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Nothin’ But a Number?

May 21, 2010

In an awesome collision of one of my favorite blogs and the online writing folk I stalk so faithfully, Jezebel posted yesterday about “teen phenom” Steph Bowe. Steph’s original blog post on the subject is titled “Does age matter in publishing?”.

Steph is 16. Her debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, comes out in September. And yes, that does indeed flood me with equal parts “way to go, Steph!” and “way NOT to go, Katelyn.”

That, of course, is the point of all this online chatter. Many of the Jezebel commenters seem simultaneously excited about Steph’s terrific achievement and regretful that they didn’t achieve similar heights when they were teenagers. “Jealousy” is a pretty harsh word — and one that would be horribly unfair to Steph if used — but it’s understandable to feel twinges of remorse and disappointment when confronted with someone so successful at such a young age. Those sentiments are only heightened when that someone is successful in “your” field. A 16-year-old winning an international science fair won’t tug on a writer’s heartstrings the same way a 16-year-old with a publishing deal will. It’s difficult to avoid comparing yourself to a “teen phenom” — and often even more difficult to avoid feeling that you’ve come up short.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is the reaction — expressed by many on Jezebel, including the author of the article — of retroactive gratitude for never being published that young. The general feeling, though often rather more eloquently expressed, seems to be one of “man, my writing SUCKED back then.” Repeat mentions are made of gaining deeper understandings of the world, learning to write for more than the fame and novelty factor of being a young author, and having more time to simply study the craft.

To her credit, Steph is quick to counter the idea that youth and poor writing necessarily go hand in hand, and publishing history is happy to back her up. Carson McCullers wrote The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter — which Time named one of the 100 best English-language novels — when she was 23. The second-bestselling YA book of all time, The Outsiders, was written by S.E. Hinton when she was 17.

As someone who recently spent several hours sifting through old papers, however, I understand the gut reaction. The majority of my writing from before college ranges from just-barely palatable to downright laughable. And so I’m a bit torn. Part of me wonders if the “thank goodness I wasn’t published that young!” response is one crafted to mask remorse. If we can in some way justify our past regrettable (in)actions, after all, memories of them tend to sting less. The other part of me agrees with the sighs of relief, and happily files away my old writing in a storage box.

I’m certain of one thing, though: all of me is impressed by Steph and other young writers so determined to pursue their dreams.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2010 10:43 am

    You know, I think well-nigh everyone feels embarrassment looking at old work, whether it’s from when they were a teen or in college or just from a few years back in general. I think that’s just part of creating- one of the best parts is growing and getting better, but that means you’ll almost always look back at something old and think, “how could I make something that bad?”

    So I agree with both the idea that youth and poor writing don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and with the idea that I and many people would be mortified if our teenage work had gained exposure. And I imagine that a few years from now I’ll be looking at my college work thinking, “wait, I let people see that? What’s the matter with me!”

    • May 22, 2010 10:55 am

      That’s a great point — it’s not necessarily that teenage work is objectively “bad,” but that we’re (hopefully!) always growing and improving, rendering our older creations relatively embarrassing. Thanks for sharing your insight!


  1. Interview With Steph Bowe! « TWADDLE OR ANYTHING

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