Why Being A Teen Phenom Isn't Necessarily Awesome

Illustration for article titled Why Being A Teen Phenom Isn't Necessarily Awesome

Australian writer Steph Bowe got a book deal at fifteen, but felt like a failure for not publishing at thirteen or fourteen. Sounds insane — except that I can relate.


When we were fourteen, my friend and I dreamed of literary stardom. We were going to co-write a book about our ninth grade lives, sell it, and be hailed as precocious geniuses by critics and readers alike. We may have dimly thought about college admissions and future careers, but mainly we wanted to be famous for publishing really, really young. I think we wrote about two pages on classmates we didn't like and pranks we'd pulled on our French teacher, before getting bored and moving on to our next scheme. Still, I always got a twinge of jealousy every time a teen author made the news — if only we'd had better luck (and way better follow-through) that could have been us.

But now I'm actually kind of glad it wasn't. And not just because of the cautionary tale of teen plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan, or because "you have to have life experience before you can write" (a snooty proclamation that has always annoyed me). I'm glad because adolescence is already a time when we obsessively compare ourselves to everybody else, and it's a great time to learn that such comparison will get us nowhere. I was a reasonably accomplished teen, but every time I really tried to measure myself against others, I came up short — there were always plenty of people cooler, hotter, more popular, and yes, way more published than me (considering that my only publication in my teenage years was a regrettable essay comparing violence in my neighborhood to the process of boiling a frog). The experience of being worse than other people taught me that if I wanted to not feel like shit, I was going to have to stop comparing.

This is not to say that I've reached some advanced plane of serenity where I never worry about how I measure up. But at least I now recognize that this worry — and its flipside, a feeling of superiority — can only lead to a spiral of self-doubt and joyless striving, and I can try to nip it in the bud. Steph Bowe, luckily, seems to have learned this way earlier than I did. She writes,

I'm 16. I got a book deal when I was 15. There are authors that were published at 13 and 14 and I always find myself thinking, God, must I fail at everything I do? They were published younger than me! I think a lot of young, motivated people set impossibly high standards for themselves. Know that no matter how much you succeed, you're still going to feel like you could have done better. Ignore these thoughts. You are an amazing person, regardless of what you achieve and the age at which you achieve it.

Bowe's not just a precocious writer — she's also wise beyond her years, which is going to matter more to her life than any book deal.

16-Year-Old Author Wonders: 'Does Age Matter In Publishing?' [Galleycat]


Slay Belle

I wanted to be a writer when I was growing up. I was jealous of those rare teenagers who got book deals, grumpy about it, brooding about it. And then somewhere along the line I convinced myself I was tortured enough to be a 'real' writer and that I should leave it up to people with 'talent'. I somehow got sucked into the myth that talent in art is a lightening strike from above. No one ever told me it was actually hard work.

Now, at 35, I feel energized again about writing and have a much more realistic approach to the process. I mourn the years I spent ignoring my desires and the lost time working in the trenches, but at least I'm not wallowing in mythology any more. Now, instead of being jealous of teenagers, I just get put out about writers who get book deals without being, you know, good at what they do. Or angry, in one specific case, about someone who might be one of the worst people I've ever encountered in the world, who is on her third published novel, while other talented, decent authors I know toil in obscurity.