writers

Why The Fetishization of Young Writers Continues

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Girl with fountain of youth
Credit: Pixabay | User: lightstargod

20 under 40 list

30 under 30 age

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?”

paolini

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.

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.

amelia atwater

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.

25under25

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.

roth

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.  

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Does Writer’s Block Exist?

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writers desk
Credit: Pixabay Image | User: Unsplash

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Sir Terry Pratchett

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to writer’s block. Some people believe it doesn’t really exist while others insist it does. Regardless of what your stance is, some writers mythologize writer’s block as a kind of bogeyman to be feared like the plague while others deny its existence altogether.

While there are always different reasons for why writers feel blocked at a given time, there are three general divisions I’ve noticed over the years that writers tend to fall into:

One: This is for writers who need to spend less time on Facebook/Netflix/[insert other source of addiction here]. While one could argue this is pretty much all of us, the root of the problem in this category is procrastination. While that’s a separate topic in and of itself, most of the writers here feel uninspired or blocked due to fear so all of a sudden social media sites, video games, or even laundry seem like much more appealing options than the fear of facing the blank page.

Two: This deals with writers who are going through a major crisis such as a divorce, job loss, financial woes, the death of a loved one, the fallout from a traumatic event (such as an attack or a robbery), caring for a loved one who is ill, receiving a diagnosis of a major illness, and so on. It’s challenging enough to feel creative in day-to-day life without something negative happening to muck it up, but when something jarring happens to a person, it affects their ability to create for a good chunk of time. Everyone is different and no two people will respond the same way to something in this category.

Three: This is for writers who suffer from mental health issues, often in addition to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis. The severity of one’s condition varies from person to person, but sometimes what a writer mistakes for writer’s block can be severe depression. Writers and depression go hand-in-hand (although not always), so it’s important to recognize that if you fall into this category, it’s essential to receive the proper treatment. For some people this may be a combination of medication and talk therapy. For others, they may need a more extensive kind of therapy. And for others still, this may look like mindfulness meditations and yoga.

There’s actually something else that’s more pernicious than the third category. Some writers aren’t capable of accessing their deepest, most primal desires. Their fears. The things that make them shake where they’re sitting. The things that rob them of their breath when they wake up in the middle of the night (or that prevent them from going to sleep).

In order to be able to write well, a person needs to cultivate the ability to be intensely vulnerable and to open themselves up to all kinds of pain–the things we tuck away in the back corners of our minds and that we hope don’t resurface, the things that lurk in the cobwebs, and the things that we would rather pretend don’t exist, the things we wish didn’t happen, the things we wish we could take back or that we could change.

So, does writer’s block exist or is it just a myth, a kind of crutch that writers lean on when we’re not feeling inspired but we’re not sure what the source of our lack of momentum is?

Writer Unboxed has written several pieces on the subject, including this one from today.

As their post mentions, fear is probably the biggest killer of creativity. It restrains us, tells us we’re not good enough and probably never will be, and forces us to accept decisions that seem like safe choices because they feel familiar or because there’s less pressure attached to them.

Trying too hard is another culprit behind why the words won’t come. We feel pressured to produce something that will sell, or we’re worried that the book we want to write most won’t sell, or a multitude of other things that fit this category.

And yes, there is the psychiatric point of view that emphasizes that writer’s block is an excuse for not having enough discipline to sit down in their chairs and write. But this is limiting–it doesn’t take into account what’s going on in a person’s life at the time and doesn’t encourage writers to take stock of our issues, to drive at the root of our paralysis and find out what’s really going on beneath the surface.

Some writers find a way to get around their blockage is to do something else, then come back to the writing. Others use a reward system whereby they produce a certain amount of words, then reward themselves with a TV show or video game they’ve been looking forward to watching or playing all day.

What about you? Do you think writer’s block is real? What helps you get over those slump periods when your writing just isn’t flowing? Sound off below!

What Georges St-Pierre Taught Me about Writing

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Georges St-Pierre, UFC fighter
Georges St-Pierre: (c) Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, I watched the documentary “Takedown: The DNA of GSP”, which was released last year as a treat for fans of mixed martial arts fighter Georges St-Pierre (who stepped away from the octagon at the end of 2013. There’s still a lot of buzz as to the reasons, although he has discussed some of them in interviews). I knew I would find the documentary inspirational and I wanted to find out more about this fascinating man’s background, but the thing I didn’t realize is that things really got interesting when he started losing.

At one point, GSP tore his ACL and the documentary shows in painstaking detail what the process was like for him: everything from going through the injury to surgery to how incredibly long and exhausting his recovery was.

When he was ready to go back into the ring again for practice, his coach put him against guys he called “amateurs” who were smaller than GSP and Georges got tired within three rounds. He couldn’t do his superman punch. He couldn’t move as fast as he used to be able to move. He couldn’t do all the things that he used to be able to perform so flawlessly before, so in a lot of ways it was like he lost his “super powers”, if you will.

That resonated with me because I have felt like since 2011, I got an ACL tear without knowing it when it came to my writing. It’s possible I may have gotten the fracture or the first small injury that led up to the ACL tear of 2011 a few years prior to that, but I felt like the worst thing had happened to me. I stopped feeling like myself. I started to feel like I couldn’t perform my equivalent of a superman punch. I started to feel like I couldn’t go past 3 rounds–in fact, I couldn’t even walk inside the ring. That’s how hurt and defeated I was.

I’m not sure if it was because rejection after rejection kept grinding me down, the ‘almost’ acceptances, day job unpredictability, home life woes, insecurities, my expectations and perfectionist tendencies, or my streamlined focus on book reviewing and book blogging. I think it was a combination of many different things.

Even though I have done quite a bit of writing between 2011 and now, there were many times where I knew deep down I wasn’t giving it my all and I wasn’t giving it my best and I was saying to myself that I only had energy for one draft and nothing beyond that. Revision meant “Now I have to fix it only for multiple people to reject it again and again and again.” But that’s the writing life.

Even though I suffered a massive injury, I don’t think I realized the real impact and even though I’m on the road to recovery now, it’s slow, painful and brutal. I did, however, have a turning point in late 2015 when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo if only to prove to myself that yes, I can still write. The first day that my most recent contract expired, I forced myself to write the werewolf WIP that I had been wanting to write but couldn’t muster the energy or strength for. It was painful, but it got me back in the game.

Getting back to the documentary, Georges St-Pierre had “forgotten everything” when it came time to do his recovery–all his training, his techniques, and everything that made him the best UFC fighter in his division. He was out for 9 months and had to very slowly start back up again.

He wasn’t coordinated. He wasn’t able to perform takedowns on his opponents. He wasn’t able to stop their takedowns. He had forgotten everything.

GSP says in the documentary that with each fight, he is afraid to be knocked out and submitted, not to be able to deliver as much as he thinks he should deliver or as much as people expect, and to lose. This humanized him even more for me because there’s something refreshingly honest when someone who is at the top of their game says that they struggle, too, and that their craft or sport or whatever it happens to be doesn’t come as naturally to them as others might assume.

The ACL is a career-killer. Not many people have come back from the ACL injury. Some fighters feel great for a few months after surgery only to suffer another ACL tear in training, which makes things even worse so the fact that Georges came back so triumphantly after his injury is truly amazing.

GSP’s head coach thought about counselling GSP not to take the now infamous Nick Diaz fight and admitted that if Georges had lost that fight and had a bad go of things, his career would be very close to over. Thankfully that turned out not to be true and he went on to fight another day (although many fans, myself included, await the possibility of his return with much excitement).

And as for me? I’ve got a long recovery ahead of me. I’ve “stepped into the ring” again and I’m taking things one day at a time with my projects. The difference is that I have a bit more patience now. I’m a bit wiser. I’m aware of how short-sighted it is to say I want to get published because I’ve got something to prove.

I’m also learning not to equate my sense of self-worth on my successes and failures as a writer and to look at myself as a human being. The Georges St-Pierre documentary taught me that even when a person thinks that they have “lost it” or that they’ll never be able to perform as well as they used to or that they can never recover from a particular setback, all we can do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. And keep trying.

Final #NanoWriMo 2015 Update

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nanowrimo winner badge
(Spoiler alert: This isn’t going to be one of those inspirational “I was so scared to do NanoWriMo and then I did and I succeeded, yay me!” posts but it’s not going to be an absolute downer either).

As evidenced by my sidebar, I did indeed hit the 50,000-word mark and qualify as a “winner” of NanoWriMo 2015–I hesitate to use the term winner only because it has connotations of competition, and I wasn’t treating my participation as such, so I’ll say that I’m happy I met the goal of 50,000 words. To my own astonishment, I also somehow managed to accomplish this before the end of the month.

As it is, there are still 2 days left of the competition and I am rooting for everyone who is participating this year to meet their goals. I’ve come along way from being someone who once vowed never to participate in Nano. I asked myself why any writer would put him or herself through such sheer torture, and now that I’ve been through the torture, I discovered the answer for myself, but it turns out I was right–most of my experience was painful and fraught with peril, self-doubt, anxiety and worse.

Post-Nano, I have had two writing sessions and I’m starting to slack off a little bit. Part of me thinks this isn’t so bad and in fact is kind of necessary because after almost a month of writing every single day, I think I’ve earned a bit of time off. However, the other part of me that’s fighting this is the part that is desperate to keep my momentum with this manuscript going, the part of me that knows that I don’t want to give way to another extended period of not writing, and so the two sides grappling and at odds right now.

What are some things this entire experience taught me?

  • This wasn’t the first novel I’ve written and I knew that Nano would be difficult, but I had no idea what I was in for.
  • I had to fight myself and resist the voice that always insists I do something else. A picnic this was not.
  • My success stemmed in part from not having a miserable day job hanging over my head, and I know this is not the case with most people, so just putting that out there.
  • Nano took a huge mental health toll on me–I already struggle with my demons, but I hit my breaking point twice during Nano. Climbing over those hurdles felt like moving mountains.
  • Going off social media helped me in some ways, but made me feel a little too isolated. Also, I realized YouTube is more of a time-waster for me than social media sites, which was interesting to find out.
  • Post-Nano, I’m not a speed demon who can pound out thousands of words in a day even though that’s what I did for all of Nano, which is disappointing but also a realization that I’m still finding my process and what works for me.
  • Although I still don’t have a set writing time, which is something I need to work on straightening out, I did figure out that working on a full stomach results in better output than writing when I’m sleep-deprived and hungry or anxious.
  • I surprised myself by exceeding the 1,700 words that’s recommended to write every day–and I got my writing done in one session per day, which was also a surprise. I did do multiple sessions on a few days, but I figured out I tend to work better when I limit myself to one writing session per day.
  • For the first week, I did writing exercises to warm myself up before the actual novel writing took place–this was okay at first, sort of like training wheels, but I’m glad I was able to remove them eventually.
  • It is unbelievable how much I had to force myself and push myself to write, which made me question if I even have it in me to do this anymore, but I realized this is one of the elaborate disguises that fear wears to trick us into procrastination and avoidance.
  • I know that I need to write before I hop on to the Interwebs, but I’m struggling to keep that up.
  • When I get stuck, it’s because I don’t know what happens next–or I do know but don’t have the info necessary to execute something properly and I need to do research to figure that out before I can write.

At many points, I questioned if I was participating in Nano just so I could boast about it or if it was because I genuinely wanted to improve myself as a writer and figure out what made me tick. I believe it was a mix of both, but by the end, it became more about me getting the bones of this story down and breathing life into a story that’s new territory for me. As well, this is the first non-supernatural novel I’ve worked on–something I’m still getting used to–so I’m trying to cut myself some slack in that regard.

So, will I do NanoWriMo again? I’m not a person who likes to say never, because life is unpredictable and full of surprises. While I don’t see myself participating in NanoWriMo again in the foreseeable future, for now I’m happy that I challenged and dared myself to put my money where my mouth is and to push myself as a writer in a way I’ve never done before.

What about you? How has your experience of NanoWriMo been going? Are you a die-hard participant who will most definitely be partaking in the madness next year or do you prefer to steer clear of the extravaganza altogether? For those who haven’t participated in NanoWriMo, do you have any tricks to productivity or things that help you produce more writing? Sound off below!