away from her husband and lived alone for 10 years, spending her time rereading Austen and thus making amazing unknown discoveries about herself.

Another author with a debut book was Barry Revill, 88, whose Diary of a Young Boy was created through a combination of spontaneous writing and daily discipline. In simple prose he tells the story of his life, starting from the day he walked out of the family shop at the age of four. The story tells of cruelty and violence but also of love, of humour, and the redemption of small mercies.

The point I am trying to make here is, that the old saying ‘that everyone has at least one good book inside them’ still rings true to this day. Remember, no one has lived your life like you have. Therefore each person's story has to be different. So, if you think you have a book hidden inside you, well now is the time to let it out – no matter what age you are.

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