One interesting observation of writing communities is the insecurity regarding age. On forums like Reddit, many teenagers and young adults enquire whether they should publish or even write at all. Most answers are encouraging. However, there is a need to convey that most published authors did not debut in their teens or twenties. According to author Jim Chines, the average age of a debut novelist is 36! Yet, as reported by Curtis Brown Creative, there really is no best age to write a novel. Every age has something to bring to the field of literature. However, teenage and young adult writers must know the time it takes to develop advanced skills in storytelling.
This is true for both macro (narrative, characterisation, themes) and micro (syntax, grammar, word choices) issues. Yet it’s also relevant for writers in developing their voice and perspective – two things highly appreciated by agents and publishers. I’m currently reading Milkman by Anna Burns, an author who won the Booker prize in her 50s. The novel is of course, spellbinding in terms of prose, characterisation and theme. Yet Milkman is excellent because there’s no novel like it. This is because Anna Burns wrote the novel only she can write. It can take months, years or decades to truly understand the stories you are best at telling. This is why young writers experiment with different genres and forms. As with any creative field, beginners must have a degree of flexibility when approaching style and genre.
Another crucial point: it takes years to write well. I began to take creative writing seriously in 2018 and there is still much to learn. The same applies for painting, theatre, sculpture or fashion design. No one is born a great artist. Whilst some individuals may show an inclination towards creativity and score high on intelligence, it is not enough to write a masterpiece. All writers must put in the hours and effort to improve their craft. This often involves learning from a mentor, joining a writer’s group or asking for readers’ feedback. Yet in my case, it also involved submitting stories for magazines, researching literary agents and putting yourself in public view. That’s not for everyone. However, I consider those actions necessary in my literary journey.
This highlights a problem with ‘you are not mature enough to write and publish.’ Writers will procrastinate and delay crucial choices that may, in the long-term, help them. There is no perfect time to submit a story or where you are ‘qualified enough’ to publish fiction. It doesn’t work like that and I doubt it ever will. Because of this, I urge young writers to discover ways to improve their craft and to get feedback from their work. This is especially true if publishing is a goal. The standards are high and competition is intense.
There’s also a danger in simplifying maturity into two groups where one has it and the other does not. Regardless of your age or experiences, no man or woman is completely enlightened and free from mistake. Maturity is not something you can force upon yourself or others. It’s also possible to go through life and become more bitter and horrible. There is no guarantee of ‘maturity’ occurring at a certain time. Regardless, there’s value in reading perspectives and narratives from writers who may not have much life experience. Mary Shelley was 19 when she finished Frankenstein. Without this gothic classic, our culture would be much poorer.
However, maturity helps in fiction. I noticed this when comparing the earlier works of Fyodor Dostoevsky before and after being spared from execution by Tsar Nicholas I. His later works – including favourites such as Notes From The Underground, are written with sheer power and history that is gained through life experience. Yet this does not mean Dostoevsky made an error in publishing youthful work such as Poor Folk. Even if your first novels are not as good as later work, this doesn’t mean they are unsuitable for public view and criticism. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed an almost neurotic sense of perfectionism from writers, especially young ones.
One sad aftershock of postmodern irony is the concept of ‘cringe’ where past efforts at art are treated with mockery and scepticism. It is a nightmarish prospect: to have obvious vulnerability under the public eye. To this, writers must understand that neither criticism, dislike or mockery are lethal. You can publish a loathed book and embarrass yourself – and still turn out okay and have a healthy relationship with writing.
The literary world should celebrate maturity and the wisdom of particular authors. Yet we must not overvalue maturity and life experience. There’s a risk of fetishizing certain life events or trials. I truly believe there is room for writers of any age. However, there’s also a need for published writers to create at a high standard. Becoming a writer will not happen overnight. Young writers must develop patience and resilience against setbacks and disappointments. It’s good to have goals and ambitions, but there’s also a need for a realistic outlook.