Friday, August 6, 2010

On Being Young and Writing

In the next few months we have two authors from The New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40 list coming to read. Gary Shteyngart is hitting the Coolidge on September 15th, and Dinaw Mengestu comes to the store on October 25th.

Both of them are wonderful writers, and I'm as thrilled as a very thrilled person to get to see them read. But the whole 20 under 40 thing (20 writers under 40 years old) has me thinking. What role does age play in writing? Should it play a role at all?

Unlike music, writing has no real prodigies. If you search online, you can find videos of Yo Yo Ma playing his cello at an age where a full-size cello would dwarf him. But if you publish a great book when you're 21 (as James Joyce did) you're considered a boy-genius. Forty is still very young in book years. And for 30, I think the technical term is whipper-snapper.

There's something comforting about this. It's hard to become a pop-star if you're past your 20's. You can't become an NBA player if you start practicing after you turn 18. I remember when I passed the point where I realized that getting into the Olympics would never be an option for me (although from my high school wrestling career, this had really been obvious to everyone for quite some time). However, the shelves of our store are full of books by people who put pen to paper after having retired or started and quit careers. There are slews of parents, grandparents with debut novels and short-story collections. Writing is an exercise that promises to grow with you and that always remains open.

But why, then, do we seem to prize youth in writing, when it has no effect on the quality of the books? Why does the publisher see the need to clarify on a dust jacket that the author was born in 1978, when if they were born in 1958, their age would not be included? Do we hold young authors to different standards? Should we?

And what do you do if, like me, you're still at that awkward stage of life where having the skills to write a strong book is extremely rare? With every year that passes, I get closer to the deadline for writing prodigies. Am I doing enough to get there fast enough? Should I even be worried about that? One of the 20 under 40 is younger than me already. Will I see the age of 40 some day whiz by and shatter my dreams of being a New Yorker prodigy the same way 22 shattered my dreams of being an Olympian (only with much more effort on my part)?

I don't know, really. There's no way to tell if what you write will ever make a splash. And even if you did know, there would be no way to tell whether it would make a splash at 30 or 40 or 70 or 90 or perhaps after you're already gone, as it did for Dickinson or, more recently, Steig Larsson.

But there's something comforting about that too, if you think about it. And if I do enjoy reading work by young authors, maybe it's because I get to see them growing too, in the same way that I know my work is growing. And maybe the authors who do make it to the limelight when they're young are lucky in that they don't need to have that anxiety any more. They've made it. They're safe, like the kids who sit down first in a game of musical chairs.

But I wonder if they don't have their own anxieties to deal with. Perhaps they struggle with the idea of being a "young writer." When that phrase becomes ceaselessly attached to your work, does it color the way people view your work? How does one write under the burden of being a talented young writer? For Shteyngart and Mengestu, the answer seems to be "very very well," but I wonder how many young writers have been scuttled by worrying over that phrase.

There's so much worry to be had with all of this writing business. So much anxiety for such a massive leap of faith. It's a shame I love books and words so much. Otherwise, I would forget all about this and just work on power-walking instead. Who knows? I could be an Olympian yet.

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