‘Writing is not about youth but about spark’
Over 30 isn’t over the hill. Rosemary Jenkinson offers not-so-young writers some wit and wisdom on how to be on top of the world
Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that he could create anywhere, explaining, “the only good place to work is your head” – but we all know what he did to his head in the end. Photograph: Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I’ve noticed recently that letters to young writers are becoming fashionable, for example, Colum McCann’s forthcoming book. But, in my case, I didn’t get my first story published till I was 30 and my first collection launched till I was 37. I wasn’t so much a late starter as a late knuckle-downer. So, this piece is for the not-so-young writers who should still go for it and make an impact on the world. Here are my pearls of wisdom (hopefully not paste):
1) If you can’t be in your twenties, write with the spontaneity you had in your twenties. Theatre and publishing worship either precocious young writers or mute dead ones. I missed the moment of being a publisher’s dream myself but it’s still possible to do well because literature, contrary to what many believe, is not about youth but about spark.
2) Commit yourself wholeheartedly to writing; free yourself from past ties and habits. When I came home from years of teaching abroad, I chucked all my teaching material in the bin so that I could never go back to it. It was the best thing I ever did.
In my view, if you write every day you’re a certified graphomaniac, you’re OCD, you’re addicted to the physical act and not the real, spiritual one
3) Cultivate your own mythology. Spoof a bit. You’re a fiction spinner so there’s nothing wrong with extending a bit of fiction to your biography. A lot of writers come up with the old cliche of having known they were destined for greatness at the age of seven when they wrote a superb existential work about a flying tortoise or the like. I was born to be a writer too but I knew even earlier than they did – I came out my mother’s womb with a pen in my hand, writing a poem on her thigh as I went!
4) Don’t worry if you can’t get an agent. I had one from a big agency once and he didn’t even answer my emails. It’s bad enough being ignored by editors and theatre directors without being ignored by your agent as well. If you write well and put your own energies into contacting people, you should be able to generate some success.
5) Write when you have something to write about. It’s common to read articles where authors say that they write every single day, making the rest of us feel inadequate and guilty. Perhaps they do write every day – if a shopping list counts. I just don’t buy the every day claim – so it means you’ll never have a hangover day, never be sick, never go off on an impulsive, hedonistic road-trip? In my view, if you write every day you’re a certified graphomaniac, you’re OCD, you’re addicted to the physical act and not the real, spiritual one. These people don’t need a publisher – they need a counsellor.
6) Try to make sure your surroundings are conducive to your work. I appreciate that it’s really difficult when you have a family. I live alone by design. I house-shared up to the age of 40, because of economic reasons, but I should have made more effort earlier to sort out my own peaceful space. Some writers love to boast that they can write anywhere: in a cafe, in a park – some can probably write underwater in a cage with sharks circling. But again it smacks of the cultivated self-image. JK Rowling writing in a café with a baby = potential mythology? Hemingway famously claimed that he could create anywhere, explaining, “the only good place to work is your head” – but we all know what he did to his head in the end.
7) Write quietly; live outrageously. Don’t live your life vicariously through your writing. I mean, of course it can be pretty tiring having group sex and/or killing people of a morning but, by the evening when you’ve set aside the page, you should try to go out and cut loose. After a few days of writing I am as happy to see people as if I’ve been marooned on a desert island for a month. If you go out and have wild times, you’ll come back and attack the page like you’re tucking into a big steak (pea risotto for the vegetarians among you). The authors I most admire are the ones who are still experimenting and pushing boundaries no matter what age they are. Look at Bukowski who didn’t fully get into his stride with his ultra-cool tales of womanising and drinking until his fifties. Look at Aldous Huxley who took mescaline in his late fifties and explored it in The Doors of Perception. Contrast this with many contemporary Irish writers, the modern ascetics, who do their T’ai-chi and yoga classes in the evening as if writing was something you have to be fit for – all you need for writing is a couple of functioning digits.
8) It’s fine to have regrets about not having been published in the past. Regrets can be a powerful spur. Just be thrilled you’re writing now. I’m a huge Dorothy Parker fan but I would totally flip her quote, “I hate writing, I love having written” to “I love writing, I hate having written” because I am really happy during the actual writing but, when I’m finished and I look back at it, the doubts set in. I know sometimes writing’s hard but it amazes me how many authors don’t enjoy it. Perhaps it’s because they feel they have to complete massive tomes. Self-imposition destroys creativity. Just write freely. What you want. When you want. As I’ve always said, writing is the second most fun thing you can do by yourself.
Rosemary Jenkinson is artist-in-residence at the Lyric, Belfast