On being published as a teenager, and regret

Sunday, May 4, 2014

I have often heard people say 'I'm so glad I wasn't published as a teenager' or 'I was a terrible writer when I was a teenager'. Which is valid, which is fine, but which is very irritating when they project that experience onto young people, generalising with 'teenagers are rubbish writers' or 'you'll regret being published as a teenager because you are crap/vulnerable/unprofessional'. This is something I hear from people who were not published as kids, generally speaking. This is something I hear less and less of, fortunately - people treat me enormously differently now than they did five years ago, although I hardly behave differently - but I still think it's a really curious viewpoint, and one that discourages young people from putting themselves out there. Kids don't need to be reminded that they're crap as much as you think they do. I think young people being arrogant about their abilities is not a matter of overconfidence but something borne out of deep insecurity, which is what continually putting down their skills and capacities is going to generate.

I don't think the narrative of 'you will regret having your early work published' is necessarily true, either. I think irrespective of your age when you start putting work out, you're going to experience the dread of criticism, the fear of people thinking your work is stupid and you're a rubbish writer, and as time passes and you grow and evolve as a writer/human being, you're going to cringe at what you wrote in the past (hell, I cringe at what I'm writing in the present. I'm cringing at this. I cannot spell cringing for the life of me). There is no way to avoid this. There is no age or number of words or hours of writing experience at which you are a whole and perfect writer of absolute confidence, who will win awards and write a bestseller and find universal adoration. It's a journey without end. You are always imperfect.

People will enjoy your early work and/or your later work and it's all going to be pretty random, because that's what our reality is like. You enjoy writing, you write as well as you can, you attempt to contribute whatever it is you're trying to contribute, you negotiate publishing and promotion and building a career as best you can. You will still make mistakes, you will still cringe at yourself, and your age is not necessarily going to advantage or disadvantage you. Vulnerability is unavoidable. You cannot skip being a beginner. You cannot guarantee perfection.

Additionally, people who have not published a book imagine publishing a book as this event that occurs devoid of context, some odd sort of add-on to your life. In my experience it isn't. Being published and writing professionally has hugely shaped my life. I've done a ton of speaking at festivals and in schools, I've met and learnt from many other writers and readers and kids and teachers, I've learnt a great deal from working with an editor and with a publishing house. These have helped me immensely as a writer. I would not be the same 20-year-old had I not done these things. I also have money, and the freedom some savings affords you is extraordinary. I can pay for my education. I can dedicate life hours to writing I may have had to spend in a day job. I can travel. My aim of owning my own home is marginally less absurd, despite the ongoing absurdity of property prices.

My life is much richer for being an author. I've made some poor business decisions, I cringe at things I've written, and people wrote me off as a silly kid at times (and, look, they'll probably continue to) - but I would've had awkward and embarrassing experiences anyway. I would've struggled and been confused and been silly entering a new field age 25, 35, 45 (having not been these ages yet, I base this on older people I know, who are more knowledgable and experienced, absolutely, but still self-conscious and flawed and human). If I wrote Girl Saves Boy today, it would not be the same book. If I wrote All This Could End today, it too would be different. But fixating on things you can no longer change is pointless, and in no dimension does a perfect version of those books (or any other) exist.

Girl Saves Boy was published almost four years ago, and I continue to get emails from people reading and enjoying it, including one the other week from a Year 12 English teacher who decided to set it as a text for the school's lunchtime YA book club (and who changed one of the English units to a creative writing one, partly inspired by seeing me speak at Brisbane Writers Fest). And that's wonderful. I've been very, very fortunate and I've also worked really, really hard, and I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities and experiences and I've learnt a great deal from all of it. To regret all that would be silly. To focus on the past and the flaws of my earlier work would prevent me from writing the next novel.

It is my sincerest belief that if you enjoy or feel compelled to write, you should, irrespective of your age or profession or location. If you'd like to publish, you should pursue that. If you'd rather not, your words are still worthwhile. Creative expression is a splendid thing. But don't quit writing or put it off out of fear of not being good enough, or that you will hugely regret sharing your work because 'teenagers are crap writers'. You are not less than by virtue of your age or any other factor. You still ought to write your stories if you feel a drive to. Your writing doesn't have to be serious and profound to be meaningful. 'Easy, enjoyable' reads still connect with people, still bring something to the table. I'm not going to be Hilary Mantel or Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling, or even E. L. James for that matter, and you're not going to be either, but the world of fiction has room for a lot of voices, including young ones, including older ones. And guess what? You can like your own books, flawed as they are. Even if they were written when you were fifteen.
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