Addition: I was planning to post this a few weeks ago and thought it would be fitting timing to release my write-up now as Chuck Wendig recently posted an article emphasizing that writers can write at any age. As he states, “You gotta do the work. That’s true whether you’re 16 or 60.” Wise words that we should all take to heart.
In high school, as a budding young writer, I couldn’t escape reading article after article about Christopher Paolini (who self-published Eragon at the age of 15 then went on to publish it with Random House at 19 to millions of sales worldwide). At the time, this gave me hope to think that maybe I could be like him and publish around the same age (suffice it to say, that didn’t quite happen). His commercial success did not always equate to critical approval, but his achievements remain remarkable. Still, the narrative around him is dominated by an almost exclusive focus on his youth.
Not everyone starts writing at a young age, but for those who do, we often feed into the media sensationalism around young writers. Having worked in book publishing for a number of years, I get it. Just as a salesperson and marketer must find unique selling points about products they’re trying to move off the shelves, publicists must do the same for authors. What sets them apart? Oh–they’re super young? Great. There’s the angle. I get it. But not only does it perpetuate unrealistic expectations in the hearts of young writers everywhere, it creates an attitude of ageism, communicating to writers that unless they’ve published their magnum opus by the age of 25 or 30, that they will never do so and that they have basically run out of opportunities to be remarkable in any way.
I thought I was the only one to look at the age of young writers published in the articles that discuss them and to then think, “This person has already done X by Y age. I should be filled with shame that I have failed to do the same.” The media does a bang-up job reinforcing this in aspiring authors and hyperbolizing the youth of published authors, as if the journalist is addressing anyone over the age of 14 and taunting them, saying, “This author has published a book at 15. What have you ever done?”
Because the media is so fixated on fetishizing the age of young writers, it seldom stops to ask whether the books they write and publish are good. Are they quality novels or are they just overhyped and mediocre? This is not to say no novelist under the age of 30 is a good writer (Helen Oyememi is remarkably good). Closer to home (for me, anyway) is V.E. Schwab, a fantasy and young adult novelist who at the age of 29 (turning 30 this year) has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime and has an infuriatingly excellent quality of writing.
A New York Times article about her is what inspired me to write this post. It is called: Not Yet 30, This Fantasy Writer Is an Old Pro. As if they are trying to imply “she is better than all of you. And she’s not even 30 yet. What’s the matter with the rest of you?” As if the Times has not shamed us enough by this point, they add that Ms. Schwab decided “on a lark” to pursue a graduate degree in medieval art history as if to not-so-subtly imply that she is a genius to be exalted and praised on the level of Mozart and that the rest of us mortals are all a sorry bunch of dummies.
To be clear, I am not blaming the writers I have discussed at all. Far from it. I have great respect for many of them and think they have worked incredibly hard to achieve what they have. Paolini, for instance, worked tirelessly to sell copies of Eragon by going to schools and bookstores and toiling to move as many copies as he could. Like all authors, they and their publicists have to work hard to get them media coverage to ensure that their books sell.
What I do find problematic is the way the media coverage emphasizes their youth, as if that is the only thing remarkable about them. I do think it is important to encourage young writers and give them a sense of hope rather than to crush their fragile dreams as is so often the case by cynical adults who call themselves “realistic” and tell these kids the same thing. I was one of those and can attest to how difficult it is to overcome that much continuous negativity and doubt aimed at you constantly.
The journalists and bloggers writing these pieces to promote the writers they are featuring do not sit down and say to themselves, “My goal is to make all the other writers reading this piece to feel as inadequate as possible. I want them to walk away with a sense of shame and guilt and a suffocating sense that nothing they ever do is good enough.” However, they do know that the indirect result of these types of pieces if often just that.
Many writers who start out quite young often dream big but struggle when we reach college or university and the time comes to “get serious” and “find a real job” and “be an adult.” Some of you may be thinking “Yes, but that’s life, my young friend. This is the battle we ALL undertake and you’re no exception.” Fair enough. Others may feel like pointing out that not every young writer succumbs to these pressures, or that they are well are of these demands but are just more resilient when it comes to filtering them out. I can think of several writers in my age group who started writing at pretty much the same time I did and who are prolific rising stars that are doing wonderful things. In the horror genre, Adam Cesare and Stephanie M. Wytovich come to mind.
But for those of us who aren’t as impervious to the demands I mentioned above about becoming an adult and getting established in the working world, each year that passes marks a larger barrier to carving out writing time while also finding reliable employment after graduation. One of the biggest killers of creativity for many writers is economic uncertainty–some thrive on not knowing where their next paycheque is coming from and battle to defy the odds, but a good number of young writers in this camp succumb to the pressures and struggle.
Another factor that doesn’t get discussed in the laudatory pieces that sing the praises of these extraordinarily young writers who have achieved so much is their health–both mental and physical. Both of these also influence the likelihood not only of success but also of maintaining a pace. Many writers I know suffer from chronic diseases and ailments but have not let these obstacles get in their way–else they have had to work hard for many years discovering how to make this happen. Not everyone has that kind of strength and endurance, and it can take years to develop this.
Still another factor that’s missing from the pieces about young writers is the frank discussion of their mental health. Some of them have spoken out about suffering from depression and anxiety while others have learned to circumvent them over the years. The point is: health challenges–both mental and physical–affect a writer’s ability to write. Yes, many learn how to work around these things, but that process can take a tremendous amount of time.
Also? Burnout is real. After years and years of taking notes from writing craft books and attending workshops, conferences, conventions, beta reading, critiquing groups, blogging, book reviewing, and balancing that with an education about the business of writing, not to mention the constant slog of rejection after rejection after rejection, it’s not difficult to imagine that a young writer might burn out.
Something else to consider: sometimes when a person starts out at the very top, there’s nowhere to go but down. So when writers that young succeed, they can be like stars that burns very brightly at first then just fade away over time. Part of adulthood includes having to contend with a body and mind that get tired faster. Energy becomes a precious commodity. Grappling with the job market and making sure we know where our next paycheque is coming from often adds to the perils of our creative energy, which dwindles. Life happens. Marriages, births, divorces, job gains, job losses, deaths, and so on.
So, what is a writer to do in the face of constant media fetishization of youth in writers? Chuck Wendig’s piece offers some solutions to consider, most of which can be summarized as: write anyway. Write regardless of your age. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to do so or to give you a signal telling you that you have now officially earned the right and the license to use the term “writer” to apply to yourself granted by some invisible committee that doesn’t exist. Many aspiring authors mistakenly think of the path to publication and success as being the same as what medical school students do to become licensed doctors, or passing the bar that allows law students to become barristers. It’s not the same. Do the writing. Put in the work. And to hell with the rest of it.