I Didn’t Manage to Publish a Book by 30, and That’s Okay
Young writers want to prove that we can be productive, but there's more to success than hard work
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
When I was younger, I was convinced that I would write my first book by 30. I thought this as a teenager, as a college student, and even in my mid-twenties. This wasn’t a prediction, but a prescription: I would write my first book by 30, but also, I must.
Where I got this idea, precisely, is uncertain; what I know is that it is shared by many of my peers who have also considered themselves “writers” since they were children. We seem to think of 30, specifically, as our last chance for a first book—regardless of how much work we’ve put in by that age. Culturally, 30 marks the end of adulthood as discovery, as a kind of prolonged exploratory youth: hence, the idea of young adults. Thirty isn’t young. Thirty is the mystical age by which things have to have happened for you—personally, professionally—or they just won’t.
The idea of 30 as the cutoff for “youth” isn’t new. But the idea of needing to produce a book during your youth, rather than as a culmination of your career, feels more recent. People used to scoff at 29-year-olds who wrote memoirs, saying “what does this person have to write about?” Mary Karr has counseled waiting years to write, to let the dust settle, that age and time are the best teachers. But now, we worry a little if we haven’t produced a memoir or a novel by 25. Where did this shift come from?
I grew up working class in rural farming communities in Iowa and Wisconsin. Neither of my parents were college graduates. My father was ex-military and was of a mind that hard work was the key to life’s success, the definition of success being home ownership, a steady job with health insurance, and being able to get by paycheck-to-paycheck in such a way that you provided for your family. In many ways, I get my now nearly-obsessive work ethic from him.
I also grew up wanting to be a writer in a family that was not creative, that did not understand how you could be a professional creative. I was encouraged in my talent, but also told to have a real job. I stepped into a different socioeconomic class the minute I set foot on a college campus, a chasm in my natal family many of my peers in media and publishing cannot begin to fathom. When I eventually went to an English PhD program in Boston (to be a professor, the “real job” I had chosen for myself), my father was supportive, if wary. He said what he had always said to me, since I was a little girl climbing awkwardly out of his truck when he dropped me off at school: “Show your worth, kiddo. Go get ‘em.”
When I left that graduate program and opened a small business using credit cards and money leftover from a student loan: Show your worth. Go get ‘em.
When I moved to New York and worked day jobs in the tech industry while, finally, working on my book and starting to regularly freelance: Show your worth. Go get ‘em.
The loving message has always been the same. My father’s exhortation means work hard, with the unwritten expectation that I should work harder than everyone else. Work hard, and be excellent: be so good that they don’t have a reason to fire you. Be good enough they have to pay attention to you. My father is not naive; he knows there are other forces involved in success besides hard work. But encouragement to apply myself is the extent of what he can provide me with.
My parents never expected me to publish a book by 30; this was an arbitrary goalpost I set for myself. However, I can’t help but wonder if my family’s deeply rooted working class work ethic—show your worth—informed my own drive to publish a book as soon as possible. I have put immense pressure on myself since a young age to have a tangible payoff for this intangible desire, to prove to my parents that all of my wild life decisions, and thousands of miles of physical estrangement, have been worth it.
I want to show my worth. I want to be able to have a physical something that I have demonstrably produced, on my own.
But I had always understood “showing my worth” to be about hard work. In the writing world, I’ve found, it’s not so simple. This world, I have learned, is not just about writing well, or showing my worth, as my father would say, though you must do those things: always, and exceedingly well, especially if you are a woman, if you are a person of color, if you are LGBTQIA+. This world is about knowing people: is an invisible game of chutes and ladders, of different categories of publications and tiers within those categories, of who went to school with each other, of knowing which magazines open calls for submissions but actually only ever publish pieces they directly commission (so don’t waste your time trying to write for them), of which editors are quietly homophobic over cocktails, of who is in writing groups together, of who dated each other and is acrimonious now, of who, of who, of who. It is a game you can start to piece together if you spend enough time in the Acknowledgments section of books, at reading events in New York City, on Twitter. It takes patience. It takes time.
Time, that most precious of unrenewable resources.
What is writing a book? It’s living hard, working hard. It’s also learning the business. So many people don’t like that last bit, but it’s vital if you want the damn thing, and even more so if you want to stay in the game. And when you are starting at ground zero, there is a cost to the time spent learning the business, building relationships—especially real relationships that become real friendships. It just takes longer, for folks like us. I don’t want to say this is a bad thing (I am so deeply grateful for the people who are in this wild game with me, who I can go to when it feels too much), but it does mean we are starting later, taking longer to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. A book by 30, for example.
Millennials, the oldest of whom are well past 30, have been raised by Baby Boomers with a particular mind toward productivity and achievement. If Gen Z has been raised to perform to the test, our educations were designed around the question, “what are you going to do with your life?” The question of purpose, of career, pervaded every class choice, every college conversation. In a culture where media fed an onslaught of images of prodigy—young Oscar winners, young Olympians—it all fed the question: when was our chance to shine?
We have been raised to be good, productive workers, grateful to accept less in return for more work than generations before us: see Fiverr’s ad campaigns, see us working more jobs than our parents ever did, see our collective burnout. For millennials who graduated around and into the crash of 2008 and are now in our early 30s, we are, in many ways, just starting to accrue traditional markers of adulthood that our parents had long before 30. Saddled by student debt, we are also rejecting other traditional markers, such as home ownership. This is compounded by the fact that, oftentimes, no matter how much we may crave those markers of stability, they remain beyond our grasp—the job doesn’t exist, the gig will never be a career, the house is out of reach because of student debt. There is a tension between our economic reality and cultural expectations.
This impossible obligation of “productivity” is in many ways especially burdensome for writers. Millennials were raised in a culture that values production, but writing is not traditional production. It’s not work that comes off the factory line. It’s not a 9-5. You can’t rush the production of life experience, or the time it takes to process and sift. And yet we still feel like we need to have something to show for ourselves (what, precisely, is it that you do? a relative might ask at a holiday gathering). Hence the pressure to have something concrete you can point to: this is what I’ve made.
This is the American Dream: to create something out of nothing, to scale up the socioeconomic ladder with nothing other than your wits and your bootstraps. But we know that no work ethic is strong enough, no amount of hours worked in a week can possibly be enough to find “success” on its own. Our country is not a meritocracy, and the class entrenchment runs deep. To reach a certain level of success, you need to already have a certain amount of money, a certain social status, a certain kind of access.
Cultural achievement in youth is easier to obtain when there is a trampoline provided by parents and connections and the accompanying safety net of privilege. Think of the four characters on Girls who themselves struggled, while the actresses who played them were all in fact the children of fame and fortune. Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, has been lauded as the voice of a generation; she was barely 25 when she got her first television show on the basis of one small film, a series of events that seems unlikely without her mother’s connections. Think of Christopher Paolini, the writer of the Eragon series, lauded as a child prodigy who had written a fantasy series at the tender age of sixteen—whose parents, unbeknownst to much of the general public, ran the publishing house that produced the series.
Because writing is not traditional production, it’s easy to think that we have a built-in workaround, that the rules that govern Wall Street do not apply to those of us whose offices are in Flatiron or Brooklyn or, hell, not in New York at all. We are artists, after all. Art is valuable for its own sake, outside of some capitalist system: this is a seductive line of thinking. But it’s faulty, of course. The same factors that give the privileged a leg up in other industries apply to publishing as well. It’s much easier to be a “self-made” billionaire at 21 years old when you are a Kardashian—and it’s a lot easier to have a book by 30 when you’re already in, or at least adjacent to, the room where it happens.
“Prodigy” is supported by access. This is not, of course, to say that people who find success at early ages are not themselves talented—merely that they are sitting in the front of the class, with far fewer barriers to “being discovered,” and with the guidance of elders who already understand the industries they are trying to navigate. When a guide has gone out ahead and scouted the terrain, found resources, and also connected with a few people who can help you along the way, the hike is a lot easier.
I didn’t have a book by 30. I’m 31 now, in the process of getting ready to take my book out on submission—I might have a book by 33, which, all things considered, is still quite early for this industry. But who knows: if I’ve learned anything, it’s that life rarely goes as expected.
What is important, to me, is that these last few years have seen that “book by 30” goal fall away in favor of a far richer goal: one of improving my craft, one that wants to have my first book be a good book, one I can really be proud of. Goals to achieve have become less a matter of if or by and more a matter of when and how. Maybe this is understanding the industry more. Maybe it’s just growing up. Things take time, and patience is a quality I have worked to cultivate.
I recently had a phone call with my dad in which I explained to him that even if my book sold this month (it won’t; the proposal isn’t ready), it would still be anywhere from one to two years before it came out in stores. He was surprised as I described the process, and laughed at how similar our industries are, in the end: all bound up in red tape.
In the end, it has, actually, become about showing my worth: not just to my family, or to my peers, but to myself. It’s become about craft, about applying myself continually against the slow pressure of time, about understanding just how long it takes to get even a little bit better. And, yeah, it’s also about being that working class dyke from the nowhere Midwest, who didn’t go to the right schools, who has a massive chip on her shoulder and everything and nothing to prove: that I can learn the game, and do it better, no matter how the deck was stacked.