Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Starting out old

I was forty years old when my first book was published.

This year is the first year I have felt even vaguely comfortable about this writing career. I have published six books in eight years and I am busy copy-editing my seventh and struggling to write the eighth. When I finally got a book out, things happened quite quickly, but I still remember what it was like to be a middle-aged writer trying to break into a field that favours youth.

There has always been a cut-off point. I remember turning twenty-six and feeling sad because I was no longer eligible for awards that were set up to promote the young. I had been entering the Vogel since I was in my early twenties and I had been long listed for a manuscript but I didn't know what to do next. I wrote another book and another book and kept writing books even when I had crossed the twenty-six-year-old-youth barrier and headed towards my thirties.

When I was young there were no creative writing courses. I chose to do theatre thinking I might be a playwright instead of a novelist because I didn't know how to be a novelist. I wrote a few plays. One was performed in regional areas, one was performed at La BoƮte. I didn't really want to be a playwright. I kept writing novels. And eventually turned towards film.

There is a lot of attention given to young writers. I think it is really useful for a young writer to have some way of increasing their chances of publication. There are a lot of talented young writers. I have been helping quite a few of them find their way in the world and it feels like a good thing to do, but I worry that there are still so few opportunities for older writers to get a leg up. Sometimes it takes people a few decades to find their voice and a story that is worth telling.

I remember when I was in my late thirties being desperate to get into the hip literary magazines. I kept sending stuff out to The Lifted Brow and I kept getting rejected. The day I was accepted felt like an amazing achievement. For the first time I had been acknowledged by the new wave of hip young writers. Being an old bird in a young people's coop is a sobering experience. I remember getting my first book contract and going for a drink in a fancy Melbourne bar and being the oldest and frumpiest person in the bar and even though I was very excited about the book contract I felt like a fake because I didn't 'look' like a writer when everyone else in the bar looked the part. My author photo did not appear on the back jacket of my book and I felt sure it was because of my age and my weight. I still suspect that was a factor although now I don't really care.

It is wonderful to see the cohort of great young writers find their feet. Still, I wonder about those older writers who have not yet been published. There is no special leg-up for those who missed the  various prizes and mentorships and support aimed at young writers. I hope the quality of their manuscripts, the strength of their life experience and the doggedness that comes with age means that they will keep going till they eventually break through.

Our culture is skewed towards celebrating and supporting the young and I am not sure what can be done about it. If I were wealthy I would start a mentorship program for writers over forty. If you are rich maybe you could think about doing this for me. Either way lets make sure we do not discount those older voices. It is a long hard slog when you are not a shiny young thing.