Writing has no age restrictions. This should go without saying. And yet.
Every few weeks, it seems, the discourse comes around again. Specifically, it tends to revolve around the age of debut authors in particular. Usually it starts because someone relatively young comments that they feel like they have to get their first book deal before a certain age.
Most recently, someone apparently stated their deadline for success was age 21, to which I can only say, excuse me? I debuted at age 40. Age is just a damn number.
As an older writer, this discourse on age limits leaves me torn. Part of me is shaking my head over the way this opinion could only come from a Youth, which is my privilege as a person twice their age who has Seen Some Shit. Another, larger part is deeply sad that our culture of hustle and ageism contributes to these harsh standards that young folks are applying to themselves.
Young writers, please chill and be kind to yourself. You are baby. You have all the time in the world to grow and learn and figure this out.
With that said, I know talented writers who signed at age 21! I know writers who produced their debut in or after high school, during college (!), or shortly thereafter. I love to see it but it literally could not be me.
It’s okay to take a winding path.
At age 21 I was several different varieties of trauma in a trench coat, working several jobs, and in agonizing, unrequited love with several different people. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t have the emotional maturity to do anything with the commitment or focus that novel writing requires. I was still, in every way that matters to me now, a child.
It took me fifteen years, four careers, three relationships, and lots of therapy before I could even start to understand that I wanted to write “for real.” It also took a stable home life and financial security. I am, admittedly, a late bloomer, and had a lot of stuff to work through in order to self-actualize…and that’s okay.
For almost two decades, I wrote fanfic and dreamed of someday writing my own stories, but I didn’t take my dreams seriously. Looking back, though, those years weren’t wasted. I was building my skills, developing my voice, learning to give and receive feedback.
All of those experiences, my path’s twists and turns, the fallow periods and years spent doing work that didn’t fire my soul—all of that made me the writer I am today. As much as I sometimes mourn lost time, I needed that time to get to where I am now. I needed those lessons in what I did and didn’t want for my life.
Most of all, I needed time to learn to value my stories, my voice, and my creative passions. I’m still learning that, if I’m honest. I’ve historically been a slow learner when it comes to loving myself.
But that’s me and my journey, not the blueprint for anyone else.
Take your own sweet time about it.
Some of you are quicker studies than I am, and I genuinely love that for you. The time I took doesn’t make me more prepared, tougher, more resilient in the face of rejection, or better at any of this than anyone else. But if you feel like you are falling behind those quick studies and prodigies out there, please give yourself the space for your own journey to unfold.
You have to do things in your own time. You have to get to it when it’s right for you. There is no expiration date on your writing career.
I am not saying that older writers are more skilled writers. I’m saying that age and experience made me, specifically, a better writer, more prepared for the emotional ups and downs of chasing a dream so close to my heart. I, personally, needed to fuck around and find out first.
This will not be true for everyone. Every day I see young writers lap me in talent and success! It’s impressive and inspiring to witness—and it gives me hope for the future that they are empowered to pursue a creative life.
Our age doesn’t make us or break us.
Young writers certainly tend to have more energy for creation. If only I could have the energy I spent on late nights and bad decisions at 21 now! I’d be a goddamn powerhouse of productivity.
Older writers might have more perspective. Breadth of experience, the ability to weather failure, and knowing in your core what you do and don’t want from life tend to come with age. You learn to give less of a fuck, which helps with a lot of things.
But young writers can have that resilience and wisdom too! And older writers can be energetic dynamos. Not to mention that young folks do not have a monopoly on the bad decisions market—most of the younger people I know are extremely savvy and mature compared to myself at the same age, or myself today for that matter.
My point is that writing isn’t like ballet or sports. Unlike physical prowess, your ability doesn’t automatically degrade over time. You don’t hit your peak potential at age 20, or indeed any particular age.
We’re not all coming from the same place.
There are likely some real generational and technological differences causing our creative communities to trend younger today. One of my first readers for this post (thank you, Keir!) made the excellent point that there are more readily accessible resources out there for writers thanks to the Internet and digital publishing. That means younger writers might become informed and empowered and connected earlier in their career.
Ebooks and digital libraries make it easier to read widely. You don’t have to leave your home or seek out a big city library to find craft or genre books. Your critique partners can hail from anywhere in the world as long as you share a language.
There are also plenty of writing blogs, videos, and podcasts available that can help writers build their craft for free. Not to mention the increased ease of querying thanks to email and QueryManager. Yes, querying is still The Worst, but I’m also old enough to remember when you had to send a SASE with your snail mail query and pay the post office to deliver a full manuscript with no guarantee of even a form letter in response.
Nevertheless, it’s all too easy to fall into the comparison trap. It’s easy to forget that we are not all on the same journey. But the reality of it is that we all start in different circumstances and travel along different tracks.
There’s a hard truth here, which is that sometimes writers must simply wait for the market and the culture to catch up with their best work. And yes, some of it is luck, timing, a lightning strike. Often, persistence will pay off eventually. But most of the time there’s more to it than that.
Some future writers get busy doing other things or pursuing other passions. Some people have families and kids to care for, putting that first and foremost. Personally, as someone with no small humans to raise, I have nothing but awe and respect for anyone managing a creative career and parenting at the same time—y’all are big damn heroes.
Sometimes, though, we have other baggage slowing us down. Some of us have more ground to cover. Some of us have roadblocks to clear, and some of us have to take the long way around.
Embrace trauma-aware ambition.
Late bloomers may come to their work more slowly for other reasons besides luck and timing and living full lives. Trauma-aware ambition means recognizing that not all of us start out in an environment that supports our personal success. Writers from socially, psychologically, or economically disadvantaged backgrounds literally start multiple steps behind those with greater privilege.
For writers who grew up poor, for instance, the writing life presents very practical challenges to security and survival. There’s little possibility of quitting the day job or pursuing an MFA when you face shelter, food, and health care insecurity. Maybe we find the time to write, but in snatched moments around the edges of a daily grind to make ends meet.
Even if we eventually gain more breathing room, the mindset of scarcity and struggle may stick with us. It might even feel dangerous to let go of the fight for survival, no matter how much we want to relax and enjoy good fortune.
For writers with a disability—whether that disability is physical, mental health related, or a form of neurodivergence—we may face additional barriers. With the world not set up to support disabled people’s basic needs—and often set up to actively stigmatize those needs—it takes time to even learn what we need in the first place. That encompasses the accommodations that nurture a creative life, whether that’s medication, assistive technology, therapy, and/or financial resources.
Queer writers experience yet another layer, especially those of us who have been around long enough to remember the “gay plague” of HIV/AIDS, illegal marriages, and normalized homophobia. When our society brands the truths we hold within us taboo, sinful, obscene, unpublishable and unspeakable, how can we create in freedom? Of course, we have always found our ways, our codes, our secret languages. But for me at least, a sense of liberty in writing proudly queer characters only developed in the last decade, and indeed seems at risk of slipping away again.
My experience is still a privileged experience.
I use these examples of disability, queerness, and poverty because I can speak to them from my own personal experience. But there are other factors outside my experience that can impact and impede a writer’s journey. Namely, BIPOC authors, immigrants, second language writers, and writers in the global south face the headwinds of racism, stereotypes, and exoticism in publishing, along with discriminatory barriers of systemic inequality that steal opportunities before they even appear.
Just one example of the latter is educational disparities in the arts. A teacher who encourages talented young writers can change their lives, and I had such a teacher—in my relatively affluent, very white, very liberal California high school. But in the underfunded-by-design schools that serve a large proportion of marginalized students in the U.S., those students may not find a ready champion to nurture their creativity.
(R.I.P. Mrs. Adams, whose creative writing class was full of queer kids, misfits, and talented weirdos. I learned years later that she was also queer, and I wish I’d known it earlier—but it didn’t surprise me in the least! Birds of a feather, etc.)
In a just world, an equitable world, an ideal world, every writer would have that kind of champion. Every young person would have a safe place where they could write their truths and develop their talent. And no gates would be closed to them.
I want that world for all of you, but we don’t live in that world right now. It’s important to acknowledge that, no matter what side of the gate you’re standing on, and hold it open for your peers instead of slamming it in their faces. And if you’ve had a few more gates blocking your path, it’s crucial to give yourself grace in that knowledge.
Now is the best time to start.
With that said, if you want a career as a writer, there’s no better time like the present. Whatever your challenges, whatever has bogged you down or invalidated you up to now, you deserve your dreams. And your dreams, your heart’s desires, deserve your time and attention.
Take them seriously. Cherish them. Polish them until they shine.
And yes, it can feel harder than ever to take time for your passions in this chaotic, volatile era, but look at it this way. If the world ended tomorrow, wouldn’t you rather go out living your best life? Wouldn’t you rather know you took a chance on doing what you loved?
Maybe that sounds a bit grim, but it helps motivate me. This may well be a, shall we say, “trauma informed” perspective. Survivors know with visceral experience that the future is never assured and the past is immutable, uneditable, unshakeable, no matter how we might wish it otherwise.
But the truth is that we all, no matter how old, tend to feel like we’re living at the end of our time because as of this present moment, we are. The future doesn’t exist yet. In a very real way, this IS the end of time for us.
I think this is why years feel like they get shorter as you age—the length of a year is shorter in proportion to the rest of the time you’ve lived. It’s probably also a big reason why some 20-something writers feel like they’re over the hill! However long we’ve been around this life, we can only see the world from the perspective of the time we’ve had so far.
That can make us feel like we’ve gotten here at the last possible minute. But it also means we got here just in time. Whatever happened to bring us to this point, however long it took, now is our moment.
This is the moment to begin. Or perhaps it’s the moment to take the next step, the one you’ve put off, the one you’re afraid of. It’s the moment to continue moving forward. It’s the moment to return, to start again, to find the path you want to follow.
Measure creative success outside its market value.
Over the weekend, I chatted with a good friend who is taking the first steps toward building her own creative business. She told me she was trying to stay practical about what felt like a “pipe dream.” I found myself misting up with emotion as I told her that the experience of becoming a professional creator and doing what you love, no matter how small the scale, has a non-quantifiable value that can enrich your existence in myriad ways.
I guess that’s the biggest thing I want to say on this topic. Beyond the importance of measuring success on your own timeline, rather than by some external yardstick, “making it” isn’t just about getting that agent, book deal, or best-selling debut. It’s about living a life that feeds your soul and fits your value system.
That might mean taking a winding path until you find the direction that works for you, or persisting in the face of rejection. It might mean sacrifices and adjustments along the way. It might mean weathering brutal ups and downs.
In fact, it will probably mean all of those things. This isn’t an easy path: not writing, not publishing, not any kind of creative work. But it is worth it to take that journey, no matter how long the road.
Safe travels, and may the wind be ever at your back. Don’t set up artificial time limits for yourself or each other. And if you will, take it from an old lady who’s had her share of detours and setbacks: this writing life is a marathon, and in no way a sprint.
In a marathon, going the distance is the real triumph, regardless of who gets there first.
I’d love to hear about your journey, whatever your age group, so let me know your thoughts in the comments!