I Will Never Be a Wunderkind: On The Art Of Aging In The Arts

Had I decided to write full time at 25, I might have been a wunderkind. Now I’m just a writer.

When Julia Turner was named the new editor of Slate, I checked up on her. Not her biography or her publications or even her Slate bylines, but her age. She’s 35. That means by next year I should be the editor of Slate, or, at least, by then (age 35) I should have the option of being the editor of Slate. It’s a "should" built on a variety of other "shoulds," all equally unconsummated: By 30 I should have had a book that at least had a publisher -– if not an Oprah’s book club sticker –- like Sheri Reynolds; by 29, I should have had a screenplay produced -– if not an Oscar winner -– like Diablo Cody; by 26, I should have had a TV show –- if not produced by Judd Apatow –- like Lena Dunham.

The "shoulds" haven’t always been around. They came with 30. Before that, my creativity didn’t have a due date. I started out strong and that seemed to be enough. By 25, the year I graduated from journalism school, I was an editor at a magazine in Dubai. By 29 I was an online editor at a New York newspaper. But then 30 quietly came and went and with it any precocity I might have had left. Had I decided to write full time at 25, I might have been a wunderkind. Now I’m just a writer.

Emily Gould has been both. In 2008, the former Gawker punching bag landed the cover of The New York Times magazine and a six-figure book deal. She was 27. According to an article Gould recently wrote in Medium, she told her publisher to bill her as “a voice of my generation.” They didn’t and her book flopped. Three years later Dunham used the same line. She was 26. She didn’t flop.

“Every woman around my age who hopes to create something is jealous of Lena Dunham,” Gould, now 33, told The New York Times in June. Tavi Gevinson, the 18-year-old editor in chief of Rookie, had just appeared in the magazine as well, but she has always possessed a sort of prodigious untouchability. We don’t envy her, because that would be silly -– Anna Wintour knew who she was when Gevinson was only 14, for godssake! Dunham seems more feasible, only just out of reach for people like me and Gould.

Last year Michelle Orange addressed the publishing world’s obsession with youth. She did it in a review in Slate of 23-year-old author Marie Calloway’s debut book “what purpose did i serve in your life.” Orange noted that authors’ ages are not often disclosed if they are over 30. Conversely, in Calloway’s book, “rarely is she observed without her age—her youth and beauty—being observed first. Very little guards the border between Marie the subject and Marie the object, and this porousness is the source of a confusion particular both to young women and, perhaps, to this moment.”

It’s a porousness we are encouraged to plug as we get older. In the wake of Kim Novak’s much-maligned appearance at the Oscars in March, Amanda Hess argued, once again in Slate, that older women in Hollywood who play into the objectification game face the greatest censure of all. On the other hand, Meryl Streep and Sally Field, who were lauded at the event for looking more natural, “successfully navigated Hollywood’s dual requirement to look amazing post-60 while never signaling that they’ve worked at it.”

Just as celebrities are encouraged to age gracefully in Hollywood, so too are plebs encouraged to do the same elsewhere. With maturity should come sagacity, not slog –- hard work gets more unbecoming the older you get, particularly in the arts. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker, “doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.” But then how does one explain Cheryl Strayed? Genius or no, her creativity took flight when she was a full-fledged adult. According to Gladwell, this is a matter of experimental (which comes with time) versus conceptual (which is more immediate and often appears in the young) “genius.”

But our society prefers to think of Strayed as a “late bloomer.” The “Wild” author, who published her first book in her late 30s but only became famous with the second in her early 40s, was recently asked by Scratch magazine about the designation. “I majored in English, and I spent my twenties apprenticing myself to the craft. I came out of my twenties knowing that I needed the shelter a fully funded graduate program would offer me,” Strayed replied. “[The MFA program at Syracuse] allowed me three years, essentially, to have a grant and write. I wrote my first book there; a couple years out of grad school, I sold it, and a few years later, I sold my next book. I think there’s nothing late about it!”

With our increased longevity and delayed adulthood, the expectation that we need to reach our creative peaks at 20, like Arthur Rimbaud (who died at 37), makes a lot less sense. The careers of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who directed her first film in her 40s, and French artist Louise Bourgeois, who became a household name in her 70s, are more understandable to many of us.

As Strayed, at 43, told her 20-something self: “The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”