Is This All There Is?

How Writing Helped My Midlife Crisis

by Jerry Waxler, MS

Changing Tacks
As I neared my 50th birthday, I looked back on decades spent alone at my desk developing software and writing computer help files. I asked myself, “Is this it? Am I going to be doing this for the rest of my life?” To break out of my old patterns, I began to read self-help books, and one central concept caught my attention. Stephen Covey, in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that, to live effectively, we should consciously try to succeed at each of our many roles. His advice stirred me to action. Until then, on arriving home from work in the evening, I would go limp and sag onto the couch. I decided to do more with my time.

For the next three years, I squeezed graduate school into nights and weekends, and, by the time I was 52, I had earned my Master of Science in Counseling Psychology from Villanova University. That was a wonderful accomplishment in its own right, an exciting stepping stone on a new path.

I started to counsel in a small private practice, and, with the support of my supervisor, I learned many lessons while I helped clients learn theirs. But I quickly ran into a snag: In order to find clients, I needed to reach out to the public, a difficult task considering I had always been awkward around strangers. How could I reach out to people and hide from them at the same time? I thought I might be able to solve this paradox by writing articles for a local paper: I hoped that my printed words could speak for me while I remained safely behind my keyboard.

Reaching Out Through Writing
I had years of experience as a technical writer, but the articles that appear in newspapers and magazines sound completely different than the computer manuals I was accustomed to writing. I had been trained to clearly explain information but had never written an article that would be accepted by an editor. I had a lot to learn.

The writing club I discovered in Doylestown, PA, with its classes and groups, was a wonderful incubator. But at my first meeting in a critique group, when my peers read one of the pieces I had been working on, they were confused. “What is this? It’s certainly not an article. There is no style or structure. It’s more like a brochure.”

If I was going to write articles, I would need to learn all sorts of new things. I needed to learn how to structure an article with a catchy beginning that leads to a satisfying ending. And I had to develop my style so it would be more engaging and pull the reader in. With regard to these specialized skills, I was an amateur. Once again I found myself starting over.

Soon, with feedback from my fellow writers, I was able to place an article about improving harmony at Thanksgiving gatherings in a weekly newspaper. Then I published another one on making the most of New Year’s resolutions. I kept this up for months. The articles did not generate clients, but the more I wrote, the more involved I became with other writers. I noticed that we all faced similar challenges. We were writing not because someone was forcing us to, but because of our own passion.

Without a boss, we had to form good work habits, combat self-doubts, and push ourselves to accomplish complex tasks. The more I learned about the problems writers must overcome, the more I wanted to share some of the psychological strategies that had helped me. However, I was unable to speak out as long as I was trapped by my old enemy, shyness.

Teaching and Loving It
In order to improve my social skills, I joined Toastmasters International. Attending two early morning meetings each month, I followed this inexpensive, simple, supportive program. By the end of the year, I was ready to stand in front of a group and speak. Pressing my newfound confidence into service, I began to teach workshops called “Self-Help for Writers.” The more I taught, the more I learned, and the more I researched, the more I wanted to teach.

To find new material that would help people overcome obstacles, I mined the lessons I had learned in my counseling courses and self-help books. For example, Stephen Covey suggests writing a mission statement that spells out what you want to do. He also recommends writing the eulogy you want delivered at your funeral. These suggestions sounded especially powerful for writers. Since we were already interested in writing stories, why not write one about ourselves? I incorporated this idea into my talks and instructed people to describe a future situation in which their success had already taken place.

The story of self turned out to be a powerful tool to help writers chart their course, so I looked more carefully and realized I could also use storytelling to help writers find an identity.

Many aspiring writers were hesitant to write because they felt they didn’t deserve to call themselves “writers.” I added an exercise to my workshop: I invited people to play around with their identity, to create innovative images of themselves as warrior-writers, healer-writers, or any other images that came to mind. The assignment inspired them to see their roles in a new way.

Self-Story and Memoir
The more I learned about the relationship between story and self, the more intrigued I became. After realizing that stories could guide my choices, I wondered how other aspects of my self-story had affected me over the years. I also had another reason for delving into my history: Because I was still trying to overcome my tendency to hide, I decided that writing about myself would help me open up.

Soon, I was writing vignettes about college at the University of Wisconsin during the Vietnam War protest years; about my attempt to become a hippie in Berkeley, California; and about my trip to India in 1975 to meet my guru. Until I reviewed these events, they seemed like a smorgasbord of isolated scenes. As they unfolded on the page, however, I discovered how my hodgepodge of memories added up to a life. To polish my work, I swapped critiques with fellow writers who were trying to find the stories of their pasts.

By now, I was becoming skilled at converting things I learned into lessons that I could teach others. I began to teach memoir writing classes at senior centers and writing clubs and was amazed by the enthusiasm and sense of discovery. I was helping each person who came to the classes find his or her own “narrative arc” with a beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, attendees were observing the self-discoveries of the other participants.

Memoirs seemed to be commanding a lot of attention in the media, so I began to read them to see what all the hoopla was about. These books let me immerse myself in the journeys of people from all walks of life: men, women, young, old, soldiers, caregivers, immigrants, and athletes. Each author had traveled the writer’s path, crafting memories into something worth reading, teaching me lessons, revealing the book of their life.

Onward and Upward
I’ll be 63 this spring, and, looking back, I see how important my 50th year was. When I crossed the half-century mark, my old story had grown obsolete. I was no longer a young man, and my preference for just getting by was no longer enough to satisfy me. I wanted to replace my old script with one that would define a more energetic place in the world. That was my midlife crisis.

Until then, I thought of writing as an isolated activity. Once I started to learn how to use writing to reach outward toward the public, though, I discovered that writing connects people to each other. Sitting behind my computer opened up possibilities so compelling that I had to work harder and faster to make the most of them. From my midlife crisis was born a new story of myself, and I have been studying and learning this new story ever since. Instead of slowing down, my older years are speeding up. I can hardly wait for the next chapter.

With 23% of the population aged 55 year or older in a given year—per U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2008—I looked for other people who were rethinking their direction. I contacted the editors at, founded by Dr. Marc Freedman, author of Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life. (See related article in the Summer 2007 issue of Empty Nest.) Freedman’s organization assigned me the task of writing the following profiles of career changers:

Media Executive Puts Her Experience to Work Para Los Ninos
Toy Store Owner Transforms Foster Care in Massachusetts
Retired as a Nurse, Hired as a Nonprofit Leader

Other Relevant Links
Stephen Covey: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Boomer Memoir Is a Step Toward Social Activism
The 4 Elements for Writers Learn to Write Your Memoir in 4 Weeks

Jerry Waxler lives in Bucks County, PA, with his wife and three cockatiels. He writes and still works as a product manager in a software development company by day, and on nights and weekends he gives lectures, workshops, blogs, and writes his own memoir. Jerry is vice president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference. His workshops are offered in the Philadelphia, Allentown, and New York areas as well as long distance via phone and Internet. You can learn more about Jerry, his workshops, and his publications and also read his blog at

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