The 3 Acts of a Writer’s Life–Or How Your Age Affects Your Writing
I’ve been writing consistently since I was twelve, which means I’ve now been writing for the (amazingly long very short?) period of twenty-two years. In that time, almost as much about my writing has changed as has remained the same.
This is something I’ve been casually pondering for a while now. Then, last week, I received the following email from David Hall:
Down the street I can see 70 years coming toward me. A few more months and it will be impossible to avoid. Have you ever discussed age and how it affects the material we write?
For starters, let me say that this one of my favorite types of email to receive—those sent to me by older writers who are either just starting out or are still going strong. With this year’s birthday, I will reach the moment in my life where fifty is as near to me in the future as twenty is in the past (and since I still feel like I’m a seventeen-year-old who was somehow given a fake ID, I’m experiencing a mild case of shock over the realization). It is deeply inspiring to me to realize how much can yet be accomplished in the years still before me.
I’m also beginning to realize that whatever those years bring, I will almost certainly be surprised by their offerings. Certainly, the effects on my experiences as a writer are vastly different to me as an adult than they were when I was a child. Indeed, since I never expected things to change at all in that regard, the differences I’ve encountered have all been tremendous surprises, sometimes disturbing, sometimes delightful.
Although at present, I can offer only a limited amount of personal insight into the how your age affects your writing (no doubt David could offer a good deal more himself), since I was asked I thought it might be a fun topic to explore. This is especially so in light of the fact that the readers who frequent this site present a vast variance in age—and also because this is, inevitably, a topic that touches us all.
The Three Acts of the Writing Life
Interestingly enough, this idea of life evolution and how age affects our perspective of and impact on life is one I’ve lately been exploring from the lens of story theory. As I’ve teased a few times on the podcast, I’m currently wrapping up research for a new blog series that will explore successive archetypal character arcs, which are representative of the seasons—or acts—of life.
As a sneak peak, since it ties in with today’s subject, I believe we see the pattern of story structure’s Three Acts played out in the typical human lifetime—in which approximately thirty years comprises each act.
The First Act—roughly, our first thirty years—is largely about defining our relationships with ourselves and our own personal identities. When the archetypal arcs of those years are properly completed, they lay the foundation for healthy arcs in the following acts.
The Second Act, made up of roughly the next thirty years, is focused on our relationships with others—friends, mates, children, community.
Finally, the Third Act—what for most of us will be the last thirty or so years in this life—then becomes the climactic act, which focuses on our relationship to Life and Death itself, in all its transcendent mystery.
Even though I began studying these “life arcs” as a way to further develop my understanding of how to structure my characters’ arcs in the most resonant way, the reason these arcs are archetypal is because they necessarily first apply to our own lives. Because I can already see the First and now the Second Acts playing out in my life, I believe the archetypal principles of the Third will ring true as well.
The Writing of Youth: Writing to Ourselves
Why We Write: In both my young self and in the many young writers with whom I regularly interact, I see the ebullient joy of creation simply for creation’s sake and a sort of desperation—as represented in Jo March’s statement (from the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women):
Late at night my mind would come alive with voices and stories and friends as dear to me as any in the real world. I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation.
We start writing for the pure joy of it, whether it is the joy of fantasizing ourselves into the midst of miraculous adventures or the cathartic joy of our angst poured out in characters who are deeply intimate projections of ourselves.
What We Write: When we are young, writing is an exploration. I daresay the young dislike the stricture that we should “write what we know” more than any of us. After all, the only things we know at that age are what we write.
And we write all kinds of things—fantasy, romance, adventure, even serious social dramas. We are perhaps never more derivative than in the beginning, as we begin inhabiting and owning the stories of others which have first carried us away with ourselves. But we are also perhaps never more original than at this age—when everything is new. When I look back at the stories I wrote in my First Act, there is a special freshness and passion within their rawness and clumsy technique. For all that my adult novels are technically “better,” they are not stories I inhabit in the same way I did those early ones.
How We Write: We write like Jo March, scribbling madly away into the night. However much we may desire the approval and enjoyment of early readers, we write these stories for ourselves. We write, not because it’s a job, not because we’ve made it a goal to show up at the desk everyday, but because we want to. We write ourselves bleary into the night and think it the greatest fun of all.
We write with varying degrees of control and technique. If we pursue our writing diligently as time rolls on, we begin to discover that writing is not simply the breathing of one’s soul upon the page. It is, indeed, the art of communication, and that however innately talented or imaginative we believes ourselves, we aren’t actually that good at it. The angsty teenage years begin in earnest, affecting our writing as much as anything else, and we begin to take it all very seriously.
The Writing of Adulthood: Writing to Others
Why We Write: Well into my twenties, I insisted I wrote for myself and that I would continue to write even if I knew no one would ever read what I wrote. Although I still (mostly) stand by that, I have witnessed a distinct change in myself here in my mid-thirties. My Second Act has seen me grieve for and grapple with the fallen expectation that my relationship to my writing would always be as ecstatic as it was in my First Act. More than that, I’ve surprised myself by realizing that not only do I now write as much for others as for myself, but that it is important to me to do so.
If writing in the First Act was all about my joy in expressing and exploring myself, writing in my Second Act has brought with it the increasing awareness of my responsibility in relating with others and, indeed, my great desire to use writing to have a positive impact on my world. “There’s no such thing as just a story”—this statement began in my twenties as a passionate defense of the idea that my stories were an important part of my life, but has since transmogrified into an even more passionate belief that every word we write—fictional or not—is a catalyst either for good or for ill.
What We Write: The blaring passion of our early stories gives way to a more deliberate pursuit of meaningful resonance and purposeful originality. Although we may well “have just one story to tell and go on telling it over and over again in different ways,” we grow significantly more refined in our execution. The type of stories we tell may change entirely. The more ground we cover the more we may branch out, experimenting with how to share our enduringly passionate truths in original ways that avoid treading the same ground.
We become more conscious of the symbolism and themes that populate our stories. We understandwhat we are writing more clearly, to the point that ideas we would have blithely written about in the First Act are now rejected or perhaps just honed.
If we’re writing professionally, we’re also writing for others not just as a communal whole, but as customers. We’re constantly trying to find that balance between the old youthful enthusiasm, the demands and desires of the market, and our own purposeful convictions about the nature of art. In my experience of the Second Act so far, that is the hardest balance to perfect.
How We Write: For those of us who began writing in our First Act, we have the blessing of years of experience and learning behind us at this point. We’ve made mistakes and learned from them—both in style and in process. We’re perhaps at the stage of “knowing what we know.”
But that same experience that allows us to easily avoid the beginner’s mistakes can also lead us to burnout and repetitive fatigue. Some of the methods that served us well in the first blush of youthful passion no longer come as easily. We have to reconnect with the inner child, with the deep motivations that brought us to writing in the first place. We have to learn how to harmonize the child and the adult into a new synthesis that is built upon the past but also completely different from what we may have taken for granted would always be our own particular creative experience.
The Writing of Age: Writing to the Universe
Why We Write: As we enter the Third Act, I imagine we may well find ourselves having proven—to ourselves and to others—many of the challenges that seemed so vital in our early acts. There is a return of sorts to the old stomping ground of the First Act, when we wrote purely for ourselves because we wanted to and because it brought us joy. But now we write from the vantage of long years of experience and knowledge.
The passionate stories we wrote as children were questions we asked of the life that lay before us. Many of those questions have now found their answers. Now it is something else that lies before us and new questions that our stories ask. So I imagine we write both for ourselves—to ask these larger questions—but also for others—to leave to them some of the answers we have found.
What We Write: I think there is a period late in the First Act and throughout most of the Second when we care zealously about how our writing will be received and what sort of impact it may make on our readers. But I also think that at a certain point we don’t care as much. Authors in their Third Act aren’t as rigorous with their form anymore. They begin experimenting more. They are asking questions again rather than just filling in the expected answers, and these questions show up in how they treat the actual process of writing as much as anything else. There is a playfulness that may not have been fully present previously.
Too, I see in many older authors a deeper passion than ever before. Their time is limited. Their own life stories are coming to a close. They have only so much longer to share the stories that are important and to give to the following generations—of both readers and writers—the truths they have won in their own hard-fought battles. If our Third Act sees us sometimes more playful than we have allowed ourselves to be before, it may also see us more intense than ever.
How We Write: After a lifetime of writing (or even just a lifetime of living come to that), there is a good deal of instinct that naturally flows through us. Techniques we struggled with in the First and Second Acts are long since mastered. If story itself remains an affectionately unruly beast, it is perhaps one we no longer view with the same frustrated suspicion we sometimes did in our earlier life. Perfection may both come more easily and, in some measure, be less important. We’re now writing less because we have something to prove to the world and more because we have something to share.
In closing this post, I realize even more than when I began it that I’m massively unqualified to have written it, since more than half of my ideas about it are total conjecture. Still, it has been a thought-provoking exercise and roused a hopefully not-too-idealistic anticipation of what the rest of my Second Act and all of my Third Act will bring for me as a writer. Since we are all at different points in our life stories, I hope you will share you own insights into how age affects your writing—both in its challenges and its opportunities.