Can we talk about the word “emerging” when describing writers at the beginning of their writing careers? When you hear “emerging writer”, what age are you imagining the writer to be?
For too many of us, we’ve been led to believe that to be an emerging writer is to be young and usually fresh out of university (more on class/ education discrimination in a future post); that freshness of writing talent is something which directly correlates with youth.
This simply isn’t true.
Which is why it breaks my heart whenever someone older tells me that they wish they’d done more writing, but now feel they are “too old” to start.
There’s never a wrong age to start writing. Creativity has no age limit.
Why Support For Young Writers is Important
I don’t for a second want anybody to fall under the impression that I scorn competitions and awards that support young writers. As co-editor and trustee of Cheval, the annual publication which showcases the work of young prizewinners of the prestigious Terry Hetherington Awards in Wales, I think it’s absolutely vital that we continue to support young talent. Not every young person comes from a privileged background or has a support network for their writing ambitions. Not every young person will have had confidence instilled in them by teachers or family; from my own experience of creative writing in schools and later experience working in education, I was largely dismayed by the stifling way in which it was taught. All too often, ideas from young minds were dismissed as “silly” or “wrong”, simply because they were imaginative or ambitious and didn’t conform to some traditional or outdated idea of what writing should be.
The very last thing we want to do is to kill creative passion from a young age.
Young writers’ competitions such as the Terry Hetherington Awards meant that I built a very strong network of support from fellow writers, the vast majority of whom I stayed in touch with and still consider my good friends. I felt validated; that what I had to say and write mattered. For a self-conscious young person unsure of her own writing ability, I could well have given up or kept my writing hidden; I owe a lot to those who nurtured my writing ambitions early on. Writing and publishing, with all its knockbacks, disappointments and need for an unwavering sense of perseverance, could have been a much more crushing experience had I gone into it completely alone.
When challenged by older writers (this doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I might get a fairly unsavoury comment in my messages), I feel more able to stand my ground and feel valid in my defence. I’m referring here to the one or two occasions where older male writers have called me “too young to understand what real poetry is” and then sent me abuse over it (or, indeed, followed this up with commenting on my appearance).
Once upon a time, I might have just believed it and stopped writing.
However, writing has no age limits. Your right to express yourself has no start or expiry date.
Why aren’t we following this example to also support those who start their writing career later on and challenging the way we use the term “emerging writers”? Why do we place upper age limits on those who have just started out in their writing careers? It’s no wonder so many are led to falsely believe it’s too late to pick up their pen when opportunities for emerging writers often come with an upper age restriction for eligibility.
We need to start changing the narrative.
Redefining ‘Emerging Writers’: It Starts With Us
Did you know that Toni Morrison didn’t write her first book until the age of 40? Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep was published when he was 51. Annie Proulx was 57 and Frank McCourt, Pulitzer prizewinning author of Angela’s Ashes, didn’t publish his work until he was 66.
What if these hugely successful writers had believed that they’d been too late to start? What if Sula had never been written because Toni Morrison thought she was too old to waste her energy on writing? Or if Raymond Chandler had thought his time had long past him and he’d simply resigned himself to the fact that writing had simply been a missed opportunity?
We need to change the way we talk about emerging writers. We need to be encouraging “late” starters to keep writing. It’s time to change the way we depict students in postgraduate prospectuses; almost half of my MA Creative Writing class was made up of people over the age of 30, some of whom are now successfully published writers. Nobody is too old to go back to their learning. No voice is too old to be heard.
I’m careful to avoid using the word “young” when I talk about those new to writing; instead, I make it clear that “emerging writers” encompasses all age ranges. When running my workshops for example, I’m careful to use terms such as “new to writing” rather than define this by age. I want these experiences to be welcoming, supportive and inclusive; just join in with one of my future workshops and you’ll see people from all walks of life, at all ages, and with entirely different stories to tell. Opportunities to write should never be limited by any of these factors.
Make sure the things you say reflect this too. Remember, it starts with you.
If a friend or relative older than you starts writing, encourage them. Give them the support they need that they still aren’t getting from a world which equates talent and promise with those below a certain age.
It’s Never the Wrong Time to Start Writing
Perhaps you feel like you’re the one for whom the opportunity to write has passed you by? Have other people discouraged you or dismissed you for expressing an interest in starting writing a little later than others deem acceptable?
Good. Prove them wrong.
Nobody should be made to feel like they don’t have a place simply because they sit outside of a false perception of how they should fit in an ideal world.
There is no ideal world unless we start challenging the way we talk in this one. This goes beyond just age. I can’t reiterate this point enough: everyone has a right to write, no matter where they are in life or where they’ve come from.
Stop worrying. Start writing. Your time is now.