This week it’s about age. How old we are. How old we feel. How old we write.
I am the oldest Deb. I also waited the longest of any of us to start writing. I was 43 when I typed “Chapter One”, and 49 when I typed “The End.” My novel will be published when I’m 51. I am, by default, the best authority among us on what it’s like to publish your first novel in your second half century.
I’ve thought about this a lot in the past few years, as I imagine many do who find their passion late in life. I wonder what would have happened if I’d followed my gut in college and gone for the Journalism major instead of choosing the more practical Economics/International Relations/law school route. Or if I’d tried to write a book in my off hours as a young law firm associate, even though the only thing I wanted to do after crouching in front of my computer writing document production requests all day was go outside. Or if I’d written during the 100 minutes my baby girl spent napping each day, as so many published mothers have done. I could be an established writer by now, with several books and dozens of magazine articles in my ledger, instead of an middle-aged newbie talking about my first novel with a bunch of twenty-something Lit majors at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop cocktail parties (that served only beer and wine, never cocktails).
When I think about these things, I always work my way around to the same conclusion. I do wish I’d started earlier, because if I had, I’d have more years to spend doing this thing I love. There is an hourglass in my head, and as I watch it spit out its sand I wonder how many books I can write in the time that remains, and wish I’d given twice as much time to writing.
But I also know that if I’d started writing in my twenties, I wouldn’t have told the stories I’m writing today. I remember what I was like then: joyful, shallow, in love with life and my new husband, in love with my new city and my new friends. I was in love with seeing the world I’d never glimpsed before I got on my first international flight at age 22, in love with biking, camping, going to baseball games, and dancing until two in the clubs south of Market Street. My writing would have reflected that blithe existence, and though I would have tried to describe the experiences of pain and loss and broken relationships, I was not empathetic enough — some young writers are, but I was not — to do it in a way that would resonate with truth. My stories would have been superficial and generic, the sorts of stories any 25-year-old white professional woman living in a large city could tell. Or worse, they would have been hollow, filled with facsimiles of emotions I could not fully imagine.
In my thirties, though, life began to unfurl some of its terrible cruelty. I could not conceive the children my husband and I, toasting my thirtieth birthday with champagne, giddily decided it was time to have. For half a decade I endured unsuccessful fertility treatments that tested my marriage as never before. When I was 34, my younger brother got melanoma, and I watched it ravage his strong young body until he died in a hospital bed in the family room of the house he grew up in, two weeks before his 31st birthday. When my son was six months old he had a grand mal seizure so severe the doctors told me it had likely destroyed the entire right side of his brain. Though an MRI later showed it had not, the doctors still could not promise he would develop normally, so I walked away from my law career to stay home with him. Meanwhile, in the world I had so greedily explored in the relatively peaceful 1990s, there was terrorism, and 9/11, and wars upon wars upon wars.
When I turned 40, I was not the same person I was at 30. Not only had I experienced deep loss and periods of great despair, I had also experienced joys unlike any of the facile pleasures of my youth. I held my firstborn child in the hospital, tears running down my face, and told her how long we had been waiting to meet her. When I called the fertility doctor from the emergency room 500 miles away to tell him I was miscarrying my second pregnancy, he said don’t let them do a D&C because the other embryo might still be alive–and he was right. The MRI technician, breaking all the rules, told my husband and me that our son’s brain was undamaged, and my knees buckled. I helped my brother laugh through his pain, a melancholy but salving grace only I could give him. My husband and I learned that our love was strong enough for all of it.
So I think: life happens, whether you write about it or not. I think: if I could undo even one of the tragedies, I would put down my pen forever. I think: I would not trade any of the joys. I think: since I have to carry all of it, I will mine the channels it has carved in my heart for the stories only I, after 50 years of my very specific life, can tell.
Do I wish I’d begun when I was younger? Yes. Do I regret that I didn’t? No. And that is a distinction it took me half a century of living to understand.
Latest posts by Heather Young (see all)
- The Graceful Exit - Wednesday, August 31, 2016
- Former Deb Kelly Harms Takes the Deb Interview + A Giveaway of THE MATCHMAKER OF MINNOW BAY - Saturday, August 27, 2016
- What I Loved Best About My Debut Year - Wednesday, August 24, 2016
- My Favorite Books of 2016 (So Far) - Wednesday, August 17, 2016
- The City Baker’s Guide to Putting On Your Big Girl Pants - Wednesday, August 10, 2016