How Old is Too Old? Darren Shan’s Advice to Writers
I receive a lot of letters and emails from young fans who want to be writers, but a while ago I was sent the following by a somewhat older budding author:
I want to become a writer, but turning 31 in 21 days is freaking me out. I feel like I’m too old. Any advice for someone who’s starting off late in this game?
That email made me smile. I turned 40 this year, yet I’m still one of the younger authors on the circuit of book festivals. It reminded me how we view time differently depending on our age. As a teenager, days often dragged, and it felt like life was interminable. In my thirties I became very aware of time speeding up, and now it seems like I’m hurtling through life far too quickly, days disappearing behind me every time I blink.
In a fast-moving world, our dreams often out-pace us. At 31, if you have not played football in the Premiership, or been in a chart-topping band, your chance has almost surely passed you by. Want a stab at breaking the record for the 100 metre sprint? Too late. Want to become a brain surgeon? Sorry, you should have started 10 years ago.
Writing, thankfully, is a dream you can set out in pursuit of at almost any point in your life. It’s actually a pursuit better suited to the more mature, since it requires a lot of thought, patience and isolation. Writing involves stepping back from life and recording your observations about it, but when you’re young you should be too busy living to take a break from it. In your 20s you should be dashing around the place, having all sorts of wonderful or dreadful experiences, sampling the endless delights that the world has to offer. When you start to slow down in your 30s or 40s (or 50s or 60s or…) you’ll have plenty of time to settle back, put your feet up and ponder.
I’m one of those rare writers who did it the other way. I threw myself into writing at a very young age, and made the breakthrough in my mid-20s. But that’s because I was a shy, lonely young man, who found it easier to write than to live. If I could go back and do things differently, I’d tell my younger self to take a decade off, have fun, travel around the world, be brave and bite into the pie of life, taking the sour along with the sweet. Even if you’re not producing anything, you’re storing up material that will stand you in good stead further down the line.
I think every true writer knows when the time is right to write, because you feel irresistibly drawn to it. You get to a point where it’s not enough to dream idly of being a writer — you feel compelled to actually write. It’s not that it suddenly becomes easy, that you wake up one day eagerly rubbing your hands together and looking forward to cutting yourself off from the world for long stretches and dealing with all the self-doubt that is a writer’s lot. But you accept that writing involves sacrifice, and you reach a stage where you are prepared to make that sacrifice in order to realise your dream.
At 31, you’re not late starting in the game. In fact my advice would be to have a good long think about it, and wonder if you might not rather start at 41, or 61, or 81. Because life can be more fun if you have something to look forward to, and with writing, you can go on looking forward to it indefinitely. When the legs have packed up, and you can only croak when you try to sing, you can still cling to the dream of telling stories, because age is no barrier in the realm of the imagination. If you want to be a writer, you’re never too old to dream.
- Darren Shan