We’ve lost a number of prominent figures in the entertainment industry this year to cancer and other causes, and it’s still only the beginning of February. For me, the cluster of deaths was a reminder of my own mortality. I didn’t feel the fear that I might die tomorrow, though I did decide to formalise my plan for who takes care of my dogs should I predecease them. Instead this question came to mind: as a 67 year old writer, what would I still like to achieve?
For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been writing professionally for around 17 years and writing full time for 13 of those years. I have nineteen novels and a body of short stories in print. I’ve had good critical recognition within the fantasy genre and have a shelf full of writing awards. So I have built a solid career as a novelist, though without any spectacular peaks.
Thinking back to my first few years as a published writer, the roller-coaster feeling of that time, the steep learning curve, the need to make both business and artistic decisions without fully understanding what they meant, I think I had career hopes and ambitions that were rather different from my current ones. To make it onto the New York Times bestseller list or UK equivalent. To be taken seriously by reviewers in mainstream media. To sell film rights to one of my novels and see a great movie made. To win a major international writing award. To earn enough so I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills. It would still be nice to achieve all of those (I’ve managed two of them) but I see those ambitions now as ‘Great if it happened, but unlikely’ rather than ‘Let’s charge forward and make it happen.’
So what’s changed?
Over the years since I signed my first book contract I’ve learned a lot more about the way it all works. Since I started out, the rise of social media and digital communications in general have transformed the way writers interact with their readers and with their professional networks. These days one can hardly not know what’s going on in the publishing world, whose books are doing brilliantly, who has dropped off the radar, which new author is the flavour of the month. I’ve come to realise that I’m unlikely ever to be that NYT-best-selling, Nebula- award-winning novelist. And I’ve come to accept that it doesn’t matter. I have loyal readers all around the world who love what I’m doing. I have a great agent and publishers who (for now at least) still believe in what I have to offer. I get more requests to write short fiction and other pieces than I have time to fulfill. I never forget how fortunate I am to have a professional career as a full time writer of fiction.
But that question is still there: at the age of 67, what are my career aspirations? Am I getting to an age where I should consider giving it up and focusing more on my demanding activities in animal rescue? What more is there to achieve as a writer?
For me, plenty. I don’t mean winning awards or featuring on ‘best of’ lists, satisfying as those things are. I don’t mean churning out a product designed to go on selling. I mean drawing from the bottomless well of story material. Finding characters desperate to tell their stories and giving them a voice. Sharing wisdom, if I can. Making readers think. Making them feel. Stretching myself as a writer. Trying something new.
These days I challenge myself a little further with each novel I write. Playing with voice and structure in ways I haven’t tried before. Tackling something I know I’m not great at – a mystery – and making it work. Building a series around characters markedly different from those I have created previously. Writing should never get too comfortable. It should be challenging. It should be difficult, because overcoming difficulties makes you stronger at what you do. It should never cease to be a journey of learning.
As for when it may be time to slow down or to stop, that is not determined by how old we are in years. It’s about whether we still have a story to tell; whether we still love the frustrating, exhausting, rewarding, challenging craft of writing.
Older writers: What do you find rewarding as a writer? What is particularly challenging for you? What do you hope to achieve?