So you were meant to write a novel by the time you turned 30

I turned 31 a few months ago (well, * cough * in January) and most of my friends are in their late twenties / early thirties. While it’s a magnificent age in many ways, my creatively inclined friends are disappointed that they have not yet written and published their first novel yet. Thirty seems to be the last threshold of youth and talent, and once you’ve crossed it, your creative efforts instantly lose their sheen.  

If we look back to when deadlines like these are set, it was probably in high school or university. I don’t know about you, but in first year university I thought the second years were ‘old’ and ‘passed it.’ I thought I would be married by 25 and have had my two kids by 28. Popcorn and Special K seemed like a sustainable nutrition plan and drinking wine out of a box was ‘convenient.’ The possibility of remaining attractive after 30 seemed insurmountable, let alone any older. These ideas were embarrassingly self-limiting but, in my defense, 30 simply seemed a long way away. So if all other ideas formed over the period of 17-25 have proven unrealistic, surely the one about writing a novel before 30 is unrealistic as well?

The context of the desire to write a novel is important too. Many women (and men) know they can write, love to write, and crave the positive feedback. They want the offer letter from the publisher and the bright lights of the book tour. All the reading, scribbling, misguided poetry and shitty life experiences will add up to the moment of validation that comes with putting your life story on paper and having it acknowledged as something special. If you fall within this bracket, stop now. Have you watched those nature documentaries where all the baby turtles hatch and limp towards the ocean, only to get snatched by seagulls, trampled by humans or strangled by plastic? Putting your expectations of self-fulfillment on getting your book published is the equivalent of tying to onto a tiny hatching turtle back. A happy ending is unlikely.

However, I’m not here to write off the publishing industry. People will always love stories, people will always want to make sense of their life through art. The book you are beating yourself up about not having written yet may be the thing that helps someone get over their grief, or remind them of their humanity. Maybe your book is just a distraction for a young mom with 1 hour’s peace in a warm bubble bath. If you can resolve the existential challenge that you may live in obscurity and never matter to anyone, then write the book.

There are easier ways to earn money off writing and get famous that don’t involve writing a novel. My corporate writing clients probably pay me far more than I would ever get in royalties in a South African writing market, and there is an unexpected honour in interpreting a company’s story in a way that makes sense to everyone around them. Creativity is not always found in the places you’d think. As for fame, just wear something small on Instagram. 

I say this, because the real reason to write a novel lies in the writing itself. The terror of opening up a blank Word document, the intrigue of researching and learning more about your world so you can portray it in your book. It lies in your dodgy Google search history and those hot afternoons where suddenly the stars align and sentences flow.

So take the pressure off, write and see what happens. The idea that talent and genius is the property of the youth is absurd. The top 30 under 35, top 10 under 12 or top 11 under 22.5 bore me to tears. Yes, there is an element of magic in receiving recognition for creative excellence when you’re young. Everyone loves a picture of a pretty edgy young thing blinking in surprise that he signed his first book deal before the age of 21. But give me an older writer, writing 500 words a day between working and raising a family. Give me a woman that won’t quit, that takes countless rejections as a sign that the right reader hasn’t met her yet. A woman like that probably turned 30 a long time ago, and knows that we’re the only people who have the power to restrict ourselves.

Besides, now that you’ve turned 30, it really isn’t that old at all, is it?