On Late Bloomers, And Other Ridiculous Phrases

Posted on May 31, 2012 in Blog
A few weeks ago I came across Elizabeth Gilbert’s lovely bit of advice to writers. I’d read it before, years ago when Eat, Pray, Love first came out and I found myself devouring everything that was in any way connected to EG and available online, but this time around it was the lovely Kathleen Winter who pointed me her way via Twitter.

It’s great advice. EG has always been good with her writing wisdom: funny, and passionate, and self-deprecating in just the right way. But this time around I found myself caught on something. I kept going over and over this little bit:

I watched Julia Glass win the National Book Award for her first novel, “The Three Junes”, which she began writing in her late 30’s. I listened to her give her moving acceptance speech, in which she told how she used to lie awake at night, tormented as she worked on her book, asking herself, “Who do you think you are, trying to write a first novel at your age?” But she wrote it. And as she held up her National Book Award, she said, “This is for all the late-bloomers in the world.”

And I thought: I wish there was no such term as a “late bloomer”. I wish we could do away with the phrase altogether.

It’s a lovely little speech, to be sure. And a wonderfully inspiring story. Who among us hasn’t spent our own fair share of midnight hours lying awake and thinking: you’re just being silly? Who among us hasn’t worried about not being good enough, or thinking that we’re presumptuous for wanting to write anything at all? (You want to write books, young woman/man? Whatever gave you THAT idea?) So of course it’s lovely to hear about people who’ve managed to overcome their own midnight hours and show the world that it can be done.

But … late bloomer? Because she wrote her winning novel when she was in her late thirties? This troubles me, a little. It troubles me because it seems to imply that someone who hasn’t managed to get at least one novel out before they’re thirty-five is somehow behind schedule. Someone who starts her first novel in her late thirties is someone who’s a little late to the party. And, well, I don’t know that I agree with that idea. In a way it hearkens right back to that Glamour post — you know, the one filled with supposedly encouraging advice about all of the things that your average woman should have under her belt before she turns thirty. That one. This whole idea of “should haves” drives me wild. When will we stop thinking that we “should be” somewhere at a given point in time, and just be thankful for where we are at any moment?

Confession: I was rife with “should haves” growing up. (I still am. I’m trying to overcome them all. It’s a long slog.) I had all kinds of ideas about my Writing Career. First and foremost being, I suppose, the idea that I’d be allowed to have a Writing Career at all. But I was going to have GREAT Writing Career, nonetheless. I was going to explode onto The World Stage as a teen sensation/genius. I would be the next Jenn Crowell or Helen Oyeyemi. For sure.

But the teens came and went, and my writing was abysmal. Then I thought: no worries. First novel by 25! That’s what will happen. I’ll be good enough by then. Surely.

And twenty-five came and went, and still there was no novel. There wasn’t even all that much in the way of great writing. (There was some good writing, and there was definitely writing getting better all the time, but not much that was great.) Instead, the years went by and suddenly there were other twenty-five-year-old geniuses (Tea Obreht, for example), and then there were some twenty-seven-year-old short story writers (DW Wilson, fellow UVic grad), also geniuses. And then there were people like Amanda Hocking, millionaire authoress at the age of twenty-six.

There were also, while all of the above was going on, singers like Lady Gaga, and Adele, and then there was the entire cast of Glee, and why don’t we include Mark Zuckerberg in here too, or perhaps make note of the biggest of teen stars himself, the Biebs? I mean, maybe 30 is the age at which we’re all supposed to shrivel up and die. Look at what all of these other people have managed to accomplish in their twenties. LOOK AT WHAT THEY’VE DONE. Twenty seems to be the new thirty, folks. If you’re not penning your memoirs or racking in at least $15 million a year by the time you’re twenty-one, you’ve definitely done something wrong.

Except, of course, that the above is all nonsense. We all know it’s nonsense. We know, deep down in our bones, that there are a million different ways to live an artistic life, a writing life, an any kind of life. There are a million ways to be a writer. There are a million ways that that first novel could come about. Maybe you’ll get to be that teen sensation. Maybe your novel will come later — it doesn’t matter.

EG does a great job of outlining this point in her advice. It’s never too late to start writing, just like she says. Look at all of these writers who published — gasp — after they hit forty. And, while we’re at it, let’s look again at the immortal advice of Dear Sugar, whose voice is as ever that ringing call of truth. “[Don’t presume] that you should be successful at 26, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there.”

Take that, Robert McCrum. Take that, Terrible Inner Voice that whispers hurtful things. Writers are not flowers, despite the beauty of the metaphor. There is no right time to bloom. It happens when it happens, and that’s all that you can hope for. You get down and dirty, just like Sugar says, and you do the work. And sooner or later things will come. That book will find its audience. That song will find the airwaves. Etc.

When I was in high school, my favourite teachers — the ones I respected most, the ones that I learned more from than anyone else — were the teachers who’d had problems of their own in school. They understood struggle and the effort of learning in a way that other teachers — the brilliant ones, perhaps, for whom things had always come so easily — did not. There was a “been there, done that” quality to their insight that made me sit up and listen. And sometimes I think that the writing gig is like that. There will always be geniuses in our midst. (Let us not forget, either, that genius too often comes with its own kind of torment.) There will be plenty more of us who get to be decent, and perhaps even good, through dint of hard work and time and learning. For every wonderkid who publishes before the age of twenty-five, there will be a thousand other writers who find their book after thirty, after forty, or perhaps even later. Each path has its own joys.

Let’s do away with the “late bloomer” idea, folks. Let us, instead, celebrate the life and the path that brought Writer X to their particular book. May your book, and the process of writing it, fill you with joy, Writer X, be you twenty-five or forty-five or ninety.

(And let me also, while I’m at it, apologize for the extreme irony inherent in writing a post about Age and Writing at the ancient age of twenty-nine. I offer as balm the knowledge that in ten years, or perhaps even in five, everything that I’m saying now will sound silly even to me. How young you are, little grasshopper. How young, and how earnest, and how very, very quaint. How little you know, after all.)

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2 Comments

  1. Steph
    May 31, 2012

    I feel the same indignation, the same way about shoulds and should haves. You are so right. Anyway, look at Mrs. Delaney, who began her life's work (see The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock) at 72 and so on.

    Yet I've felt the pressure. So I love you for writing this and for the reminder and permission to develop, to recognize process (as well as the time it takes for some of us to actually get started).

  2. Steph
    May 31, 2012

    Whoops, should be a comma before "and so on," meaning Mrs. Delaney and others who have begun and produced later in life.