It's Not Okay to Start Late

Every so often, especially in the writer-y circles I frequent online, people on social media will pass along lists of successful writers and other artists who “started late.” People like Toni Morrison, who didn’t publish her first novel until she reached the terribly advanced old age of forty. Or Mark Twain, who only saw Huckleberry Finn in print after he turned forty-nine. Or one of the more bizarre inclusions on these sort of lists, the Marquis de Sade, who didn’t settle down from a life of perverted libertine antics until he got some nice, quiet prison time (first published at age forty-seven). The purpose of these lists is well-intended. It’s intended as a reassuring sentiment for all the decrepit 30/40/50-somethings who persist in thinking that they have something good in them. It’s okay, people say. You can still do it! You can still salvage a little success from your massive failure of a life! But as a forty-something who found her way back to writing in her late 30s and is still very much climbing uphill, I would like to say to everyone cheering about how okay it is that I do this: You’re wrong. It’s not “okay” that I started late. It’s good. In fact, in many ways, it’s better.

All truth told, I didn’t start late. I decided to be a writer when I was eight years old. I wrote steadily through my childhood and teenage years. But the older I got, the more pressure was leveraged on me to focus on something “useful.” Broken working-class homes don’t have a lot of resources to spare and society as a whole tends to dismiss art as superfluous. All of which is the first, most materially relevant reason why we should break down the cult of the early artistic success: the matter of privilege. I cannot overstate how much the ability to focus on art early in life depends on the resources that are given to you. From material security to professional opportunities to emotional encouragement, if you find yourself in situations of profound lack, your work must begin not with art but with some sort of basic survival. Many people can make art in strained circumstances, but just as many others are overwhelmed by the stress and anxiety of such circumstances. As a young adult, I stumbled into early single motherhood, and spent many of my adult years in desperate survival. Over time, survival got much easier. In my mid-thirties, I regained both the material and mental capacity to consider what lay beyond survival. I started reading again. I started writing again. I set aside time for myself to heal and to think. I learned that when resources are not given to you, you have to earn them yourself, and often that takes a lot of time and expended effort. For all intents and purposes, yes, I have started late as a writer. But, viewed within the scope of my life, it could not have been any other way. And when you are older, it’s easier to see maybe that is the point.

Now that I am older, I can line up the material resources I have earned. That non-art career I pursued brought in money and helped me to build my own foundation. I learned how to handle professional matters, how to communicate, how to solve problems. I did a lot of different jobs. I made a lot of different mistakes. I learned about the world. I traveled and I observed. I saw how other people live and their challenges, some of which I realized that despite my own difficulties, I always had the privilege to avoid. I learned how the world worked and I learned how to work in it, and maybe sometimes even make it work better. Now when it comes to the business of making a life for making art, I am prepared. I know what to do. I have a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom I didn’t have twenty years ago. Anyone who has lived twenty years and paid the slightest attention to the experience will have more knowledge and wisdom as a result. And what endeavor isn’t made better by more knowledge and wisdom?

But I know more than how to navigate the world. I know by place in it, and, most importantly, I know what I have to say about it. I know what my voice sounds like. This is not to say any sort of artistic style I aspire to is fully-formed and unchangeable (I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works anyway). But I know myself. I know who I am. I know this because I’ve been challenged over and over and over again, and in the course of survival I have been forced to define myself. I know what I’m interested in and I know what compels me. I know what I can bear witness to. Whatever I make now is in that voice: unique, hard-earned, and well-deserved. I couldn’t have found it any other way.*

No one creates art in a vacuum, because no one lives in a vacuum, and art comes from life. If art does not come from life, if it is not rooted in the dirt of the world and veined with all of the world’s messy significance, it is a shallow sort of art, suitable for decoration only. It is not art that tells the essential truth. It is not art that sustains people’s souls. Folks can go for whatever art they want to, but I want what’s buried in the deep, rich, chaotic, psychological, mythological world loam. And, putting a few rare Keatsian prodigies aside, you can’t earn the ability to make that sort of art by age twenty-two. And even if you could, why should you? That’s not the point. We are not here for speed. We are here for significance.

And so here is my message to all of the late starters: good for you for starting late. Not in any sort of “way to go, sport” condescension, but in the full-throated acknowledgement of the wealth of your lived lives. You know what it’s like to make your way through a world not designed for you. You’ve had your hearts broken and your illusions dissolved. You’ve worked multiple jobs, faced evictions, defaulted on loans, managed mental health, suffered prejudice, and struggled to provide for your kids. You learned how much you can go through and still survive. You survived. Now when you make art, you can put the whole of your beautifully, painfully created selves into it, and it will be something unprecedented and vital. It’s not “okay” that you started late. It’s powerful. And when anyone tries to pat you on the head and tell you otherwise, you will know enough to smile and walk on, and know that they will figure it all out, in time.

* (Let me note briefly that none of this is to doom the artistic identities of those who start with more resources and less friction. There is nothing wrong with being able to begin early. Ideally, we want that for everyone. I’ve worked hard to create an environment for my own child that values and enables art and art-making. But I resist making starting early the only standard by which we judge everyone and I hope those who started early are not putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to reach this standard when there is exploration and lovely confusion waiting for them.)

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