On being “Very Young”

The evening before this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School kicked off, I was sat on a bench out the back of the Charlemont Arms hotel alongside some of my fellow bursary students, sipping a pint of Diet Coke while others had a smoke. The group of us had only just met and were getting to know each other ahead of the crazy week-long adventure we were about to have.

“You’re very young,” I was told by one of them, with a tone somewhere between surprise and confusion.

“Okay,” I replied, because I had no idea how else to respond. I found it kind of amusing, I suppose, that this was someone’s initial reaction to me.

When the week started in earnest, though, I heard the comment again. And again.

“Everyone keeps telling me I’m really young!”

“Well, you are.”

This got me thinking, because I was certainly not the youngest person there and I’m not particularly babyfaced. I am, in fact, almost thirty.

In reply to my initial post about JHISS in which I said I was intimidated by the heavy schedule, someone said, “If you feel intimidated, imagine how I must feel!’

What I conclude, taking those bits of context into consideration alongside the “very young” comments, is that people don’t think I’m young in per se. If you’re one of the people who made these comments, you can correct me on this, but what I think is happening is that I – somehow – have given the impression that I’m accomplished, or established, or vaguely know what I’m doing, or… something. The surprise seems to come from the fact that I have achieved this mystical level of influence/achievement at my age whereas for most people it comes much later if even at all.

Just typing that out makes me feel uncomfortable; like I’m bragging or something, but I don’t know how else to figure it. I certainly don’t feel impressive for my age. In fact, I panic fairly frequently that I haven’t done enough and should be doing more – should be being more.

On these expectations, I have also been musing. 

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told I’m too hard on myself. I always dismiss it with a, “yeah, probably.” But those people were and are right. I’m finally realizing that for myself. (Somewhat ironically, I’ve been impressively slow to catch on.)

I’ve been measuring myself against this impossibly high bar, comparing myself to people who have been writing for longer than I’ve been alive, demanding of myself reasons why I’m not matching up and then not accepting those reasons, because they were excuses and never good enough.

I had to try harder; had to have several novels under my belt by thirty or be considered a failure.

Yeah, I would seriously lie awake at night telling myself that. What bullsh*t.

I feel like I have a better perspective of what I have achieved now – because it’s certainly not nothing – and maybe my ridiculous ambitions have helped me get this far, but in a lot of ways I know they’ve also held me back; causing a level of anxiety that’s ultimately counterproductive.

Part of the reason I have this new perspective is because, while I was away, I came up with a better way of organizing some things on my website. I entered myself into a competition, recently, and had to include a list of readings I’d done as part of the application. Well, thanks to Women Aloud NI, I’ve done a lot of readings. So many, in fact, I had entirely lost track of them all.

So, I did what any normal person would do and scrolled the entire way down the timeline of my Facebook Author Page and made a list of all the events I had listed there.

Spoiler alert: there were a lot.

I decided that I didn’t want to have to do it all again at some point, if I needed the information again, so I added the list to my events page for future reference. But compiling the list – and coming across various bits of positive feedback that I had forgotten about during the process – helped me to see that, yes, I have achieved things. More than I often give myself credit for.

I’m still not sure I would claim to be impressive for my age or whatever, but if that’s how other people see me, I’m not gonna fight them on it.

Comparing ourselves to our peers is interesting and unavoidable to a degree, but it’s certainly not everything, not least because all of our perspectives – both of ourselves and others – are heavily skewed by an infinite number of things.

I’m starting to see that being prolific and being accomplished are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, someone during the JHISS said that they came across a lot of people who used the word prolific to describe authors – particularly women authors – negatively. It’s not something I’ve come across personally and therefore wouldn’t feel qualified to comment on, but it is interesting.

There are over eight billion ways to view the world. I’m trying not to get too caught up in that, though.

There was so many brilliant authors, artists, poets, and speakers at the summer school, most of them having had several best sellers and awards coming out of their ears. A few times their introduction included a bit about how it was almost unnecessary to intro them. Because they were so great and had done so much, hadn’t everyone already heard of them?

To my shame, I will admit that I often hadn’t. That’s not because they weren’t as great as the interviewer said they were – I often left the readings in a state of awe at the books being discussed – it’s purely because excellence is no guarantee of being a household name.

You could be the best writer in the world and still most of the world won’t have heard of you. It’s a shame, but it’s not personal or reflective of the quality of the art. It’s just life and how it goes.

During his show with Ulaid, Duke Special sang a song inspired by Emily Dickinson. She’s been hugely successful – since she died. Does that fact make the success lesser? In some people’s eyes, I suppose it does. But here’s my conclusion to all this: it doesn’t matter what those people think. It’s all highly subjective at best. So I’m trying to not get too caught up on that, lest it distract me from the important part: actual words on the page.

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