When I was in my MFA program, the faculty, my fellow graduate students, and I took visiting writers out to dinner after their readings. We sat at round tables eating spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad and talked about their lives and their work. I looked forward to these dinners, to this kind of informal contact with visiting writers, because the thing I’d wanted most fiercely since I was six years old was to be a writer. In my twenties and officially a writer-in-training, I felt there were things I couldn’t learn in workshops or from reading the fiction I loved. Not how to write but rather how to be a writer. How did writers dress, what drinks did they order, how did they shake hands? I wanted role models. These dinners, I thought, were the ideal occasions to find them.
One visiting writer was especially stylish and charismatic. She lived and taught in New York City, and I admired her novels and the editorial work for which she was known. When I introduced myself to her after dinner she was friendly, if guarded. I noticed her jewelry, the way she held her hands. We chatted about my work. Then she tilted her head to the side and studied me. “You’ll be successful,” she said. “You’re young and adorable.”
Every day after that, every morning I woke up one day older, one day less adorable, I felt the success she seemed so sure of slipping through my fingers.
In general my MFA experience was wonderful, and my teachers were almost supernaturally kind, respectful, and generous. I’m not sure why their powerful support wouldn’t drown out an offhand comment from a visiting writer I met once. But those seven words had a profound impact on me, maybe because she was voicing a cultural belief about women in the arts, and in publishing, that I’d noted for some time. I had often heard the idea that a woman’s looks were linked to her success. But the emphasis of the visiting writer’s words was not on sex appeal or even beauty. You’ll be successful. You’re young and adorable. Her emphasis was on cuteness, a quality we praise in kids and kittens. I could be successful as long as I was fresh-faced, dewy-eyed, and green.
Fine. If those were the terms, then my grad-school self would take them. In fact I liked the idea of being peppy and innocent, a stock character in my own story. I had always thought I’d end up in New York City for a while; I was ready to meet up at Elaine’s or the Algonquin, to stroll the tree-lined sidewalks of Brooklyn, to satisfy my received notions of a writer’s life in the Big Apple. Only, of course, it wasn’t that simple. The idea of success predicated on cuteness was complicated for me by the fact that after I finished my MFA, I was getting married and moving to Vermont, where my fiancé lived. He had a four-year-old daughter and shared custody. There was no question of my relocating. Vermont felt—culturally and physically—very far away from any kind of arts or publishing hub. Instead of striking out to be an ingenue in the city, I moved to the country, which at times felt like choosing invisibility. Being young and adorable didn’t matter if no one ever saw me.
By the time I was thirty-five, I’d had a baby and my stepdaughter was ten. I was the editor of Hunger Mountain, the literary magazine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), and some of my own stories and essays were appearing in journals I admired. It was a start, but it didn’t feel like success. I experienced a kind of low-grade anxiety all the time. Was I still young at thirty-five? Was I adorable? I spent a lot of time changing diapers and blending avocados and peaches. I felt grubby and exhausted. By the time I was thirty-eight, I’d had another baby and been hired as director of the new MFA in Writing & Publishing program at VCFA. I’d also helped launch the Vermont Book Award. I was with writers all the time—young MFA students, established faculty, popular visiting writers we took out for dinner after their readings. I was proud of my work at the college. I often felt embedded in a beautiful literary scene in Vermont; I was dispelling the myth of geography that implied it was New York or nowhere.
The story about youth was much harder to unlearn. Nothing I did seemed like enough. I worked hard, I supported other writers, I read, studied, trained myself to write better sentences, agonized over plot. But: Aging was unavoidable. It was out of my hands.
The last day of my thirties I cried the entire time. I mean, I wept. I was embarrassed to be so sad, but I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t yet a writer—at least, without a published book, I didn’t then believe myself to be—and I was staring into middle age. If I met the visiting writer at a dinner now, she would have a very different message for me.
You’ll be successful. You’re young and adorable. I remember that when she first said the words to me, I’d been taken aback, but I didn’t understand why. She was offering a compliment, wasn’t she? Now at forty, even as I wept to confront my so-called advanced age, still under the thumb of so much of our culture’s thinking, I understood that calling a woman adorable diminishes her. The double bind was clear: Being “young and adorable” could get you noticed as a woman writer, but it also infantilized you. It denied you power and agency. It was a way in, but one that dismissed your work and positioned you as innocuous; age at all, though, and your shot at getting that work read might be gone. When was the magical time at which a woman was old enough to be taken seriously but young enough to still find success? It didn’t exist. The window of opportunity was shut tight.
The worst part was that I felt complicit in some ways in the adoration of youth. I loved that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein before she was twenty, the story of her tender age somehow giving the book an even greater mythic charge. I was smitten with Karen Russell and Helen Oyeyemi, not only because of their fascinating fiction, but because they were fascinating—prodigies with acclaimed debuts by twenty-six. My dreams about being a writer usually were about being a young writer. I wanted to be recognized for insuppressible talent, not hard work and discipline. I wanted the particular kind of attention I knew a young talent receives, the once-a-generation 20 Under 40 recognition, the 5 Under 35 accolade.
The publishing world makes much of debuts, which I’ve come to like, this sense that the writer is making a first appearance in the society of their peers. It’s a rite of passage without a traditional ceremony. Maybe when we celebrate debuts and experience that wonderful communal excitement over a writer’s career beginning, we want that writer to be young so their career can be long.
But I don’t really buy this. I think a culturally pervasive obsession with youth has led us to believe in an age or cuteness barometer for success, especially for women, that doesn’t really exist and certainly is not necessary. We can fete a young writer without furthering the message that her value is linked to her age and her appearance. In a discipline that values wisdom and insight, there should be no time limit, no window of opportunity for success. Writers of all ages have produced moving, powerful books. Lyrical brilliance knows no age. Insight into the human condition changes over time; the insights of a twenty-five-year-old are different from the insights of a seventy-five-year-old. All are valuable. All make for stories worth telling.
One August night the year I turned forty, I stayed out late at the bar with many of the faculty and attendees at the postgraduate writing conference at VCFA. It was a warm evening. We moved from inside out to the balcony. There were writers of all ages and at various stages in their careers. Their books were National Book Award finalists, New York Times best-sellers, Oprah’s Book Club picks. Many were older than me. I was doing the same thing I had done back at the spaghetti dinners of my MFA days: looking for clues about how to be a writer. Now, though, more than a decade out of grad school, I was looking for different things. I watched how the writers treated the bartender, how they held my attention, how they handled success, failure. I was no longer so taken in by style or charisma, charms that had once drawn me to that visiting writer—that is to say, the superficial terms by which I’d internalized her success, not, I realize, so unlike the terms on which she predicted mine.
Our ice melted in our drinks. The summer constellations drifted above us. Everyone was telling stories, talking fast.
“As for me,” I said a little hysterically, “I just turned forty. A writer once told me I’d be successful because I was young and adorable. That was twelve years ago. Ha ha! I’ve been working on my novel for all those years, getting older and older every day.”
They didn’t exactly laugh. But they smiled sympathetically. Maybe they’d had experiences like this. Maybe I just seemed unstrung.
Later, the National Book Award finalist stood to leave. Before he went he kneeled down in front of me, took my hands.
“Twelve years is the perfect length of time to work on a novel,” he said. “Forty is the perfect age. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.”
I gathered up my cardigan and phone and went back into the bar. A bat had flown inside, and it swooped around the room in an elaborate feat of echolocation. No one shrieked; we all stared in pity and curiosity, ducking our heads when it came too close. I felt a sense of elation, and relief. I wanted the bat to fly out the back door, swing up into the sky all lit up with stars. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.
Again, the writer’s words were so powerful because they gave voice to something I was ready to hear, a belief I was fumbling toward on my own: that there is no deadline by when we must “succeed,” that the work is limitless and unfolds on a different time scale than our looks, or our health, or even our lives.
I don’t mind when people comment on my appearance. I’m flattered when I’m told I look young. But to link my youth with my hope of success in writing was a deep unkindness and injustice. It made me doubt my choices, my decision to get married and have children. It made me see the passage of time as a frightful antagonist.
Today, teaching in an MFA program, I have students of all ages, and many could be called young and adorable. I love spending time with them, their company charged by the particular electricity of writers seeing themselves in their work for the first time and recognizing their own dreams and ambitions in their classmates. But for the ones who are going to be wildly successful—and I think several will be—it will happen because of hard work, talent, and luck, because they’re able to shrug off rejection and keep trying, because they pursue their obsessions. These qualities are more powerful than youth or geography and will sustain them through decades-long writing careers that may start soon after graduation or years later. Some of them will move to New York City when they graduate. Some will move elsewhere, for love, or for family, or for work. All of them will age.
There is no finite period in which to do the work. There is no geographical sweet spot where we must do the work. The work takes as much time as it takes, and we can do the work anywhere. The window is wide open. The window is always open.
Miciah Bay Gault is the author of the debut novel Goodnight Stranger, published by Park Row Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2019.