This quote is taken from Lee Child’s response to being asked about the fact that he began his highly successful fiction career after being being laid off from his longtime TV job due to “corporate restructuring.” His words resonated with me, given that I did not begin writing seriously until a few years ago. Child goes on to say that “you haven’t absorbed enough, you haven’t seen enough, you haven’t developed your own mental space” when young to write fiction. While I don’t believe this is true for everyone – Christopher Paolini, Amanda Hocking, heck, even Bret Easton Ellis, anyone?* – I do believe it is true for most folks. I stopped writing shortly after college mainly because I just couldn’t communicate what I needed to in my stories. The material was too raw, too new to be distilled into a good story. Like wine – most vintages need to mature and age to be truly excellent, and often the best vintages only improve with age. My husband and I bought a bottle of cabernet sauvignon from a small winery named Domaine Charbay on a trip to Napa Valley several years ago. We had been married just a year, and buying an expensive – for us – bottle of red wine seemed like a celebration of us and the friends’ wedding we had just attended. Some years and three homes later, we realized that it was likely well past time to drink the wine. Advised by the vinter that we should wait at least five years before opening the bottle, it had survived several moves and somewhat less than ideal storage conditions. We opened it with trepidation to celebrate an occasion, and were relieved and not a little surprised to find that it was delicious – rich, full-bodied and full of flavor.
For me, writing is like that bottle. The stories that I begin now are so much richer than those written in college or just after. I can see what went wrong, and why. Perspective has enriched my emotions and beliefs, adding a dimension that was not there before. There’s a reason so many writing teachers advise you to mine your memories, to write from the heart, to dig deep into the hidden reaches of your mind. When asked about my writing goals, I often respond that Helen Hoover Santmyer is one of my inspirations: she wrote through much of her life, but received best-selling success only when her novel, And Ladies of the Club was published when she was 88 years old. I’ve got plenty of time based on that yardstick!
Unlike athletic endeavors, writing does not require the fitness, stamina, and rude physical health of the young. (Although a good yoga practice never hurt anyone.) Instead, it requires an ability to look inward, to empathize with those we find “other,” to view ourselves objectively and to view others subjectively. Many say that writing well for children requires that the writer be able to feel as a child to experience again the intense emotions and concerns of the age for which they write. I would argue that it is also necessary to have moved beyond that age, to bring another dimension – not to mention better technique – to bear.
Here’s to success later in life!
*I find it interesting that when I looked up successful young writers, the most common yardstick was “under 40.” And no, I don’t consider any of my examples to be the zenith of fiction, but they were all published very young.