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Am I a late bloomer?

December 10, 2010

1. Doing the math

Even before I started the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I struggled when I thought in terms of numbers, and the way, in society’s eyes and in my own, my writing numbers didn’t add up.

Number of years writing: 40 (if you start counting with the poem about horses that I wrote when I was seven)

Age: 47

Number of publications: 0.

I should say, publications that have the ultimate meaning.  I should say, a novel. Because there are two textbooks that have my name on the cover. Poems in various journals. But the publication that I really want, that I’ve working for more and more consciously–that one has not happened.

When I went to my first residency at VCFA, I was surprised to find that I was on the long tail in terms of age and writing years. The largest number of students are in their late twenties and thirties. Spreading out into the distance are those of us who are older. I was surprised to hear from many (even those who share the long tail with me) that they had recently started writing; something had happened to shake things up, illness, divorce, a bolt of metaphorical lightning, and a year ago, or two, they had started on their journey, putting words to paper.

When I was alone in my dorm room or walking the incredibly green hills, I questioned myself: Why hadn’t I started an MFA in my thirties? Why had I been writing for so long and not had outward success? What did these numbers mean? I felt embarrassed to tell people how long I’d been working at it, how much I wanted it, whatever it is.

2. What it is

For the last year, I’ve considered “it” to be the publication of my novel, China Between Us, which tells the story of a young American woman who moves to Beijing with her family in 1980. I spent three years writing and rewriting it. The first two, I worked alone. The last year, I got feedback. Then I had the great good fortune to happen upon a writer at a conference who liked what he read and connected me with an agent. She was enthusiastic about all the right things. She took the book after suggesting a few changes. On the cusp of 2010, my agent began to send out China Between Us to the New York editors who she thought would be a good fit. After a few weeks of excruciating waiting, I took her advice and started writing something new.

Over the spring months, the rejections dribbled in, each editor giving a different reason. My agent told me this was normal. We just needed to find the right person. But as time passed, some part of me, a part I have no name for, got heavy. I could feel the weight, then, the sinking. As the months passed and the rejections continued, it wasn’t just one heavy, sinking part, it was spreading, getting into the rest of me.

And again I found myself embarrassed to tell my story. I could not control the knowledge people had, or the associations they would make, about each of the many pieces involved: me, my novel, my agent, the publishing climate, and so on. When I did blurt it out, many responded by judging at least one of the pieces to be defective.

The truth is: As of today, no editor has been “sufficiently enthusiastic” to publish my book.

3. What it also is

The truth is: I am crushed. I am angry. I want to throw things.

The truth is: I have been working, the whole time, eleven months and one week, on a new novel.

I have written for this blog.

I have read stacks and stacks of books.  I have fallen in love with a few, others have made me shrug, and a whole lot are in the middle; they have not caused me to feel great enthusiasm.

The truth is: there are many “its”. The it of wanting to publish my novel. The it of the China novel itself. The heaving, sinking, spreading it inside me. The it of the new, novel-in-progress. The it of continuing to want to express myself with words. Being a writer means one needs to name the its. Perhaps some of us have more its to name than others?

4. Am I a late bloomer?

A while back, I read an interesting essay in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell, titled Late Bloomers. The subtitle of the article, “Why do we equate genius with precocity?” gets at why my writing numbers embarrass me. In the piece, Gladwell summarizes the career trajectory of the writer Ben Fountain. After describing the success of Fountain’s first book, Gladwell writes the sentence that raised goosebumps: “[Fountain’s] breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The ‘young’ writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

Gladwell goes on to show that while we tend to link genius with youth, there is no empirical evidence for that. There are genius works created by the young, by the middle-aged, and by the old. He also debunks the myth that late bloomers are late starters. Some who achieve success at relatively older ages did in fact start young, and they worked for many many years before receiving acclaim.

According to Gladwell’s sources, late bloomers like Fountain and the French painter Cezanne work differently from the precocious. They are more experimental, tentative, and incremental. They have to work harder and longer to achieve something good. And they are viewed differently by society than the young geniuses. “On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.”

The last element to success of the late bloomer, Gladwell hypothesizes, is that he or she has help. Basically, late-bloomers need their champions and supporters, and these folks need to be there for the long-haul. Cezanne had, among others, a mentor, a sponsor, and a father who paid the bills.   Ben Fountain had his wife Sharie, who worked full-time and felt that letting her husband write was more important that having the big bucks to buy things like expensive cars.
I know, I know. Malcolm Gladwell often makes leaps, takes liberties, ignores the other side. The New Yorker itself focuses on the 20 under 40, not the 20 over forty. But, in this case, I can’t think so straight. I want to drink his elixir. And it may be my imagination, but I feel like I’ve read and heard more writers embrace the term late-bloomer since Gladwell’s article came out.
5. Coming out with the obvious
Today I’m going to make my blog “public” by sending the link to friends I think might be interested. You all know how old I am, and most of you know how long I’ve been writing, and how much it means to me. You also all know, by the absence of good news, that China Between Us has not landed with the perfectly enthusiastic editor.
But putting it in writing, which I haven’t had the courage to do until today even just for myself, makes me feel exposed, revealed, vulnerable to the world. But not more, I realize, than I was yesterday. Not more, I hope, than I will be tomorrow. And perhaps less.
Perhaps less because I know that writing stories makes me more who I want to be in the world, and I believe that reading stories makes us more human, more reflective, more connected, and less likely to judge.
I can’t embrace the term late bloomer. It’s another it I have yet to name. But I would consider the way I write to be experimental, tentative, and incremental. And I have had help. From my husband who supported me when I wanted to reduce my time base at work so I could write more, from my kids who cheer me on, from friends and family who are interested. A while back, I was telling a friend at a picnic about my struggle to feel good about saying I was a writer because I hadn’t published a novel. To my surprise, she said, Karen, I think of you as a writer now.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 1:51 pm

    Thanks for going public Karen. I enjoy going on the back roads with you towards your destination. I hate freeways even if they do get you there faster. Too many ugly billboards and bad food. From the driver’s side I’m sure that sometimes the pace can seem endless and appears to put the destination out of reach. But your champions and supporters in the passenger seats are taking pleasure in the ride with you. We know you will take us all the way. And now, along the way, we not get the insights of your blog. Thanks again.

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