Too old to write? Indulging in a little writerly insecurity.

From time to time I’ll see a flurry of comments cross my social media pathways, complaining and commiserating about rejections and the frustration that comes from having one’s literary labours unappreciated routinely. I have also received a few rejections myself of course, but the more unfortunate reality is that I have rarely written and completed anything worth submitting unsolicited to any publication—and certainly nothing that would come close to resembling a manuscript to set loose in the world in search of a publisher. For critical work I always pitch first, but even then my rate of production has dwindled to exactly two reviews last year and one this year which has yet to see the light. Add a few small somewhat poetic efforts and a commissioned essay for a book that is supposed to come out sometime next year and that’s about the sum extent of my writing outside this space.

So, while I have submitted and pitched little, I have certainly written a lot of rejection letters since joining 3:AM Magazine almost two years ago. At certain times of the year, and this is one, I shudder every time Gmail pings on my iPad because the submissions and pitches roll in at a steady rate. I debate acceptances and agonize over rejections. I do enjoy editing, and I think I am a good and respectful editor, but because I edit for a publication that defines its own rules by essentially refusing to have any hard and fast guidelines, I have often opted to take on ambitious younger writers with what I think is a cool and original idea—maybe one they’d be hard pressed to sell elsewhere—even if it means that a lot of time may need to go into making that idea come to life. If I worked on a clock it would be reckless to allow accept such projects. But I’m not, so what is costing?

Quite honestly, I’m afraid it’s beginning to cost any pretensions to a writing life I my have ever entertained. I’ve never seen writing as a way to make a living, all the more power to those who need to, but at this point in my life it’s about trying to tell a story. My own.

However, I am beginning to wonder for whom and for what.

In early March I came home from a wonderful month in India with a notebook full of essay ideas. I felt I had turned an important corner in my own journey of self-acceptance. I carried a renewed sense of personal value. Within weeks a crisis erupted at 3:AM which was not only a very stressful lesson in the speed at which intolerance—in multiple directions—can spiral out of control and the damage it causes. I stayed on but with a greatly increased workload. Add to that, a difficult spring spiralling through grief, revisited traumas, family stress, and mental health challenges, and, at this point, all of those essay ideas sit exactly as I left them. Unexplored.

The one thing I am pleased with is this blog (or literary site as I call it when I want to sound serious). I’m not super prolific and my reading rate has been dismally slow, but I have written a couple of longer essayish meditations and, although I no longer review everything I read, I tend to treat the reviews a do write with more critical attention—equivalent to what I might seek to publish elsewhere. I am aware that I have a significant readership and that many of these reviews, especially if publishers pick them up and link to them, attract traffic and readership as well, if not better, than many lit sites. I am extraordinarily selective when I do accept a book for review and I feel no obligation to finish or write about a book that’s not working for me on some level—which is not to say one has to love a book to engage with it on a critical level, but there must be something of interest to talk about in a meaningful way. However, that’s another debate altogether. It’s my space, here I set the rules.

I can even engage in a little self-indulgent navel gazing like this when I need to.

Thing is, to go back to where I started, I not only see writers measuring their lives in accumulated rejections, I also see writers within my little network publishing. Books, maybe, which I don’t begrudge anyone, but also on literary sites and journals—and sometimes at a regular pace. Which leads me to think other writers have a collection of finished, or nearly finished, stories, essays, and poems sitting in file folders, virtual or otherwise, or being tossed to the vagaries of unpredictable editors like myself at all times. Or they write constantly.

This past June I started a daily writing practice with the encouragement of a dear friend and mentor, Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. The first night I write a few prosaic words to myself about goals. The second night I emptied a couple of pages of anger and frustration until I nearly made myself physically ill. I’ve written about grief and loss, rehearsed a number of blog posts and essay fragments (like this one you are reading now), and at times I have used it as a journal to record my thoughts, activities, and goals. When all inspiration fails I have switched to the Devanagari keyboard and sputtered away in my rudimentary Hindi. I have revisited my entries several times, retracing my way through the accumulated pages, gathering words and ideas for use elsewhere; reminding myself how far I have travelled emotionally these past few months.

But still I am left with the questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing towards?

I can’t help but wonder if I am simply too old to start anything significant. Have I missed this train? Or rather is there just too much baggage now packed into nearly six decades and two gendered lives to unpack and make sense of? What if I do unpack it and find barely a story worth telling? Or worse, a story I cannot tell because I don’t know where it lies anymore. I am increasingly aware, as our world becomes ever more polarized on every axis—as we hunker down in our little glass houses with a pile of stones at the ready—that I look like a middle-aged white man (and I’ll admit it’s a handy façade on occasion) even if the actual truth of my being is so much more complicated and even ticks a few of the popular diversity boxes quite readily, should I want to define myself in such terms.  But, in the end, all the labels I could wear are simply part of complex real life lived.

Just like anyone else’s.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

17 thoughts on “Too old to write? Indulging in a little writerly insecurity.”

  1. Well, I have a prompt answer to the question of whether you are too old. I have been to a book launch today, and the author is 89. Her first book was published four years ago when she was 85.
    The question of who you write for or why you write is more complex: some authors write to get things off their chests, others to issue a wake-up call or to illuminate for others some aspect of life or experience. Some just have an irrepressible urge to use the words we have at our disposal to create something new; they just like writing and can’t deny it. I think you are one of these…
    Something Ros said today at the launch may resonate. Her first book was a memoir of her family and it was as truthful as she could make it; this one she said was because she wanted to write about herself, I rather than we; me rather than us. But she subtitled the book ‘Memories with Licence’ and she gave her character the name Rosa rather than her own name because she wanted to be free to invent. It had taken her a long time to be able to look back on certain aspects of her life, and while you can’t change things, in creative non-fiction (or memories with licence) you can imagine how things that were wrong could be put right. She wrote the book in the third person, moving the time frames around so that the book wasn’t linear. Instead it was a kind of time travel which offered her an avenue for redemption. This makes her book sound very serious, and as if she has sinned grievously, but in fact her ‘sins’ are only the ordinary human failings that we all have and the finished book is a light-hearted look at life.
    I am the last person to give advice to any writer, because the only thing I know how to do is write book reviews, but perhaps if you stepped back and imagined another Joe and told only the parts of his life that you want to, from a distance that you felt comfortable with, and imagined a different past from the one that troubles you, you might find writing to be the satisfying experience that you want it to be. Don’t worry about publication, write it first. Let it mellow.
    You do have an important story to tell and you have a gift with words. I think that if you try not to be perfectionist as you write, you’d probably feel great as the words roll onto the page, and it would always be something to look forward to, the day you finish it. Like many authors, you could publish some parts of it here on your blog if you felt comfortable doing that.
    I think your ‘significant readership’ would soon show you the value such writing would have…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have struggled with content—vulnerability and such—but I think that I find poetry or more poetic form as a good means of stepping back from that content. I think it’s more a question of self-worth and the value of putting the time into the writing. As much as I know this is not a vanity project, I always worry it will seem that way. I think there’s plenty of popular memoir and auto-fiction out there now that leans in that direction and I have, from the time I was young, wanted to avoid being thought of as a overly self-focused, you know. Like the adage “The person who’s all wrapped up in themselves makes a very small package.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But that’s daft, Joe. Why shouldn’t your writing be worthwhile and worth your time? People all over the world are writing, some of it’s self-indulgent maybe, but a lot of it’s not. Anyway it’s a private activity that hurts no one, and if you enjoy it, why not? No one is judging you except yourself, and you are being much too hard on yourself.

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  2. No, I don’t think you’re too old – far from it. With age comes experience and you certainly have plenty of experiences in your life to draw on. Your posts offer much to contemplate and much to provoke thought, and I for one value them very much even if I don’t always comment. As for where your writing goes, that’s a more complex thing as the publishing world appears to me very fragmented nowadays. Maybe it’s a case of deciding where you want to focus your work and finding a niche for it. But then, I only write on my blog (and a personal journal) and so my writing at the end of the day is for me! Do please keep writing Joe – you obviously have such a talent for it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen. I think we’re the same age, so of course I’m not too old. 🙂 My anxiety does reflect that 30 under 30, 40 under 40, etc kind of focus that excludes older writers. Even protest against that limit, such as Joanna Walsh’s campaign focuses on women and marginalized populations. Although my name and appearance say something different I could count myself in on both those counts, but I feel as a man (no matter my gendered history) it’s important to respect that there are a multitude of voices that deserve to be heard. But a call for submissions from “male and male-identified” writers would be greeted with derision. That’s part of my frustration I suppose.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for that. It is unusually honest, modest, and thoughtful. It takes a lot to post things so unguarded and free of self-promotion. I’m 63 at the moment, and working — like so many other people! — on a long novel. Occasionally I take a break for a week or two and work on a couple of essays that I’ve found sustaining: “Why I Don’t Try to Meet Other Writers,” and “The Idea of Writing Just for Yourself.” I doubt I’ll be placing those anywhere anytime soon! But there’s a lot to be said for both positions. Marilynne Robinson, Bernhard, Pynchon, and of course Beckett are among the many writers who decided, in different ways, that writing does not require social contact with writers. Social media are social, so the writers who don’t go out of their way to fraternize come to seem rare or even pathological.
    As for the second essay: it is entirely justifiable, even if it’s extremely unusual, to write for yourself, without the continuous hope of readers. It’s arguably the only realistic attitude. Thinking that way changes my perspective, and makes me think of my own writing as an ongoing process of learning to read: the more I write, the better I read, and not just the other way around. Writing, I find, also makes me more open and attentive to people’s stories: it has amazing unquantifiable effects on my life, which I can measure without thinking of fame & fortune.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your response. I have found that meeting other writers through social media plus writing and editing for online sites has been essential. I have no close friends let alone a community of writers or even readers in my hometown. I’m an uneasy fit. But I believe one needs to have even one reader, especially as a essay/memoirist. Fame and fortune are not the issue, but I lived with a story I could not talk about for most of my life, one that I need to attempt to tell to reach whoever needs or wants to hear it. Strangely, the response to my honest personal writing is always astonishingly positive, but somehow that freezes me further.

      Best wishes for your novel writing. If I have trouble committing to the worth of my own life, I have endless respect for those who can devote themselves to a world and people they create for the time it takes to write fiction!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Succinct as ever, my friend. I assume you are answering the title question. If you are my example, getting away from 3:AM will ultimately be essential if I am to seriously write anything. Congratulations on the forthcoming book!

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      1. I didn’t want to respond with the usual, so went with the simplest response!

        There’s a bit to unpack here, Joe. Overcoming some of the doubts will help a lot. You knock out reviews with enviable regularity and (seeming) ease here, once you find a way to redirect that verve and energy into what you really want to write about, you’ll be on your way. This particular reader is waiting patiently. The 3:AM thing – detected a bit of that frustration in this. Without going in to it too much here, only hold onto it for as long as it’s useful. You’ll know when that’s reached its limit.

        And thank you!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I wonder if anyone ever feels confident about writing, quantity and/or quality? I don’t think it’s ever too late but maybe it gets harder to make a place, real and compelling, in which to do the work on a regular basis (whatever that means). You certainly have a distinctive and elegant style and I would happily read whatever you write.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m late reading/responding to this, so I’m glad that so many others were more prompt and also encouraging. What you have to offer to the broader conversation is valuable and you are not likely as alone as you might think. Someone else might really need to hear/read the very thing you might be working to say/write.

    Not long ago I mentioned (in very broad and vague terms, not naming either you or the mag) the difficulty you have had, finding a balance between editorial work and your personal writing work, to a young friend who has recently moved into an editorial capacity and hasn’t worked on anything since: I imagine it must be a common struggle (as the commenter above emulates too perhaps).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Marcie. The balance is very difficult to find and it has become worse. You will be happy to know that in a week I will be bound for India again, this time for six weeks. Hopefully some writing will come out of it. I only take an iPad so editing for the magazine is not possible! A little more reading time will be welcome too.

      Liked by 1 person

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