There’s no question that we are living in a society obsessed with youth. We base many of our increasingly unrealistic standards for physical beauty on the premise that we all have expiration dates, after which we are simply no longer attractive. We celebrate and idolize young people who succeed in sports, business, and the arts. We fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds with viral videos of impossibly young people doing impossibly impressive things. So it stands to reason that we writers – who are, let’s face it, a species known for our seemingly infinite ability to find things to be insecure about – might feel some pressure to succeed before… well, before it’s too late. A ticking clock, if you will.
The clock ticks even louder for those of us “of a certain age.” In addition to worrying that our window of publishing opportunity is closing, there’s also that pesky mortality thing looming in the back of our minds. This only adds to the steaming pot of Insecurity Stew many of us keep simmering on our mental stovetops. (Hmmm, do people even have mental stovetops? Perhaps there’s a better metaphor. Okay, not perhaps. There’s *definitely* a better metaphor; it just eludes me at the moment. But I digress…)
Bottom line, age is something that ultimately concerns us all. Juliet Marillier’s excellent post last week touched on the aspirations and concerns of older writers throughout all stages of their careers, and it prompted some candid and insightful comments. Today, I want to focus on older writers who have not yet been published – or perhaps have not yet written their first book. In particular, I want to delve into the questions that many of them may be asking themselves: Is it too late to start writing? Am I too old to be published? Did I miss my shot? All of these lead me to ask a simpler question:
For a writer, how much does age matter?
And here’s my short answer: less than you think. To give my opinion some context, here’s some background. I started writing fiction seriously at the age of 40, and sold my first novel at 50. I am now 39 years old.
Okay, you see what I did there. While I’m telling you age doesn’t matter, I make a joke of lying about my age. That’s to acknowledge that yes, ageism is a real thing, and it exerts pressure on us in many aspects of our lives. I just don’t think it has that big an effect on us as writers – at least not as negative an effect as you might believe. In fact, I think there actually are advantages to being an older writer, as I’ll describe next.
The upside of having some miles on the odometer
A few years ago I was invited to speak on a panel at a literary conference hosted by Backspace. The topic of our panel was “Debuting Over 40.” Frankly this wasn’t a subject I’d given much thought to, but the act of preparing for that panel forced me to consider the role age can play in the course of a writer’s journey. The discussion was a lively one, and the volume of questions we fielded from the audience proved that this was a topic on many writers’ minds. The question that I ultimately felt most passionate about addressing was this: Is there any advantage to debuting after 40?
For me, the answer to that question is yes. By that age, most of us have put some significant miles on the odometer. It’s likely we’ve been directly impacted by some pretty major highs and lows: illness, death, war, job failures and successes, raising children, the rise and fall of a major relationship – or two, or three, or four. All of this informs our world view, and with it, our writing.
I’m in awe of people who are able to make a significant artistic statement at an early age – from Mary Shelley to Norman Mailer to the Beatles. I know some people have already lived extraordinary lives by the time they’re 20, or are simply incredibly talented. But on the whole I think the average 40-year-old has a deeper emotional well to draw from than the average 20-something.
That shoe definitely fits me. In my 20s, it was the ’80s, and I was touring in rock bands. My world view at the time – if you could even call it one – was not exactly Pulitzer material. Other than music, my attention was focused primarily on women who wore too little clothing and too much hairspray. I could write reasonably well – people said I had “a way with words” – but I didn’t yet feel I had something to say with those words. It took some major growing up, some terrible bouts of poverty and depression, a couple of roller-coaster career paths, raising a child, and losing both of my parents to really forge my literary voice, such as it is.
Beyond simply amassing more life experience, there can be other advantages to being an older writer. For example, you may have developed some deep expertise that you can leverage in your storytelling, such as the way Tom Clancy used his skill with technical details to essentially create a new genre of thriller. (Okay, he was only in his late 30s when he debuted, but you get the idea.) Perhaps your experiences, expertise and social connections have even given you a basis for the dreaded P word: platform (something agents and editors love to see, because it makes their jobs easier). You also might be a more savvy businessperson, and thus better equipped for the unique challenges and hurdles you’ll face in the ever-changing business of publishing.
Despite all this rationalizing, believe me: I understand how seeing headlines about yet another 20-something wunderkind who just signed a bazillion-dollar book deal can be daunting (okay, even flat-out soul-crushing, depending on where your WII [Writer’s Insecurity Index] happens to fall on any given day). But I urge writers who started later – or who are simply taking longer to get where you want to go – to give yourselves a break. Instead of worrying about being too old, try thinking of yourself as aging like a fine wine. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Incidentally, I was not the only one on the panel who felt this way. The panel was led by Randy Susan Meyers and included Jessica Keener, Ellen Meeropol, and Nichole Bernier (yes, I am well aware how lucky I was to be offered a seat at that distinguished table). Interestingly, every single one of us ultimately felt that our ages had NOT worked against us. And I have a hypothesis as to why:
It’s different for writers.
Okay, so maybe you’ve got oodles of life experience. But what about all the younger, more attractive writers who seem to pop up every day? How are you supposed to compete with that – particularly in this age of social media, where everybody is expected to create and maintain an online persona?
I won’t lie. Beauty is an advantage in ALL aspects of life – that’s just a given. But I would maintain that it’s different for writers, and here’s why: unlike other areas of the arts – particularly music, TV and film – writers are not under as much pressure to be young and beautiful. That’s because the focus is not so much on the writers themselves as on the stories that they create. Sure, youth, beauty and charisma can help a writer, but it’s understood that most writers are behind-the-scenes people, not rock stars.
Think about it. Nora Roberts is a chain-smoking 65-year-old grandmother, and nobody has a problem with that. Clive Cussler is 84 and people still buy his books (for reasons that surpass all understanding). Janet Evanovich is 72 and James Patterson is 68, and readers don’t seem to think either of them is too old to write something they’d like to read. Interestingly, although Patterson published his first novel at the age of 29, he didn’t actually quit his day job and start writing fulltime until he was 49.
Look, if you’re young and gorgeous, work it. Absolutely. (Hell, if you’re old and gorgeous, work it, too.) But if you’re not, don’t write yourself off. Because – at least for now – your age and your looks are just not that important. Your STORY is what’s important.
Advice for older writers
I could tell from the questions our panel fielded that the audience was initially skeptical about us telling them not to worry so much about their age. In particular they seemed concerned about revealing their age to agents or other publishing professionals. To me this falls in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” category. It has honestly never come up in any conversation I’ve had with a publishing professional, either in written correspondence or face-to-face (a situation where there’s no hiding the fact that I am definitely NOT a 20-something). This was corroborated by the numerous other writers I’ve spoken to who sold their first book in their 40s (or beyond): it just never came up.
But based on all the concern I saw expressed by our audience that day – and have often seen expressed in discussion forums and social media sites for writers – I thought I’d offer a few nuggets of advice for “vintage” authors. (Hey – I like that! Wonder if we can make “vintage author” a thing? But I digress…)
- Don’t make your age an issue. There’s no reason it needs to be part of any conversation you have with publishing professionals – or your readers. In describing yourself, there’s no need to call yourself a senior or mention that you’re retired. On the flip side of this…
- If your age gives you an advantage, use it. For example, if you grew up in war-torn Viet Nam during the ’60s, and have written a novel about the Viet Nam War, that’s certainly worth pointing out to publishers and readers alike. This may seem obvious, but writers are notorious for missing opportunities to take advantage of their unique backgrounds.
- Don’t fall into the stereotypical role of acting “old.” In particular, coming across like the doddering old writer who is baffled by all these newfangled computer thingies is simply not compelling. We now have an entire generation of adults who’ve been using computers and the Internet their entire lives, so expressing your fear or lack of understanding of something that is so basic to them can really distance you from your readers. I didn’t learn to use a computer until my late 30s, a hurdle I overcame by taking some courses at the local community college. If you’re technically challenged, I highly recommend the experience. Along those lines…
- Do sharpen your tools. Writing is an unusual skill – for most of us, our last serious training in it may have occurred decades ago. As adults many of us write intuitively, perhaps no longer remembering actual grammatical principles; instead we may just try to write stuff that looks and sounds right. I grew up in a family of writers, but I still decided to take a basic business writing course as part of my self-prescribed community college curriculum for becoming an employable human. I found it immensely helpful for brushing up on some of the basic mechanics of writing, and I believe the extra control and understanding that formal training provides can really bring your game up to the next level.
- Don’t use age as an excuse – either for doing nothing, or to complain about how you no longer have a chance. I’ve been sucked into some heated discussions on this topic, locking horns with disenchanted writers who are trying hard to convince themselves that some malevolent force is conspiring to thwart their literary efforts, all based on their age. I just don’t buy it. Readers want good books. Agents want good books. Editors want good books. If they’re written by young, gorgeous people, that’s just icing on the cake.
- Don’t make things harder on yourself than they need to be. Writing is hard. Publishing is a crazy business, and the landscape changes daily. Literary trends come and go. Readers can be fickle. And of course, Amazon might destroy the universe with laser-armed drones. Bottom line: with all the other challenges we writers face, I just don’t see a need to look for additional things to worry about.
No, it’s not too late.
There will always be writers who succeed at a strikingly young age. Some of them are simply blessed with awesome talent. Some have already lived extraordinary lives. And some just get lucky. It’s my hope that today’s ramblings will drive home the point that for the rest of us, it’s NEVER too late.
How about YOU?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the impact age has on you as a writer. Do you find age to be an obstacle? An advantage? A bit of both?
And as a reader, what impact does an author’s age have on the reading choices you make? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
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