Coming of Age: Finding Direction in Lucy Knisley’s “An Age of License”
An Age of License
An Age of License is a travel journal written by Lucy Knisley that details her trip around Europe in the fall of 2011.
After an invitation to speak at Raptus Comic Fest in Bergen, Norway, Knisley takes the opportunity to plan a trip around Europe to visit friends and family. Over the course of her travels she struggles with past relationships, work, and an uncertain future. She spends pages analyzing her love life, both with her ex John, and her current beau Henrik. What makes this difficult for her is that she still has feelings for John that she can’t seem to move past, and yet she knows that this budding relationship with Henrik cannot possibly last.
In France, she meets a man named Denis, who introduces her to a concept called “the age of license.” This term describes what many have come to call the “quarter-life crisis.”
Lucy notes in an afterword that, since 2011, she has been unable to find a single person who is familiar with this concept. “—nice to have a word for etc.” I agree. What I like about “the age of license” as opposed to the similar “quarter-life crisis” is that it is a completely natural part of the process of creating an identity. Crisis sounds like how it feels: like you are lost, or stuck, or uncertain. And while that’s how it may feel, it ignores the fact that everyone feels this way at times. Lucy’s term also takes it out of a specific point in time and makes it clear that this kind of personal journey can occur at any time, and perhaps many times. It also frames this phase as a gift. And it is! These feelings feel awful while you’re feeling them, but the lack of ties that begets them also gives us freedom to explore, to experiment, and, most importantly, to fail.
Knisley refers to her own age of license frequently throughout her book, and spends much of it uncovering exactly what that means. Is this age a privilege, or something that everyone inevitably goes through? Does it occur at a fixed point, or does that depend on who is experiencing it? It is possible to experience more than one such age? Lucy presents the idea that there are many different ages that we go through, at different times and in a different order depending on what suits us.
The best books get you thinking, and now I’m thinking that an age of license can occur at any point after a great change: leaving home, graduating from school, getting married, having children, retiring. At each of these points it can be beneficial to take a moment to reassess what we value, where we are going, and how we want to experience life. While travel is certainly not an option for everyone, it can be helpful to see how other people live and see the world, especially if you find yourself despairing at the lack of like-minded people around you. However, I don’t think that it is necessary. Even small changes can bring about a sense of progress; one needn’t travel the word or turn away from everything familiar and comfortable. Getting a new job, finding a new hobby, or enhancing your skills can all bring about a similar shift in self-discovery.
However, there is a degree of privilege inherent in this story. Knisley herself recognizes this, and spends time analyzing how that privilege has carried her thus far. All of the opportunities she is presented with are a result of that privilege, and in the final pages of her travelogue she takes time to express her gratitude that she was able to experience all they had to offer.
But not all of Knisley’s book is discourse on the nature of youth and adulthood. Often, Lucy shares details of food tasted, trinkets purchased, and sights seen. It is a travel journal after all. Watching her discover the unique qualities of each place she visited filled me a desperate wander lust that left me daydreaming of impossible trips. And while many of her illustrations are simple, She includes several full page watercolors that bring her adventures to life. With a style like Knisley’s it can be easy to forget that the images in the book are depictions of real life. These watercolors halt the narrative and remind us that these people and places exist in a world outside our awareness of them.
An Age of License is one of those rare books that conveys the feeling of directionless youth with the purest honesty. I highly recommend Knisley’s memoir for anyone who finds themselves stuck in a rut, spinning their wheels, or facing a period of great change. At the time these events took place, Knisley was in her twenties, working as a freelancer, and had just ended a long-term relationship. For me, this book came at just the right moment; having made some big life changes lately, I find it comforting that, however tough things seem, it’s nothing that hasn’t been endured and survived before.