The Feeling of a 23rd Birthday

I had a birthday this week. I didn’t feel older, really, the way I felt so much older the day I turned twenty-one (all those things I could do that I couldn’t do the day before!) but when the day’s activities were done, I got the strange aftertaste of under-accomplishment. It wasn’t the birthday blues, but really just a tiny little twinge of a feeling, hardly worth mentioning. But I thought I’d post about it in case any of you also have had/are having similar anxiety, just to let you know you’re not alone.

In the writing industry–if not in our society at large–the successes of the young are celebrated all the more for how much they’ve done in so little time and how much promise their projected and lengthy career offers. Think of all those Thirty Under Thirty anthologies and articles and lists that annually pop up in the NYT and literary journals. The panic attacks that the eve of a writer’s thirtieth birthday must induce are probably of epidemic proportions. As authors–good authors–get younger and younger, these accomplishments and publications are becoming less extraordinary and more of a measurement against which to gauge our own, more humble pace.

If they can write a book, get an agent, and get published with one of the big six at [fill in the blank: twenty-one, nineteen, eighteen], why can’t I? More importantly, why haven’t I done as much yet?

There’s no shortage of examples against whom we can compare ourselves and always, always, come up short: Veronica Roth (twenty-three years old and with two fabulous YA NYT bestsellers to her name), Alice Ozma (twenty-three-year-old who published a lovely little memoir about reading with her father a few months after graduating from college), Kara Taylor (twenty-two with a book on the way), Cecelia Ahern (published her debut novel, P.S. I Love You at twenty-one), S. E. Hinton (started writing The Outsiders at fifteen and was published by eighteen). The list could go on and on.

It’s not the public recognition of their success but their actual ability to have gotten so much done that amazes me. In the back of my mind I can’t help wondering how individuals my age and younger have managed to set aside enough time to write something good enough, an entire 50,000+ sequence of words, that they’re proud enough to share with the world. Where did they find the time–in-between writing forty-page research papers, building a resume that will get them a job that will pay the car insurance every month, and half-starting ten other failed novel attempts; in-between heartbreaks, long-distance relationships with childhood friends, and learning how to cook a (small) variety of edible food–to rewrite the same book six times over?

I feel like I’m always scrambling for enough time to get everything else done and though my manuscripts aren’t on the back burner, they certainly won’t be in a polished shape of completion any time soon. I do actually have time to write, but just enough that added up I could probably finish one book every five years or so, which is nowhere close to this ridiculous one-year turn around rate so many other authors can adhere to. If I’m realistic about it, I might be lucky enough to get a book published before I’m thirty. Maybe.

At this point, all I can do is write more and hope that the terrible dialogue I’m currently writing and the mangled plot I’m constructing will be ironed out someday. That someday after that I can write faster and write better and that it will take less rewrites to get the same level of quality I’m struggling so hard to accomplish now.

I just have to keep reminding myself that it will be just as amazing and I’ll feel equally pleased if I published a novel at twenty-three or thirty-three. Sooner or later, I’ll still get that sweet feeling of accomplishment.

So let’s agree that we’ll all get our butts in the chair, put our heads down, and write like the wind for the next couple of years, accomplishing what we accomplish with no regrets. Let’s not talk about this tiny birthday fear again until we’re all twenty-nine. We’ll meet back here and laugh at how young we were and how ridiculous those thirty-under-thirty lists are anyway.

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9 thoughts on “The Feeling of a 23rd Birthday

  1. Congratulations and glad you found some very positives for 23. Yes, the under 30 list are ridiculous. I’m going to start me a list of all the sensational older role models who inspire me. There are incredible people who have accomplished things even in their 80′s and 90′s. I want to strive to be one of those people. Never giving up and not letting age feel like a limitation. :)

    • I’d love to see your less conventional list of writers! It’s funny, if you think about it; all the really wonderful authors who have passed away in the last few months–Maurice Sendak, for example–were never defined by their age and were awesome until the last decades of their lives. They are truly celebrated, but the 30 under 30 barely get a recognition. It’s just a way to make writers feel pressured…silly.

  2. Happy Birthday Hannah. There is plenty of time ahead of you to accomplish many great things… putting pressure on yourself to achieve X or Y by a certain age won’t help you, especially because much of success is out of your hands individually and will depend on other people. :-)

    I hope you at least had fun on your actual birthday!

  3. Happy Birthday Hannah!

    Try to define success on your own terms. The one society serves up isn’t real and doesn’t matter. Maybe you’re a good friend to people? Maybe you’re there to listen? Maybe you spent the time you could have spent writing a 5000 word novel helping other writers on your web site?

    We live in a competitive society that makes folks forget on purpose that the only time that matters is the one right now. Live now. Rejoice now.

    You enter school and it’s an endless slog of hoop jumping with each hoop getting higher and higher. High school. Collect stuff. College. Collect stuff. Relationships. Collect stuff. House. Collect stuff. Bigger house. Collect stuff. Children – maybe. Larger salary. Bigger job titles. Bigger car. Collect stuff. Second home. Grandchildren – maybe. All ending in a yard sale where you sell all the stuff, downsize and say, why didn’t I do that sooner? And you never took the trip to “fill-in-the-blank because you spent all your money on stuff.”

    No one ever says congrats and let’s you celebrate and breath it in and not demand something else, it’s always to go on to the next hoop. Except faster.

    There are many folks who jumped through all the hoops and ended up dying young either by accident or by their own hand.

    Life ought to be like a good glass of wine. Sip, savor and swirl.

    Enjoy 23! I loved that year. Love them all.

    Giulietta

    http://www.giuliettathemuse.com

  4. Happy birthday! Enjoy 23 – I’m 28, I’ve got 4 kids, a novel undergoing major revisions, and I struggle to find an uninterrupted hour or two to work on it. I miss the days when I had only myself to account for, so enjoy 23 – you’ll be 28 and old before you know it! :)

    • Wow, four kids, that’s wonderful! Did you start when you were twenty-four? I’ve read a lot of mother/writer blogs lately, and they’re always talking about hiring babysitters so they can get a few hours of writing time. I definitely need to appreciate all my free me time and writing time more often!

      • Alas, I started at 19, inherited one at 25, had another at 26, and the last at 27. I would love to be able to hire a babysitter to watch the kids so I could get a few hours of writing time, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even that would backfire on me. Maybe one day I’ll win the lottery and I can afford to quit my job. After all, the youngest two will be in school before I know it…

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