I love advice columns, always have. Growing up, I read “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers.” I enjoyed the voyeurism—glimpses into the lives and troubles of others—and I appreciated the steady, practical advice as if truly, for any problem, there was a solution. Giving advice is nearly as satisfying: the simple pleasure of offering counsel and hoping that you are helping in some small way.
Not long ago, I put out a call for questions and heard from a range of people. I answered two letters—edited slightly,
below—from writers of a certain age wanting to know if they still have a chance to make their dreams come true.
I’m a writer who just turned 65. I’ve written two as yet unpublished books. Numerous
excerpts have been published. I’m working on another book despite feelings of failure and despair. Am I too old to have a career in writing? Does age play a part in artistic success?
Just Turned 65
I’m a 47-year-old writer who lives in North Carolina. I have three children, a partner and a full-time job. My job recently reclassified me (demoted me), and I’ve taken it as a sign to get out of my profession and get my writing life started.
I’m just getting my feet wet. I’ve written some essays and some blog pieces, but I haven’t been paid for them. I want that to change. I know I have a lot to say, but will anyone want to pay me to say it if I’m closer to 50 than I am to 35?
Closer to 50
Dear Just Turned 65 and Closer to 50,
Throughout my 20s and most of my 30s, I was convinced I was never going to make it as a writer. My writing was constantly rejected, and I took the rejection personally, as one does. I’m stubborn, so I kept writing and reading and writing some more. It was the earlier days of the internet, before the rise of social media but after the dawn of blogs. I
was fortunate in that I was aware of the writing community I wanted to be a part of, but I wasn’t inundated by the details of anyone else’s writing life and successes. If I wanted those details, I had to seek them out, which, of course, I did, and covetously.
I was incandescent with envy—so many breathless stories about people my age and often younger who were discovered by a hotshot agent, who sold a book for six or seven figures, who created a popular blog and parlayed that success into a full-time writing career.
The writing world was passing me by. I was never going to be noticed. I was going to spend my life working mediocre jobs, writing in obscurity, and before long it was going to be too late. I was going to turn 30 and then 35 and after that, I couldn’t even speculate because I was either going to have a best-selling book by the age of 35 or my dream would be not merely deferred but dead, dead, dead.
Even as I met with less rejection, I found reasons to worry about getting my shot. It took a long time to sell my first novel, “An Untamed State,” nearly two years, two agents, two revisions, countless rejections. I kept whittling down my dream from literary fame to modest riches to just getting a book deal to, finally, simply writing a good book. And still
my dream did not come true. I had done my best, and my best was not good enough. I nearly gave up, but I had someone in my corner who told me to get ahold of myself, to have faith, to keep writing and hustling because I was going to get my chance. She was right. She is always right. Now as she waits for her shot, I get to tell her to keep writing and hustling and having faith until she gets her chance. And she will.
When I sold that first novel, I had to reshape my understanding of artistic success. I signed a contract for an advance of $12,500. In a strange confluence, around the same time I also sold an essay collection, “Bad Feminist,” to a different publisher, for an advance of $15,000. I was 38 and living in rural Illinois, teaching full time. Instead of glory, I got a chance. The rest was out of my control.
It is easy to fall prey to the idea that writing success is intrinsically bound to youth. Publishing loves a literary ingénue, as if no one over the age of 40 or 50 or 60 has anything worthwhile to say. Such is not the case. The older I get, the more I have to say and the better I am able to express myself. There is no age limit to finding artistic success. Sometimes it happens at 22 and sometimes it happens at 72 and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. No, you are not too old to have a writing career, no matter your age. Yes, it is perfectly reasonable to feel defeated when you’ve worked so hard at writing and have yet to make your mark so long as you don’t stay defeated. No, you are not
promised artistic success simply because you want it.
What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on
the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel.
Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for—the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.
The older we get, the more culturally invisible we become, as writers, as people. But you have your words. Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have
already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. The literary flavor of the week did not get your book deal. All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.
Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can. Make sure there are people in your life who will have faith in your promise when you can’t. Get your writing in the world, ideally for the money you deserve because writing is work that deserves compensation. But do not worry about being closer to 50 or 65 or 83. Artistic success, in all its forms, is not merely the purview of the young. You are not a late bloomer. You are already blooming.