Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Age of Success

I was at a party recently where a friend and I toasted our recent professional successes, when she said “I love the 40s!” She was referring to our ages, not the decade. Since my last post, I had a birthday and turned the calendar to a new year. These events happen on the same magical evening called New Year’s Eve, which this year featured my husband and I, and our two kids, asleep by 9 p.m. in our hotel room after a day of museum-hopping in Chicago. Because that last day of the year is momentous in several ways, I tend to feel this whole stew of nostalgia and regret and hope and excitement and despair. A lot of bad things happened in 2016, but I also got an agent and he sold my first book. And the Cubs won the World Series. Those are things I never thought would happen, but they did, and I am so grateful, mostly about the book stuff, not the Cubs, though that was very cool.

Yet because I am hopeless, I have caught myself thinking, well, if I would have started writing children’s books a decade ago, I would have x books published by now. Then I have to punch myself in the face, because who thinks like that? Well, for one, the publishing industry. Writers are constantly reminded, via various lists and awards and profiles, that really young writers are really cool!

It’s enough to make any writer over 30 feel like it’s too late. If she hasn’t had a break-out success by now, she never will. I recently attended the Sewanee Writers Conference where an agent said she would not seek out any new clients who were “geriatrics,” which she defined as writers over 50. The fact that half the crowd was sporting gray hair didn’t seem to matter to the agent, or to the conference organizers, who put her on the speaker’s list every year. Most writers are already filled with a healthy dose of self-doubt. We really don’t need our age thrown into the list of worries.

Here’s an article I just came across about a study in Science looking at age and success. The conclusion was that how hard you work matters much more than your age. However, there’s a distinction made between science and the arts. Check out this quote from the article: “Harvard education theorist Howard Gardner told the Washington Post that early creative breakthroughs are likely to happen in fields where the work itself is suited to a shorter form, like math or poetry. But in law, psychoanalysis, history, or philosophy, you’ve got to spend more time marinating.” Have you ever written poetry? Then feel free to call this bullshit. I suspect Gardner has not written any or he would be aware that creative writers’ ideas also need to “marinate.” 
I think part of increasing my creativity as I age is about not caring
so much what other people think, which makes me more willing
to take chances. This wombat, for reference, doesn't give two fucks.

Even though I know this to be true, I sometimes have to remind myself. I was talking to a poet friend about the relative speed with which I wrote the picture book that recently sold. But what I left out of that account was all the years I’d thought about the story. (The inspirational nugget comes from my own grade school years.) Nor did I take into account the years I’ve spent volunteering at a public school much like the one in the book, gathering my observations along the way. Nor did I take into account the decades I’ve been writing, getting a bit better each year at all the facets that go into creating a compelling read. My friend said, “All your life was preparation for you to write that book quickly.” It does make you re-think the word “quickly,” doesn’t it? He’s exactly right.

I’m hoping that there will continue to be more research done on creativity and age. I’m hoping that more and more people will recognize that writers are in fact capable of having success (even a first success) later in life. I’m frankly tired of reading opening sentences like, “Though writer x didn’t start until well into his 40s, he’s had an amazingly successful career…” Why should this be surprising? It’s much more surprising to me when a 20-something has great success, yet so many people in creative fields hold that up as the norm.

Poets and Writers magazine ran a recent feature on writers over 50, which is great, yet they tagged the cover with a ridiculous, apocalyptic subhead, “It’s never too late!” Wow, thanks, I guess I won’t drink this arsenic after all. I also noted that one of the authors featured in the article refused to provide her age. So how’s that for progress?

I'll end this rather rambling new year's post with a memory of  a trip I took to Mexico with some girlfriends last December. I was facing all sorts of doubts about my writing and whether anything more would ever come of it, but bobbing in the ocean helped me forget about that for awhile. And so, too, did a marathon yoga session with a yogi who kept repeating the mantra, “You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now.” I’m sure it’s new-agey claptrap to many people, but it helped me to put things in perspective, to stop wishing that I had done something better, sooner, and accept that I’d done good, and that better things were coming, and when they did (as they would in just nine months’ time), I’d be ready. Here's to a creative 2017, whatever your age!