Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wisdom vs irrelevance in writing for young people

The other day I received an email from someone at my superannuation company, who pointed out that I would soon be reaching “the lovely age of 60”. Thanks for that. As if I hadn’t realised, or had somehow been trying to pretend I was still 40-something for the past few years.

Like a lot of people my age (and older) that I know, we never feel our age. Maybe people like us gravitate together. Maybe I just know a lot of people and hang out with a lot of people who take no notice of getting older. We travel, we go out and do stuff, we try new things, we still have plenty of dreams and goals and getting older seems irrelevant.

I started a PhD last year, something I never thought I would be capable of. Indeed, I feel like a toddler academic, staggering along, blundering into metaphorical chairs and couches, and struggling to understand language and how to communicate the way the grown-ups expect! I refuse to accept that my older brain won’t cope (and it’s doing fine). I have many years of reading and thinking to my credit already, so now’s my chance to put it to a more purposeful use.

But with the 50s comes other experiences: it’s harder getting out of the chair if I’ve sat there too long, and I have to wear glasses now, and take a pill or two for conditions I knew nothing about in my 20s. There are even people my age dying, enough to make me check my health and eat better and get more exercise and think about what I put in my mouth.

But I don’t think “old” the way some other people I know do. As in, eking out the days and weeks and months and wondering what the hell it’s all been for, and how much longer do they have to put up with this, and do they really have to get out of bed in the morning, and for what? Those people are already some kind of old where they can’t see anything ahead of them but an end. 

However, I know there are going to be issues with turning 60. Issues that arise from a view that I will be too old for many things. Not my view, theirs. For instance, that I can’t write anything new for children or teens because I am now “too far from those years” to be able to evoke them well enough, especially with the way technology has changed the world. For me, though, I have written and read so many stories for young readers that I think the struggle is about what “new” really means. I have seen series come and go, come and go. I’m much more interested in writing books that will last for years, hopefully decades, books that hold such deep resonance and meaning for my readers that they keep them for their own kids.
At my age, with my experience, I figure I know how to do that, and I’m damned determined to keep doing it, even if deeper stand-alone novels are not the flavour of the day. 
I used to worry about school visits, and looking way too old for kids to be interested in listening to me. Then I realised that everyone over 30 looks old to them, and over 40 looks ancient, so 60 is irrelevant. (And when a kid asks me how old I am, I give my mother’s answer – I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.) Besides, they don’t much care about me, they care about whether I’ve written a story that will entertain and move them, and why, and what it means to them. That’s my job, right there.

The other thing with “new” is that you really do come to understand there is no new idea. It’s how you write it, how you create your characters, what the story means to you. I love reading and I love stories that reach deep inside me and tell me something about life and living and people that I didn’t know before. Kids and teens know so little about these things but they are longing to learn, and books give them some of that knowledge in a safe way. Safe because they can close the covers and put it away if they want to or need to. Or they can keep the covers open and go back to the beginning and read the story again, because it speaks to them about something important and vital to them
So that’s my job, too, to write those stories. And I’m not saying a 25 year-old or a 35 year-old can’t write them, but I have all those extra years of everything it takes to write a story that has guts and is not afraid to speak out and says the things kids need and want to hear. So, 60 is both relevant and irrelevant. It’s what I write that counts.