When Ageist Artists Attack!

a t CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers

at CUPSI ’09 (college slam nationals), the last time I felt remotely close in age to my writing peers

I went to a tiny reading in Cambridge last weekend that ended up a round-robin situation with some saxophone players and a few poets trading off, sharing renditions and drafts.  Normally, I can make this kind of set-up work for me.  At readings, I am often the tag-along friend, rarely the featured performer.  An accidental salon-style round-robin lets me pull out my smartphone and jump into the mix without any of the pressure of preparing a set, worrying about merch, or feeling obligated to make small talk.  I can read my work and then recede into the background until my next turn.

During the salon, someone asked if I was applying to MFA programs; in response I mentioned my age and said I felt like I still had a good chunk of time before a graduate degree would feel like a priority for me.  This is my knee-jerk response to such questions.  I feel far too young to be on the graduate school path.  Mentioning my age is my way of arguing that point.  But the deflection tactic came back to bite me once we got to the bar.  One of the women I was with told me she was impressed my work was so mature for someone my age.  Now, sometimes backhanded compliments happen by accident.  But this one felt purposeful, dismissive.

I am thoroughly familiar with being the “baby” socially.  I had an early birthday in school and was always the youngest of my friends.  I had a full time job throughout college and graduated a semester early, so I was thrust into the “adult” world when I was barely 21.  My partner is 7 years my senior.  So the, “wait, you’re how old?” conversation has gotten a bit tiresome at this point.

The woman and I danced around this awkward spot in our conversation: she piled on qualifiers for her original statement while I answered shortly and tried to reorient the conversation in a less uncomfortable direction.

HER:  So, when did you start writing?

ME:  I mean, I’ve always written.  Do you mean “seriously” writing?  I guess in college, but I had kept notebooks very seriously for years before that…

HER:  It’s just so interesting, I mean, when I was your age my voice wasn’t nearly as…

UGH.  That’s the only thing it feels appropriate to say in this situation.  I refuse to apologize for my age, or the fact that I’ve made writing a very serious part of my life for at least a decade.  The biggest frustration that I have about this reoccurring conversation is that I could easily avoid it if I would just keep my stupid mouth shut.  That number is at once an excuse (just in case I disappoint) and a jibe (just in case I’m really awesome).  If I under-perform, I can blame it on being young.  If I exceed expectations, I can obliquely taunt those in nearby company with my wunderkind abilities.

Either way, I will never understand how age is at all proportional to talent, drive or craftsmanship.  I take my writing seriously, and have for quite some time.  I know what excites and interests me in my own writing and the writing of others.  Shouldn’t that be enough to make me a peer to any other writer?  Aren’t we all just lovers of words regardless of age, intention, or advanced degrees?  It seems so arbitrary to draw attention to what year I was born as it relates to what I’ve managed in my writing life.  Except, of course, if it’s making somebody older a little uncomfortable with where they stand in relation.