Don’t write for the writer you are now. Write for the writer you’re going to become.
Quite often I see many writers, mostly between 30 and 50, mention in interviews or on social media that they wish they had started writing and submitting their work at a younger age. They assume it would have meant more books published or more success or being “ahead,” but I’m here to tell you that’s (mostly) hogwash.
I know, I know, the media makes it seem like the only ones to get book deals these days are 20-something and early 30s upstarts–the operative phrase here is “seems like,” which doesn’t always mean it’s true. For every writer out there who gets a book deal before they’re even out of university there is the writer who doesn’t get published until they’re almost 70 and goes on to have sensational success.
Does starting at a younger age define one’s success as a professional athlete or a model? Absolutely. Does it work like that in writing? Not really.
Even the people who do start early on in life often don’t get good until they’ve got some more years under their belts. Take Leonardo DiCaprio for instance–he had a few memorable performances like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in his youth, but he was also in a lot of cringe-worthy films (Man in the Iron Mask anyone?). I would argue most of his best work (The Departed, Blood Diamond, Inception, etc) didn’t come until his late twenties:
As someone who has been writing since her teens and is now close to the big 3-0, take it from me: starting earlier hasn’t helped me much. Sure, I had the advantage of unencumbered time to study up on the craft of writing and the business side. I’ve also worked for years in book publishing. You would think that would help, but in reality, I am no closer to my goal of being a published novelist than when I was starting out as a teen.
That isn’t to beat myself up or to be self-effacing. It’s just an ugly truth that I’ve reconciled myself to recently. I’ve done the workshops, the pitching, the submitting and all that jazz. I did reach the “close but no cigar” phase a few years ago.
I’ve also seen multiple writers who are 10–sometimes 20–years older than me succeed and establish viable careers in 1/3 of the total years I’ve been writing.
It’s important to point out here that anyone who starts writing, whether that person is 14 or 38, is going to suck donkey balls at first. We all have to start somewhere, and most of our first efforts are terrible.
The point I’m trying to make is not to say that going after writing in your mid-30s or 40s or 60s is easier or that if you’re a teenager now that you should stop–no one can tell you when to start or when to stop except for you.
What I am trying to say is that if you started your writing career after 30 or 40 or even 70, that’s not a bad thing. Let me share a little piece of wisdom I’ve learned: younger writers haven’t necessarily racked up enough life experiences yet.
I say ‘necessarily’ because there are young people who have survived atrocities such as being a boy soldier or surviving being shot in the head. Most younger writers have had fairly average and ordinary upbringings and haven’t been through anything that memorable in most cases.
Film director Werner Herzog actually spoke about his ideal version of a film school that wouldn’t involve too much of the technical aspects but would involve amassing life experiences. Some of his views are a bit extreme, but the principle behind what he’s saying is important: storytellers need life experiences to make our stories fully fleshed-out and memorable.
When we’re young, we haven’t learned how to deal with life’s curveballs or real loss yet. Our skin is as brittle as paper. We don’t know what devastation feels like and may not have experienced true empathy yet. We’re still these fragile, naive and delicate creatures that haven’t lived enough yet.
But as we age, so follows wisdom. We make more mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. We gain more life experiences as time goes on. We learn more about human nature and why people do the things they do. Much of life is learning to cope with everything and get a grip so we learn not to let the madness that’s waiting for us at every turn wash us away.
One of my all-time writing heroes, Chuck Wendig, is the first to admit that even though he decided he wanted to be a novelist at 18, it would be another 17 years and take him until his mid-30s to realize his goal of publishing his first novel, Blackbirds.
Ferrett Steinmetz toiled for 24 years (!) before his debut novel, Flex, came out from Angry Robots Books. I urge you to read his blog post that I’ve linked to here in which he describes how he sold this novel–it’s the best illustration I can think of to demonstrate that even though he started very young, it was decades and after the age of 40 before he got to where he wanted to be. But he got there and since then, he’s moving with forward momentum.
Huge caveat: Yes, there are exceptions. There are young writers who are also bestsellers, critical darlings, award winners, MFA graduates and much more. They’re the exception to the rule and though they may burn brightly at the outset, they don’t always stay that way. Some do, but as with any writing career that starts at any age, very few people who rise to the top stay there.
The lesson is: don’t discount yourself due to age. No two writers are the same. Some writers deal with mental health issues or chronic ailments that can interfere with their ability to write. Everyone has a different set of circumstances, so it’s important to avoid the comparison wheel and to stop telling yourself that you’re hopeless and done for because you didn’t publish a novel by a certain age.
Don’t limit yourself because you’ve been led to believe that you have an expiry date. You don’t. With age and experience, we learn to move past all of those times of utter frustration when we’ve convinced ourselves yet again that we’ll never “make it.” Remember, everyone has a different definition of success. Stop subscribing to someone else’s. Make your own.