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Meredith Maran

Episode 54: How To Reinvent Your Life At 60, with Meredith Maran

Like a lot of women her age, Meredith Maran has a hard time believing she’s a woman of her age. And yet she’s published more than a dozen books, including The New Old Me, Why We Write About Ourselves, Why We Write, My Lie, and A Theory of Small Earthquakes. She writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Salon. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith lives in a Silver Lake bungalow that’s even older than she is.

Welcome, Meredith.

Hi there.

I’m so happy that we are talking today, because you have such a rich experience, a bunch of rich experiences in your life.

I was thinking the same thing as I was listening to all of that.

Yeah, how about that?

That makes me tired just to think about it!

All the more reason why you wrote the most recent book, which was The New Old Me: My Late Life Reinvention. I’m all about that stuff, I just absolutely love when people say that they’re not ready to just sit out on a rocking chair and kick up their feet and let their life just kind of ooze away.


So let’s talk about The New Old Me. What was the motivation for you to write that book? 

Well, for one thing I’m a serial memoirist, that’s probably my fifth memoir, depending on how you count. I’m not a very good classroom learner, I was expelled from high school, and I pretty much have never learned anything sitting down, I like to learn in the school of mostly hard knocks. But when I was 60, when I turned 60, everything in my life pretty much fell apart, and I was forced to change my life in pretty much every big way, including leaving where I lived at the time and had for 30 years, Oakland, California, and moved to where the job offer was, which was in Los Angeles.

And do you feel like talking about that? What was the big motivation that had you move, from where you were to Los Angeles? 

It was not so much a motivation to move, it was a motivation to save my own life. I was in the throes of a very unhappy divorce, unhappy meaning it wasn’t something I wanted. I had been extremely happily married for a long time, and that was ending against my will. And my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and my best friend died of cancer, and I had my life savings with someone who turned out to be unscrupulous and I lost my life savings, and all of this happened within about a six-month period of time.

And you’re still here to talk about it! Amazing!

I’m here! I’m standing! Actually pretty happy!

So what was the job offer that brought you to LA?

The job offer was with a company for whom I had been doing some freelance copywriting and the company grew and they asked me to come and work full-time. And this happened during a one-day meeting in Los Angeles, I was sitting with the owners of the company and they said, “Gosh, it would be so great if you could just work here instead of, you know, doing everything by phone.” And I said, “When do I start?” And they said “Monday?” and I said, “Fine, I’ll be there!” And I flew home and I put everything that would fit into my little Audi and drove to LA. Started work the next Monday.


Yup. It sounds very bold, it was very bold, but I feel in retrospect that it was much easier that way, kind of ripping the Band-Aid off rather than, you know, planning six months ahead to leave my wife, my friends, my family, my life, it was, you know, such a last minute kind of thing that, it just had to happen, there wasn’t any conversation about it.

Well it obviously saved your life.

Yes, and gave me a really good one.

Good. That’s a happy ending, I like to hear that! 

It is. It is.

So, okay, you’re a, you didn’t say a biographer, you said you’re a memoirist, I guess is the word. So how does The New Old Me relate to the memoirs of your life? Is it this event that reinvented your life that you’re talking about in the book? 

Well, the events that I’m talking about kind of kicked off the change. The change had to be not only in my address or my zip code, but also in my attitude. And you know, when all of these things happen, I mean some of those things are just going to happen. Your parents are older than you are, so they’re going to have health problems that if you’re lucky you live long enough to see and so on. But some of the other problems, like the dissolution of the marriage and the bad decision about money and things like that, were things that were traceable back to me. And I decided to not just change the sort of mechanical things about my life but also to try to change the things within me that had contributed to the problem.

Well that must have been an extremely deep and revealing set of experiences in that. I mean, where do you start with that, how do you go into— 

You talk about it as if it’s over, it’s so not over!

I mean was this with some help? I mean, therapists or did you just do all of this by yourself? 

Everything, no, I couldn’t have done it by myself. One thing I did was I joined Al-Anon, which is a 12-step program that helps people who are involved with people in one way or another who are having addiction issues. And the theme of that is to keep the focus on yourself instead of getting caught up in the lives or life of the person who is in addiction. So I joined that and started going to meetings on a regular basis, and there I met a lot of other people who suffered from some of the same problems that I did. I remember it, the first meeting I ever went to, there was a woman there sobbing, and her boyfriend had just left her, a long-time boyfriend, and she said, “I don’t know why he left me, I always said yes when I meant no.” And I thought, “Wow, I do that. I don’t want to do that anymore.” So anyway, that was one thing. I definitely went to therapy, I went to therapy a lot, and yeah, those were sort of the two main things. And then I was lucky enough, I am lucky enough to have some really great friends who really saw me through the whole experience.

So how many years ago was it that you moved from where you were living to LA? 

Five and a half, it was May of 2012, yeah.

And is that where the book starts?

The book starts on the road from Oakland to Los Angeles. On the day that I moved.

And you have two sons?

I do have two sons, yes.

And have they been involved and helpful in this change of your life? 

Actually, you know, because I’ve written so many books about my life, most of which have included them, they’ve asked me not to talk about them publicly and I’ve agreed.

Okay. Okay, makes sense. The children don’t want to get involved in this.

Nope, it’s not their fault their mother is a writer.

Okay, but it’s great. I want to back to this issue about your writing. You wrote your first poem when you were six.

Well, I published my first poem when I was six, I was writing them before that.

You were writing poems before you were six?

I learned to read pretty early, and I was writing as soon as I was reading.


And I found that to be true among a lot of the writers I know, actually.

I was thinking of a story that was on 60 Minutes, I guess it was this past Sunday, of a young girl who was composing. I don’t know if you saw that, she was composing, it was amazing. She composed these classical pieces and wrote each of the parts for each of the instruments and she was ten at the time. Yeah, it was amazing. I still think that someone who has that gift, like you, who was starting to write at such an early age, it’s just amazing to me that you’re not dissuaded in doing things like that by let’s call it public opinion or peer concerns, and you just felt very strongly that this is something that’s a gift in many ways that you have. 

Yeah. I never thought about it really. It was a natural thing to do.

And then you went from the poem to the first book? 

Well, there were a lot of really bad poems between them but yeah. Yeah, when I went to high school, which I didn’t like, I met a boy and his father was a writer by trade, and I had never heard of such a thing. My father was an ad executive, a kind of Mad Men without the alcohol and the extreme situations.

And all the other drama. 

And all the other drama. But he had always wanted to be writer, so I knew there was such a thing as someone who wanted to be a writer, but he many times told me how he had stopped being a writer in order to support his family. So I never thought of it as something viable for a grown-up to do. But when I met my boyfriend and his father and saw that every day he got up and went to a really nice little study in their apartment instead of getting up dressed in a suit and going off to some place he didn’t want to be, the idea was planted then that I could actually do this as the thing I did for my life. And from that point on, that was at age fifteen, I considered my life’s work to be writing and that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

And I want to ask you about that from a personal level, because I don’t know if you know, but Power of the Purse is a book that I wrote four or five years ago. And it was difficult, because it was every Monday afternoon I would block out the time and hope that the muses would pay me a visit, and then write. So it took a long time. And at some point, I forget when it was, I just said, “I can’t do this anymore, I just don’t have anything else in me.” And thankfully I had someone who pushed me to finish it, which I did. And then it went through the editing process and all of the other stuff that goes on. But when I did it, and I finished it, she said to me, the woman who was working with me, she said, “You know, you don’t have to write this Lynn, you know, like it’s going to be the next great American novel. That’s not the intention. The intention is you’re going to disperse some information from the numbers of women that you’ve served over the years.” And that’s how I started it. She told me, “Write down twelve stories of situations where you helped someone to do something” and that’s how the book started. But what I realized was, I never thought of this as something that could make money. To me, the book was more of a sophisticated business card. It brought me legitimacy in order to talk to people and have book signings and it’s an opportunity to just market myself. Where along the line did it occur to you, especially after you said about what your father wanted to but didn’t? How did you take the idea of writing a book into something that actually created income for you that became your life’s work? How did you go from A to B? 

Well again, I think that having a life experience with someone who was doing that made all the difference in the world. At least at that time, you didn’t go to school and have them list being a writer as one of the options for a career, an income-producing career. But when I saw that my boyfriend’s father was doing that, it raised the possibility. And then when it was time to start supporting myself, which happened pretty young because I left home really young, I left home at about sixteen, and I was with the boyfriend whose father did that for a living, it just sort of came naturally that we would write about our experiences that we were having as two sixteen-year-olds who left New York City and went to Taos, New Mexico, to become hippies and raise goats and write books. So we did that and we were lucky enough to get a book contract for $3000 dollars, that was in 1969 or something like that, and we not only lived on that for a year but we built a house on that money. So you can imagine, pretty simple house but still.

So the book contract came from the connection with your boyfriend’s father.

Indirectly, yes. The idea of being able to get a book contract, from observing him.

And then how did you get your manuscript to the point where it was accepted for the book contract? 

Well, we went for maximum level of difficulty. We didn’t just prepare a manuscript. We actually, in those days, we produced what was then called camera-ready copy, which meant we produced the book itself on cardboard boards, they were called, and the publisher bought us a dark room, which we put in our bathroom. So we wrote everything in the book but we also designed the book and laid the book out. We just delivered these boards to them for them to print. So that’s what we did, and it was not really word-heavy, it was more picture-heavy and image-heavy. And we would write poems and stick them inside drawings and, you know, did a lot of crazy hippie stuff.

Okay, so you made three grand, and that was a lot in ’69. So then what was your next book about? 

Then, let’s see. Well, basically from that book, everything changed. My boyfriend and I broke up, and I moved to San Francisco, he stayed in New Mexico, and it was a good long time before I wrote a book again. I pretty much just immersed myself in life and activism in the late sixties and early seventies and didn’t really write another book until the early nineties.

Well, that’s what we did in the sixties and seventies.

Right? Exactly! 

We did a lot of activism. And helpful was the feminist movement at the same time. Okay, so you went through all that, and later, now, were you still writing books the same way, with taping pictures on cardboard or was there a more technologically advanced way to do this? 

Yeah, that kind of went out with hippiedom. Yeah, the next book that I did is called What It’s Like To Live Now, and it was published in 1995. I started it in 1993 and it was actually sort of a follow-up to the earlier one, in the sense that it was about being a mom and a grown-up, albeit a forty-something year-old one, and comparing the ideals that I had had and so many other people had in the sixties to the reality of raising kids and living life in Oakland, California, in the nineties.

Well you do know that hippies never grow up. 

I’m afraid so, I am aware of that, yes.

Yeah, and that’s probably not a bad thing. So from that point forward, then, were you writing as a living, or did you have day jobs? 

Mostly I wrote. When I got that first book contract in the nineties, I had had a job for about a year at that point, and that was pretty much how employable I was, I never managed to follow orders well enough to stay employed for any length of time. But the day I found out I was getting a book contract, I walked out of my office and into my boss’s office and said bye-bye. I left and yeah, I went straight to my kids’ middle school and took them out of school and brought them to a pizza place and told them, “We’re rich!” Which we weren’t, of course, but it felt like we were because I didn’t have to go to work the next day, and we had enough money to live on for the year. And so we did that. And then, you know, since then I’ve been publishing a book either every year, every two or three years, like that.

Wow. Well, kudos to you for being able to do something like that, obviously it’s something you love.  

It is.

And to get paid for it is great. You also mentioned somewhere, in one of your bios that I read, that you had some award-winning marketing campaigns with some very prominent-named companies. So when did that all fit into this, was that between books? 

Yeah, that was before the first book contract, and when I was driven to have to work actual jobs. Before that, I was writing, I was just not writing books. I was writing magazine articles and in those days, you could actually get paid enough to almost live on if you did enough articles, which I did, I was writing a lot of stuff. And usually when I was writing an article, I combined it with research, or I considered it to be research for a book. The topics that I looked into were all things that I was interested in writing about more. So that was the years leading up to the first book contract and then, once I got the first one, it was easier to get the next one and so on.

And the book you are, at this point, promoting is the one that is The New Old Me. So the whole point of that is, I think you mentioned, plan B, that this is the late-life reinvention. And one of the quotes you had in there was you have a hard time believing you’re a woman of your age. So did you mean your age as in a chronological age or as in the cultural age we live in, or both? I don’t know which.

Oh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t even thought about it. I meant my chronological age. The age we’re living in is not entirely shocking to me, although I must admit that one year ago today when we elected the current president, I have to admit that was outside the bounds of anything I ever imagined possible, not in a good way. But anyway, yeah I just, as you said, hippies never grow up, and so it’s very startling to realize, you know, that no matter what your attitude, your body has a certain number of miles on it and at a certain point it’s going to need an overhaul or the junkyard.

Or new parts. 

Or new parts, yeah.

So you’re at that age, whatever that age is, I haven’t asked.


66? Yeah, well you’re exactly my age as well. I keep saying to myself, I look in the mirror and I see my mom, or I see somebody that I thought, I say, “Where’d that wrinkle come from?” or “When did I lose the muscle tone in this or that?” And it’s looking at that and saying, “That’s the chronological age I am but that is not the mental age that I am.” 

I do want to throw in and brag about myself a little bit, and also for your listeners to just say not to give up hope on the physical plans. Right now I’m stronger than I ever have been in my life, and I’m in a workout routine now for the past couple of years that has me doing things I never dreamed I could do, and consequently…

Like what?

Well, just the amount I can lift, the amount of resilience I have in terms of health, I never get sick and I used to be a whining hiker and now I’m a chit-chatting hiker. Yeah and I have a little routine with myself. When I first moved where I live now, I live in an extremely hilly neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I both walk and ride my bike here, and I have the hill that I’m required to climb to get home. When I moved here, I had to walk my bike all the way up the hill, and I’ve worked on that for five years, and now, I can actually ride my bike all the way up to my front door. And that was inch by inch over the years, just being determined to get there and it’s kind of a metaphor for everything else.

Yeah, I can see that. Well, well done! Are you running in any marathons?

I am not a runner, how about it? I’m just not. I like to ride a bike, I like to work out, I love to hike, I love to swim, but running has never been my thing.

Well, mine neither. And I think my knees appreciate that. I asked the question what else you do for fun, and you said you write, which we obviously know, and you hike, I think that’s part of what you’re talking about now, with your increased what we call…


Well stamina, yeah, that’s a good word for it, increased stamina. And then you hang with friends and go camping in a VW EuroVan. And the first time I read that, I wondered is a EuroVan something different than what we have available in this country, or that just happens to be the name of the VW?

It originated in Europe, but you know, it’s kind of a funny story, I just did a Facebook post a couple days ago that said exactly 50 years ago, I was doing exactly this.


Sleeping in a Volkswagen bus, cooking my food over a fire, doing that with friends in a family-type situation, raising kids in a big group, all those things. And yeah, the circle is unbroken for sure. And I have come back around to a way of life, at least as a weekend way of life, that is how I lived when I was in my teens.

Yeah, I was just going to say, as a true hippie, you’re right back to that, you’re true to that way of being. I love that. That’s what I thought of when I read that, I said, “Yeah, that has to be. That’s a good thing.” Let me switch this around, if you don’t mind. I want to get an idea of your experience with money when you were younger, and how that formed who you are today. So let me ask the question, what was your family like when you were growing up? Where are you in the birth order? Are you an only child?

I’m the older of two, I have a brother who’s four and a half years younger.

And what kinds of things did your family do when you were together? 

Well, my mother was a housewife, a very frustrated housewife who didn’t want to be one, didn’t make any sense to her but that what she was sort of forced to do. My father was an advertising man, and we had a very traditional ‘50s, ‘60s kind of family setup. My mother took care of all the domestic stuff, my father earned the money, everything revolved around my father’s needs when he got home and my mother’s frustration when she didn’t get to go out. So that was our setup.

As far as the finances were concerned, you just said your dad makes the money, your mom takes care of the domestic responsibilities, so to speak. But did your mother and father ever share anything with you and your brother about money, like how to spend it or what not to do, anything along those lines? 

Just full-out panic.

Oh, okay!

Yeah, I come from a Jewish family and I never met anyone older than my grandparents, but my grandparents and my parents were both extremely panicked about money at all times, regardless of the circumstances. I think sometimes it’s in the DNA of Jewish people that when things are going well, that’s when the next, you know, genocide—

The other shoe is going to fall? 

Yeah, exactly so there was never a reprieve from worrying about what was going to happen next with money. And since I became a hippie when I was so young, I was about fifteen or sixteen, I rejected everything about my parents’ lives and values, and not just my parents’ but the wider society, and I sort of rebelled against the gray flannel suit, the idea of, you know, little boxes on a hillside, all the different songs and metaphors about this where everybody is living the same cookie-cutter life. I didn’t want that, and money never was any kind of a priority for me. I knew I had to do away with that concern, or I would never get to live the life I wanted to live.

Well, when you took your boys out of school and said, “We’re rich!” and you’re going on your own way, that was clearly a departure from the kind of thing I’m sure you were taught at home. 

Oh absolutely. But what I learned from my boyfriend’s father who was a writer, he would say, “Oh, I’m feeling flush, let’s go out to dinner.” And I would think, “What does that even mean, feeling flush?” You know, my dad got the same salary, year after year, or he would get a 20 percent raise or whatever it was, but there was never a question of how much money would we have. We had the amount of money in his paycheck, week after week after week. My boyfriend’s father would, you know, sell a book to a publisher, and he’d get a big check, and we’d all celebrate and get all kinds of Sara Lee cakes and luxury items and then if his book didn’t sell well in the marketplace, then we’d all have to cut back. You know, it was a much more fluid financial situation than anything I had ever encountered. And I saw that they were so much happier than my family was, so I thought, “Well, that’s not such a bad way to live,” and that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

Another thing that I think is obvious to me, it pops up when you say that you know, as a writer you get paid as you get paid, there’s no paycheck to paycheck like there was with your mother and father.  


So just living like that was another huge departure from how you were raised.  

Absolutely, and I was saying to a writer friend the other day, it’s like what going to work for us is, we play the lottery every day, you know? We might get a huge book advance and you know, as I said to my kids, “be rich,” or we might get nothing, or we might get something in between. Usually it’s something in between. And I don’t know very many writers and the most successful ones who are able to live without some sort of augmentation, either a trust fund or a rich husband or a good divorce or in my case, I edit other people’s books, I consult with aspiring writers, help them get started. You know, I do other work, I still write magazine articles, I write book reviews. So the books are at the center of my life, but financially it would be impossible to live on that, so I do other things.

And you said you still write articles for other magazines. And I’m a big fan of Real Simple magazine, I just love it. What kind of topics do you write about for them?

Well, I think I’ve written two or three stories for them. All of them have been requested. They’re personal essays, I hardly remember the topics now. They would just sort of call me up and say, “Do you have a story about the most significant advice that you were ever given?” or forgiveness is always big with women’s magazines. Or you know, things like that, the best thing your mother ever said to you, things like that. And just writing a little true story from my life.

That’s funny, because one of the questions, I don’t know if you saw them, the last one as a matter of fact, is who was or is the most influential woman in your life and what advice did she give you?

Hmm. Well, that is an interesting question. You know, nothing comes to mind, I have to say. I don’t feel I’ve ever really had a mentor, a single mentor or someone, I think in part that’s a function of the times I grew up in, that I looked around at the women in my life, the adult women, and I didn’t see anything that I wanted. That’s pretty much true. I didn’t know any women who had careers, except for my teachers, and I was inspired by a couple of my teachers in grade school, but I was also a horrible student, so most of the time I was fighting with my teachers, not admiring them.

I love it, I love it!

But now that I’m an adult, I feel that the inspiration that I take and the hard lessons that I learn are mostly within the circle of my women friends. It’s not that there’s one person in particular who gives me good advice, it’s more like I’m a member of several groups of women writers, and I hang out with women writers, and that’s really the core of my social life. So I’m always hearing things, just this morning I went for a hike with a woman I hike with every week, and she’s a writer as well. She’s a little more than half my age, really talented writer. So we walk and talk about what we’re working on, or how to incorporate our social beliefs into our artwork, and you know, it’s really rich and satisfying and I learn things every time.

Do you ever get stuck as a writer?

I get stuck on the freeway without any gas.

You know what I mean, writer’s block, let’s call it that.

I do know what you mean. Writer’s block. I don’t believe in it. And I’m lucky enough to be able to say that. I don’t know what it really means. I think the fact that I have been supporting myself with writing pretty much all of my life and raising kids with that and sometimes supporting a partner, I don’t have that mentality toward my writing. It’s work, it’s just work, you know? And sometimes I’m having a bad day when I’m trying to imagine something or come up with some new idea and I can’t, so I just go to one of my other projects, you know, I just keep working all day, regardless of what my schedule was or what needs to be done next. I always have a bunch of things I need to do, so I just skip around until the answers come.

Yeah, yeah. I applaud you for doing that, because I think that some people, the answer always is just to not focus on that for a while, go do something else, and allow the juices to just continue to flow somewhere else, and when you come back to it, boom, there it is. Here’s another question for you. Do you ever see yourself being retired?


I didn’t think so.

My boyfriend’s father who I’ve talked so much about, his name was Dan Steiner, and he was found dead of a heart attack bent over his typewriter, and that is exactly where I plan to be.

Ok! What do they say, they’ll take you out boots first or something like that? You’ll be right at your job, doing what you love. That sounds good, that sounds good. Well, thanks to my guest, Meredith Maran and to all of you in my Power Of The Purse community. I hope today’s podcast was helpful in enriching your understanding of money and how it can help you achieve your life goals. And thanks again to Meredith Maran, for sharing your time and your knowledge. Tell my listeners how they can get in touch with you. 

Very easily, it’s Meredith Maran. And I am Googleable, I have a website, I have email on my website, I’m extremely easy to reach. I’m also on Twitter and Facebook with the same name, oddly enough, Meredith Maran.

Love it. Okay. Until the next time, thanks for listening, everyone. And remember, money is not the enemy, your ignorance of it is. Goodbye until next time.

Okay, so we heard them all, that’s good, all right! Sally, thanks. And thanks for sharing your time and your knowledge. And until the next time, thanks for listening, and remember, money is not the enemy, your ignorance of it is. Goodbye!


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