Jun 25, 2010

Too Old to Write?

By Tanya Parker Mills

Perhaps it's the fact that I've been trying to get through my dad's latest manuscript. He's 87 now and, if anything, writing more than ever...the trouble is, he's in such a hurry to get his ideas out and on the hard drive, that he doesn't care much for rewriting and revision. It's as if he's trying to get it all out before he passes away. Do we become less careful with our writing the older we get?

Or perhaps it's because I've been visiting with my mother-in-law in her assisted living center. We're on a short vacation trip to Utah to see her and my daughter and other family on my husband's side. Being around a lot of men and women near the end of their lives can certainly refocus your perspective on life...and on writing.

Mostly, I think it was that disturbing article in The New York Times back on June 9th by San Tanenhaus. It was actually an editorial response to the recent New Yorker issue featuring their list of 20 promising writers. They call it "20 Under 40," meaning the writers are all young. Tanenhaus seemed to agree with their underlying premise:

Fiction writers "often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young."

Imagine how depressed I was after reading that? Did I come too late to the game? Did I sacrifice too much by focusing on my kids in my 30's and 40's? I have some answers to all these questions and intend to pursue this topic in more detail on my own website and blog, but I will say this much:

The jury's definitely still out. Some believe writers do their best work young. Others believe there is no time limit. And a third group says it depends on what kind of a writer you are. Conceptual writers, like Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated), are at their peak when young. A conceptual writer is the type that starts with a clear idea of where he or she wants to go and then executes it. Experimental writers, on the other hand, like Mark Twain, bloom later. They're the type that tend to work experimentally. "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental.

Consider Mark Twain's process. According to literary critic Franklin Rogers:

His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.

Since it took Twain almost 10 years to get Huckleberry Finn right (and he published it after the age of 40), I figure that I lean more in his direction. I take my time with my stories. Probably too much time.

Perhaps I should take a lesson from my father and start pumping them out faster.


  1. the 20 under 40 seems nothing more than subjective. The person who wrote that, is no doubt, under 40. The older you get, the wiser you are. Okay, the older SOME people get, the wiser they are. I go with wisdom and age!

  2. Any comment I would make would be completely biased, because I published my first novel when I was 50+, and I'm a MUCH better writer now than I was then. The interesting thing is that I don't feel older than 40--except when I try to get out of my chair after writing for several hours at a stretch.

    I tend to agree with you--take a leaf out of your father's book. Crank 'em out.

  3. I've heard it said that our "Chinese Age" is the age of our spirit. It's the age that when our bodies catch up, we feel that is who we really are.

    Some people have old spirits. I swear, my daughter was born at the age of 32. She is independent, confident and self-assured. Greg, my husband, has always been in his forties on the inside, even as a young boy. Me, on the other hand, I've got a Chinese Age of about 13 so I think I'm doing great! Oops, maybe not. I guess I do need to mature a little.

  4. Interesting thoughts...and comments. I know my thinking is slower now than when in my 20's...but it is deeper.

  5. I think it really depends on your genre. As I get older, romantic comedy seems to get sillier and yet I LOVED them as a young girl; fantasy is harder when you're older because let's face it unicorns probably didn't exits even if they are mentioned in the Bible. On the other hand, Tom Clancy started older and look what he did.. Clive Clusser...I could go on.

  6. Well I am over 40 and just beginning. But if Tom Clancy, Clive Clusser and the classical Mark Twain could write after 40 perhaps I can learn. It was interesting to hear about the styles of composition.


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