Happy 40th birthday, Maud Newton

That we have all survived literary blogger Maud Newton‘s 40th birthday – it fell on the same day as the rapture that wasn’t – is no excuse for you not to read her fabulous piece in The Awl about that coincidence.

Maud Newton

To celebrate our survival, I wanted to highlight that part of her essay in which she dissects her ambivalence about turning 40. She writes:

“Obviously I don’t think 40 is the end of the road—some of my favorite people are closer to twice that. It’s just that some of us age more naturally, more gracefully, more normally than others. I think a lot these days about the fact that I haven’t had children; it’s not that I regret the decision, just that it sets me apart, defines me in some way I’m not sure I was prepared to commit to. I’m a reluctant New Yorker, a loving but irregular wife, a refugee from the practice of law, a blogger who’s lost interest in regular blogging, a critic who never planned to be one and a supposed writer who’s only now finishing her first novel. What the hell, in other words, am I doing with my life?”

I just wanted to thank Maud Newton for writing that paragraph. I wonder what I’m doing with my life on a weekly basis, if not more often, and I know I’m not alone in that. My surprise in reading it was a jolting reminder of the discrepancy between a reader’s idea of the writer, and the writer’s idea of herself. As a reader, it’s so easy to confuse an author’s regular byline or blog post with a rock-solid sense of self. Identity formation in the internet age – “you are what you publish” – comes with the corollary that you are nothing if you do not publish something. And as we are all writers and publishers now (and photographers and web designers and and and) – what does it even mean today to call yourself a writer?

As Maud Newton’s self-questioning attests, we are defined by our choices. Inevitably choices have consequences, some of which we see coming, and many of which we don’t. I have a PhD in American Literature but never wanted to be an academic. I was a book editor for a major publishing house in Australia but was unhappy because I wasn’t writing. I was a widow when I had never anticipated being a wife.

My 40th birthday was a grim affair. I did not know whether to stay in Sydney or return to New York, or what I would do to keep myself interested in either place; whether to continue trying to write the second book that I thought would come easily but which continues to emerge at a glacial pace; whether I would ever meet anyone I would love as much as I loved my husband, who by then had been dead for more than five years. Marrying a man with a terminal illness is a choice with many consequences.

It’s now about 18 months since that birthday, and I am happily living in New York, and the second book is coming along, if too slowly for my liking. I even fell in love. I try not to compare my creative output-to-age ratio against some of the more prominent regularly published figures of what passes for the online literary establishment. I try to remember that I am a late bloomer, and that there are many of us about. (Maldolm Gladwell wrote a marvellous essay on late bloomers, which helped me enormously.)

So, Maud, I look forward to your novel when you finish it. One word at a time. You just keep making it up as you go along, as we all do.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Virginia: Thank you!
    Just yesterday I had to present on a panel and many of these thoughts ran through my head. Where’s your book? Who are you to think you can stand here and speak? I had to run through the list of my accomplishments (which didn’t take long 🙂 to bolster myself.
    The publication/identity trap is, I’m guessing, even more profound in nonfiction. Like it or not, the “I” is all we’ve got.

    1. Hi Christin – I hope the panel went well! There’s always a gap between how others see us, and how we see ourselves. Before workshops and things I also run through my “credibility check-list”. I don’t know whether women experience this self-questioning more than men. All I know is that women tend to be more open about it. I will think more about your point about the publication/identity trap being more profound in nonfiction. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thanks for posting this illumination. At 41, I also consider myself a late bloomer. I’m doing just fine in the writing realm–getting a few essays published, pursuing my MFA, receiving some encouraging rejections from literary journals… That is, until I also compare myself to others’ success in the “literary establishment.” The what-am-I-doing-with-my-life quandary persists, and it’s good to know it isn’t in isolation.

    1. Nicole, it sounds like you’re doing really well. When I’m not obsessing about purpose and publication credits, I try to define what I mean by “success”, because it’s such an unstable category. Read the Gladwell essay if you have a few minutes, it’s fascinating. Good luck with your MFA and with your writing generally.

  3. Is 33 too early to know you’re a late bloomer? Thank you for sharing your reflections and the relevant musings of others regarding this topic; I feel both heartened and grateful to have found this entry today.

    1. Thanks Emily. Maybe the “lateness” of the blooming is relative, and it’s certainly in the eye of the bloomer. Today I was delighted to learn about Grandma Moses, who began painting in her 70s and had her first solo exhibition at the tender age of 98. Fantastic. This is her Wikipedia entry.

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