Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Writer in Winter

For anyone who follows me on Twitter (@davidabrams1963), my age is not a difficult math problem to solve.  I've already had an over-the-hill birthday, complete with black balloons and winky jokes about Geritol-and-Viagra cocktails.  Apart from some unwanted baggage of 20 pounds and a posture increasingly pulled downward by gravity, I'm cool with my age.

Besides, autumn has always been my favorite season of the year.

As a writer, however, I am very conscious of that ticking sound coming from the clock beside my bed.  I think of my life in calendar terms.  I have approximately 14,642 allotted days in which to finally read Ulysses, earn enough money to take my wife to Paris, and publish a novel.  Not necessarily in that order.

Every morning is a fresh start, every evening is a vague disappointment that I didn't do more with the past 15 hours.  While writers like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are off producing stories at the rate of horny rabbits, here I sit in my basement office, struggling to eke out another 500 words.  There are times when I think I'll be going on my first book tour wearing adult diapers and using a walker to get around from bookstore to bookstore.

There was a time when I thought my writing career was about to take off.  I could feel the rumble of the rocket engines and see the first signs of the smoke boiling out over the launch pad.  That was the day I got the phone call from my first agent, informing me that Esquire had just purchased one of my short stories.  My heart erupted, my head orbited earth.  I ran home from work, picked up my wife and waltzed her around the room.  "Do you know what this means?" I yelled.  "Do you.  Know.  What this.  Means?"  She caught my infectious laughter, put her hands on my chest, and said, "No, what?"  My eyes widened.  "It means something great is about to happen.  All those years of hard work are about to pay off."

That was in 1998.

Sure, I glowed when the issue hit the newsstands, Nicolas Cage peering at me from the cover.  My story ("Providence") was buried inside the magazine, a men’s perfume ad stuck smack dab in the middle of its pages.  It was one of those thick-papered ads with naked male torsos and a strip of paper you could peel away and rub the trace of perfume all over your wrists.  I hoped people wouldn't be too distracted making themselves smell good to read my story.

Nic Cage and I were both casting hopeful glances at our futures.  But they were futures neither of us could accurately chart.  He would go on to make to make some good movies like Adaptation and World Trade Center; but he would also do movies like Next and Knowing and National Treasure (he should have taken a hint from the consonant sound of those titles and said, "N-n-no.").

I would sit by my phone waiting for hyperventilating publishers to call saying they wanted to read more of my stories.  I heard the words "book contract" and "let's do lunch" buzzing in my ear.  I thought, "Today Esquire, tomorrow the world!"

The phone sat silent.  When I picked up the receiver, I heard crickets.

Undaunted, I churned out a few more stories.  I spent four years writing a novel which will probably remain unpublished.  Like Nic Cage, I produced some good stuff, but also a lot of crap.  Gradually, I stopped dreaming and got on with living.  I mowed the lawn, I fed my kids cereal, I folded laundry.  I progressed up the career ladder of the Army.  I went to war.

I'm still waiting for that Something Big to fall from the sky.  At this point, I'll settle for a medium-sized Something.  I've made peace with that fact and have stopped wishing I was the next Sloane Crosley or Jonathan Safran Foer, hot young rockets of literature.  I'm totally cool with growing a long, white Tolstoyan beard.  My stories and I will grow old together; we'll buy matching rocking chairs and spend our afternoons on the front porch.  I'll stay hunched over the keyboard and keep singing that Sinatra song: "The best is yet to come, and won't that be fine?"

All of this is by way of long prologue to tell you about the slideshow over at Huffington Post in which Randy Susan Meyers celebrates 41 Over 40.  After the lash and backlash of The New Yorker's list of "20 Under 40" (of which, yes, I was one of the back-lashers), it's refreshing to see someone spotlighting writers who debuted in the winter of their lives.  Paul Harding (Tinkers), Julia Glass (Three Junes), James A. Michener (Tales of the South Pacific), Henry Miller (Tropic of Capricorn), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), George Eliot (Adam Bede), M.J. Rose (The Reincarnationist) and Richard Adams (Watership Down) were all past the Big 4-0 when their debuts rolled off the printing presses.  Late-bloomers of the world, unite!

The HuffPo article is spurred, in part, by two earlier essays: one in The Guardian where a crotchety Robert McCrum declares "Old people, in general, don't have literary careers;" the other is by New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus who says that fiction writers "often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young."

McCrum and Tanenhaus call some convincing witnesses to the stand. Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike were all published, successful novelists well before they had their black-balloon birthdays.  But, with the exception of Fitzgerald, they all continued to write well into their white-hair years, all of them getting better with each new novel.  I'll take Martin Chuzzlewit over The Pickwick Papers any day.

Sure, all those Great Ones had a head start on me, but does that mean I need to fly the flag of surrender as Mr. Tanenhaus suggests?  Why can't I just be the wine which has been seasoning for years in that oak-staved barrel waiting for just the right moment to be poured?  Who says I can't be the next Helen Hooven Santmyer?  Her best-known book, ...And Ladies of the Club, was published when she was 87.

Then again, at that point, she was only four years away from the grave.  Maybe I'd better reconsider that example.

Better I should be like Laura Bell, a Wyoming author who just published her first book, a memoir called Claiming Ground, at age 56.  In an interview, Bell said, “There’s nothing like having a new door open up in your mid-50s.  I’ve always been someone who has been about evolution.”

That's it: I'm not getting older, I'm evolving.  And, hopefully, so is my writing.

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