Notes of a Middle-Aged Baby Writer
I was 13 when I got my first rejection from The New Yorker.
Most bookish adults have a story about getting in trouble for reading as child — in class, or at a party. I don’t recall that happening to me, maybe because I was a child of bookish people. What I got in trouble for was writing. Constantly.
I scribbled obsessively, in a Harriet the Spy kind of way, observing everything going on around me, recording every detail and then bending those details into fiction.
It unnerved people.
I was an ambitious kid, precocious. And I knew I was on to something. Every once in a while, among hundreds of pen-smeared pages, I would write a single turn of phrase, a small description, maybe even a whole sentence, that rang with truth, that made the blood thrum in my veins the way it did when I read something stunning and pure. The magic of those rare and tiny moments fueled me. Call it talent or call it luck, but I knew what it felt like to hit the note just right, and I was spell-bound by the possibility.
What would it feel like, I wondered, to have a poem published in The New Yorker at age 13? Or 14, perhaps 13 had been too lofty a goal. Certainly by 15? If not a poem, then perhaps a story? It didn’t count that I was publishing in my friends’ zines, or writing for the local youth paper. I hadn’t been discovered yet. I wasn’t a prodigy, a wunderkind. The only thing going for me, I thought, was youth. Adults told me I was a remarkable writer for my age. But once I was all grown up and competing with other grown-ups? That was terrifying. I had no desire to be judged alongside the writers I admired, on equal footing. The thought made me feel light-headed with self-loathing.
When I became a mother at 18, I didn’t stop writing. I still managed to sneak it into the corners of my life — a stolen hour working on a novel here, a poem on the back of a grocery receipt there. But the possibility of being a wunderkind was over. The weight of parenthood, situational poverty, and juggling work and school didn’t allow for much energy for creativity. It was a luxury I could not afford. As for taking it seriously? I pressed pause.
And what great good fortune. The gift of my overwhelming, at times chaotic personal life meant that I was under no pressure to create while I was young. Never once did I worry about making an “under 30” list.
Even if I had had different circumstances, I wouldn’t have been ready. My sensibilities and skills were still underdeveloped. I am just now beginning to grow into my voice. The soil of my creativity required a long fallow period before it could grow anything worth harvesting. It wasn’t lost time. I was busy enriching the ground. Living, noticing.
It’s what I’ve done my whole life, since I could hold a pencil. I observe, I record, I try to capture in words the way light filters through the trees, the impatient posture of a young mother, the story behind the guarded eyes of an ice cream vendor. Everything is just so beautiful when you pay close enough attention. My observations render me perpetually and hopelessly in love with the world.
Everyone’s path is different. Mine has been convoluted, and has also had some stunning scenery from its many hairpin turns and switchbacks. Those twists and turns? They brought me here.
And along the way, I wrote down everything.