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?