Even Cynics Grow Old

“No, that is the great fallacy: the wisdom of old men.
They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”
—Ernest Hemingway, A FAREWELL TO ARMS

My first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant at a small book packaging company. I was fresh faced, a go-getter, and the only one in the office who knew how to work the computer. I have such a clear memory of my first week at work, when one of the senior editors barged into my office, saying, “Wait, is it true? Were you really born after the White Album?” In truth, I was born about five months before the album came out, but none of us knew that because Google had not yet been invented to let us know, so I became “the kid younger than the White Album.” (Note to younger readers: an album is what predated cassette tapes. Cassette tapes are what predated CDs. CDs are what we listened to music on before digital streaming; please don’t ask me what the White Album was.) I was the youngest one in the office by a whole heck of a lot. And I milked it for all it was worth.

When you’re young, it’s not that you think you have all the time in the world. It’s that you know it, because there is no other reality. You can’t even conceive of a time when you are not the youngest in the room. In that vein of misguided youth and innocence, I always thought I’d publish a book. I simply assumed it would happen sooner than later.

But then age creeps up on you. In 1998, I went to work at Amazon.com. I was 29 years old. People were amazed that someone as old as I would work at a start-up. The production team, with their blue hair and pierced septums, looked in wonder at someone as wizened as I. And I bought into it. “Wow, I’m really old. I better get writing.” And I did. But without a plan, sporadically, and it would take months and months to finish a single short story. But I was proud of each story and each one reflected who I was in that moment. I wanted to write a novel, but I wasn’t ready. I was still honing my skills.

I was definitely old when I went into a grocery store in Seattle at the age of 33 and bought beer without the checkout boy carding me. I may have gotten just a tad bit irate. In a voice that was certainly not my indoor-voice, I said, “Your sign says you card under 30!”

He looked at me carefully. He had to have been about 16. “Are you under 30?”

“No,” I yelled. “I’m 33. But I do not look 33! I don’t look a day over 26 and you should have carded me!”

“Um,” he asked, looking around for help. “Can I see your i.d.?”

“Too late!” I said, grabbing my beer and leaving in a huff.

The realization that maybe I wasn’t as young as I thought (or as young as I thought I looked) began to take a firmer hold. No longer could I make the “Writers Under 30” list. I had carelessly assumed that somehow things would just work out on their own. But they wouldn’t. The novel wouldn’t just happen. I needed to write it.

Dorothy Parker
“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”  —Dorothy Parker

Once age starts to sneak up on you, it doesn’t stop. So at 33 I attempted my first NaNoWriMo novel. But though I hit 50,000 words, I didn’t have a novel I could show the world. The novel was a thinly disguised autobiography, until the end when my character did what I had always wish I had done (how fun to re-create your own life but with a braver, more confident you). The novel was the novel I need to write then, but I knew it wasn’t a publishable novel. So I did NaNoWriMo again. Now I had a second novel that was only a slightly more polished version of my life. And it was definitely not publishable.

After those two novels, my biggest production was my son. And then my daughter. With children came a need to focus. My time was so limited that I forced myself to work on a novel from start to finish, and it was time to use all that practice and all the lessons learned from those crap novels to move outside of my own life and to write about a character that was completely separate from me. A lo and behold, over the course of many years, I finished a novel. I found my agent. I revised. I knew the book would never be published in time to make the “Writers Under 40” list, but I could definitely hit the “Writers Under 45” list. Until, of course, it didn’t sell.

A year from now you'll wish you had started todayAs I’ve mentioned, writing that second novel was near impossible. I kept procrastinating. I made myself completely busy with my kids and volunteer work and I was just so beat up and devastated by that rejection of my first novel. But one day, I—the total cynic, the one who rolls her eyes at mush, who can’t stand inspirational quotes of the day, who thinks unless it was said by a writer at the Algonquin Table, it’s not worth repeating—read a trite quote, a total platitude that changed it all for me. Seriously. I’m embarrassed to even admit this. But when I was feeling down, I found a quote (and truth be told, I found it on a weight loss site) that put everything into place for me: “A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today.” If only I had started my second novel a year earlier. Even six months earlier. If I had started then, my novel would have been complete, or at least close. I realized at that moment, Damn it, six months from now, I don’t want to be novel-less.

I hadn’t grown wiser. I had grown more careful, protecting my future. Wouldn’t it be nice if a year from that moment, the novel was done? So I sat my tuchus in the chair and I wrote. And I finished the novel.

In retrospect, my debut novel came at the only time that it could have come. All those years I was writing, but I couldn’t have written this book any sooner. Like my previous novels, MODERN GIRLS is a product of who I am, at this moment in time. I’m excited about that. This book wasn’t in me ten years ago. This book was written when I needed to write it.

Look, I never expected to be the oldest one on the room. And I’m certainly not. You can find plenty of lists of writers who debuted over the age of 40. I’m in good company. But I’m not the wunderkind either. I’m now the one exclaiming, “Wait, is it true? You were born after the movie Pretty in Pink came out?”

Yes, it would have been nice to be on a “Writers Under 30” list. Or even “Writers Under 40.” But it didn’t happen. If there’s a “Writers Under 50” list somewhere, let me raise my hand to be placed on it. But my age is meaningless. What matters is, I wrote the novel I wanted to write. And that sounds great at any age.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 8 Comments

  1. The beauty of writing is that you don’t really age out. Imagine if you wanted to be a gymnast? BTW, I’ll be 46 when my debut finally hits shelves. And I no longer get carded anywhere. Feeling ya.

    1. First of all, congrats on your upcoming debut! Second of all, it should be a law that everyone gets carded. Recently I went to a bar in NYC and they carded me along with everyone else. Made my night, even though I couldn’t be mistaken for 21 in a pitch black room.

  2. I don’t think that quote is embarrassing! It’s an important reminder and an effective motivator. It reminds me of an anecdote (though now I have source amnesia). The basic gist was that someone said, “I can’t start college now, I’ll be 35 by the time I graduate.” And someone else pointed out, “Well, how old will you be in four years if you don’t graduate?” A little corny, maybe. But also sobering and inspiring.

    I love your perspective on writing the perfect novel for where you are at this point in time. It can be so easy to pretend you need to do everything as quickly as possible, as soon as possible, but that attitude doesn’t take into perspective all the depth and wisdom and energy and creativity you gain at different stages in life.

    1. I like that anecdote. I think it perfectly sums up the “You’ll wish you had started now” idea. And you are absolutely right! Things only happen in your life when you’re read to make them happen and when it’s the right time for them to happen!

  3. This is so true, and the interesting (and comforting) thing is that every writer over 40 whom I’ve met thinks the same way. They wrote the novel that was born of the experiences they had, and they’d had more experiences, so they wrote a better book.

  4. I was going to make rhe “gymnast” comment, but Ella got there ahead of me. 🙂

    Orson Welles’ theory was that artists do their best work when they’re young and when they’re old. Both youth and age bring advantages. Middle age is just what happens in the middle. 🙂

    I’m going to do a blog post about great last films — directors who really nailed it at the end.

  5. Ooh! Ooh! Is it — possible — that the weight loss site to which you refer, home of the inspirational quote in question, was — MY — weight loss site????? Because I read the quote before I read your paragraph and said, “Hey! I posted that!”

    The possibility that I had anything to do with your decision to write “Modern Girls” has me mad with joy!!!!!!

    1. I’m going to say, “Yes! Of course it was your blog!” But in all honesty, I’m not sure you had let me be privy to your blog when I started. It’s a popular quote in the weight loss community. 🙂

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