Writing is Not a Race; Age is Just a Number
By Emily Wortman-Wunder
The most recent entry in the clickbait genre “You, Too, Might Publish At Last” is the conversation between poets Michael Morse and Robin Beth Schaer in The Rumpus. I’m going to just straight up say it: the conversation pissed me off. Not the poets themselves, but the fact that a debut after 40 is a Thing we need to talk about. And, evidently, excuse.
Morse starts it off with the elephant I didn’t know was in the room: “At the risk of sounding snarky, but with a wink and a nudge, I’ll ask: ‘What took you so long?’” Which: what? Does book publishing have times, now? Like a marathon? Are we going to be called upon to defend ourselves if we don’t complete the distance from MFA to book in a certain amount of time (and that’s assuming we even have an MFA)?
The world revealed in the conversation is one of constant wheeling and dealing to squeeze the beautiful unique shape of a writing life into a one-size-fits-all Writing Career. As if there is one true path, and any writer not on it had better have a damn good story to excuse herself. Preferably one that will fuel a juicy memoir that makes it into The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted.”
“A few years ago, a colleague advised me to hurry up and publish a book; he said it didn’t matter where, that it might as well be ‘Fart Press,’ but it needed to be soon,” says Schaer, the author of the recently published Shipbuilding (Anhinga, 2015).
Morse, author of Void and Compensation (2015, Canarium Books), echoes that: “Many of the younger writers I talk to urgently feel a need to get their books out right away—that somehow there’s something wrong if they don’t have a book out within two or three years of completing an MFA.”
Is the legitimacy of a voice or the value of a piece now a function of the time it took to write it or the writer’s age when it was produced? To listen to this conversation, and to the cultural noise surrounding age, the answer seems to be yes. All those Twenty-Under-Thirty lists, the Yale Younger Poet Award, the ‘Emerging Writer’ grants tailored either to age or to the date you received your MFA, to name a tiny few.
Why do we do this?
The best theory I can come up with is laziness. The current literary marketplace is no better at sussing out quality than the old white males who insisted that inclusion on the canon was the only way to determine greatness. So the marketplace makes up some stupid narrative about how timing is reflective of “talent” or “ambition” or “seriousness” or, really, anything at all besides luck and the good fortune to have stumbled onto some way to afford to write most of the day.
Because tell me this: when was the last time you knew, or cared, how old the artist was when she published your favorite book? Does it matter that Jane Austen was 36 when she made her debut (over 15 years after writing it), or that V.S. Naipaul was 25, or John Kennedy Toole was eleven years dead? (He would have been 43). Age is a piece of biographic information that is relevant, sure, like knowing that Austen lived in provincial England or Toole in New Orleans. But it’s not a defining trait. It’s not a value. It has very little to do with the actual quality of the writing itself except as a description of the territory.
And yet, as Schaer and Morse’s laments make clear, a lot of us have internalized this judgement. “What took you so long?” asks Morse, with a wry wince, and Schaer doesn’t hold back: “The quick answer is many-tentacled: perfectionism, divorce, disillusionment, lumbering pace, reluctance, fear, parenthood, weariness, revision, and bills.”
“I think a more honest narrative would also cite my fear of prioritizing writing time and the fact that I work very, very slowly. And that it’s hard for me to ignore the Rangers or the Mets when they’re on television,” adds Morse.
And, frankly, I think a lot of the writers slaving out here in the hinterland have internalized it too. That’s why we click on stories like this – we want to hear that there’s hope for us yet, even though we might be squeezing our writing into that gap between getting home from work and the arrival of the school bus, or while waiting for the pasta water to boil, or stealthily at our desks, the way our coworkers watch playoff games.
In the end, though, writing isn’t about the glory; it can’t be. It isn’t about publication as a reward for the dutiful or the dedicated. Writing is about finding a voice and telling a story – the best, truest, most beautiful story you can. And better still if that story reflects something new: the more voices we have, the more lives our literature reflects, the richer we’ll all be.
As Schaer says, “writers should have patience and let both the work and the self develop, change, evolve, breathe, and find the right home—however long that takes.”
That’s right, says Morse: “The work and the life lived as main courses—and publication as dessert.”