Grace Paley had a gaggle of kids and a million friends and wars to end, so she wrote on scraps of paper anytime she had some peace.
I, on the other hand, had written very little. I always meant to write, but then I’d do something else instead. I meant to write when I went to college, but then I spent my time planning elaborate costume parties. I meant to write after college, but then I became a full-time activist, rushing around trying to save the climate or democracy and whatever else needed saving. When I burned out on that, I was consumed with the process of leaving Mormonism, which took many agonizing years. Then I had a surprise baby, followed by an adoption, and then my friend died, and then, and then, and then.
By the time I was 34, I had begun to despair. If I hadn’t written by then, maybe I wasn’t a writer after all. I would wake up at night and stare at the ceiling, thinking about aging and dashed dreams and the general idea of hurtling toward death. I scoffed at myself for thinking I was any different than anyone else. I had thought my dreams were so special, so sure to come true. Was this how everyone gave up on themselves--a slow leaking of self after 30?
I despaired because I had seen the lists. The Hottest Writers Under 35. Thirty Under 30. I knew about Mozart and his symphonies at the age of six. This was what it meant to be legit: to be young and full of an irrepressible skill, a genius. I was old and easily repressible. And that was hard. Because, if I had to be embarrassingly honest with myself, I had grown up thinking I would be one of those people. One of the thirty under 30. Someone who wowed the world hard and early. And yet here I was--too old for the lists and I hadn’t even started.
So I took a class. Fiction Sprints, it was called. The class was for people who wanted to write, but couldn’t. In the Wednesday class, this category included eight people--moms with unwritten memoirs and sensible-looking accountants with a knack for dystopia, punks with paint-splattered jeans and a woman with a story about oversexed foxes. And me. The teacher surveyed us and asked a simple question. “Who here would call themselves a writer?” And no one’s hand went up. “Why aren’t you writers?” We all looked at him like he was stupid. “Because we don’t write,” said one woman. Duh.
My teacher felt differently. He thought it was possible to be a writer even if you didn’t write much. “Maybe you haven’t written the thing, the piece you want to write,” he said. “But do you write in your journals? Do you think about writing?”
I wrote in my journal all the time, but it was my way to avoid “real” writing, so I never counted it. I hadn’t written the thing. I wasn’t a precocious fount of many blessings. Ergo: I was not a writer.
So my teacher set out to fix that. We would write every day, by hand, in paper journals. Thirty minutes without stopping. We would record the weather every day--to get us observing, to get us searching for a pen. We would write little goals on notecards, pathetically small goals that made me turn up my nose. And we would write together, without speaking or checking our phones. I was terrified, of the handwriting especially. My handwriting looked like someone had dropped a string of yarn on the ground. I never wrote on paper. I wrote on the computer.
But I sat down at my table and began to begin. I decided I would write a novel. I stared at my notebook. Then I moved to my bed. Everyone I knew knew I had quit, and they had questions. What’s your novel about? How long until you get a new job? I didn’t know what I was writing about, but weird ideas were beginning to converge. Mountaintop removal and climate grief and freediving, I said. Loss. Oh, and dead babies. That cleared the room, which left me more time to write.
And a strange thing began happening. I was writing. Shitty writing, lousy writing, writing that smelled to high heaven. But writing. Something about writing by hand freed me up. It un-stuck something. I can just burn this all if I don’t like it! I thought, with a pyrotechnic gleam in my eye. No one ever has to know. And this anonymity put me thirty pages in. I was writing a book about a woman fighting mountaintop removal in West Virginia, a woman who doesn’t want to have a baby #becauseclimatechange, but who does, eventually, as an act of faith in the future. A woman whose baby dies being born, a woman who stops believing in the future, a woman whose grief drives her out of West Virginia and into the ocean, where she becomes a free diver, searching for her daughter in the deep--a daughter that, in the woman’s grief, becomes a fish. It was going to be a book about amphibious-ness, about life crawling out of the oceans billions of years ago just to sink back into it in the 21st century--this time via rising seas. It was a novel about grief, the kind of global grief that has nothing and everything to do with a single person. It was about the kinds of grief I had felt--many times and many times over.
There was only one problem. I had never been to West Virginia. I knew next to nothing about mountaintop removal. I had never been free diving, and in fact, was terrified of the deep ocean. I didn’t know the science behind climate change, or the names of marine animals. I didn’t know the grief of a person who gave birth to a dead baby, or how it felt to live in a coal town all my life. I just had these images: a picture I saw once, an aerial shot of West Virginia, the mountains blacked and gone. A free diver in azure blue water, curled into the fetal position, being carried in an arcing current through the deep. The image of a child falling out of me, the feeling for a brief terrifying second: what if she is dead? I didn’t know where these images came from, or why they wanted to be together. When I collected these images, I had no idea that they would be useful to me later. At the time, I simply thought: I’m a failure. I’m not writing.
Picasso famously said he never researched his paintings. He simply found them on the canvas. Mozart said something infuriating about how writing a symphony was like apples falling from trees. It just wanted to happen. I, however, was not working with apples. After thirty pages, I stopped, petrified. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything. How could I write about West Virginia without knowing everything about it? How could I write about anything without knowing everything about it?
I know about Picasso’s famous line because I read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece, Late Bloomers, in the New Yorker. I found the article when I thought I was wasting time, but--as so often happens--my time was not wasted. Instead, that article has saved me many times: has bolstered my resolve has quieted my fears has stopped me mid-doom spiral. That’s because the article’s partly about how it’s okay to be old and to be an old artist.
Gladwell is interested in puncturing a persistent social myth--that the only true kind of genius is precocity, an organic, early-sprouting flower blooming from the head of a six-year-old, a 20-year-old, a person who says, Oh this old novel/symphony/painting? It came to me whole. I finished it in a day. Gladwell is trying to make the case for late-blooming genius, a flower that feeds off decomposing years and raises its fermented head at the dead-end of summer. To do this, he compares precocious Picasso and slow-learning Cezanne, Jonathan Safran Foer (kid genius) and Ben Fountain, who--like me!--quit his law job, who also started a novel, and who freaked out and took years to finish it.
First things first: I’m not calling myself a genius here. (Remember, most days I can barely call myself a writer!) But I am an opportunist, and I will take relief where I can get it. And I relate to Gladwell’s description of Fountain’s first week on the job:
Pretty much. Safran Foer, on the other hand, took a couple creative writing classes for funsies, visited his Jewish grandparents’ birthplace for a minute or two, then wrote a fully-formed novel in the blink of an eye. So Safran Foer is precocious. Fountain is a late bloomer. So is Cezanne. Or, as one writer put it:
Here are some other differences. Prodigies tend to be conceptual. They don’t ruminate or research. Or, as precocity spokesperson Picasso says:
Late bloomers like Fountain and Cezanne, on the other hand, tend to seek in their work. They make dozens of tries, endless experiments. In Fountain’s case, he realized he had collected a stack of articles about the country of Haiti, and then a light went off: his book was about Haiti! But what about Haiti? He didn’t know. He went there dozens of times, wandering and meeting people and probably wondering if he was wasting his time. In the end, he wrote Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, crammed with chapters and scenes set in Haiti. And a lot of his “research” had, as Fountain says, “nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.” The idea that writing can be seeking, that experiments and failures can be part of the finished product, and that even the lost parts weren’t wasted--I want to tattoo that on my forehead.
Let’s see, what else? Late Bloomers tend to be perfectionists. Their goals, according to creativity expert Galenson, “ are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental.
And finally, they have patrons. Yup, you heard me. Patrons. Not necessarily members of the Medici family, but people who rally around them, who give them support--emotional, financial, physical--and who keep them on the path. Ben Fountain’s wife pushed him to finish his books, made space for him to create by giving him the time, financial support and encouragement he needed. She wanted to be a lawyer so she worked, and let him be a writer. Cezanne had friends, too. Friends who pushed him to move to Paris, who dug his paintings out of the attic and showed them to gallerists, who supported him financially while he learned, finally, to draw.
What’s my point? My point is that for many years I believed that--since I didn’t come out writing, with full stories uncurling in my head, because I waited so long to start--that I had wasted my time. Squandered it. That I wasn’t really a writer. And of course, ultimately, if you want to write, you have to write. And I will have to, as well. The reason this article is important to me is that it takes apart a very damaging social myth--that to be creative, you have to be young. You have to know yourself and your ideas immediately and perfectly, and that you have to devastate everyone with your talent early and often. It allows me to think that maybe I didn’t write this novel fifteen years ago because I wasn’t ready--because I had to experiment and wander and research and gain basic perspective and skill before I could begin. That I needed experience and material support before I could begin.
And maybe, of course, this is all an excuse. Maybe I could have written earlier. Maybe I should have. But I’m writing now, and guys? It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Every day, I wake up, and it’s just me and my pajamas, fighting the idea that it’s too late, fighting the idea that I’m too old, fighting the idea that I’m so far from where I want to be or that there’s some secret memo about how to do everything that I didn’t get. And so I scavenge from Gladwell’s essay for breakfast. I eat up the possibility of these words:
I am trying to have some faith, and a Costco-sized amount of forbearance. Mostly I’m trying to take my time, and to believe in Fountain’s belief that time--even time spent badly, or despairingly, or with no real object in mind--is not wasted. And to believe in the mundanity of the task: the doing and the doing again, the fear that my words are old, or canned, or nothing special. The dogged boredom of slogging toward an idea, a hazy picture--of my words, of a book, of my life. Because, as Gladwell says: