As I'm writing this, the New Yorker
has just released their "20 under 40" list of young writers to watch. That such a list exists at all is a comfort, I think. It's nice to see 20 talented and youngish people eager to labor on in the fields of literature, never mind our Twitter-truncated attention spans.
To tell the truth, though, I haven't actually read the list. (I did scan a couple of tweets that had something to do with it, though. I think.)
I've never had a personal investment in the "20 under 40" kind of thing. When I was young enough to qualify, I wasn't anything like a writer. And now that I'm a writer, I'm no longer all that young.
Lucky me. For missing the competition in the past, and for being too old to care about it now.
Because it's damned hard to be creative on somebody else's schedule. When I was in college I knew musicians who heard Jackson Browne sing "In '69 I was 21, and I called the road my own," and considered themselves failures for not keeping to the same program.
Me, I look back and I see that Stephen Crane published The Red Badge of Courage when he was only 24. That Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises when he was 27. That Melville was a has-been by his mid-30s.
And it's not just iconic figures from the old days, either. Think David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest. Age 34.
The list goes on and on, and the crowd of young writers keeps coming and coming, and the lists of "20 Under 40" pile on every year, and it's enough to make you think that anyone lacking the decency to crank out his masterpiece while he's still in short pants ought to take up honest work.
Many do, it turns out.
Take me, for example. Thirty years in teaching and advertising, plus a handful of odd jobs and side-tracks along the way. (Not to mention 10 years spent hammering out a half-dozen novels that no agent or editor on Earth wanted to read.) It was an education, every last bit of it.
I remember clearly how when I was in college, spending my summers as a metalworker, I would tell people that those long days of punishing toil were meant to build character. I thought I was being ironic. But it turns out that I was right. It just took a while for me to see it.
No wonder my first published novel was an imagining of the life of Pap Finn, about whom Twain once wrote, "He was most fifty, and he looked it." I reread my pages now and even though they're dotted with many things I've known about since childhood (the rhythms of the King James Bible, the powerful music of gospel hymns, the dark insistent sound of water beyond the porch of a fishing camp at night), I see that the overarching shape of the book — its structure, its heart — has nothing youthful about it.
See: In order to write about Finn, I had to wait until I was as old as he was.
The same thing goes for Kings of the Earth — except that instead of reanimating Mark Twain's boyhood, I set out to reanimate my own. Getting it right required some time.
I'd left upstate New York in the '70s without ever once realizing how lovely it was. As so many people do, I saw my home only when I turned around and looked back from a distance. But I saw something else, too. I saw contrasts of country and town, farming and commerce, old ways and new. I saw a rural world vanishing on the doorstep of its more urbanized neighbors. I saw people I cared about making all kinds of connections and accommodations in spite of — and because of — their differences.
And above all I heard voices. Voices that spoke to me from a past so clearly recalled and so real to me that it might as well have been yesterday or even this morning. My only job was to capture them.
This isn't work that I was suited for when I was 20 or 30 or even 40 years old. But I believe that I'm suited to it at last. And I hope that I've managed to do it honorably.