Age Is Just a Number

by Jeff Reynolds

When I was eight, I wrote my first short story. It was bad, as the writing of an eight-year-old tends to be, full of tropes and endless misspellings. It long ago disappeared into the trash bin of my personal history. But my teacher gave me an A on the work, and I was hooked.

It will come as no surprise that, as I neared fifty, I began to wonder where the hell it had all gone wrong. What happened to the dreams of that eight-year-old boy? Had I missed the boat completely by waiting so long to pursue publishing as an adult?

I’d become a reader at a young age, devouring everything I could lay hands on. By the time I discovered the Hobbit in fourth grade, I’d become a fixture at the local library. My tastes became so well known that the librarian ordered books because she thought I might like them. Writing led naturally from that hunger for words.

In my early twenties, I took some creative writing courses in college. I got an invite to Stonecoast Writers Conference in the early 1990’s (before it became a well-respected MFA program), and spent a week with Walter Mosley as my instructor. I thought I was on the road to my dreams. I dashed off several stories and mailed them to Asimov’s and other magazines.

The inevitable rejections came.

I quit.

This is not a surprising story for many. Rejections are tough, and we’re only human. Many people give up after a few rejections. But it was worse for me. At the time, I lived wrapped in a blanket of introverted self-loathing, and I saw those rejections as an indication of the value of my worth as a writer, as well as a human being. Absolutely zero. I didn’t need further reminders of this fact beyond those already provided by my brain.

I focused on other things. I married, had kids, went back to school in my thirties to get a degree, and built a good career as a computer repair tech. I divorced, remarried, pushed people away, and made the mistakes people do when they are miserable inside. But along the way, I found help for my self-worth issues in unlikely places. I learned to, if not precisely love myself, at least be gentle with the person in the mirror.

I never entirely stopped writing. Pieces of short stories here and there. A poem while driving to work. The kernel of an idea for a novel and the first chapter of it. I’d lost the dream of publishing but couldn’t drive the writing out of my head. That stuff gets into your bloodstream, taints it with a sickness of words and metaphors until your fingers itch to bleed onto a page. I had to purge myself from time to time.

I was forty-four when I decided to pursue publishing again. By then I’d developed a thick enough skin to handle rejections. I was no longer that depressed young adult, sure he had no value. I knew my worth as a person. I’d gained confidence.

I sat down on November 1st of 2011 and began my first NaNoWriMo, penning what would become the novel I’d started fifteen years earlier. After 55,000 words, I trunked it. It was terrible, and I knew it. Two more years passed before my current wife, reading some of the pieces I’d worked on, encouraged me to try again.

I re-wrote the novel and started querying it. I penned a story, submitted it. Then a few more stories. I read everything I could about writing better prose, improving plotting and scenes, building strong characters. A dozen stories later, and there were still no sales.

I began to think perhaps I’d started too late. It worried me, that idea. I’d set fifty as a cutoff for pushing myself on the writing. I’d been getting up early every day to make time for it. With no results to show, this idea of age as problematic to a writing career weighed on me.

But I submitted an application to Viable Paradise not long after I turned fifty, and was accepted. That was the validation I’d been needing. Going to VP helped me decide to continue writing and trying to get published. My classmates have become close friends as well, and I cherish the mutual support we provide each other.

I came home and edited the stories that had been workshopped at Viable Paradise. Sometime around then, form rejections gave way to personal rejections. Personal rejections became short listings. A year after VP, I sold my first story to Andromeda Spaceways, one of the two that I’d workshopped there.

This summer I sold two more, both at pro-rates, and became a member of SFWA. At fifty-two, things finally feel like they’re on track. Age was not the impediment I’d believed. In reality, age liberated me from the brain weasels of my youthful self-hatred.

The truth is that you’re never too old to pursue a dream. Sometimes it takes longer to develop the skin necessary to weather rejections. You realize you have value. You are worthy. And story rejections are no reflection on you as a person. But we have to learn that in our own way, our own time.

Every spring I work on short stories. In the summer and fall, I work on novels. I’m fifty-two, and I’m a writer, and now I’m a published author of short stories. In time, I’ll sell a novel. And the eight-year-old version of me in my head will be shyly holding a handful of sheets of paper, words written in scrawling pencil upon the pages, a large, red letter A at the top, smiling as he realizes dreams come true.

It takes some of us longer to get there. Don’t let age hold you back. Let your eight-year-old you out into the world to share their stories.

But edit them carefully, because that kid can’t spell worth a damn.

•••

Jeff is a writer whose work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine and the forthcoming Common Bonds Anthology of aromantic fiction. Andromeda Spaceways Magazine and the forthcoming Common Bonds Anthology of aromantic fiction. He is a graduate of Viable Paradise writer’s workshop, and he holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Simulation and Digital Entertainment. He works for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, home of New Horizons and Parker Solar Probe, and lives in Maryland with his wife, some kids that presumably belong to them, and a dog named Cooper. All cats living in the household shall remain nameless because calling on them opens a portal to purgatory.

5 Responses

  1. Bettina Stahl

    Thank you. Your words about writing in your youth and in your early 20’s resonated with me. I admire you for doing the work and finally pursuing your dream. Thank you for writing this piece that lets me know that I am never out of the game unless I take myself out.

    I am 53 . I am participating in my 10th Nanowrimo. Every year I quit somewhere after 2 weeks. I become convinced that no one wants to read my stories and that they are pointless. Yet, year round, I find myself telling stories to my friends and even strangers. (As we age we have even more, and more interesting stories to tell.) So I know I have it in me to produce good work. This year I am determined to persist in writing every day, making that habit. I know I can do this and have something to offer.

    Thank you again,

    Bettina Stahl
    Pittsburgh, PA

    1. Jeff Reynolds

      I hope you do, Bettina. I’m glad you found the essay relatable and it’s given you some motivation, that’s what I had hoped for. And I hope you can find a way to meet your goals. Writing every day is tough, but it’s definitely a great habit to get into.

  2. Marc A. Criley

    The last bit of creative writing I did in my youth was as a college junior. Thirty-plus years later, wending towards the end of a successful software development career, I decided to try writing again–at 53. Two years later I sold my first semi-pro story, and then one to a pro market a few months after that. In the few years since then there’s been another half dozen sales, and now thoughts of a novel are whirling about my head.

    So seconding this, you’re never too old to start writing.

  3. Brian K. Lowe

    I started writing when I was 16. I sold my first story when I was 45. I’m now a SFWA member, and a novelist. Any writer will tell you that writing a story takes as long as it needs to. Sometimes that first story just needs a few decades.

  4. Steve McGrew

    I was always an avid reader but never thought about writing. When I got on the internet in 1997 I started writing, simply because web access included hosting. My Quake site became popular. Unlike most writers, I never thought I’d be a writer. I was almost fifty.
    I’ve since self published seven books. Still waiting for the short story acceptance from magazines, although I’ve come close. Still struggling.

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