Notes from Aboveground | Writing While No Longer Young
I was about to go to my college reunion and I knew people were going to ask me what I did. For a job. So I was scrambling to think of inventive ways to describe what I was doing with my time. My college is one of those highly successful small liberal arts schools that churn out doctors and lawyers and academics. I was none of those things. I thought of claiming to be: a small-batch specialty vegetarian caterer, an on-time delivery logistician, or an educational consultant. I was all those things. I still am all those things, otherwise known as: mother. What I was trying to bring myself to tell other people was that I was finally beginning to write. Seriously. But who knew how long this would take? Who knew if I had enough time left to learn what I needed to learn, to make all the mistakes of the beginner and still have enough left to be getting on with real writing? Not me. So how could I squander the time I did have in uselessly telling people what I hoped to do?
Of course, I ended up telling my former classmates. I asked them what they were doing (I was curious!) and when they returned the favor, I said, “I’m trying to write.” In retrospect that seems rather weak. No wonder they looked at me as if I’d just said, “I’m going to knit sweaters for statues!” They didn’t take my intention seriously. No one did, not even my extended family. And why not? Was it because “trying” isn’t serious? Or was it because they’d heard that line from many people who didn’t end up sticking with it? Or was it because by my age I should have already done it if I was so all on fire to do it now? Or was it that having put aside my own dreams for a time, it was just assumed by everyone that the rest of my life would be spent catering to the needs of others? For this is what our culture demands of women in general and of mothers doubly so. If I could put my own needs, dreams, and ambitions second for a time, surely I’d continue to, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair to my child. To my husband. To society as a whole. In fact, where did I get off wanting a career or an artistic calling at my age? Wasn’t it time instead to take stock, to gently subside into the background so young people could come center stage?
I don’t regret any of my decisions, because all of them led me to this place where I know what I want to do and I still have the mental capacity to do it.
Never center stage when I was young, I choose not to subside. Writing is something you can continue to get better at as you age, unlike so many other pursuits. At last, I had a story to tell and the voice in which to tell it. Of course, I had wanted to become a writer for a long time, since graduating from college, but I had to support myself immediately upon graduation. I don’t regret any of my decisions, because all of them led me to this place where I know what I want to do and I still have the mental capacity to do it. Led to my husband and my son, who fully support my ambition. In fact, I can’t see how else being a writer could have come to pass for me.
It isn’t easy. Not for any writer, but harder now that I’m older. I don’t want to get an MFA, though some people seem to think you can’t get noticed or published unless you have one of the creativity licenses they are mass producing at the academy these days. I can’t incur all that debt right now, not at the same time my son is in college. And I’m not sure it’s necessary anyway. Most of my favorite writers probably never took a creative writing course in their lives: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis, Mavis Gallant, Doris Lessing, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Deborah Eisenberg, Joan Didion.
Of course, you never know why your stories or poems are rejected, but our culture has a fascination with youth, with the latest wunderkind who at 25 has written a book that is so full of life wisdom that it seems like a much older person wrote it.
I don’t want to tell editors my age, or that I’m a mother or any other underrepresented identity when I submit to journals, or apply for grants, retreats or contests. I’d like to be accepted for publication or prizes on the merit of my writing, not because I’m a token diversity point. Of course, you never know why your stories or poems are rejected, but our culture has a fascination with youth, with the latest wunderkind who at 25 has written a book that is so full of life wisdom that it seems like a much older person wrote it. Not so interested in the wisdom of actual older people. The New Yorker 30 Under 40 feature is but one example of this systemic youth bias. I don’t know what any of us can do about something as all-pervading as the zeitgeist, but I for one will not let it dictate to me.
Many young women writers under 40 seem to have a strange expectation that a writing career is like getting on a cog railway train—top of the mountain, here I come! Especially if they experience some success in their 20s. Then they get discouraged when normal life events—getting married, getting pregnant, being a mother—seem to throw a giant monkey wrench into their well-laid plans. Probably mainly because they don’t see their husbands paying the same price for family. I had no such illusion that once you took the decision to pursue writing, that effort expended would necessarily be rewarded with critical recognition, big advances, fame. I never entertained such grandiose delusions. What has surprised me is the invisibility cloak that all women begin to wear after age 50, heavier and even more impenetrable if you are also a mother. Your only socially acceptable role is as audience member and booster for your child’s successes. People look right through you at events, interrupt you, correct you and what’s even worse for me, don’t read your work in the same spirit of wonder and discovery they do their youthful contemporaries. Some of the people I have taken workshops with have assumed I wrote romance, children’s books, or young adult novels, that the literary short fiction I submitted to the class was not working because it was not in one of those categories. That unless I was serving them the dish they expected from me, I was doing something wrong. Some of my fellow students. Not all, thankfully.
It has been a long hard road—10 years!—but finally I have found some fellow writers who do not automatically dismiss my work after seeing my face. They are mainly women, women of all ages, from their 20s to their 60s, some are mothers, some not. The skills that helped me be a good mother to my son—patience, flexibility, constantly questioning and continuing to learn—have been immeasurably useful in my writing and the rest of my life. And even if I never get a book published (still hoping to, though!) I have had the privilege of good readers commenting on my work, talented writers asking me for advice. People whose work I admire, admiring my work. What else can we realistically hope for? I’m not sure even Jonathan Franzen has that.
Originally from Minnesota, Julie Hart has lived in London, Zurich and Tokyo and now in Brooklyn Heights. Her work can be found in Five Quarterly, Denim Skin, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Floor Plan Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Yellow Chair Review and at juliehartwrites.com.