Writers & Ageism: Does it Exist?

Disclaimer: Photo not from this decade.

This week was my birthday. To me, it was a small milestone – crossing the line into the latter half of my thirties. It wasn’t met with much cheer. By this age I had expected to be a successful writer, or at least be living above the poverty line. Life as a starving artist is cool in your twenties, maybe even early thirties, but here I am approaching forty and I still can’t afford new jeans, let alone a house. So in the weeks leading up to my birthday, I took a hard look at my life and tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. I blogged about why I haven’t finished my novel and my penchant for over-revising. But perhaps the real question is: Why do I think I’m so old?

The answer is two-fold: 1) I write for teens, and 2) I work in television.

When I was still in university, there was that big scandal about the Felicity writer who claimed she was 19 years old and was hailed as a wonderkind and a huge asset for the show because she was so in touch with teens since she was one… and then everyone found out she was really 32. In a business obsessed with youth, she felt she needed to lie about her age. Because I too wanted to write for teens, I felt the pressure to succeed before I was “old” and “out of touch.” In other words, I needed to make it to LA before I was 30! And then, based on a friend’s advice, I was to tell everyone I was only 25. That was acceptable. Claiming to still be a teenager was “trying too hard.” Besides, everybody was now on the lookout for that scheme.

Was this advice paranoid? After all, I know screenwriters who moved to LA and made careers for themselves after 30. However, there was a Hollywood writers’ age-discrimination case settled a few years ago and damages were paid to writers over 40 who felt they’d be squeezed out of the industry. Has anything changed in a few years?

Then there’s the theatre; playwrights battle ageism as well: Theatre of absurd Ageism.

Turns out I wasn’t in LA by the time I was 30 because I decided to write Young Adult novels instead of teen television. But then I worried I was behind all the people who had English degrees and wrote their first couple novels in college. Nowadays it’s even worse. Teenagers self-publish or simply post on Wattpad and get discovered! How exciting! They’re so young! Their teen voices so authentic! Who’s going to believe middle-aged me knows anything about writing for teenagers when I’m two decades out of high school? I haven’t even procreated. At least then I’d have a teen to keep me “in touch.”

But is the publishing industry ageist? I don’t know yet; I haven’t broken in. I do know there are awards honoring the ones who “make it” young, like the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35. Yet websites like bloom-site.com also exist, which celebrate authors who start their careers after 40. Finally, my Google search for “Ageism in publishing” returned very few hits and mainly about very young authors (early 20s) claiming age discrimination for being young not old. Then I found this blog on Blue Rose Girls that basically says ageism isn’t much of an issue in publishing.

Bottom line, I shouldn’t worry about it. In fact, I’m feeling a bit foolish for spending the last few hours researching this topic. But that’s what birthdays are for – freaking out about getting older. In a society obsessed with youth, it’s hard not to. Though maybe it is time we start celebrating age and experience. Instead of lying about our ages and hoping all our birthday party guests say, “Really? You look at least five years younger!” we should brag about how old we are. After all, every year of life is experience gained and knowledge acquired. Every single year I become a better writer. I’m sure you do too.

And if I’m ever asked, “But how can you write for teenagers? You can’t possible know what life is like for them now? Heck, you grew up in the previous century!” I will respond, “Was J.K. Rowling an orphan boy wizard?” Writers don’t need to be wizards to write about wizards, or teenagers to write about teenagers. Writers just need to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and genuinely describe the experience. Not everyone can do that, and that’s why not everyone can be a writer. But for those of us who can, aging certainly isn’t a handicap, it’s an advantage.

What about you? Have you experienced ageism in your writing career?

Next Up from Heather… In response to that dismissive Slate YA article – Readers & Judgment: Snobs or Guardians of Good Taste?

Click here for more posts by Heather.


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

12 thoughts on “Writers & Ageism: Does it Exist?”

  1. I was 36 when I decided to finish my first YA novel. I know I was that precise age because I worried about the same thing. I had already survived one career change (insurance industry to educator) and two cross-country moves. I was 36 and feeling very unsettled. The ink was barely dry on that manuscript, metaphorically speaking, before we did another full cross-country move. I decided then that it was time to pack up the writing dreams and head back to the classroom. Except something had changed – and that something was me. I still teach, but I could no more stop writing tomorrow than I could stop breathing. I just wish these literary agents would stop being so damn young.

    And while YA will always be my first love, I’m not limiting myself to just YA for the rest of my life. For now, that’s all I’m interested in writing. But who says that I can’t write for adults one day, maybe even erotica (ha!), or since I also like to cook, how about one of those cozy mysteries with recipes? I mean, it’s not like I’ve never made a career change before. Welcome to your thirties – enjoy it!

    1. Thanks so much, Kendra! It’s always nice to know other writers have the same worries. Sounds like you made it through. And you’re right – I may not write YA my whole life, but right now it’s what calls me.

  2. Happy Birthday, Heather!

    I love writing backwards – my characters are in their thirties and forties, and I’m closing in on sixty in October. I don’t feel qualified to write about characters my age – I’m still fitting into that skin. But my thirties and forties? Hindsight can be very helpful in designing characters and motivations. I say hurrah for aging, for living, for learning, as it’s all channeled into our work.

    Happy birthday, and may the next year be filled with success.

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I totally agree that hindsight is helpful for writing. I tried to write some “meaningful teen stories” in my twenties and found I was too close to them. I didn’t have any perspective. Now I do and can make those stories much better.

  3. Happy birthday for last week! I’ll be 46 tomorrow and I’m fine with that. I have a son who is 14, going on 15, so if I was much younger then I’d have had him in my twenties which is incredibly young for a university graduate to be starting a family. I believe that life isn’t a race and we do things when we are ready to do them.

  4. What an interesting article Heather and a subject I’d not previously considered. Maybe I should as I’m close approaching 50 and just embarking on a writing career now. I am also a coach and I sometimes get asked the same type of question. Surely you can only coach someone if you’ve carried out the job they have or shared in the same sort of experiences they have. Well the answer is no. I can’t possibly have shared every experience of my coaching clients and yet if I can challenge, encourage and use good questions to help them then I’m doing my job. I also think that empathy is a good quality to have both in the coaching and writing world.

    I guess too that if we had to take this argument to its logical conclusion, then we’d only have children writing books for children. I think both Sharon and Susan make good points above around being a good and authentic writer and having belief in ourselves.

    Happy Birthday Heather. Hope you had a great day.

    1. Thanks for the comment and birthday wishes, Angela! Yes, many people assume others can only empathize/understand if they’ve had the same experiences. And I think that assumption comes from the fact that some people have trouble empathizing with or understanding those who are different than they are. Luckily, many of us can put ourselves in other people’s shoes. And you’re right – empathy is a good quality to have for coaches, writers, and all kinds of professions.

  5. Great post Heather thank you! Happy Birthday fellow Gemini! Mine’s next week! Another year gone by …
    Agesim does rear its ugly head from time to time with the emphasis on youth beauty bling … but this need be no barrier for a writer who writes well and is authentic. I do not see age as a barrier in my writing, or in my WIP. (in fact I’m writing on Aging & Becoming).
    Your writing is great and I look forward to reading your posts past and yet to come …
    Garden of Eden Blog

  6. A wonderful, thoughtful look at elements of the writing life not often considered, Heather. Your special circumstances of professional field and target audience probably do have an effect on the perception of age-influence. But, for most writers, I think that is not so much true. Heck, there’s one old lady who writes raunchy romance novels who has become a minor celebrity. It’s part of her branding. And that is what I think most of it comes down to–branding and marketing–as long as you can accept for yourself that you can do this work.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! Aw yes, branding and marketing. People often assume that the younger one is, the better they’ll be at branding and marketing, but that’s not always the case. Great example of the romance writer who uses her age as a hook!

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: