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.