I have a birthday approaching. A birthday which places me solidly in the “late-twenties” category as opposed to “mid-twenties” or even “twenty-something.” I know, I know–I’m still just a baby. But this birthday in particular has got me thinking a lot about age, and the milestones we associate with the passing years.
Many–if not most–of the major milestones in our lives are fairly deeply entwined with our numerical ages. We all start first grade around six or seven years old. Most of us graduate high school around the age of eighteen. Then, we’re expected to leave our parents’ homes and go to college until we’re twenty-two. Then, find a job or go to graduate school. Things get less defined the older we get, but there is still a strong cohort effect–the age group we’re a part of tells us what we’re meant to be doing–or not doing–at that stage in our lives.
Now, not everybody follows this plan, nor do I think people ought to feel pressured to do what the other people their ages are doing. But it’s hard to argue that there isn’t an effect, and that effect can be deeply troubling when, for whatever reason, people don’t match up with the expectations of their cohort. A friend of mine got two masters degrees after graduating from undergrad, and even though she now attends a prestigious medical school, she often feels like she’s “fallen behind” because she’s 30 instead of the customary 23-year-old first year med student. Even my husband, who finished his PhD in record time, often feels like people don’t take him seriously because he’s a few years younger than the majority of his colleagues.
Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately?) for me, this effect is almost negligible among writers. Sure, there’s the occasional Paolini-esque phenom who becomes a NYT bestselling novelist at the age of nineteen. But to be honest, that’s the exception that proves the rule.
I came across this wonderful info graphic today that illustrates the ages at which well-known authors published their first and also their most well-known books. The results are fairly astounding. Jack Kerouac proves to be quite the prodigy–he published his first book at the ripe old age of twenty-one, and his breakthrough novel at twenty-six. But many others didn’t even begin publishing until much, much later in their lives. C. S. Lewis didn’t publish anything until he was in his thirties, and only became well-known at the age of fifty-three. J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t publish a single word until he was forty-six!
It certainly puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
I’m a competitive person, and the successes of others within my age cohort often gnaws at me. It’s hard not to compare my success, or lack thereof, to my peers, even those who aren’t a part of the literary industry. But the truth is, this kind of comparison is useless. I’ve chosen the path less traveled, and that means that external rubrics for success no longer apply to me.
No, I haven’t had anything published, and no, I certainly have not had a break-out novel to call my own. But hopefully one day that honor will be mine. And when that day comes, I can hold my head high and know that while I wasn’t the first, and I wasn’t the fastest, I did my best and kept working for my dreams.
And until then…Screw you, Kerouac. Just…screw you.