When I was still trying to fit into the academic mold and working toward developing a doctoral thesis in education, I was privately baffled that my interest in adult education met with so many blank stares. Adult education, if it was addressed at all, was largely considered to be a remedial concern, an arena in which those who’d missed out somehow on receiving their educational due as children might return to make up for lost time. As such, it was not of interest to most professors who were spearheading research at my university.
In the past, of course, arriving at adulthood was an accomplishment, and was celebrated with enforcing the stability it represented. If they made it to their mid-twenties, our forefathers were expected to be chained to a career and our foremothers to a houseful of children. But somehow, this idea has persisted well into the modern age, when many of are just starting to wake up and look around when our 21st birthday celebrations make us sick enough to wonder if there’s more to life than self-indulgence and “it seemed like a good idea at the time” kinds of choices.
But God forbid we spend more than a few years exploring possibilities. No one wants to arrive at their thirties and still not know what they want to do with their lives, and if you’re audacious enough to want to shake things up in your forties, chances are a good friend or spouse will start bandying around the dreaded mid-life crisis label. Again, ideas like figuring out what do with your life and mid-life crises might once have made sense, since any failure to fully subscribe to that hard-won stability required breaking a vital social code, and individuals who did so probably had to act out in the process, oftentimes engaging in ironically self-destructive and unfulfilling behaviors.
But the perception of adulthood as a period of stasis has persisted long past the time when our narrow views of human expression and fulfillment ruled the day. Unfortunately, most of us have taken these socially established ideas of adulthood and assumed they have a literal meaning, that perhaps when our bodies and minds are fully established, our spirits and personal development must be, too. But I think what’s much closer to the truth is that the maturity of the body and mind is not a sign that development has come to a close; it’s a sign that the next phase of development is ready to emerge. This is when the growth of self can begin, when you’re no longer so preoccupied with hormones and gangly limbs that you can actually focus on something more meaningful. The idea being, of course, that you don’t stop growing when your body and frontal lobe are fully cooked; it’s that you’ve graduated to the next level of life, when passions and purpose are cultivated and tended to, with all the requisite fertilizing and weeding that comes along.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, as per my earlier fascination with adult growth, all of the writers I work with today are well into their fourth or fifth (or sixth or seventh or eighth or ninth) decades when they begin writing, and I encounter two very self-limiting and entirely avoidable behaviors. The first is the insistence that they are too old to write, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Writing requires heaps of experience and a ton of perspective, both of which tend to be advantages of age. The second is the tendency to assume that any creative bump in the road is a sign that the writing is not meant to be, or that one is not meant to be a writer, when such bumps are exactly what you want to encounter if you’re doing things right. If you’re actually investing in yourself as an ongoing work in progress, one that might just evolve in any number of directions, you’ll encounter some growth spurts, with all the accompanying growing pains. And just as you would never tell a teenager with leg cramps to lay off the food, rest, and exercise, telling yourself that obstacles in your writing path should be met with defeat and discouragement couldn’t be a more counterintuitive way to approach them.
If you don’t believe me (or are inordinately fond of your own self-flagellating tendencies), just give a different perspective a try for a few weeks. Whenever you start telling yourself horrible stories about your writing or yourself as a writer, take a step back and nourish yourself. Take a walk somewhere beautiful. Take a deep breath. Make yourself tea with honey and wait for it to cool off before you gulp it down. It’s even ok to make sympathetic sounds in the presence of your poor, tenderly bruised ego, just don’t mistake nourishment with destructive self-indulgence, which is the skanky cousin of defeat and discouragement. You might need to take a few wrong turns down the path of Netflix binges and boxed wine before you learn to tell the difference, but if you listen to that still, small voice that inspired you to write in the first place, you’ll find your way back.
For now, I invite you to play around with the idea that personal growth isn’t just natural, it’s as necessary and vital to your health as anything your parents did to help you develop strong bones and keep all your own teeth. And when the obstacles arise, welcome them in. Let yourself trip and wobble and scrape a knee or two. It’s the only way to keep learning.
Art: Laburnum Tree Trunk Growth Rings, Dr. Keith Wheeler