30 and Bookless

My 14-year-old self would be crushed, but I’m relieved.


As a general rule, I try not to make a big deal about turning another year older because I always just end up feeling like the same person I’ve always felt like anyway. But years that end in zero are different, and this one especially. This week, I turn 30. And I’m excited. I think it will be a good age for me. But for a while the whole idea of it just filled me with dread. I was letting myself feel that feeling, but I was also pretty bummed that I was feeling it at all. Was I becoming one of those people? Was I going to spend the rest of my life celebrating the anniversary of my 29th birthday and being all defensively coy about my age, swooning whenever I got carded at Publix? According to many smart women whose judgement I trust, 30 is when it all starts happening, when the bullshit of youth falls away and you become more and more yourself and care less and less about all the dumb stuff you spent the last 10 years wallowing around in. I wanted this to be true. But I was too busy caring, and caring that I was caring, to stop caring.

My bad feelings about 30 peaked a few years ago after a day spent rummaging around my personal archives, i.e. the many many boxes and piles of stuff that remain in what used to be my bedroom at my parents’ house. Deep in some cache of some middle school detritus I found the issue of Time magazine I put together in the 8th grade. This was our big capstone project in my language arts class, making an issue of the magazine — nose to tail, table of contents all the way to quippy back-page column — featuring our own selves as the cover subject. The idea was that this would be the issue on newsstands the week we turned 30 years old. The project was famous in the way that middle school projects can be famous, and I’d been excited about it ever since I heard some upperclassmen talking about it the year before. I was a very particular sort of 8th grader. My parents were Time subscribers and I read every issue back to front, so when we got the assignment I went in hard, right down to the fonts. Or at least as hard as Microsoft Publisher 97 would let me; I recall an abundance of Arial Narrow.

I don’t remember what destinies everyone else assigned themselves except one of the dozen a-less Rachels in my class who crowned herself Miss America and used as her cover photo an actual glamor shot she’d already had taken for unrelated purposes. There were probably also some football stars and illegally young U.S. Presidents. We were all dreaming big, basically writing fan fiction about our triumphant future selves.

And me? I wrote myself as a graduate of the College of Charleston, where I had written a bi-weekly “humor/opinion” column for the local newspaper while an undergrad, and where I had also published a bestselling debut novel between my sophomore and junior years. After graduation, I moved to Georgetown, South Carolina, with my bull terrier, Ulysses, though I had “racked up” “dozens” of “theatre credits” “around the country.” I had a second novel forthcoming in spring 2015 and, at press time, had recently made some public statements suggesting a potential future run for South Carolina state Senate. In the cover story, I said things to the “interviewer” like, “My ‘image’? I wasn’t aware I had an ‘image’.” (The issue, ostensibly on newsstands the first week of November 2014, also included a news brief about Dolly the Sheep and glowing reviews of 10 Things I Hate About You and Semisonic’s Feeling Strangely Fine.)

You can read it like tea leaves in reverse: I did Youth Legislature and community theater and I liked South Carolina, the one place my family ever went for spring break. (I can no longer access the root of my desire for a bull terrier.) My approach seems to have been asking, what would my life look like if I got to professionally pursue every single thing my 14-year-old self was into? So I was mostly unperturbed by my failures. My interest in politics and theater had conveniently declined around the time I hit the natural limits of my talent for each, though it stung a little that I still didn’t have a dog — and when that was remedied earlier this year, I did think, well, at least I’m not a failure on all counts.

What really hurt was all the writing I hadn’t done. As soon as I read the words “best-selling debut novel released between her sophomore and junior years” and “second novel to be published next spring,” everything I had actually accomplished over the last decade and a half — the lit mag I ran in high school, the newspaper I ran in college, the internship at the magazine that hired me before I graduated, every subsequent interview and reporting trip, every harried deadline and every byline, every award and every kind comment, everything I’d ever written or edited or produced, everything that makes up the writing career that I do actually have — collapsed into nothingness.

Nevermind that I hadn’t written fiction since around the time I was writing that fiction about my future self. Nevermind that I’m fairly confident that even back then I was being facetious about the idea of ever being so accomplished — I must have known that a 30-year-old would not wind up on the cover of Time magazine for having completed a large chunk of a first draft of a book that she feels good about and is deeply dedicated to but also really wants to take her time with and get right because it’s an important story and she knows she only gets one shot to tell it, etc etc. Nevermind all that.

The path I sketched out for my life back then was ridiculous enough to pass as a joke, but it was not all that far from the truth of what I wanted. I could recognize the little pebble of my real desire shining amidst all the teenaged bombast because I was still carrying that pebble with me, still clutching it so tight to my heart, double my lifetime into the future.

Until I uncovered this version of my former self’s vision of my future self, I had blamed the internet for making me feel like I needed to have published a book (a book, at least) by the time I turned 30. I blamed its boundless access to not only the career highlights of strangers, but to their Wikipedia pages and Twitter bios and semi-public Facebook profiles with if not their actual birthday then at least their alma mater and graduating year right there, just daring you to do the math. I blamed the internet’s gross amplification of our culture’s slack-jawed reverence of youth, our fixation on the precocious and the preternatural, our constant tallying of the ratios of years to talent, our taking very seriously of placements on Whatever Under Whatever lists, our concern with making sure our favorite bright young things get to gobble up all the spotlight they deserve so they can grow big and strong and we can throw them off the cart once the next crop of prodigies sprouts in the spring.

But the internet had only provided the fertilizer, mound after steaming mound. This idea of the necessity and/or nobility of publishing-while-very-young had taken root in me long before — before the Time magazine project, before the 8th grade class survey that asked, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” to which I answered “Living off the royalties of all my books!” (Oh god, how cute.) What started it all, I finally figured out, was a boy with an arrow through his head.

I saw him at a conference for “young writers” that my parents took me to when I was maybe in the second or third grade. He had a mullet and Rick Moranis glasses and had won top prize in a national children’s publishing contest with a book he wrote and illustrated about the time he nearly died after tripping and falling at an archery range and landing on an arrow that went through his eye socket and snapped off in his brain. He had recovered and was now on tour, parading his book around to wormy kids and their highly devoted parents in elementary school libraries the whole country over. It was on this day that I learned the word “shunt” and that I experienced my very first flush of all-consuming professional jealousy.

Just the fact that I was already at a conference for “young writers” indicates a certain baseline level of ambition, so I can’t put all the blame on this kid. But he triggered the first time I remember feeling this feeling that has overcome me so many times since. For as long as I had been able to write, and maybe for a while before, I had wanted to grow up and write books. I knew how to get my words on a page, I just didn’t know how to get my words on a page that anyone could pick up and read. I felt like maybe this was something I would get to figure out when I was older. But then here was this other kid and he clearly knew what was up, had jumped ahead ten spaces in a game I didn’t even know we were playing — what had I missed, and how had I missed it? Was I absent that day? How could he be pulling this brass ring I didn’t even know was there to pull?

The boy’s book was for sale at the conference, stacks and stacks of them, big blown-up versions of the cover propped up on easels all over. The cover featured a photo of him with a goofy smile and a fake arrow shooting through his head. On the back was another photo of him, slightly older, sitting at a computer and grinning like he knew the exact temperature, in Fahrenheit and Celsius, of his hot shit. And that wasn’t even the worst part. When I got my hands on the book I discovered inside the back cover a two-page spread of all the other kids who’d won the contest in years past — whose books, like his, existed in the world on bookstore and library shelves, buyable and readable, like real books because they were real books. Their photos were shown along with thumbnails of their book covers, their faces all plastered with the same cruel smirk.

I went back to the conference a few more times, and every year there was a new kid who’d won the contest, signing copies of her book and grinning her head off. Every year the rest of us little striving scribes were sent home with slim blank books of our own and I filled up all of my pages and more, and I loved the stories I wrote but they were never enough. They were book-shaped things but that wasn’t enough. It never occurred to me back then that I could join the ranks of those back-page kids and their real books by actually entering a book of my own in the contest. Once I finally realized this, I was too old to enter. Maybe it was then that I set my sights on 30.

Two years ago, when I found my old fake Time magazine and realized how close I was to this deadline I had once set for myself (which, I do realize, I quickly set about taking quite seriously for something I hadn’t thought about in a dozen or so years) I realized that, if I really hustled, I could probably squeeze out at least one book before the buzzer. Having a second ready to go for spring 2015 seemed less likely. But, two years? I could have plotted out and blazed through a novel, or rushed through the nonfiction collection I was just beginning to work on. If I couldn’t get an agent to take it or a publisher to bite, I figured, I could go to Amazon or Lulu and put it out myself. It would be a book, a real book, an actual physical thing with pages full of words I had written, buyable and readable and with my name in all the places it’s supposed to go — the physical manifestation of my longest-held desire.

I could have made it happen. I could have had my book before 30, done and done. But I didn’t. And unless I’m otherwise possessed in the next few days, I won’t.

And I am so glad.

I think I’ve reached a point where I am at least as happy about having not published a book in my 20s as I once thought I would be about having published a book in my 20s. Now when I think about this book I don’t have, all I feel is a little twinge. It resembles what I feel when I remember how, also at 14, I told myself I was going to buy myself a pair of Doc Martens with my first paycheck from my first summer job, but never did. (To be fair, that twinge has grown sharper over time. It would be great to have an already-broken-in pair of 1460s to stomp around in this fall.) But when I think about scrambling to cobble together and birth something with my name on it, just for the sake of grabbing that ring — just for the chance to be adored in this ridiculous way we adore the young, just to make good on a semi-promise I made myself back before I had any idea how keeping that promise might work — how I feel is the same as when I’ve narrowly missed getting plowed down in a crosswalk. I came so close to having to lug around the stinking dead weight of a shitty first book for the rest of my life.

Not that all first books by very young writers are bad — of course that’s not what I mean. But mine would not have been good. Or it would have been good by someone’s standards, maybe by my own at the time, but it would have been written and pushed into the world for all the wrong reasons, a means to an end, and in the long run I’m not sure how proud I could be of something like that. I would have just been filling up the pages of a blank book-shaped thing, making myself a new sort of emptiness. I would have been satisfied for a while, but not forever; soon enough I would’ve just been hungry for more, and whatever I produced would not have been worth kickstarting that bottomless appetite. Is it possible to say this without it sounding like sour grapes? For a while I marked not-publishing a book in my 20s as a failure. Now it’s my proudest non-accomplishment.

I love my 14-year-old self but she had no idea what she was getting into with this writing business. She had no idea how hard it would be and how much time it would take, how much of myself it would take; she had no idea about how the goalposts are always shifting and how no one on the field can ever agree on the rules or if any even exist. She also had no idea how patient I could be. And she had no idea that I would still be taking her jokey dreams so seriously.

There’s so much she didn’t know, and so much about the life that I’ve wound up living that she couldn’t have imagined. She would be totally gobsmacked, for instance, about how many drinks I plan to have on Saturday night, and how much I adore the friends who will be there with me, and how much I love the dude I will go home with — how I will go home with him because we are married, and also we have this dog, and the dog is nothing like the dog I said I wanted that one time, which is fine because I don’t think I meant it anyway.

She wouldn’t believe, either, that turning 30 doesn’t feel like turning old — that it actually feels like turning a whole new type of young. She wouldn’t believe it, but it would be true.

(And this, too: There’s gonna be a book one day, girl. I don’t know when, but it’ll be worth the wait. I promise.)

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga.