Are you about to peak — or are you past your writing prime?

Because a writer produces his/her best work by the age of…

twenty-eight?

This week, someone said to me, “Prose writers peak when they’re young. They write at their best between twenty-two and twenty-eight.” (Who can guess the age of the speaker? Yup…)

Since the age of twenty-eight is buried in my dim and very distant past (I’ve almost done twenty-two twice), my initial reaction was, “Rubbish.” But, personal axes aside, is there any truth in it?

Less-ava-look, Google.

In 2010, Max Fisher delved into the issue of ‘creative peak’ in his Atlantic Wire article. I find it somewhat poignant that at the age of 54, both Sam Tanenhaus and Kazuo Ishiguro believed that youth was the key to great and lasting output, whereas Jonah Lehrer, aged 28, believed it was all yet to come. Clearly, no one believed (or wanted to admit that they believed) that they were peaking right there and then — prime time live, so to speak.

A vaguely balanced quote from the same article is allegedly that of Gladwell (arguably Galenson), who implied that different people may peak at different ages — via categorisation into two key ‘routes’:

… Gladwell says creativity can be divided into two types, “conceptual and experimental.” Conceptual thinkers peak young, but experimental thinkers peak old

— but at no point does the article fully disseminate the relevance of age from a larger perspective, for example as a measure of particular experience or life stage. A handful of personal opinions does not an argument make; a small number of subjective responses provides only an anecdotal and biased information base.

We need numbers. Out of a sample of, say, fifty brilliant authors, how many wrote their best work before the age of twenty-eight? And, more importantly if we are to ever consider this a predictive tool, why? Fifty authors might not be enough to say, because there are so many variables that could affect writing performance, e.g.

  • how was their health?
  • were they married; did they have someone to support them financially, a spouse who ripped up drafts, or a baby to keep them awake at night?
  • were they male or female, gay or straight, religious or agnostic… and did they write in a time or place where that made a difference to their success?
  • were there any massive culture changes in their writing lifetime — e.g. did they write before or after a war? Did they emigrate?
  • are they still alive — might they yet produce something better?

On this latter point; if they are alive, they are surely ineligible for assessment because they may yet peak — and hence the question can only be answered by assessing the overall performance of dead authors, which in turn means it may not be relevant to the current time. This is, therefore, one big dead duck already, as far as predictive function goes, in this time of e-books and self-publishing that is so different from previous print eras — no?

The scientist in me has yet to see a body of data that convinces me of an optimal age for writing prose. Individual circumstances of our favourite authors may vary so much as to make an indiscernible picture, as regards a general “best age” to write.

The writer in me says, write when you will, as you will and how you will and let the critics crunch the numbers. That is, after all, the joy of it — the imagining, the writing, the fearless — or fearful — pouring of words into the ether.

But for the fun of it, I’ve checked out some of my favourite books, and the age of the authors. I say age — I mean, alleged age (thank you, Wikipedia). So, a pseudo-random selection of books that I have enjoyed recently, and their aged authors:

(All ages are approximate, calculated using Wikipedia
birth/publication dates and omitting to count months.)

Louis de Bernières (1954-) — Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) and Birds Without Wings (2004). Approx. age: 40 & 50 (debut in 1990, age 36).

Emma Donoghue (1969-) — Room (2010). Approx. age: 41 (debut 1994, age 25).

Sebastian Faulks (1953-) — Birdsong (1993) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). Approx. age: 40 & 48 (debut 1984, age 31).

Vanessa Gebbie (?) — The Coward’s Tale (2011). Age unknown.

Khaled Hosseini (1965-) — The Kite Runner (2003, debut) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). Approx. age: 38 & 42.

Harper Lee (1926-) — To Kill a Mockingbird (1960, debut). Approx. age: 34.

Adeline Yen Mah (1937-) — Falling Leaves (1997, debut). Approx. age: 60.

Rani Manicker (?) — The Rice Mother (2002, debut). Age unknown.

Cormac McCarthy (1933-) — The Road (2006). Approx. age: 73 (debut in 1965, age 32).

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) — The Sea, The Sea (1978). Approx. age: 59 (debut 1959, age 40).

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) — Master and Commander (1969). Approx. age: 55 (debut 1930, age 26).

J. K. Rowling (1965-) — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997, debut). Approx. age: 32.

Arundhati Roy (1961-) — The God of Small Things (1997, debut). Approx. age: 36.

CURRENTLY READING
Lionel Shriver (1957-) — We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003). Approx. age: 46 (debut 1986, age 29).

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) — Under Milk Wood (b/cast 1954). Approx. age: 39 +1 posthumous (poetry debut in 1934, age 20).

J. R. R. Tolkein (1892-1973) — The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). Approx. age: 62 (fiction debut 1936, age 44 but 1911 for poetry, age 19).

Alice Walker (1944-) — The Color Purple (1982). Approx. age: 38 (debut 1970, age 26).

Just flicking through these few books, several things become apparent — I like books written by men and women, from various parts of the world, who were mostly published between the ages of 30 and 90 years. In my recent trawling of Amazon, Smiths and local bookshops, I have not read anything by an author who was under thirty at the time of publication (although, of course, some of the work is likely to have been written much earlier than it was published). Clearly this is a small sample and reflects my personal preference, but even so, what about those writers in their twenties?

Looking at the debuts of the above authors, Lionel Shriver, Alice Walker, Emma Donoghue, and Patrick O’Brian had prose published in their twenties and a quick Google shows that there are plenty more available online. On her blog, Faye L Booth speaks about people’s reactions to her being published as a historical novelist in her twenties, describing in a pragmatic manner how writers of any age can be interested in, and inspired to write about, history. Likewise, in the short fiction categories (especially flash), many younger writers are published online and in print.

If, in previous years, many writers have had to wait years to trudge through the traditional publishing route, culminating in publication in their thirties, the advent of self-publishing and online journals may well provide us with a flood of work written by writers still in their twenties — vibrant, young, and hot off the press.

So, back to my original question — is it true that a writer’s best prose is likely to come from the age of twenty-two to twenty-eight?

The answer is, I don’t know. But at the age of forty-two, I’m now the same age as Khaled Hosseini was when A Thousand Splendid Suns was published, and I’ve got a decade to work on my art before I’m the age of Patrick O’Brian when he started the Aubrey-Maturin series that carried him through three more decades.

I look to their words, and I do not believe that my age is going to limit… anything at all.

15 comments

  1. I was at first a bit concerned about what your conclusion might be about this topic. I raised my son during my young adulthood and only started writing at 30. But, I love the Brother Cadfael series and the author was in her 80s. I keep reminding myself that.

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    • tu says:

      Hi Carrie, to be honest, this post started out a bit tongue in cheek because when I first heard the idea, I pretty much laughed and called it ridiculous — and having looked into it, I’m now firmly of the view that our writing can be as good as we wish, at any age.

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  2. Hmm interesting post! But I agree, I don’t think age really limits one’s writing in any way. It affects it, certainly, but not in any generic way – it comes down to the individual writer ultimately. I have read a few books by authors in their 20s at the time of writing/publication (In particular Jonathan Safran Foer, who I think was 25 for Everything Is Illuminated and 29 for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but I think most of what I read was published by authors much older than this. And as someone still in their 20s myself, I really hope the best is yet to come for me as a writer.

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    • Ahh, interesting. I think now, at 26, I am finding writing not so much easier, but rather a natural process – I don’t have to force it out as much anymore (compared to my childhood, teens and early 20s), I find the stories come flying out and instead the challenge is trying to curb and shape them, and tame them somewhat. I’m not really sure what this says about me though. But I do know that I will always write, and I do know that my writing will at the very least change dramatically as I get older.
      I think experience and age makes us more interesting, though not necessarily to ourselves. But we are always our own worst critics. And you’re right, we have to be brave to write well, absolutely.

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  3. I’m really glad your findings don’t prove that there’s a writing peak between 22 and 28! I certainly don’t think mine was then… I hope I haven’t reached mine yet. I feel like I have a very long way to go still (in an optimistic way, not in a self-deprecating way!)

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    • tu says:

      I think everyone has their own individual journey and you will know your own stage best; to me the concept of a “peak” at a set age is another of those generalisations that is best ignored. For me, in a lesser world I would be writing now, but I am lucky to have family commitments now so my writing is curbed. My full flow will happen in a few years’ time, probably. Then maybe I’ll “peak” (if it hasn’t all dropped off).

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  4. tu says:

    Hi, yes, reckon our writing must be informed by our experience and so age will have an effect. Sometimes I wonder, does it make us more interesting, or more timid? I found it easier to write in my twenties — I didn’t worry about what I was writing, the reaction I might elicit. I think to write well, we have to be brave.

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  5. I sincerely hope not, if that is the case then I am past it before I have even begun. Who says that all the good things in life should belong to the young? The arrogance of youth cannot compete with experience of age!

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    • tu says:

      I wrote a post, a while ago, saying that I believe we need young people to write; there’s a different energy about people in their twenties or earlier. Perhaps it’s more hopeful, more rebellious, more self-aware, I’m not sure, but we do need it. That said, there are plenty of anarchic, individual oldies who can muster up both energy and experience — I’d suggest that the “better” of the two might be subject to mood and moment, rather than steadfast rules…?

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  6. Great post, as ever! I’m really glad that 28 ain’t it… because I published my first book at 38 and I really hope I haven’t peaked. That would be terrifying. My grandmother lived to 102, what would I do for the next 60 years if I’ve peaked already? Hmmm… That’s another interesting thing, though – how do our potentially much longer lifespans fit in with this obsession with youth, the ”Top 20 under 40” authors lists etc…? Maybe there will be a backlash, the Top 50 over 60? I certainly don’t care at all what an author’s age is when i read their work. Not a whit.

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    • tu says:

      If you’re on the ascendant, we’re in for an exciting ride! But I know what you mean, I’ve not started yet — I was limbered up to write-write-write a year or two back and then personal circumstances poked my spokes and I fell off the writing wagon, with just a few flash pieces put out here and there since. If I’m on a decline before I’ve even started, that would be de-press-ing. (Pardon the pun!) I believe writing is a timeless occupation, by its nature, being so internal in its beginnings. Marketing might favour the young with their beautiful faces, not sure, but I have the very latest version of Adobe Photoshop so wrinkles have no hold over me.
      Talking of which, we have birthdays coming up and My Mother Was an Upright Piano is right on top of my list — can’t wait!

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  7. Another great post. My thoughts: We peak at different stages. Men peak differently to women. Who’s to know when you might peak again? You might have whole series of peaks throughout your life, like a mountain range. And how do you know when you’re on a peak? One last thought: the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy (all his paintings of the last 15 years, ie from age 60 – 75) was full of women in their 40s and 50s smiling at each other, with a look that said “It’s possible”. And I was one of ’em.

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    • tu says:

      Thanks, Josephine. I love the idea of multiple peaking throughout life, it makes sense. For me, I imagine I’d feel a peak… whether via external reference (Orange, Booker, Pulitzer, or ‘Cor, Mum, that was good’) or just that internal satisfaction when you read one of your own passages and think, ‘yes’.
      I’ve not peaked yet. This I know.
      I just have to hope I’m not flatlining!

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  8. Hellooo – maybe it is a function of age – but I’ve only just seen this. Delighted for you to add my age… I was 59 and a half when The Coward’s Tale was published. In 2008, when my first book was published I was 56. I certainly hope I have not peaked yet…ups and downs are good.

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    • t upchurch says:

      Hi Vanessa, sorry I was a bit slow on picking this up as it went to the old blog, but I’ve moved the posts over now. The Coward’s Tale is wonderful, and we’re looking forward to the next one 🙂

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