Sunday, September 21, 2014

In praise of older writers

Last night my husband and I attempted to watch a movie.  Within the first few minutes it became obvious that it was a young people's movie.  Within the first ten minutes it became obvious that it was only a young people's movie.  And within another five minutes, we had turned it off.

Did we turn it off because it was too edgy for us?  Because we couldn't keep up with its breakneck pace?  Because we were bewildered by its ever-so-clever, modern, cutting-edge repartee?

No.  We turned it off because we were bored.  Because all the characters were so full of “attitude” that they were utterly, yawningly predictable and shallow. 

And that got me thinking about age, and how it plays into this writing game.  There seems to be an assumption out there that you need to be writing by your early twenties, published by thirty, at the peak of your career by forty.  If you haven't done these things, it's never going to happen.

You know what?  It's a lot of codwollop. 

It's certainly true that we live in a youth-obsessed culture, where people are reading Young Adult books well into their 30s and 40s.  I have a friend in her late 60s, smart, multi-lingual, with a graduate degree, who reads almost exclusively YA and children's literature.  She finds excellent books in those categories, and they give her the kind of reading experience she's looking for.  I'm not trying to second-guess her preferences, but I do think they tell us something about our society.

Perhaps the message is that of a perennial starting over, the constant reinvention of self, in the form of one coming-of-age story after another.  But shouldn't there also be something out there for the person who wants to start from where she is?  From the place where she's already arrived?  And how can such a story be written by someone who hasn't yet lived her own life to that point?

The other day I saw a spate of articles around the web asserting that one must never, ever leave two spaces after a period, because that would make it obvious:  the author's over 40.  And nothing could be worse than that, right? 

It reminds me of a parody I once saw of Cosmopolitan, that breathless women's magazine, with articles like “Girls Obviously from Ohio.”

"Tell me again, boy - why can't I leave two spaces after a period?"

Who makes up these rules, anyway?  Who set in motion the thought form that says older people just starting on their writing careers are pitiable, pathetic, not to be taken seriously?  Or perhaps, if you're kinder, a little bit sweet and quaint? 

But we all know the clich√© of the kid who peaked in high school, right?  The one who can't stop reliving the senior prom, or that one amazing football game? 

You want to talk about pitiable and pathetic? 

What, exactly, is wrong with waiting until you actually have something to say?

Let me hasten to say that I do know several young writers who are very talented.  Among them are indie, small press, mainstream-published, and not-yet-published authors.  They have a lot of promise, and I predict that someday some of them will be very, very good indeed.  But most of them have not peaked yet.  No, not even the ones who are published by a big publishing house and selling well.  They may be pretty good now, but they have it in them to be better – in the fullness of time. 

And that's one reason it's so painful to watch some of them listen to their own hype.  They start to think they're as good as their social media pals tell them they are, and then they start going back and pubbing early works that would be best left forgotten.  They start to believe they are already as good as it gets.

That's the kind of mindset that makes the 16-year-old down the street get as many tattoos as she can afford, because she just knows she's going to love them forever, whereas I have been around long enough to know that if I were to do something like that, I'd change enough to hate it in six months.

I recently read an interesting interview on the Huffington Post with Sonya Chung, one of the founders of the website Bloom, which features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  You can find the interview here.  One of the things she said that I thought made a lot of sense was this:
“But the truth of it is that the majority of writers take a lot of time to write their best work, that detours happen, and sometimes those detours can be very fruitful (whether they happen willingly or not).”
Not long ago I followed a string of comments on Facebook in which some young writer sneered about “sex scenes written by people over fifty.”

Oh, sweetie... if you only knew.  Do the math, luv.  When do you think the baby boomers grew up?  Could it possibly have been in the 60's and the early 70's?  Perhaps you think those times were the equivalent of the Victorian era (which, come to think of it, had a pretty racy underside of its own), since it's all so long ago you can't tell the difference, but let me assure you, that's not quite how it was.  We did know a thing or two about sex.  Some of us, believe it or not, are still at it. 

Sure, it feels odd to see a book set in my growing-up years classified as a “historical.”  But everything becomes historical if you wait long enough.  Even today's twenty-somethings. 

I have one writer friend who industriously talked to older people to get a sense of how they felt about things, as a part of her research.  I give her full marks for that, but believe me, if you think it's weird to see your childhood written up as “historical,” just try finding that you've become somebody's research.  Of course, while a young person may have to research what my experience is like, I can remember perfectly well when I was her age, so that does rather give me the advantage.

My own personal allegory for older writers is based on the oatmeal story.  For those of you who don't know it, it goes something like this:

A little boy grew up normal and healthy in every way, except that he did not speak.  His parents were bewildered; they knew his hearing was normal, he was intelligent, and they could find no explanation for his silence.  Yet, year after year, he did not speak.  Finally, one morning when when he was nine years old, his parents were amazed to hear him say with crystalline clarity, “This oatmeal's lumpy.” 

His parents wept with joy.  They hugged him and danced around the kitchen, overwhelmed at this new development.  Finally his father stopped celebrating long enough to say, “But son, why haven't you said anything before this?”

And the boy said, quite reasonably, “Everything was okay until now.”

That would be me.  Me, and most of the genuinely interesting authors whose work I've read recently.  We've spent a lot of years living as hard as we could, and now we've got something to say and we're going to say it.  Some of us, quite possibly, with two spaces between sentences.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with the exception of the "Arts & Crafts" picture of the two aging hippies, which is licensed under the Creative Common Attribution 3.0 Unported license to Idran.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, Tinney!I have also commented and shared on Facebook. Thank you for pointing me to Bloom.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Tinney!I have also commented and shared on Facebook. Thank you for pointing me to Bloom.

Lisa Betz said...

Great post! As we boomers age, we're becoming a larger segment of the population. And most of us want to read about something more relevant than YA or "new adult" angst.