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:
We are so obsessed with youth & success stories. “I published my first novel at 19! This bestseller is in his 20s!” I wonder about that.
— Alyssa Wong (੭ㅇㅅㅇ❀) (@crashwong) April 3, 2017
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.