discussions writing & publishing

Writing, Time, Age

Some random thoughts on writing and age. But first, you’re never too old to get a book deal:

An 82-year-old grandmother is celebrating after landing a book deal for her debut novel… Myrrha Stanford-Smith, a teacher and theatre director, said she was ”gobsmacked” to be handed the three-book agreement, which saw her first work The Great Lie start appearing on shelves last week.

The trained actress, who lives in Holyhead, North Wales, has always held a passion for creative writing.She decided to see if her talent could really take off after receiving positive feedback on a short children’s story she sent in to BBC Radio Wales last summer. The Brighton-born writer secured herself a deal with publisher Honno, for a trilogy based around her swashbuckling Elizabethan hero Nick Talbot. The adventure reignites, in fictional form, the rivalry between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Perhaps it bypasses the perennial Amis riff on Ishiguruo, where “a writer’s best work is produced in their youth”, to have one’s first work published at a later stage in life.

I like to think that many writers produce their best work at an older age. DeLillo’s Underworld being an exceptional example of this – almost a thematic culmination (or perhaps this is in Point Omega). I love seeing a body of work that, over the years, spirals inward towards a writer’s set of inner truths. Then again, it goes the other way, and the same old rubbish might drift around like flotsam.

I like to think that, for the most part, we live in a fairly apologetic literary culture – debuts are bound to be rough, many say, because writing is something that improves with practice; possibly – hopefully – leading eventually towards some kind of edification later in a writer’s career. (I’ve mentioned before about people attacking young writers merely for being young, but this is a different thing entirely.) Reviewers generally forgive the problems of debuts, and that’s something I’m glad about.

So aging allows us deeper contemplation; we have better perspective, more experiences, even – and more time to think about those experiences – and one would hope that reflects in writing. Then again, there’s something to be said for the youthful energies of a debut, that keeness to get across a set of different ideas or style. To be recognised. As an aside: can ideas improve with practice? Perhaps, to an extent, we become better at explaining them.

And we as a community also seem so enthusiastic about the Next Big Thing, keen to see what’s new on the horizon, which freshly minted name we can attach ourselves to, though that may say more about the internet than literature. Though it should be said that literary careers are generally slow growers, books resist being produced quickly, to the internet’s rate of change, and will likely therefore resist such demands.

I wonder which of the current crop of genre writers will improve with age and still be around in fifty years? Personally, I’m investing in a course of yoga, cod liver oil capsules, and immense amounts of luck to ensure I’ll still be here annoying you all in decades to come.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

9 replies on “Writing, Time, Age”

I don’t think it’s so much that people produce their best work and then deteriorate so much as “they were of a time”.

Yesterday’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s traditionalists. The world moves on and often leaves people behind. And I think the best work comes when there’s a balance between experience and those themes that seem to resonate within the public conciousness at that point in history.

Some writers and some books are timeless but they are few and far between.

Ah, thank you Mark for choosing such a timely topic today – it being my 41st birthday.

I’ve wondered about this question. Does the age of the writer make a difference? Am I a better writer today, than I would have been ten years ago, twenty? Have I passed my peak already, without ever having gotten started? Will I have time enough, to master my craft in what is left?

Well, I take some comfort from the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa didn’t write Il Gatopardo, his one and only book, until he was nearly sixty and that Cervantes was 57 when he published the first part of Don Quixote.

The fact is I’ve been busy with other things until now: living life mostly. I’ve had half a dozen careers, traveled the world, found love, lost it, and found it again and with it, started a family. I thought of writing long before I set my hand to the keyboard of course, but I don’t know that I was ready then; not to write the kind of novels I hope to produce now.

Just as I can’t imagine not having the experiences that have shaped my life, I have only the haziest of ideas what my output would have been like before them. I’ll never know, or if I might have burned brighter, sooner. On the other had, time has without a doubt has transformed me by its slow process, making me I hope, richer and stranger.

This coming year and the ones that follow, will show the answer. For the stories that I have to tell now feel ready for the telling.


Adrian – I’d never looked at it like that. But I’ve don’t really agree with the Amis thing anyway. I think that’s interesting from an “ideas” perspective, but what of skills of the trade? You do get better the more you write, for the most part…

Daniel – I know. I should give up now.

Adelie – I would say that the young know full well the old have sex. They just don’t want to acknowledge it. 🙂

Eric – Happy birthday! I guess yes, you only have the now, and you can only really work with that. Then again, that’s the same for everything in life…

I only have personal anecdotes to share, but when I was a teenager dying of boredom at school I wrote constantly. In lessons, in the evening…I churned out stories on every available bit of paper I could find (there was a whole drawer in my room full of ink-covered scraps). Then I went to university and got a job and well, the writing stopped. Life just got in the way and whilst writing is something I want to go back to, it’s really hard to fit it in around everything else.

My mum wrote her first book a couple of years ago. It’s on local history and self-published, but sold a few hundred copies. She’s working on another now…but she’s retired 😉

I wouldn’t say that talent necessarily changes over time (although your experiences influence your writing). I’d say you need to be in the right frame of mind to write…whether it’s an outlet for a bored kid, a hobby for a retired person or a way to live out someone’s fantasy world…you need to be at a stage in your life where you have the compulsion to set it all down.

Another great blog, Mark. I agree with you about the perspective that time gives. Surely the novel is one art form where personal life experience is the ultimate skill. Unlike in music, say, where Mozart’s youthful accomplishments hinge on technical ability, can a teenager ever write convincingly about themes like love and death? Don’t you have to experience those things? There are writers who produce outstanding debut stuff but I’d also argue that some of the best writers ever – we could name Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Orwell, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf – wrote their masterpieces later in life.

Thanks for the comment, Zoe – and yeah, I think there’s no good or bad stage here, just whenever the time is right.

Dave – thanks for stopping by! Absolutely, that’s something I really hope happens. The culmination of talent. But what about the ferocity of youth? Those punk works of art. Musical innovations tend to favour the young, though that might be linked in some way to culture.

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