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[SWP: Behind the Book] Apprenticeship
Written by
Jenni Ogden
February 2016
Written by
Jenni Ogden
February 2016

“When did you write your first story?” It’s a standard question for novelists. “As soon as I could hold a pencil” is the right answer.

Not me though. I didn’t even think about writing a novel until I was in my mid-fifties, and didn’t get serious until I retired early a few years later from my university position—so I could concentrate on making stuff up. Five years on I’d ‘completed’ three novels, queried countless agents, and found ways to live on an income barely sufficient to buy one Kindle novel a week.

So, I thought, perhaps I was never meant to write novels. Real novelists nursed a passion for writing stories from babyhood. They wrote in-depth journals, scribbled on the backs of envelopes, filled old exercise books with tales of dragons and fairies and vampires. No wonder I had three novels crying unwanted in the depths of my computer. I hadn’t put in the years of practice, the 10,000 hours plus of sweat and youthful optimism.

But then I thought again. No, I didn’t write stories as a child, but I read everything I could lay my hands on; non-fiction as well as fiction. I was bedridden for a long time when young, and twice a week my father would collect eighteen books for me to devour, chosen by the lovely librarian in our small town.

If I ran out of books before the next box arrived I read Charles Dickens novels­— twelve by the time I was twelve. And I didn’t even like his writing all that much, but the leather-bound set was in a bookcase in my bedroom. A Girl of the Limberlost and Anne of Green Gables were more my style.

Then there were the stories in my head. I certainly made stuff up. I just didn’t get around to writing it down. I looked forward to lights out at 9pm because then I had three uninterrupted hours to lose myself in the next episode humming through my head before falling asleep around midnight. After all, I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to school; I had another day in bed. So my edge-of-the-seat stories, all with me as the central character (and often the only human character!) would continue… My favorites were my life in a circus as an elephant trainer (a shuddering thought today), and as the inheritor (aged twelve) of a vast sheep station. Night after night my horse (my friend Flicker) and I roamed the unfenced paddocks, parrot on my shoulder and German Shepherd by my side.

But what of my adulthood? Well, even there I now see clues. I taught clinical psychology, and my invented case studies of dysfunctional families were legend. Five clinical students would be let in on the family secrets and each would prepare their role based on my written character sketches. One of their peers, not privy to my character sketches or the family dynamics, would then have to interview the desperate family. My invented families made interviewing real families as easy as penning a bodice ripper.

And throughout my academic career I wrote non-fiction case-study books—true stories to be sure, but mirroring some of the glorious mess of fine fictional tales. In the acknowledgments of my first book I even thanked my editor “who took a punt on a new author who wanted to write a novel disguised as a textbook.”

So there is hope yet for a late-life career as a real novelist, with my first novel due out soon. Like many first novels, while my characters really are truly fictional, many of the settings and the fishy stories woven throughout the story are a touch autobiographical. And I figure that although all this making stuff up will never reach or even sniff Dickensian heights, at least it will keep my brain whirring—always a bonus for people my age—and my emotions fully engaged!

I am the author of two nonfiction books, Fractured Minds and Trouble In Mind. My first novel, A Drop In The Ocean, will be  published by She Writes Press, May, 2016. Visit my author website and sign up to my monthly e-newsletter.

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  • Michelle Cox

    Lovely post, Jenni!  Best of luck!

  • Roni Beth Tower

    As another clinical psychologist-turned-author-for-the-general-public late in life, I thank you for sharing your journey. Beginning a new chapter (inevitably building on the old ones) is itself full of wonder and gratitude.  Wishing you all you hope for.  And I love your web site.  

  • Karen Martin

    Thank you for sharing this. I would love to hear more about how you transitioned from academic writing to fiction writing, as I am finding it difficult to make those stylistic adjustments.

  • Diana Y. Paul Writing

    Love your essay, Jenni!  I'm one of those writers who really started after retirement too.  It's never too late, and we all need to encourage each other. Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

  • Jenni Ogden Writing

    So happy to have linked with many more late bloomers! Thank you for your great comments and kia kaha! (Stand tall in Maori). 

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Great story! I'm impressed by your tale of persistence. I'm in the same boat! Retired from a biomedical career and am trying to reinvent myself as a writer. It's not so easy!!

  • Debra Nicolis Thurston

    I am certainly a late bloomer and it's encouraging to be in that company. Congrats on this accomplishment!

  • K. Diann Shope

    Good for you, Jenni, and those who have commented below who started writing late in life.  I just finished publishing The Upper End of In Between, my debut novel, at age 72.  Indeed, it is never too late!

  • Patricia Robertson


    Just checked out your novel on your website. Very impressive! Great reviews! You have definitely done your homework on this. Congratulations and best wishes as you approach your launch.

  • Congratulations on publishing your books! I was also bedridden and later had limited activities due to braces from poliomyelitis; mild in my case. Read all I could from saint tales to anything in my grandparent's store or dark storeroom. Dreamed of being a dancer and became one. Now, after raising a family, attending college, working for over 30 years, my passion is writing. Have several novels in the works, from paranormal/sci-fi to fiction based on life and a book of poetry. Your story gives me hope, I better get serious about publishing while I still can and welcome advice.

  • Gail Ingis

    Congratulations on your writing and ambition. Thank you for sharing. We have lots in common. After five years of study and workshops, my first novel, Indigo Sky, was published two weeks before my 80th birthday. After a lengthy career in interior design, teaching, art and architectural consulting, my inspiration to write the story came from a 19th century painting by Albert Bierstadt, that once hung in Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, CT, where I do art curating. Published by Soul Mate Publishing, I am in the midst of marketing my book. Good luck with your book. It's another world, this writing. Have fun!

  • Erin MacNair

    Congrats! And thank you for sharing, we all need a boost and a nudge in the right (write) direction.

  • Diane L. Fowlkes

    Congratulations and also thanks for your story. I'm another academic (pol sci) turning to fiction. Also been writing for 8years and just finished my draft of novel. Now I'm editing and then to look for a publisher, first via agent, to see what happens. I also have my first short story out to some lit journals. Keep going and Never Wavering are my mantra.

  • Claire McAlpine

    Beautiful cover and an empowering story, thank you for sharing it!

  • Joan Z. Rough

    Jenni, Congratulations.  I wish you all the best with your novel.  At 73 I'm happy to say my memoir will be published in the fall.  It's never, ever too late!

  • Linda Kass

    Thanks for sharing this, Jenni. I, too, am a late bloomer to fiction! A journalist by training and practice, I shifted to fiction some eight years ago and have never looked back! Looking forward to your novel!

  • Hope A. Perlman

    Congratulations! And thanks for your story. I'm always looking for late-bloomers to inspire me to continue.