(First published by Beyond the Margins, October 8, 2013)
SO apparently I’m what you call a “bloomer.”
An about-to-be-debut-novelist at 54, I’ve been tripping across this term more and more lately, much the way a mom-to-be starts noticing that all of a sudden pregnant women are everywhere. I’m quite sure the moniker didn’t exist a decade ago, and now apparently there’s a whole website devoted to us (bloom-site.com), not to mention recent column inches in the likes of The New Yorker and The Guardian. In any case, it’s a stunning discovery. Apparently, in some critics’ estimation, by the time we hit our 40s we “writing-elders” are creative dust bowls: any real contribution to the world of letters we might have made would have been written ten years ago.
So yeah, I’m a bit of an outlier, falling somewhere between the MFA-bearing-hipsters and the…well…deceased. But while I’m still here, and I can still grab the microphone, I’d like to say a few things about what it is to start making art in the middle.
I didn’t actually write a creative word until I was approaching my fifth decade. Throughout high school and college, I gravitated toward courses which afforded me the opportunity to select right from wrong, true from false; multiple choice over essay. I was not a comfortable public speaker; I was terrified of venturing any opinion that might provoke incredulity in my peers or even outright dismissal. When given the choice I shied away from English and history and philosophy, preferring the safer terrain of the social and physical sciences, subjects one could master given the basic ingredients of time and will. Years went by, and I did this with life, too. I lived it safely. I mastered it. For nearly two decades I felt like I ran a marathon every day just trying to keep all the right balls in the air.
I was nearing 40 when it all came tumbling down, the weight of all that “rightness” suddenly too much to bear. One Sunday afternoon I sat out on my front stoop and forgot how to breathe and watched my life snap cleanly down the middle. A nervous breakdown, in old-timey parlance; a severe depression, I would learn soon enough. The best piece of advice from that time? “Write it down,” my mother said.
And I did.
So for me, writing came not so much as a choice as an imperative. Once entered, it was a place I found I couldn’t leave. My guess is that this applies to many late bloomers: people who’ve somehow found it necessary to step away from the harsh geometry of their constructed lives – which no longer seem to fit or sustain – in favor of something which yields and bends, carries life’s ambiguities in flexible arms. There is urgency to this kind of writing. There is a sense that there is so much to say and not enough paper in the world to say it on and not enough time in which to say it. Once I started, it became the most real of places: the most authentic, the most heady and, in its way, the most life-giving.
I expect for younger writers it’s hard to conceive these days that a person could just pick up writing in the middle of life. For me it was not only that simple, it was an answer I didn’t know I was looking for. I’d already accumulated a lot of life behind me: I’d married, had a career, raised three children most of the way up. I had felt my way through 40-odd years of living but never allowed myself a place to process all that life-stuff: to unwrap it, sift through it, hold it up to the light of day. Writing gave me that space. That stillness. And what a bounty – like discovering an old box of photographs you never knew existed. Suddenly, worlds opened up to me, my own worlds, distilled and exquisite. At just that stage when so much in life seemed to be receding, it was like looking up and seeing things in color, for the first time.
Writing very quickly became my default method of processing my world, something I hadn’t previously built into my life. I was happier, and saner, for it. It created a need for itself, and the act of capturing a thing in words – pinning it down precisely – became my way of accommodating it in my mind and in my life. Interestingly, my identity was not at all wrapped up in this. I didn’t have anything to prove. It was just mine, more privilege than responsibility. Perhaps we late-stage writers may be somewhat less caught up in wanting to be writers than our younger brethren. Many or most of us have already had (or continue to have) other careers. Our identities may not be so tied to the idea of being authors as are those who’ve gone through graduate school (often at great expense) with that specific goal in mind. The writing itself, coming often as a complete surprise in middle life, is its own best reward, giving us a vital new piece of ourselves which never before seemed within reach.
Whatever it was that I somehow couldn’t find in myself in my earlier years – eyes; wings – I have been able to reclaim here, now, in the desert of the long-middle, where I can savor it like a tall glass of cold water. There is joy in it. There is celebration. There is an unmitigated sense of possibility. And during the long haul that is the latter half of the journey, there is perhaps nothing more welcome than that.