I sit on the floor at the Oregon Convention Center, my back against a wall, watching the tidal rhythm of legs moving past. The water-sound of voices echoes from the high ceilings. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth missing a session to walk a few blocks for food, but I’m already hungry and the decision feels complicated. Nearby, other attendees at this writers conference have also washed up along the edges: sipping cups of coffee they waited in line half an hour for, or looking at their phones, or just staring into space. A crowd of 15,000 puts pressure on everyone, but I’m lucky that provisioning myself is the biggest physical challenge I face. Many others work against more formidable obstacles, and the emphasis on access here is refreshing. There’s a long list of accessibility equipment and services available, and we’re duly reminded in each session not to question anyone’s use of accommodations. Disabilities, it is repeatedly stressed, are not always visible. Taking access to the next level, many panel topics focus on writers who belong to queer, minority, immigrant or marginalized communities. The conscious effort at a universal welcome feels promising in this blank, bland corporate setting; a glimpse of an open future in which everyone’s input is valued.
And yet, in this carefully equalized architecture of access, there is one barrier so taken for granted that it goes entirely unacknowledged. It’s because of that barrier that I am writing this piece anonymously; if my biological traits are known, my chances of getting a first novel published will plummet.
After one crowded session on the secrets of mainstream publishing, I join the throng lining up at the panelists’ table for a few seconds of one-on-one. I approach an executive editor from one of the big five publishers, classically brisk and New York looking. I will soon be pitching a debut novel, I tell her, and I want to know how much of an issue my age will be to agents and publishers. She immediately replies that, despite having denigrated self-publishing during the session, she wants me to know that memoirs are the one genre where self-publishing is useful and appropriate. She goes on, bafflingly, to expound on how self-publishing is today’s excellent equivalent to the keeping of bundles of letter, of journals, for posterity. What? She looked at my face and hair and automatically assumed I was writing a memoir?
“No, not a memoir,” I say. “A novel. Literary fiction.”
She pauses, looking disoriented for a second. Then she says, “Well, you don’t have to let them see you, right?”
“I should keep my photo off Twitter?” I already do, for this precise reason, but I want to make sure that’s what she’s saying.
I back away to give others their turn, my thoughts scrambled. I mean, yes, I knew this, but actually having it confirmed out loud stuns me. I try to imagine just how her recommendation would go down if she had said that to literally any other kind of person at this conference.
Don’t let them see you.
What would happen if she said that to a writer of color, or one who was differently abled or whose gender expression was nontraditional? Don’t let them see what you look like, or the doors will slam shut against you, your access will be revoked.
How I look. My face is not acceptable. I could cover my white hair with a scarf, and from the neck down (clothed, at least) I look no different than I did forty years ago. It’s just my face I can’t hide. The weathered skin, the increasingly androgynous look. There isn’t enough makeup in the world to obscure the tracks of time, these deeply-cut frown lines and loosening puffs of flesh. And anyway, the last time I wore makeup (aside from Halloween) was when I was fifteen. It seems so strange, that this physical outer shell—which I can’t even see unless I look in the mirror—has become an obstacle to joining the literary conversation. If I had dyed hair, lifted face, all the signifiers of the attempt to stay visually relevant, would that make a difference?
Disabilities can be invisible to others, yes, and many people reckon with challenges nobody else can see—but it works the other way as well: The world sees someone who is sidelined, less capable, more narrowly self-involved (all I can write is a memoir?)—while looking out through my own eyes, I don’t see any impediments. I’m just part of everyone else here, another human particle in the flow through these hallways.
Is it a question of capability? I’ll set mine against any random pick of the twenty-somethings surrounding me. I live alone off-grid, which means hauling firewood, dealing with windstorms and intransigent tools, sweeping snow off the outhouse seat. I can handle the chop and slam of small boat rides in rough waters. And I can take on the urban world, too, parallel parking in the heart of Saturday-night Portland for the Copper Canyon book launch event, or landing alone in Istanbul or Moscow. I’ve outlived lousy parents, raised children to adulthood, washed the body of a dead husband. I earn my living now online, writing about blockchain and the capabilities of mixed reality (while hiding my age from my clients, of course).
All of which is to say that I can grapple with the world on its own terms. I move through it much as I ever did, albeit with more knowledge and competence. I don’t need allowances to be made or special access to be offered. But the world’s reaction to me has drastically altered.
I do recognize that my outrage is a response to the erosion of privilege that I’ve taken for granted until now. My experience cannot be compared with that of someone whose entire community has been violently, systematically barred from equal participation in society. My body has white skin and agile parts that all work. I’m a cisgendered, heterosexual, decently educated legal citizen. I’ve been poor, but it was always the poverty of someone who had choices. Put bluntly, I suppose, I’m accustomed to my voice being heard. At least as much as women’s voices are ever heard, which for me has generally been sufficient.
After another session, I ask my question of a keen-edged androgynous-looking panelist who runs a respected small press. I trust this person’s insight, and would love for them to be interested in my book someday. “I won’t do you the disservice of saying your age wouldn’t be a factor,” they respond—honestly, if also obliviously. “But in the end it’s all about the writing.” Fair enough … except. Except we both know what it means for my age to be “a factor.” Factor as in obstacle. As in the thing you have to overcome, the downside that your writing has to dazzle them into ignoring.
Of course I want my work to dazzle. Every writer does. You hack away at the sentences until you’ve pruned them into the best shapes, organic and artful. But when all the polishing is done, when you’ve breathed as much compelling specificity into your characters as you can, then you want your work to be evaluated on an equal footing with everyone else’s.
I’m aware that many people my age (63) have reached a resting phase, where they only want to review and chronicle the lives they’ve led. Their molten surface has cooled, rigidity is setting in. The stereotypes do spring from real sources. But how dare anyone decide ahead of time about my ambitions, on the basis of what they think they know about people who look like me? (Hearing myself ask this, I must stop to acknowledge that people have made generalizations about me all my life—but wearing the badges of privilege, I was able to remain oblivious. It’s when the stereotypes turn negative that you notice them. But I’m only me, and I only have my own story. So with a nod of respect to those who struggle against bias that is immeasurably more brutal and pervasive, I will continue.)
When does the gate close, if you’re an emerging writer? How many years did I miss the deadline by? Maybe the answer lies in those peppy articles regularly churned out to encourage “older” writers to take heart. These usually list inspirational models who published their first books in their forties.
The curious thing is that the timed access gates only shut out writers who are new to the field. If you already have a track record, your future capacity isn’t in doubt. You become like a Supreme Court justice, where your mental acuity is treated as permanent fact. And this is a good thing—but why assume that those of us who were otherwise occupied during our early decades have somehow lost the capacity to think deeply and rigorously? For some of us, if we’re accomplished at anything, it is in making new beginnings.
Of course what publishers and agents want is someone whose career they can invest in, whose earning potential plots an agreeable arc across the axes of time and profit. They are business people in a shifting and unfriendly market. But. We’re none of us fortune-tellers. If we were, then publishers could simply count up the years of working life remaining to every new writer who knocks at their door. By that measure, who’s to say? I may be lucky enough to have another 25 years of lucid thought ahead of me. And not every young MFA graduate will keep churning out work for the next five decades. Besides, how long do marketable writers even stay under contract? Plenty of them jump from one agent or publisher to another in the industry’s competitive churn.
I do recognize that age-related professional barriers are often logical. I wouldn’t expect to be accepted to medical school, for instance, even if my MCAT scores were stupendous. It would be unreasonable to occupy a valuable training slot intended for someone at the beginning of their career. And physically and socially, I couldn’t possibly fit such a role.
But writing is different. The pipeline of possible entrants is more or less unlimited, and we each work alone. If you’re good enough to interest a reputable publisher, you’re by definition at a professional level. The work doesn’t require physical endurance—although admittedly, book tours sound like they have their hellish moments. Later stages of life even confer certain practical advantages. What was I doing during all those earlier, more marketable years? Hurtling through idealistic but ill-conceived marriages. Raising children. Moving. Figuring out how to put food on the table while learning how to be an artist or teacher or immigrant case manager or remote homesteader. I always wrote, of course, but projects got dropped and set aside as I followed my appetite for one fascination after another. Now? Settled alone in a wild patch of forest, my time is mostly my own. Working remotely, I can earn a week’s living in about 12 hours, and the resulting freedom is an astounding luxury.
Any serious profession demands stamina and agility in some realm, and for writers, that realm is the mind. What’s called for is an elastic self, able to engage a dissonant world and sift out nuggets that pierce and persuade. Age doesn’t correlate with how open the brain’s sluice-gates are; how hard and fast the ideas surge, how relentlessly they demand expression. It doesn’t constrain the shapes those ideas take, strange and writhing. Having lived longer is like standing on a hill; you can see more of your surroundings. That vantage point lifts you up out of the weeds, but it also makes your endpoint all too clearly visible.
Younger writers have their own brilliance—a freshly forged knife to cut through assumptions and reframe the terrain. Many have survived trauma, and describe it with unsettling clarity, but they haven’t yet looked back on it through the lens of multiple decades. The perspective of age isn’t reproducible, any more than any diverse voice can be authentically expressed by someone who hasn’t lived that life. To deepen the collective canon and make it truly reflect the full scope of human experience, don’t we need every articulate voice? Isn’t that the whole point of diversity, the whole reason that access is worth struggling for?
Maybe the problem is that I’m not diverse enough; unlike members of other outsider groups, I represent everyone’s future. Maybe that inevitability causes society’s averted gaze. If you are lucky enough to escape an early demise, you will eventually join me on this uncomfortable slanting ground. You will feel the pitiless advance of time, the urgency that makes me grab half an hour to write on a noisy ferry, instead of browsing the latest political shitshow on Twitter. I’m pricked by the constant knowledge that my words will at some point stop flowing, my brain stop sparking and linking. I just don’t want the marketplace to force that ending before nature does. Nothing matters as much as bringing something into existence that wasn’t there before, and crafting it skillfully enough to make the reader startle with recognition. All I can do is trust that if I manage that verbal alchemy and keep my face hidden, the gatekeepers will invite me into the literary conversation before they figure out how old I am.
The writer lives and works off-grid in a remote patch of Northwest woods. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Pacifica Literary Review, Quiddity, and other places.