Thursday, 9 May 2013

Getting on a bit. By Keren David

‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ said one of my students, ‘but why did you only take up writing later on in life?’

What? What? Yes, I am a little deaf.  But later on in life? Later on?  I was forty four when I started writing books and that was only just over five years ago. Forty four felt pretty youthful then and looks positively spring chickenesque now that I have crossed the f-word (not that one) threshold. 

Anyway, once I’d explained to him that the reason I only took up writing for children 'later on in life' (said through gritted teeth) was because I’d been too busy before  a) writing (journalism)  and b) having children. It was only in my forties that I found the time and head space  the attempt writing a book. What a pity I hadn’t got the knack before. My backlist could be earning me millions right now (pause here to wipe tears of mirth from behind bifocals).

It was only afterwards that I thought of all the reasons why I am glad that I only started writing books ‘later on in life’. At forty-four.

1)     I have suffered enough disappointment in life to be able to cope with rejection, bad reviews, criticism and disappointment with (mostly) a resigned shrug or a patient sigh. I rarely feel the need to have a hysterical meltdown, and I have enough mature self control that I have never posted a caustic reply to a review on Goodreads (although I have been sorely tempted). I suspect this would not have been the case if I had been published in my twenties.

2)    I am in good company. When I was fortunate enough to be short-listed for the Branford Boase award for debut writers for children, all of us on the short list were 40 plus.

3)    I have had loads of interesting life experiences, but I don’t feel any urge at all to write veiled autobiography, because I’ve done all the introspective soul-searching that I need to by myself.

4)    I am too old to worry about whether the people who pick Granta’s list of the best British authors under forty are prejeudiced against children’s authors in general and against me in particular.
5)    I am bold enough to try completely new ventures because I don’t give a toss about trying and failing -  a stance that I doubt I’d have maintained in my twenties.
6)    I have some savings (diminishing fast. But useful)
7)    My children are teenagers. They are getting more independent by the day. 
)    I don’t need to win awards. Just the title Young Adult Author gives me immense pleasure.
(9)    I have the perfect excuse -  research! - to go to films featuring Zac Efron. 
10)  I've started too late to be a has-been.
When did you start writing? Is there a good age?

Update:  Thanks to Candy Gourlay for alerting me to a new award for debut writers for children aged over 50. The award has been established by Karen Cushman whose first book The Midwife's Apprentice was published when she was 53 and won the 1996 Newbury Medal -  the top award for children's literature in the US.  “This award was established to encourage and celebrate late bloomers like me, who didn’t start to write until age fifty. But then I bloomed, and I’d love to see others do so as well,” said Karen.  Details here




catdownunder said...

It should never be "too old", "too late" or "too anything" to at least try something should it? I might just have left it too late to get published but I can keep trying. Years of my earlier life were spent doing something else I thought (and still think) was important. It left me no spare time. Now I grab little bits of time here and there. (And people who say "you could always have found time to write if you had really wanted to" make me very angry because sometimes it cannot be done.)
I would say if you started at 44 you were lucky to have been able to start that young. Your self restraint in responding to the questioner is to be admired!

Stroppy Author said...

(Of course, if you had started at 20, Goodreads wouldn't have existed.)

I know we have to deal with students gently, even when they are unintentionally rude, but I'd have been inclined to say that it was the useful life experience gained in the earlier years that made it possible for you to do the job well. There are relatively few people who can write well when very young. They might write with commercial success, but that's not always the same thing.

Penny Dolan said...

So many good points, Karen.

The comments that amuse me are those where the young child's voice carries a note of resignation and/or perplexity, implying "You're this old and you STILL have to do writing? Doesn't it ever stop?"

Gill James said...

Hmm. I complained to my students that they were regularly missing out apostrophes.
"Oh well, we only did them once at school and that was a long time ago."
Without hesitation I said "So did I and that was an even longer time ago and I get 'em right."
On the whole Salford Uni English and Creative Writing students are extremely polite and don't seem worried that they are being taught about the ya novel by a 61-year-old.

Nick Green said...

Let's face it, writing is essentially sharing a piece of your mind, or for want of a better word, soul. And what's better - sharing a can of Coke Zero, or a matured bottle of Bordeaux?

Joan Lennon said...

I did everything late - learning to talk, having children, taking this writing thing seriously - but any other time to do them would have been too early! (Meantime, my zimmer has rocket boosters and my ovaltine is laced with absinthe ...)

Keren David said...

My student wasn't rude at all - very charming and lovely!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I totally rely on George Eliot's quote, "Its never too late to be what you might have been." And trust me, from where I sit - you're just a kid in your 50s.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

44 isn't old! La comtesse de Ségur, one of France's most famous and popular classic writers for children, started writing at 56, already an 'old' grandmother in the 19th century :) And Kant wrote his whole work well past middle age... But then of course there's Keats & Mary Shelley and everyone else who started young and did it very well (and preferably died early so we could bemoan the lack of later works.)

These vaguely offensive questions get asked to younger writers too, anyway! I sometimes get asked 'Will you ever stop writing?' or even 'Will you stop writing soon?' by kids, even though they know I'm in my mid-twenties... maybe I should take the hint (?)

I think they often assume that you'll stop writing the day you make enough money, and that you're a bit of a failure if that doesn't happen...

As a 'younger' writer, what I find particularly hard (not in Britain, in France) is the not-being-taken-seriously by publishers, especially when negotiating contracts and discussing edits. I know it's also a question of personality, but age does play a huge part in how people treat you a priori.

The pros are: having the freedom of having no kids or no elderly/ill parents; being relatively close in age to readers (teenagers are especially sensitive to that and tell me so when I meet them); knowing that you have time to make lots of mistakes.

Tracy Barrett said...

Wonderful post--glad a tweet alerted me to it! The link to the Karen Cushman Award was broken; here's the official notice:
SCBWI is an international organization; members from all over the world are eligible.

Anonymous said...

I've always been writing - it is the writing the matters, not being published! That's why I do it...

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post - thank you. I am about to turn fifty and have been feeling disheartened. My model was Meg Rosoff (I read she was 47/48 when How I Live Now came out) so I gave myself until fifty and am about to miss that milestone too!