My birthday cake this year
I turned 30 yesterday. Not a horrifying age for anyone who's already reached and exceeded it, but it's caused me quite a bit of uncomfortable squirming in recent weeks.
You see, I *loved* my twenties. I looked forward to them while I was a teenager, and they turned out to be everything I hoped for and more. I travelled the world, I finished studying, I started work, I got married, I had a child, I bought a house, and overall I really I grew into *me*. Man, that was a hell of a decade.
While I'm quite sure there are equally wonderful milestones awaiting me in my thirties, I'm also having to farewell some perceptions that come with rolling into my fourth decade of life. One of the biggest is the idea of being a "young novelist".
Not my definition, I hasten to add. It used to be that a "young" novelist was anyone under 40, but these days the definition has largely shrunk back to 35 (see here and here for examples). Which, yes- gives me another five years to get published, and I do certainly intend for that to happen within the time period, but my expectations have changed somewhat.
I started writing in earnest when I was about 14, and at the time I had some grand ideas about what I was going to achieve. I was quite determined that I was going to be one of those ridiculous young achievers- a Tim Winton, a Markus Zusak- and that by the time I turned 30, I'd not only be published, but would have a whole slew of acclaimed novels under my belt, plus a Booker prize or two. Maybe a really enormous mansion bought with the proceeds of all my best-selling stories.
Ha. Oh, how we live and learn.
At times over the last decade I've found myself getting a little cranky at how life seems to be getting in the way of all this writing potential. I mean, really? All that time spent working, travelling, studying, getting through the day-to-day stuff associated with having a family and a house- maybe I could have spent more of my time writing over the last ten years. Maybe I didn't have my priorities right.
I'm sure you're shaking your head out there, but it's okay, I know. It's pretty simple, really. Everything I've done in the last ten years, I've done just right.
Yes, it's taking me longer to write my novel than I expected a decade ago. But I'm a considerably different person to the person I was back then, and every life experience I've had in the meantime, from the mundane to the fantastic, is elevating my writing to something it could not have been before. In fact, without those life experiences, there is just no way I could write like I can now. Sure, I might have had the basic ability to put words on paper and string together a story, but the layers and layers of complexity of human emotion and behaviour- no, I've learned just about everything I know about those through the school of life in recent years.
There's another aspect to how much my writing has improved over the last ten years, and that's the hundreds of thousands, probably millions of words I've written. Only through reading and writing do you actually improve your ability to create characters, plots and words that will move other people. There will always be prodigies out there who are naturally brilliant with words and characters, but for the rest of us, it takes time to write the number of words it takes to become really good. Patience, as they say, is a virtue.
There's a third thing that time has given me, and it's this- a bit of perspective and a bit of humility. These days, I'm well aware of how much I have left to learn, and my aims are a bit different. I'm no longer aiming for a critically acclaimed best-seller and a mansion in the Caymans- though don't get me wrong, I'll be delighted with any of those. No, these days I'm far more aware of why I write, and it's not to gain praise from others, which back in the day seemed the pinnacle of writing. It's to tell a story that means something to me, and to do it as well as I can. And that takes experience, understanding, and words and words and words- all the things you can only gain with age.
So, here's to another decade of words on the page, and of living and learning every single day. If I consider how much life has taught me in the last ten years, I feel quite sure that on this day ten years from now as I'm adjusting to my forties, I'll be shaking my head in wonder all over again in amazement at all the things I don't know now, but will by then.
Have your cake and eat it, too. The eating is the best bit, especially when it's a choc-orange mudcake.