The Myth of the Young Writer

Writers lament, “Ohmigod, I’m 25 years old and I haven’t published a book yet!”

Rubbish! says Antanas Sileika, artistic director of the Humber School for Writers, and author of Who Publishes When: An Analysis of Writing and Publishing Statistics released in October, 2010.

“When I was 34 years old I felt washed up because I had not published a novel yet. Then I read an article which said the average age of novelists in the United States was 47. I was saved!” says the now 57-year-old author of four books, numerous anthologies and literary critiques.

Sileika recently read again how much younger published writers were, so he launched a study to find out if that was true.

“I found out it was not quite so.”

Along with determining the writers’ age of publication, Sileika investigated their creative writing background and what trending effect, if any, writing schools had on publication.

Canadian writers’ associations represent roughly 4000 writers. Sileika limited his study group to English-language novelists, short story and creative non-fiction writers. This gave a total of 1547 subjects, of whom 432 replied.

He found the average Canadian author writing in English publishes when they’re 42 years old, although the youngest was 21.

Forty-six per cent of respondents published between 2000 and 2010, with numbers falling dramatically for each decade back to the 1960s.

Thirty-seven per cent of authors took one to two years between their first and second books.

Oddly, when it came to number of books published, Canadian output varies widely. The largest group, 36 per cent, produce only one or two volumes, followed by 30 per cent who have more than five titles on the shelf.

Most telling was Seleika’s research into education. In general, Canadian writers are learned: 69 per cent in the humanities, eight per cent in science, one per cent in technology, and 10 per cent in social studies.

But more than half of all published authors did not study creative writing on the road to publication. Of the remainder, 30 per cent studied writing for only one or two years, leaving a small fraction of “schooled” writers in the national pool.

Of the 49 per cent that did enrol in creative writing, 11 per cent studied right up to their date of publication, while nine per cent published five or six years later, and another nine per cent were delayed by 10 years.

“Even if writing schools are affecting publishing, those who enter later [in life] publish sooner,” Sileika concludes. “Or, those who graduate young are taking time to come out in book form.”

More complex was the answer to Seleika’s question “Should one study creative writing?” Fully 62 per cent of respondents had mixed feelings about the value of creative writing courses.

Among the 297 comments under, opinions boiled down to two main thoughts encapsulated as follows.

One, “They may learn some things in a class, but talent cannot be taught” (Comment 266).

And two, whether you write with our without formal training, “a writer never stops learning how to write” (Comment 138).

And if you’re not the youngest anymore, take heart. Seleika’s oldest respondent was 72 years old when their first book was published.

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