In a fun confluence of events, just after Kristin published my guest blog about inspired age math and how to not freak out about being over 40, my publisher asked me last week if I was under 35 so they could submit me for an award given to young authors.
I had to tell them I’m not under 35 (as you can see in the blog I wrote for Kristin, I’m 42). And then like every other adult in American culture, I freaked out for a little while thinking that I was too old and had waited too long to get published.
The inside of my head sounded like this: Why didn’t I get published younger? What kind of failure is it that I’m not eligible for a young authors award even though I only have two books out? What did I do wrong? Culminating in: Oh my God, I wish I’d been first published at 30, not 40!
Luckily I have a habit of at least trying to critically listen to my ego when it goes on a rant like that, so I delved more deeply into that statement.
Is it really true? Not quite.
What I really wished was that I was first published at 30 — but with all of the wisdom, resilience, resources and knowledge that I had at 40 (and have even more of at 42).
You see the problem, right? Theoretically I could have been published at 30 — plenty of people do it — but there’s no way at 30 I would have had all that other stuff. So really I could either have:
- being published at 30 without wisdom, resilience, etc.,
- or published at 40 with those elements of my character developed
I think this is a common mistake we make when we think we should have done something younger. We live in a culture with a weird emphasis on youth and so it’s easy to feel like we wanted to be a young genius or prodigy — but success can be as destabilizing (or more) than failure. I’ve read plenty of authors who have a great first novel (because they wrote it without the pressure of success) followed by poor or non-existent second novels because the pressure got to them. And there are other authors who produce good novel after good novel but have lost the joy of writing due to their success.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has a great TED talk up about surviving both failure and success in which she says: “I had to find a way to make sure that my creativity survived its own success” and talks about the tremendous pressure that happened after the success of Eat, Pray, Love and her process of “going home,” which means returning to the work of writing. It’s only a few minutes long and highly recommend listening to it.
If you’re someone who wants to produce great end results, then your job is to get yourself solid and back to work as quickly after failure or success as you can — and age helps tremendously with this! In my 40s I weather good and bad opinions so much better than in my 30s (and let’s not even talk about my 20s). This not only means that I can get back to work faster — it means that I’m taking more risks in my work.
I first drafted Being Emily when I was 32 and so I can tell you that it was not a better book than the version that was published when I was 40. But even more age-related is my forthcoming book, Just Girls, in which I took many more risks — risks that I never even thought of in my early 30s. I’m proud and excited for this book and I don’t think I could have written it any younger than I did.
And I’m excited for the books that come after these. I recognize that I have no idea what I’ll be capable of in my 60s, 70s and 80s if I keep writing.
Being a young writer is exciting and it’s an accomplishment not to be discounted. However, I have a shelf of books visible from my desk that are writers that I strive to be like — I put it where I can see it every day and let me tell you the ages of some of the writers when they wrote the books I dream of emulating: 77, 38, 37, 52, 38, 66, 38, 30, 51, 44, 66, 50, 60, 59.
There’s only one author in there under 35 and if you’re wondering, it’s Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World and I’m totally willing to lose to her in the young author category.
But that’s not the point. The point is there are many (probably most) arts and skills that improve with age but not only that: our ability to do our art, to listen to people, to be with others, to be in the world, to be fully human — if we work at it — also improves with age.
It’s just my competitive ego that makes me think I wanted to be published and famous and hailed as the genius-of-all-things at the age of 30. My wise mind understands that so much “good fortune” could have destroyed my creativity and I’m very grateful that my life has worked out the way it has.