I was 25 when I published my first short story (the first I’ll claim, at any rate, and the story that would eventually lead my first book). I was 28 when I found the first line on my face.
Allow me to pause there for a moment. On this day—the day I discovered the line—I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready to go to work, and there it was: a fine curve etched around the corner of my mouth. What I remember feeling, strangely enough, was a kind of tentative delight and pride. I was in my second year of full-time college teaching, and my young looks had seemed more than once to be detrimental to my ability to win students’ respect and trust. Such a little line—and troubling, perhaps, that it seemed to have appeared basically out of nowhere—but it symbolized what I’d spent my late teens and 20s hoping to achieve: wisdom, distinction, and a legitimate claim, finally, to my nearly decade-old marriage. I’d spent years pretending I had the right to be a wife and, later, a college professor, and this line meant that I could now stop the pretending. Adulthood: I had arrived.
The delight didn’t last long. In the next couple of years, the bathroom mirror kept greeting me with surprises: drooping eyelids, a crease on the other side of my mouth to match the first. The skin on my neck began to pucker. I went out and bought eye cream and collagen cream and a tube of Retinol. For my 30th birthday, I booked myself a facial. But the creams, the facial, the various spells I cast in an attempt to stave off the inevitable, did nothing. And finally this spring, I looked in the mirror one day to see—all at once, as if I’d suffered a terrible scare in my dreams the previous night—three coarse gray hairs springing jauntily from my line of bangs. Did I smile serenely and reflect on how my hair now told the true story of my wisdom? No, I started sobbing, and I called my mother. (Proof, of course, that age and maturity do not have to go hand in hand.) Then I plucked those suckers out and flushed them down the toilet.
This is, of course, not just the story of getting older—it’s an old story, a cliché. Most of us on the flipside of 30 could tell a version of it.
But I started by mentioning that I published my first story at 25, and so bear with me as I return to this fact, considering this same trajectory of years through that other lens. My career, like my marriage, has in some ways (ways that weren’t obvious to me during the living of them) been on a fast track. Not an extraordinary fast track in the vein of, say, Karen Russell, but fast enough that the blurb on the cover of my first book credits me with “a wisdom beyond [my] years,” and I’ve been identified as a “young writer” about as often as I have a member of the other clubs to which I’ve belonged: “Kentucky writer,” “Southern writer,” or “woman writer.” The Young Writers Club is a nice one to belong to. It means your promise still exceeds the empirical evidence of the quality your output. It means, for some, getting singled out for special opportunities and designations, such as The New Yorker’s 20 under 40, Granta’s Best Young Novelists, or the NBA’s 5 under 35. Also, unlike other Young Clubs—Young Actors, for instance, or Young Popular Musicians—the literary world affords us a fairly long, leisurely membership. When I see Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney getting mocked online for trying to rock like they did when they were in their 20s, I give thanks for being part of a creative sphere that will give 91-year-old Elizabeth Spencer two standing ovations after a reading, and in which 81-year-old Alice Munro can release a short story collection to genuine awe and excitement.
But there are still some facts that can chill the blood, like these from from a 2010 New York Times essay by Sam Tanenhaus, “How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be?”:
Unsurprisingly, in youth-obsessed America, writers have often done their best work early. Melville was 32 when “Moby-Dick” was published (after the successes of “Typee” and “Omoo”). The writers of the lost generation found their voices when they were very young: Fitzgerald (28, “The Great Gatsby”), Hemingway (27, “The Sun Also Rises”). Faulkner lagged slightly behind. He had just turned 32 when “The Sound and the Fury” was published. Then again, it was his fourth novel.
Or the recent news of Philip Roth’s retirement from novel writing, including Roth’s claim, “I am seventy-eight years old, I don’t know anything anymore about America today. I see it on TV, but I am not living it anymore.”
I have different categories of fear about getting older, being a not-so-young writer. The cheapest fear is the fear of missed opportunities, the crass, scrabbling, unsavory yearnings of not the writer but the entity that is being marketed. It’s like graduating from high school without a Senior Superlative. (I didn’t get any of those, either.) If I wasn’t on someone’s Hot Young Thing list, have I missed the chance to be a Hot Not-So-Young Thing?
The more significant fear, which is the writer’s fear, is that I’m losing something, some abstract, wide-eyed audacity of the kind that got The Sound and the Fury out of Faulkner and The Sun Also Rises out of Hemingway by the time they were my age. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a better writer now than I was when I was 25. I’m writing better-crafted stories than those that appeared in Girl Trouble. I’m more purposeful, I’m smarter, and I have better habits. I’ve lived more. When I write now about the failings and pains of the body, I have some firsthand experience to cite. I’ve had time to identify some of the prejudices I took for granted then, to examine them and take them apart, and that’s a good thing, knowing that my default characters have been white, or heterosexual, because it never occurred to me to consider the perspective of a person of color or a gay person, or it did but I didn’t have the courage to try it. I wrote on this blog a while ago about how most of the stories in Girl Trouble fail the Bechdel test, or pass it on a technicality, and that’s information I’m glad I’m now armed with. Not because I want to be a more politically correct writer, but because fighting my default mode has given me new and exciting creative opportunities.
And yet perhaps there’s a downside to all this self-awareness, self-analysis. When I was a 20-something graduate writing for a workshop deadline and an audience of one professional and about a dozen other mostly young writers, I didn’t spend much time second-guessing myself and what I professed to know. I hadn’t read enough to compare my work to that of others, much less publishing writers in my peer group, and so I told stories that had been told thousands of times before as if they hadn’t, my ignorance giving me a brazen sincerity. I was so earnest! I find it hard to muster that kind of earnestness now.
The story in my first book that people seem to react most strongly to is called “Parts.” It’s a very dark story, narrated from the first-person perspective of a woman, a mother, whose only child was murdered violently by two young men, one of whom escaped prosecution. The story lingers on difficult physical details of the daughter’s suffering—the degree of burns she sustained in a fire—and takes as its literary touchstone Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, a play that is itself often cited for violence so extraordinary that it is almost inadvertently comic. I was consciously toying with that reputation, of course. In fact, the project was fairly ambitious in the sense that I was trying to write sincerely about a sensationally violent crime, using Titus as my tip of the hand but still (because I truly loved the play) making an argument for its right—and mine—to stare slack-jawed at disturbing material.
In those rare cases that I hear from a fan of Girl Trouble, “Parts” is usually the story cited as the one that made the person cry, that the person had to share with a friend or a spouse. Each time this happens, I think about the fact that the story has long been the one in the book that makes me most uneasy and even embarrassed. It’s the story that for years I didn’t have the courage to read aloud (and have still only read from a few times), that I revised heavily after the book was accepted for publication, even though my editor didn’t ask me to. The qualities about it that unsettle me are undoubtedly the ones that appeal to those who love it. It’s not worthy of this comparison, but I find myself lumping it in a category with the story “Lawns,” by Mona Simpson (published, from what I’ve been able to piece together, when she was 27), which, when I was teaching from The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories, was the selection I could depend upon to hook my raw, earnest 20-year-old charges.
I don’t think I could write a story like “Parts” now. (I could barely write it then.) The volume is turned up too high. The version of me who wrote that story was young, strong, and relatively unencumbered. Her father hadn’t yet had a heart attack. She didn’t have any physical markers, however small, of her own impending mortality. That me had an easier time connecting with big-scale, Shakespearean tragedy than with the everyday sadness of a gray hair. That me had more in common with the teenager I’d been, smoking cigarettes and swinging at night with her best friend at the city park, talking in lofty, dramatic fashion about the loss of childhood, than with the woman who is about to see an orthopedist about her aching hips.
Which is not to say “Parts” is a bad story, or an immature story. And that’s the sadness here, the question: If that’s a very good story, and I can no longer write it, am I still any good?
Well, I’m not getting on here to announce my retirement, and so I assume I can be, in a different way, and that an evolution in writing style is a think to be celebrated and not lamented. I can miss the writer capable of a story like “Parts” just as I miss my young firm neck, but I’ll ultimately be happy to pass my Young Writer mantle along to some other whippersnapper, with the hope that by the time I do I’ll have settled into a rich next writing phase with its own rewards.