Over the weekend, Paul and I went to another Moisture Fest variete show. One of the first acts was an eleven-year-old trapeze artist. She had obviously been going to circus school for years, and she did some difficult tricks. But her movements were often clumsy; the trapeze bar swung when it wasn’t supposed to, and the routine was jerky as she struggled from one trick to the next. I could clearly see the mechanics that went into each move, and I could tell by her awkward smile, just how hard she was working. But she was eleven, so everyone was impressed.
Later in the evening The Velone Sisters did an aerial act. Paul and I had seen these two women perform before, and, as always, they were incredible. They also happen to be fifty-plus in age, although you wouldn’t know it from their bodies. They climbed the thick rope descending from the ceiling and took the audience through a fluid, daring, and graceful performance in which they hung upside down from each other’s feet and spun in circles through the air with their legs held in splits. And they did it all with dazzling smiles. They were polished and confident and professional. I could have watched them all night.
Earlier in the day, while hiking, Paul and I had had a conversation about our career fears, which, despite the fact that Paul is a physicist and I’m an aspiring novelist, are actually quite similar. Basically, we’re both afraid of getting old.
There is a popular notion that great math and science discoveries are most often made by the young. According to Paul, the majority of Nobel prize winners for Physics have won for work they did in their twenties and early thirties. Albert Einstein formulated e = mc2 when he was twenty-six, and mathematician G.H. Hardy famously wrote, “No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.” Even now, the folklore persists that mathematicians over thirty-five are “past their prime.”*
Paul just turned thirty-one.
Maybe it’s not quite as bad for me, but age is also a factor in the world of writing. When I finished my MFA at twenty-seven and thought I was ready to look for a literary agent (I wasn’t), my thesis adviser recommended I mention my age in my query letter because agents are always looking for “hot, young writers.” And it does seem that if you have two equally good writers, people will be more interested in the younger one.
I guess the thinking is this: an excellent young writer is good because of talent, whereas an excellent older writer is good because of practice. An excellent young writer has great potential for years to come. A debut novel by a young writer is an easier sell to publishers and readers.
When I was in my twenties, I thought I would be a “hot, young writer.” I wanted to have a published novel by the time I was thirty.
Now I’m thirty-two. And lately I’ve been realizing that a lot of the writing I did in my twenties was awkward and unpolished, like an eleven-year-old’s trapeze routine. It’s taken me this long to get the knowledge and practice to understand that, and to understand how to write something that is worthy of publication.
In the foreword of Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb and Ann Rittenberg, novelist Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) gives some good advice:
You will need to learn how to use those tools [of writing] and reapply them so consistently that you reach a state of effortless facility….An unfortunate affliction that besets a lot of aspiring writers is one I’ve dubbed the Ticking-Clock Syndrome. You feel time sweeping past (tick, tick, tick) and your loved ones are starting to wonder when you’re actually going to, you know, publish something (tick, tick, tick)…so while you would like to learn how to use every tool in the toolbox, you’d also like to get out there and build the damn house….But please remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Please remember the part about wanting something versus earning it.
I hope the truth is this: That while there are excellent writers who are young (and therefore as hot and fresh as a baked potato straight out of the oven), they are the exception, not the rule. Young writers may have talent and ambition and potential, but for the most part, they are still learning how to write. As Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, “technique is noticed most markedly in the case of those who have not mastered it.” It is the older writers, with the practice and experience, who can use the technique seamlessly to make their writing seem magical and effortless. Like the Velone Sisters.
And what about poor Paul with his worries of mathematical greatness? Well, there’s also the realization that some of these hot, young stars burn out quickly. If you publish a best-seller or win a Nobel prize at twenty-six, where do you go from there? Then the stress becomes even greater as you try to top yourself. You might fall into depression, you might fade away.
“I know this is the pot calling the kettle black right now,” I said to Paul, “because I worry all the time that I’m getting older with no publishing success, but which life seems more satisfying: peaking early and then struggling to live up to great expectations, or a long, uphill journey where you reach your success later on in life when you can actually enjoy it?”
It’s funny, as much as I knew the answer should be the latter, there’s still a part of me that wants to be that hot, young star.
But I must remember the part about wanting something versus earning it. I must remember that, for most people anyway, this is a marathon not a sprint.
In the end, if a book or an idea is good, it shouldn’t matter how old the person is who created it. What should matter is the way the story or the idea takes you confidently by the hand and lifts you gracefully into the air, spins you in circles, and drops you upside down from its feet. And does it all with a dazzling smile.
*Articles about age and mathematics