‘Am I Too Old to Emerge?’

Author’s note: Since I started The Reading this summer, I’ve had the joy of giving away the help I wish I had had when I first started writing. Next month, I’m going to start offering subscriptions. Your support would help me stay independent for all that I hope to offer next in my writing and teaching.

These letters will, as promised, remain free. The biggest change will be that The Writing will require a subscription. I’m also excited to introduce this other perk: a podcast version of each week’s letter, read by me, good as a companion for when you’re doing the dishes, taking a walk, gardening, cleaning, lounging, or possibilities I have not yet thought of. For the next month, these audio versions will go out with each letter so you can get a taste of what I mean.

[A scan of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson: Two pages splayed, one in ancient Greek, the other in English. Both are labeled (or titled) '87D.’ The Greek transcription is fragmented, with bits and pieces cutting off. The English translation is a vertical line of end brackets. On the right of a bracket in the middle, on its outside, is a single word: youth.]
Dear Yanyi,

I’ve been considering an MFA since I was 19, but let doubt get in my way. By my mid-twenties, I already felt too old. I’m in my thirties now and still can’t shake the desire to do it, to find community and mentorship, to learn (realizing I can do this outside of an MFA, but always with a little less grounding, it’s seemed). Is there any point? Is it too late to be taken seriously as “emerging”? I’m so ambivalent here. Thank you.

Dear ____,

Over the fireplace of an old college dormitory of mine lives this motto: “HOLD FAST TO THE SPIRIT OF YOUTH / LET YEARS TO COME DO WHAT THEY MAY.” Back then, I had the Sappho fragment I’ve included above printed and displayed over my writing desk. Back then, the years began in autumn. I had youth and I was youth. And I had a bundle of dreams I was waiting to lay out in this city that could and would finally hold them all.

The years do come and do as they may. Days passed across faces I would come to cherish, some years later, some for only briefly, as briefly as the weeks and months were forgotten in my discarded calendars. Yet the dreams I brought from youth did not discolor or diminish, but turned out their patinas and scaled as my life expanded and complicated: to bills, to rent, to reckonings, to love. To letting go of families I thought I had and learning to choose families I would always have. The years do come and do as they may.

From my first fellowship to my first book, I’ve benefited and been a part of this idea of the “emerging writer” that you, ____, are afraid that you can no longer be. As I said in the midst of that time, “[an] emerging poet is only emerging to those who call them as such.” This has only become more certain: you are not simply an emerging writer on your own. You must be named as such.

The naming itself, I’m sad to say, might be more of the point than the worth of your writing. This week, I listened to a recent episode from Citations Needed on those 30 Under 30 lists that are lovingly circulated by the press each year. The episode discussed how often those listed had some sort of unmentioned inherited wealth or fame that gave them the resources and time to achieve their success. To the extent that they aren’t from those backgrounds, whether they are immigrants or activists, those more likely to make it to these lists play—or can be convinced to play—in the confines of capitalist interests.

So I advise you (and everyone), to move forward cautiously. To be named “emerging” is to be anointed by someone else as becoming a writer correctly. You are judged as much by your youth as your ability to uphold a social, colonial, and economic status quo. When I was getting acquainted with the poetry industry, I didn’t know many other young writers who weren’t haunted by the looming under-thirty deadline of Poetry’s Ruth Lilly fellowships. These lists are dangerous because they set deadlines for when one must publish a book, win awards, and make their way before some other, younger, newer writer can grace the stage. They groom writers and writers-to-be to believe, do, and write in particular ways to “emerge” in a well-oiled machine that creates new and noteworthy literary commodities. So long as their honorees continue on their way, the list-makers gain cultural capital and can further a mythology of what successful writers look like by the time they’re thirty—a mythology that requires those list-makers to exist.

It may be that you saw the MFA as the only door to this world. Your hesitance may also be something in you telling you that a program is not quite right for you. Or you have given yourself enough reasons why it won’t work, unconsciously prolonging the wait. I will fast-forward for you: a program would not be perfect. Nor would a life cobbling together an education outside institutions. Trust me, I’ve done both. There is no set of rules for the contours of your education, but that is all the more reason to find one.

For that spirit we associate with youth—I do not miss my naïveté or the way I misunderstood. I miss being close with myself. I miss springing to action in my name only. I miss the mistakes that forced me to decide who I was. The point is to continue writing as surely as you continue breathing. Wherever this desire is, it has been a part of you for a long time. Are you ready to receive it? Are you ready to decide?

Age limits on fellowships and contests are slowly disappearing but the cult of youth remains, at least in the United States. The spirit of youth, however, has as much to do with all this as your dreams did when you were nineteen. Yes, ____, you may be too late to “emerge” for the powers that be. Rather than believing you’ve missed the boat, you’ve simply gotten on another one, one that has included your life up until this point.

Now that you are older, you have held your own life for a little longer than these emerging writers. You’re not so easy to groom or to take on as an investment; you’re not happy to settle for careerism and the status quo. Perhaps, on this other boat, you’ve set your first boundaries with loved ones who have broken your heart; you’ve been tricked; you’ve taken stands for what you cared for; you’ve noticed and redirected your own dogmas; you’ve made a life you can call your own. And although you knew you were a writer, and you call it doubt, it’s possible that you also wanted to know who else you could be. For in the spirit of youth is the dream of living a hundred lives in this one.

With the spirit of youth, on those sharp fall mornings, I remember believing that my life was to be found in that city—that there were people who would understand me, interests that I could follow, networks big enough for the kinds of impact I wanted to make. That in order for my life to mean something, it would have to come from the outside. The outside had reasons for why I should become a businessperson or get a computer science degree. The outside had usefulness, practicality, and social change. So, like you, I turned away from writing. I turned away from its uselessness.

But say the uselessness was the point. Say that writing, ____, is all about being “used” less. There’s no reason to do it. Plenty of people don’t. Yet you find yourself turning toward an uncontainable, endless plain. That plain is yourself. Your desire, your life, without borders. And you’re scared that you’ve gotten here too late. You’re scared that in all that time passed, time when you lived a life that didn’t feel quite your own, you wonder if you are nowhere and will always be nowhere, as you look back at your youth in your singular body, your body that has become unfamiliar.

But you’re as able to shake off this desire to write as you are your own skin. As you write, perhaps for the first time in years, you also feel a kind of love you have not been able to focus here. A kind of love you remember feeling when your world was smaller and simpler and could be made more your own. Writing is the plain you make a hundred times. Writing traces along the time you live. Writing preserves your dreams, practices the future. Writing gives nothing but you in return. It is never too late. Writing is where you emerge.

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