I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out.
I was jealous of writers who’d been published at my age or younger, and had a sense that there was a ticking clock on the whole thing. I’ve learnt that this isn’t a unique feeling, that many authors feel this way about publication.
I don’t think this line of thinking is unique to writers’ natures. I don’t think it’s a sentiment the ‘industry’ creates in us exclusively.
I think it’s an example of the larger cultural trend of passing judgment on the way each person lives their life – judgments we pass on ourselves and others. It isn’t enough that somebody does something. We need to know when, how and why they did it, so we can compare it to the other people who have done that thing and see who did it ‘better’. Then we can compare these people to ourselves, and use them as a barometer for how well we’re doing at this whole life business.
This may be a long bow to draw, but I wonder if the emphasis on writers’ ages has to do with the way some writers are seen as ‘life commentators’.
For me at least, I found that I was ignored when I was young, and my opinions dismissed as immature. Many people I’ve spoken with seem to share a similar experience.
To publish a novel at a young age has connotations of being ‘wise beyond your years.’ We have insight into life before we’re expected to. I guess it can make us feel like prodigies.
Although, of course, this is all if we choose to buy into these ideas, which many people I know don’t. I know that I have moments when I feel competitive and moments that I don’t. It’s never a static emotional state.
Since my first book came out, I’ve realised that a writer’s ‘career’ is not as clearly planned out as I first thought. I doubt many of us have much control over what we write and when, or when it gets published. I might finish my next book this year and it may not get published officially for a year after that. So, when do I measure it from?
All my efforts of manipulation over the timeline of my life are kind of pointless. At the end of the day, my first book came out when I was the age that I was, and my next book will come out when I’m as old as I will be then. In the same way that I will die at the age that I will die. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop trying to live up to a certain set of life goals purely so that it reads well on my Wikipedia page.
Which leads me to my next and possibly overly sentimental point: we don’t need to measure our lives based on our ‘achievements’. We can measure it with a focus on so many other things: the relationships we’ve had, the places we’ve traveled to, the greats nights out we’ve had.
I’d love to add here: ‘or, better yet, we could not measure it all.’ But I know that, at least for me, I can’t break habits of thought that easily. I will always be slightly competitive, I will always judge myself – and others as well – and I will always measure my life in some way.
The only time I really feel free of these unpleasant thought patterns is when I’m in the midst of writing a really good story. Everything just stops mattering for a little while. I find that the real beauty of writing a story is how it allows me to think in ways I don’t allow myself to otherwise. It’s liberating. It also reminds me that, despite my competitive streak, the real reason I’m writing is because I just love to do it. And the real reason I’m sending it off to get published, is that I want my work to be read.
And getting to talk to people about my book has proven to be just as exhilarating as writing the thing.
Eli Glasman is a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival and will appear on Friday 29 August in First Flight.