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.


Penelope said...

I can't tell you how reassuring this post is. Thank you.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Well said, Krissy!!!

Elisabeth Hanscombe said...

And the trouble with those old vaginas, they dry up, but your mind does not. it goes on endlessly, well past your forties, fifties and sixties, seventies and eighties if you're lucky. I too am tired of the adulation of youth, as much as I want to support young writers. It's time, as you suggest, to start a mentorship program for us so-called old writers as we continue to 'emerge'.

Anonymous said...

i am keen to read your writing and indeed I tried a couple of your posts but the white text on a black background is very difficult to maintain sustained reading with any degree of comfort.

Sean Crawley said...

I am starting out in my fifties, I feel ready to write now. Thanks for mentioning the difficulty you faced trying to crack the literary magazine barrier - they all want you to subscribe so that you supposedly know what their style is. I thought good writing is unique and not tailored for niche markets.

One uber-cool "journal" dares to write "Nice hint: Submissions from our readers are given extra special attention :) Translation: Submitting work to a publication you haven't read is disrespectful!". Don't you just love the smiley face and then the exclamation mark.

Not to mention the mega bucks needed to buy all these hip rags. It does seem like an exclusive club with grey hair definitely barring you from entry, but their are a whole heap of other barriers/filters apart from age that will see you overlooked. Hey, maybe a new lit mag could be established called "Overlooked" - submissions accepted from daggy old non-subscribers only.

Krissy Kneen said...

Hi Anonymous. I was meaning to change the template so I did indeed change it to black on white. Thanks for the prompt.
Sean, reading is such an important part of writing. You do need to read the literary magazines if you want to submit to them just so you know the kinds of things that are right for that magazine. Same thing with books, if you are going to write a novel or a work of non-fiction it is best to be a big reader of the genre, at least to see if you are writing a book similar to something someone else has written before. Always best to be a big reader. The literary magazines area available for free to order from you local library. No point submitting fiction to a magazine that only takes non fiction, also no point submitting an essay about being a male fighter pilot in the war to a magazine like Womankind. Some of those mags are pretty great reading, so have fun with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm 61 and writing my first novel (well the first one that I could hope to publish). Is there any hope for me?

Mano said...

Dear Krissy

I heard you being interviewed on radio national today, and was pleased you raise the matter of 'ageism" as it plays out in the literary world. The idea that we are only productive in our 20s and 30s is an extremely limiting one, and as you pointed out it is possible to be an emerging writer - or an emerging anythying - at any stage of the life cycle.

One of the imbalances in post -industrial, commodified socities is the lack of inter-generational contact...where older people remain relevant and in, some cases, assume a mentoring role. Of course the exchange is mutual....older people can imbibe from younger people energy, playfulness, and a spirit of adventure. And all ages can share those dimensions of ourselves that are not time bound. See http://sage-ing.org/

I also agree that having an immediate context - a community or group - is vital for many writers - certainly for this one.

You mentioned some examples of writers who were first published in their 60s or 70s. Are you familiar with Jacob Rosenberg? he had his first book published at 83. I posted two small samples of his writing a while back:

Best wishes
Immanuel Suttner

Susan Steggall said...

Heard your interview with Michael Cathcart in my early roams around the ABC this morning. Spot on!
I started - am probably still 'starting' -
my writing career at an even more advanced age, having switched from science to art history when I went back to university at the age of 45 (and that's now a few decades ago!). Age might be a barrier to running the 100 metres in less than 10 seconds but it certainly isn't a barrier to intellectual and creative aspirations - keeps one young in mind and spirit in fact.
We hear so much about keeping physically fit in older age but very little about keeping our mental skills 'fit'. Writing, and writing among likeminded people, is a wonderful way to do it. As an energetic and always-curious septuagenarian I am off tomorrow to join my much younger writer friends at Northern Beaches Writers' Group to participate in the Write a Book in a Day competition (proceeds to Cancer Foundation at Westmead Hospital) - twelve hours of intense creativity and collegiality!

Philip said...

Great article Krissy. Do you think every aspiring writer should have their own blog?

Jan Prior said...

I'm a submerging writer, with a snorkel still above the waterline.
Shiny young things don't stay shiny forever, more's the pity.