At the tender-ish age of thirty, I consider myself a failed writer. The logical part of my brain knows this is ridiculous. Success in writing can come at any age. Unlike the fields of athletics and underwear modelling, youth doesn’t give any concrete advantage when it comes to writing.
A lot of my favourite writers were late bloomers. Raymond Chandler published his first novel at fifty-one. George Eliot published her first book at forty, and it took another twelve years for “Middlemarch” to arrive. Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula” at fifty. With so many writers becoming successful in middle age and beyond, why do I feel like such a bloody failure?
It would be easy to blame the media’s obsession with trendy, fresh-faced young talent, but in reality, my disillusionment is my own fault.
That one dude at the writers’ group
In my first year of university, I joined the writers’ society. This was my first experience of actually talking to other budding writers. Being one of the last people in Britain to grow up offline, I had no access to writers’ forums or anything like that. I was young, socially awkward and intimidated.
There was this one dude at the writers’ group who I think was called Edmund. He certainly seemed like an Edmund. He was a little older than the rest of us, and the only one in the room with letters after his name. I know this because he told us that he was the only one in the room with letters after his name.
So this guy, with grave authority, told us all that we wouldn’t have any significant writing success until after we were thirty, because we didn’t have enough “life experience”. These days, I’m wary of men who tell me I need “life experience” in order to become a better writer. As an asexual woman, I’m frustrated by how often their idea of “life experience” involves their penises.
At the time, though, I was full of the bravado that comes with being deeply insecure. I told myself, with absolute certainty, that I was going to prove Edmund wrong. I was going to get a novel published well before my thirtieth birthday. It probably wouldn’t even be that difficult.
Actually, writing is hard
It turns out that writing is really f*cking difficult. Getting published is even more difficult. Not that I learnt this straight away – it took a while for the lesson to sink in.
After graduating from uni, I spent my mid-twenties writing a lot of poetry and a few short stories, while working Proper Jobs in order to pay rent and eat. Just after I turned 27, I got around to writing my first novel.
I wrote it during the mad, feverish burst of creativity that was my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – more on this in a future post), polished it up and sent it off to a large number of agents.
A small miracle happened. Not one, but two agents were interested in representing my novel. I took the train to London to meet with them both, feeling like Cinderella at the ball. Assuming Cinderella felt sweaty, nauseous, and terrified of being found out (Imposter Syndrome – more on this in a future post).
Both agents were lovely, and I went with the one who seemed most confident about the prospects of my novel. I signed a contract, started using the phrase “my agent” the way recently engaged women use the phrase “my fiancé”, and became convinced that it was really happening. I was going to become an actual, proper writer. And I was still 27.
My first lesson in being an actual, proper writer is that you have to compromise a lot. Before my agent showed my novel to potential publishers, I had to add ten thousand words to make it a more marketable length, de-age a character so that his relationship with a teenage girl lost most of the ick factor, and change the ending to make it more upbeat.
Finally, it was ready. My agent pitched my novel to twenty major UK publishers. Every sodding one of them said “Thanks but no thanks.” Not enough plot, was the most common reason for rejection. Too character-focussed.
Disappointed but undeterred, I wrote another novel. A paranormal YA mystery, this time, and it had shedloads of plot. Twists and turns and exorcisms galore. I showed it to my agent, who told me she couldn’t represent it because she didn’t have the necessary YA contacts.
So I started the whole process again, looking for a new agent. This time, nobody was remotely interested. My big break had come and gone without ever actually breaking. I felt gutted, completely helpless, and of course I felt like a shitty writer. Then I turned thirty and felt old.
I actually quite like the idea of being a “failed writer”. There’s something very cool and European about it. It gives me a mental image of someone smoking outside a Parisian café, being all wistful and filled with bitter humour and hard-earned wisdom. Unfortunately, I do not fit this mental image. I am very uncool, and I live in a small town in Oxfordshire, not Paris. I can be wistful or bitter on occasion, but I don’t feel wise at all.
Most importantly, I don’t fit the mental image of a failed writer because I can’t stop writing. No time to sit around smoking outside a café – I have a poetry chapbook to work on. I also can’t stop trying. Trying to get things published. Trying to get people to read the things I’ve written. Trying to be heard.
Maybe it’s like marrying for money, but waking up one morning to realise you actually have feelings for the aging, overweight, heart-attack-prone stockbroker. You start out with a goal in mind, and somewhere along the way, you fall deeply and unexpectedly in love.
So, maybe I’m not a failed writer. A failing writer. Yeah, that’s better.