Monday, December 5, 2011

Is age a factor in writing?

People come up to me at conferences, programs and workshops and say "Am I too (old/young) to start writing? That depends, do we have something to say? Are we willing to spend the time necessary to learn our craft? Some tell me they are XXX age and don't have time to spend years trying to get a writing career established. If that's the case, publish it yourself, give a few copies to your friends and relatives and you'll feel better.

But if we are serious about wanting to write and write well, people aren't born knowing how to do that. Someone who can cook a good hot dog is not qualified to open a restaurant, and someone who can tell a good story is not qualified to write it in a manner that deserves publication. Not without learning some skills. With age comes experiences that can fuel delightful stories but if it means we are set in our ways and not open to learning these skills and not open to revision, then yes, we can be too old to get started. 

Too young to get started? In a recent discussion in a big writing group I was struck by the number of writers who said they had started trying at a very young age and had remained determined. I first published in the Jr High newspaper and in a state-wide poetry anthology, so I can relate.

I had a great experience a couple of years back doing a workshop for the Groom Texas school district. There were kids from the fifth grade through high school. It was a delightful experience and they asked great questions and showed a lot of interest. Well, the older high school kids were far too "cool" to show open interest, but the rest did. The following year the writing group in this area, the Panhandle Professional Writers, sponsored a writing contest for young people. In blind competition where the judges knew nothing of the identity of the person submitting, the Groom kids practically swept the field. One teacher in the district is an active writer and I'm sure had a lot to do with that. I hope I had a little to do with it as well.

There are some writing opportunities specifically open to younger writers. A number of them are writing more than they realize with the advent of blogs, chat rooms and online opportunities such as Facebook and Twitter. You would think perhaps young people don't have the patience to develop skills and to endure the rejections that are an integral part of getting published, but I find just the opposite is true. Because of their age they expect more of this, and the ones that are committed expect to have to build experience and skills and calmly go about doing so.

I don't think age works against them, but it is true that lack of experience can. I recently had a book proposal from a teenager wanting to publish a book that contained deep philosophical insights. The writing wasn't too bad, but I'd never be able to convince an editor that someone of his age had the experience base to form all of these "deep philosophical insights."  We may be missing the boat, but I know what the odds are and need to spend my time where I've got a better shot.

Can we be too young or too old to get started? Yes, but do you see what they have in common? One has a wealth of experience but maybe is an age where undertaking a substantial learning effort to get the skills they need is more of an investment than they want to make. The opposite pole is young people who are used to learning but lack the life experiences that they need. This makes me believe it isn't about age at all, but about learning what they need to know to be successful and being willing to do it.

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