If I told you I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, would you think, “Aww,” and picture little Claire scribbling with her hot magenta crayon?
Or would you think something more like… Shit. Six years old?
If you felt a pang of envy, or, dare I suggest it, something sniffing slightly of… bitterness… then you are probably a late bloomer.
A late bloomer picks up a book that looks interesting, reads the first page, and, if it catches, flips to the back of the book in search of an author photo, a bio, anything to calculate age. When did this author publish her first novel or short story collection or chapbook? If that first book came younger than your current age—and as time goes by, of course, that’s more often the case—you shrug. You expected that.
But if, ohmagosh, this author is a late bloomer, too… she didn’t publish until she was older than you! Well, you can’t help but feel just a bit lighter. There’s a little more promise in your day. Flip back to the front and read on with especial good cheer. And something else that feels a lot like gratitude.
Every other week I read about a successful author who scrawled her first attempt at a book in a collection of spiral notebooks at the age of twelve. In the bottom drawer of her dresser—right now—she has two early novels she keeps meaning to revise.
When I was twelve, all my creativity went to my Christmas lists. I don’t have two novels in a drawer. My first thirty years of becoming a writer were far too gradual and haphazard to boast of such productivity. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 33. It was a correspondence course because I was too intimidated to talk to anyone in person.
So when a friend tells me she’s considered herself a writer since she was six? That’s a reminder that I’m playing catch-up. I feel regretful, envious; I wonder what might have been. In other words I’m just plain jealous.
I’m not alone.
When I decided to write about those of us who fear we will forever play catch-up, I thought I’d write a short post cheering us along. I could call it something hokey and expected like “A Late Bloom-er Smells as Sweet.” I’d find reassuring research and stats and inspiring testimonials. Then I’d end the post with a list of famous writers who came to the party late.
Rally! You have role models! You can do it, too!
A funny thing happened along the way to that essay. I found some great material… but the more research I did, the more I got disheartened. Not because I couldn’t find encouragement, not because I couldn’t find successful writers who came late to the profession. Turns out I just don’t want to have to prove to myself that I can have the writing career I want.
I love writing and kvetching with friends, then writing some more. I love just doing the work and living the writing life I have already. Let someone else build a case if that’s what we late bloomers need. Turns out I’d rather just be jealous.
A few years ago I took a writing workshop with a woman who hated her own stories. We both tended to arrive early and while we waited she fretted. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m the worst one in the class.”
I told her I saw energy in her work, and plenty of humor. I said we had all signed up for this class because we want to be better writers. “We’re all the same.”
I didn’t say, yeah, you’re definitely the worst writer in the class. And not just because I’d never say something so hurtful. I don’t believe that kind of judgment is relevant, much less helpful, and anyway, we’re all on our own individual path, so comparisons are foolish. But I’ll be a jerk now and say it here: She WAS the worst writer in the class, and everyone knew it. When we critiqued her work the usual animated feedback morphed into half rueful advice, half bland encouragement. Lots of long silences. She took careful notes.
Maybe two years later I was tooling around on the Web, doing lazy Google searches on writing-related topics when I was supposed to be meeting a deadline. I stumbled onto an online magazine and saw a familiar name. I clicked the link and what flooded my screen but a picture of this woman’s face, Big Smile, accompanied by a bio listing her publishing credits. That’s “credits” with an “s.”
Her? I stared at her lovely face, the happy smile. Of all the people in that workshop… her??
My face got hot. The plastic mouse crackled from the pressure of my grip.
I have never felt anything so pure. My whole body was coursing with emotion so thick for a minute it was hard to breathe. Jealous, I thought, that’s what I am, this is nothing but full-on, body-shaking, molten-hot jealousy. It felt all-powerful and just god-awful. It felt… alive.
After my fit of envy I called my husband to propose dinner out. At the restaurant I told him what had happened and he patted my hand. “Your turn will come.” No, I said, you don’t get it. We’re not here because I need consolation. In answer to his perplexed look I told him we were here to celebrate. Then I made a toast.
Here’s to knowing what you want.
If you missed Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article about late bloomers in The New Yorker, do take a minute to read it, because it’s both interesting and inspiring. And yes, that’s the same Malcolm Gladwell who wrote the book Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he argues something your mother told you a thousand times—if you just work your butt off you don’t have to wish you were a genius. If you need to rally, Gladwell’s a good guy. But if you want that list of late-blooming famous authors, you’re going to make it yourself.
I’d rather discover the late blooming success stories by happy accident, one-by-one, like rare treats. When I pick up a new book or look up an admired writer on the Web or scan the contributor’s notes of a literary magazine, I want to feel that disquieting stir, that low-grumbling, only half-recognized, half-understood jealousy. When I study an author photo, noting the lack of laugh-lines but wondering if that neck scarf is hiding a few years, I want to fully absorb that reminder of what I want.
On the rare occasion when my mild haze of jealousy gets displaced by the joyous discovery of a late bloomer? Well, that’s a serendipitous note of encouragement I’m happy to receive. But I’d rather not go looking for it. That’s too much like saying I need it.