Notes of a Middle-Aged Baby Writer
For ballet, it may be too late. For writing, it never is.
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.