The Perfect Age To Get Published

By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
I wrote the first draft of my novel when I was thirty-one. My Picking Bones from Ashhusband, who is Scottish and warm and funny but schooled in that British way, read the early manuscript and murmured: “Hmm. I like this one paragraph.” So I put the novel aside, then wrote and published short stories for a while. At thirty-five, I dragged the manuscript back out again. The one paragraph is the only thing from the original draft that is still in my book.
I had always wanted to be a writer, and I sometimes wonder if I might have succeeded earlier in life if I’d attended an MFA program in my youth. We’ll never know. Instead, I worked a variety of jobs—test prep question writer, online store manager, non-profit administrator, failed antique picker—while writing in the corporate toilet stall, on the weekends and during company meetings. When I was disappointed or hurt by rejection, I would try to remind myself to take the long view; it takes time to become a writer, and many of the people I admire have had long careers.
In the beginning, I was often told what many female writers hear: I was talented, but my writing was “too quiet.” I revised. An editor rejected me because she “already had a half-Asian writer.” I was devastated. Much as I loved this other writer’s work, I knew that our material was different. Would anyone else notice? Another editor rejected my book because: “I have just had a child and I cannot accept what the mother in your book has done.” I tried to tell myself that another editor would not confuse her personal experience with an unmarketable product. These rejections were often paired with variations of this one line: “I know someone else will publish this work with the enthusiasm it deserves,” which I dismissed as an empty compliment. As I got to know other writers who had been through the same grueling process, I learned they too had heard the same semi-praise. When I finally met my editor Fiona McCrae, from Graywolf, I was absolutely positive I wanted to work with her. She understood what I was writing, and saw ways to strengthen the novel that meshed completely with my vision. I was relieved. And then I was grateful for all the other rejections that had kept me from working with someone who might not have been a good fit for my book.
My wonderful agent said to me earlier this year, “Sweetheart, you are the perfect age to get started.” I think I know what she means. As writers and artists, it’s our job to develop a vision of the world—to see what others are missing. This is the kind of thing that takes time, and that you cannot learn in school. It’s wonderful to see a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, turning out even more probing material as he matures. I do not mean that younger writers don’t manage complexity, because of course I can think of plenty of examples where they do. It’s just to say that writing generally takes time and can be painfully slow. About the only thing you can really control is the quality and uniqueness of your work. Make this your focus, and I really and truly believe that you too will find someone who will publish your book with the “enthusiasm it deserves.”

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3 Responses to The Perfect Age To Get Published

  1. carolyn says:

    Thanks for sharing this!! Ms. Mockett’s words are encouraging to the writer in me that just won’t give up even though I’m ‘late’ to the dance. Looking forward to reading more of her work.

  2. A.S. King says:

    I started writing novels when I was 24. At 25, a peer (who wasn’t writing, but said she wanted to) told me that it was foolish to attempt novel writing before age 40. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her! I’m working on #11 now and I’m thrilled I’ve had all these years to practice.

  3. Ru Freeman says:

    This is a beautiful and timely post on what constitutes “timeliness” in a writer’s life. To each his/her own, but there is truth to the fact that it is an exception (Paul Yoon comes to mind, 28 and spot-on with his old-soul insight and careful relentlessness), that proves the rule. There is a depth and ease that comes with age and a life-lived that cannot be hastened with a degree or other writing program. I look forward to reading what the writers I so admire will write in the future more so because of their advancing age rather than their fulfillment of youthful promise.