You Can Write At Any Age

Alyssa Wong, who is awesome and just double-fisted a couple of Hugo nominations for her continued stellar work, posted the other day on Twitter:

I wonder about it, too.

I wonder if it’s the result of a youth-obsessed focus, or a dismissal of age and experience, or if it’s something that offers a narrative — and when we see a narrative, true or false or partly-imagined, we give it the spotlight whether or not it’s deserving of one.

You should go to her tweet and read a lot of the responses.

What you’ll see, quite correctly, is a lot of authors who came to this game seemingly late — in their 30s, 40s, even 50s. I had my first published novel hit shelves when I was 36 — and I’ve written 20 total, since then, in the last four years. That’s not meant to be a boast, though I’m obviously happy with it. I can’t speak to the quality of those books, I can only speak to the fact that by most metrics, I am a successful author, though certainly not anywhere near the most successful, and not even as successful as I hope to one day be.

There’s a whole lot of stuff going on here to unpack, and it’s surely worth unpacking. First, it’s not odd that authors find success in later years, because writing and storytelling is often one created on a wave of experience, discipline, and focus, and those things are sometimes likelier to come with age. You live more, you do more, you know more (even as you know less), and so there’s simply more to say. When you have more to say, that cup is brimming over, and it spills out onto the page, and ta-da, you write it all down and contextualize it through (again) narrative. That’s not to say you don’t have a lot to say when you’re young, either: I was fired up and full of shit when I was younger, and wrote a whole lot, too. I just didn’t have much success with it in the novel sense, because I was still working my way through how to write a novel. I instead turned it to short fiction or to freelance game writing, and that worked fine.

Point is, your age is pretty irrelevant when it comes to writing and storytelling. It’s not about how old you are. It’s about who you are, and what you’ve got to say, and how willing and able you are to say it. Maybe age brings confidence and a certain unfuckwithable-ness. Maybe youth brings fire and vigor. I dunno. We’re all gonna die. That’s a fact. Not a one of us is immortal — EXCEPT YOU, DRACULA JOE, I SEE YOU OVER THERE DRINKING THE BLOOD OF THE NUBILE. For the rest of us, this carousel ends at some point, and so we fill our lives ideally with as much purpose as we can while we can. If you wanna be a writer, then hey, that means writing. That’s your purpose. That’s your legacy. A tombstone made of stories.

Write if you’re gonna write.

You’re never too old to write.

And you’re also never too young to start.

But don’t wait. That’s the caution. That’s the danger.

Don’t sit on it. Even if you’re likelier to be more successful later, that later-in-life success is often built on the heaps and mounds of a lot of unsung, unpublished work in your youth. Use that time to build a mountain of glorious failures and fuck-ups. You only get to know what you’re doing by not knowing what you’re doing. You only get to the rarified air of success by climbing that mountain of shit work and fuck-uppery. It’s not a waste of time to write badly. It’s no waste to write in the wrong direction. The path may be circuitous, but the path is still the path. And writing is how you walk it.

The work won’t come to you.

You gotta go do the work.

That’s true whether you’re 16 or you’re 60.

So go do the work and stop worrying about age.

Better yet, don’t compare yourself to others. There’s always somebody out there doing it differently, and doing it better. Always someone younger, older, with more books, more awards, better sales, nicer hair, whatever. What they do isn’t what you do. Who they are isn’t who you are. Their path ain’t your path. Scrap all that worry and write.

44 comments

  • I’ve seen several writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, say that real writers never stop writing. So I question whether I, nearly 40, can call myself a real writer when I gave it up in high school and am only now attempting it again. At this point I’m calling myself a hobbyist writer to separate myself from “real” writers.

    • IMO, the difference between “hobbyist writer” and “real writer” is only important to the taxman. ;) If you write, you’re a writer, regardless of whether you’re bringing in $ or $$$ or just happy feels and appreciation from the people reading you.

  • I feel like that if you write, you are a writer. Selling is awesome. But the act of putting the words down is writing. Quality and quantity are just qualitative words, but do not change that the words spill out of you and run down the page.

  • I wanna get readers so I can sing my little joy tune. Or if I don’t get readers, then attempt to sell short story ideas because everybody still watches tv in one way or another! I think it would be cool if you saw what you conceived displayed across the screen. There’s something out there for me; I just don’t know what it is yet. And by cool I mean the whole enchilada feeling that would come with the production. Adios. PS. I’m a real writer who hasn’t been paid. Like all the things: careers, roles, jobs, etc. I’ve had I do my best. We’ll see. Thanks Chuck.

  • I definitely wouldn’t have been ready to write in my late teens or twenties (even though I did write quite a bit and will later revisit what I wrote to determine how much is salvageable). I was far too busy trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up (still haven’t figured out exactly *when* I’m supposed to grow up), drinking copious amounts of alcohol whilst dancing to questionable “music”, and generally attempting to figure out how the world works (in short, it doesn’t. World is FUBAR. Have accepted that and moved on.)

    Only now, blessed with patience, and wisdom, and better alcohol, am I ready to seriously tackle writering.

  • Shit yeah. I took 20 years off from writing prose to write songs for various bands. When I finally got back to writing short stories, comics and novels I thought, “Maybe I’m too old to get back into the writing game.” Then told myself to shut up and write.

  • April 5, 2017 at 10:28 AM // Reply

    I’m forty-three, and my first novel will be published by Simon & Schuster next year. So it can definitely be done.

  • @KimJ271: As Google claims the ancient Chinese once said — the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Get to work! :)

  • April 5, 2017 at 10:36 AM // Reply

    When Bowie talked about art and purpose, and not playing to the gallery but listening to one’s inner voice, he said something like ‘we all have a unique relationship with the universe and how we exist within it that can only be expressed by what we do.’ That shit takes some time to understand: amen to those who can early on, but I find it gets more comfortable with age, and more interesting. To use the broken-in catcher’s mitt analogy, it feels that way on the hand after a while, smooth.

  • Yes. Just yes to everything you wrote.

    Can I add one little thing? I’ve learned this the hard way…

    DON’T compare yourself to anyone else. It’s so easy to do these days. Yeah, sure, that one person published a bestseller at teen-whatever, and here you are — a 30, 40, 50, 60 something or other — still writing or marketing your story. It doesn’t make your writing (or you) any less than that teen or 20-something. You excel on your own time table, nobody else’s. Just do it. Write it. Publish it. Work at it! Stand on a rooftop and shout about it when it’s done (okay, figuratively because literally might involve police and firefighters and PR you just don’t need…).

    I used to get so down on myself because, “Look at all THIS that I’m doing when THIS has done it at THIS age and — damn I’m old and a failure and never going to get anywhere.” Then it hit me, my roadtrip isn’t on a map. It’s my unique path. So instead of getting upset and discouraged by the detours and construction, enjoy it because it’s uniquely mine. And that uniqueness, that’s what makes storytellers legendary.

      • I know, but it just felt so damn good to throw out what it means to me. Sparked a fire in me, you did! Looking back, I prefaced that comment all wrong. Whoops!

        (In my defense, I hadn’t had my coffee and my two toddlers were sucking what little life I had away like deatheaters, but no death or intense gloom and sadness, just giggly, loud, and rambuctious energy draining coupled with outrageous distraction. Speaking of which, um, ruler swords are apparently being weilding. I better go…)

  • As a writer who started in her fifties, I don’t compare myself, but I do feel incredible urgency. I’m excited about my projects, but wish I’d started earlier.
    *clicks from Internet to get back to writing*

  • Started calling myself a writer in my 40s. This makes me laugh – I have always, always been a late bloomer, so it fits. Writing wound its way through my entire life, but I didn’t feel ready to really focus on it until later, after I’d traveled and experienced life. I have no regrets, but as Susie said above, there is a sense of urgency these days. I’m rounding the corner to 50 this year and getting ready to pitch my first book quite recklessly at some poor, beleaguered lit agent. It’s all an adventure and age is the least interesting factor about that.

  • At my age, I have been thinking about that whole Fitzgerald second-acts-in-American-lives quote and wondering how to reinvent myself when moving from one medium to another. I take heart that Jack Kirby co-created the Fantastic Four at age 44, opening a new chapter for himself and all of comics (and now movies).

  • April 5, 2017 at 12:36 PM // Reply

    Yep, love this. It took me seven years to write my first novel, and I think a lot of that was because I started it when I was 24. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to say but didn’t yet have the perspective or skills to say it the way it needed to be said. Through a lot more living I was able to finish and update it. Now in my early thirties, its the best book I could’ve written given the circumstances, but I can’t wait to see how I’ve grown when I write the next one.

  • Thank you for this! I’ve always loved to write and storytell, but didn’t have my first essay published until I was 61. Now, 2 years later I write a bi-monthly column for a webzine out of NYC that is the biggest of its (specialized) kind in the world. Random, right?

    The hardest thing was convincing (so I thought) the readers and myself that “Hey, I actually KNOW shit worth reading about.”

    Funny thing is I actually DO know shit worth reading about. Shocked the hell out of me…..

  • Thanks for the thoughtful shout-out against age-ist thinking about writers, especially the inner voice that claims–maliciously, falsely–creativity might be restricted to youth. BS. Creativity in writing works like a muscle; the more it does, the better it develops. I started writing full-time in my late 50s, after retiring from a career in the Navy, and now, with one published short story under my belt, I am charging ahead in my 60s, and it’s great to read (in the Comments) that others in the Mature Decades are doing the same.

  • Good to see “older” people chiming in. Good advice from you, of course, but I was a bit taken aback at your line ending with writers coming late to the game “.in their 30s, 40s, even 50s”. As if, good god, EVEN someone as old as that! My first book was published in my 50s and subsequently won a well regarded award. I’ll be writing until I can’t tap a keyboard or see the screen. I may not be a financial success by anyone’s standards, but I tally my success by reviews and the people who take the time to email me with kind remarks.

    Alan Bradly wrote his first novel in his 60s and ignited a bidding war between publishers. He is the author of the wildly successful Flavia de Luce series. I don’t think there is any reason to think you’re ever too old, even in your 60s, 70s or 80s. It really is your own race and success (by whatever definition) is not necessarily linear. It can happen at any time and surprise you, so don’t think it’s ever passed you by or you had your chance! At least that’s what I tell myself and it keeps me going.

  • I wrote a bunch in high school and college — lots of shapeless stories and never-completed novels — with dreams of one day becoming a “professional writer.” I then promptly took a twenty+ year writing hiatus…

    However, my first novel was published last year by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin Random House), and I’ve now got three more on the way.

    FWIW, I just turned 49, and my publisher — and it still brings a smile to my face to type that — sent me a bottle of whiskey to celebrate.

    You’re never too old and it’s never too late. It’s as simple as that.

  • “is a lot of authors who came to this game seemingly late — in their 30s, 40s, even 50s.” I find it interesting how we perceive age. As a youngster I would have said 50 is just a second short of being dead. It’s just a thought, not real in any shape or form. It’s just a number indicating the passing of time the body had to deal with and adjust to. And even that measure is made up. My mind or soul, however, has no age to it, it’s ageless as it always was. I’m publishing my debut novel this coming weekend. Seemingly late three years shy of turning 70? I don’t feel old or older – until I start rationalising the number of years I had so far and the possible years I have available until I bow out.

    • Go Gudrun. I’ll watch out for your book. Will it be published under your name and in English and on Amazon? Found it. You’re so lucky to be living in NZ!

  • I started writing when as I was in middle and am still writing now at 24 years-old. And sometimes, I feel like I do have more to say now than I did back then.

  • I started writing about 11 years ago at the ripe old age of 41, initially for therapy, then a few years later started getting serious about it. I enjoy writing, and even though it takes me longer to complete a story (good old genetic malady have I that turns my hands into beef jerky), I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  • I love it when my feedreader has some synchronicity. I’ve just finished reading something from a site I like very much which is a community of emerging writers, but which insists on referring to them regularly as young. It doesn’t posit itself as a young emerging writers site; it just seems to tap into this prevailing sexy boring idea.

  • I remember when my sole goal in life was to break Gordon Korman’s record (he had his first book published at 14.) I had what seemed like an infinite amount of time to do it too…but once I had the book (many books–I think that was all I did for fun when I was a kid) I had no idea what to do with it. What seven-year-old knows about agents and editors and so on? So I missed the boat, big time. Gordon Korman is (VERY) safe from me!

    Now, if I’d only had Google…or the Internet….

      • LOL! I tried to the same with Christopher Paolini when I was in high school, so you’re not alone in that ;-) I just published a piece on my own blog on this topic so when I saw Chuck’s piece I was like “THANK YOU!” :-)

  • I’m 65 and I’ve been writing since my childhood – it has taken some time to be able to call myself ‘a writer’ – often because other people didn’t want to let me be – in one way or another – someone from our background cannot be a writer (working class); you cannot call yourself a writer unless you’re published; just putting words on a page does not make you a writer; diary-writing is not real writing – the list is endless. I’m a writer. Still writing. Others around me retire – I never will – I shall always write.

  • I swear on a pile of Ewoks I researched “successful authors over [X age]” several months ago due to the infuriating obsession with celebrating youth and spitting on those over…30 in our culture. It was getting to me although I know better. Seriously, it’s as if society is only hailing parenting novels covering birth to college written by someone who has a two week old. Sure, maybe their advice has merit, but why not ask someone who has actually experienced dealing with a teen in the house? And survived. Experience really does have value.

    After an unexpected hiatus between books (kinda happens when your husband has his brain blow up due to an SAH – then works his way back to being well), I have no time or energy to worry about what everyone else is doing anymore. But grammar? Yeah, I’ll brush up on that. (Thank the gods for editors.)

    Anyway…

    Thank you.

  • Say it ain’t so! At 62 it’s too late to start writing early in life, to get the crappy stuff out of the way. I have to start where I am right now. The hard part is not finding enough experiences to write about, but learning how things are done these days. Damn social media, PDF files and WordPress!

  • I needed this. I just went to an acquaintance’s book premiere, and this girl is a year or two younger than me (I’m 24), is a middle school English teacher, an activist, and has now written a novel AND gotten it published– which might be even harder than writing it, but I’ve never accomplished either so I wouldn’t know. So I’ve been a bit on the down side lately. This helped.

  • Such a great topic. That little phrase you used: “…even 50s” is telling, too. If we want to blow the boundaries off our collective creativity, then let’s do that–cradle to grave. The fire burns as long as one chooses to stoke it, no limits, no numbers.

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