On being a late bloomer

I got a late start writing fiction.

It’s something I always wanted to do, at least going back to when I was nine or ten. That summer, I got it in my head to write a story, a Friday the 13th-style slasher story about a maniac named Clay who killed off summer campers (modeled on kids I knew from Roper Day Camp in suburban Detroit) until meeting his own violent end, which I think was electrocution-based.

I had fun writing it, but writing fiction didn’t stick then. I put it aside until I was in high school, working in a library and reading books like Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis and Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (whose short fiction has always, in my opinion, surpassed his novels) and, of course, Catcher in the Rye. These books inspired me to try again; I can do this too, I thought.

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Late bloomer at work, 1981 or ’82.

So I wrote. I wrote through my senior year of high school, my college years, my first couple years in the Coast Guard (that’s when I also started trying to write screenplays, having seen Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross just before I graduated college). What I didn’t do is take a single creative writing class. I don’t say that to brag, because I still don’t know if that was the right decision or not. Looking back, I think a class might have helped, but at the time I didn’t think writing was a talent you could develop in a classroom setting. I am pretty sure I was wrong about that, honestly.

The thing is, I hated everything I wrote. Everything. What seemed brilliant in the moment read like pretentious auto-fellation the next day. Every line of fiction I wrote ended up mortifying me.

But I good enough at writing to write other things. Ad copy. Record reviews. Software manuals. Magazine articles. Scripts. A three-hundred-page dissertation on land use policy in environmentally-sensitive landscapes (yeah, don’t bother with that one). Everything but fiction.

I had no style. And I had no idea how to develop any style. I began to accept that I would never write novels or publish short story collections.

But it was more than that, though, and when I was in a particularly reflective mood I could articulate the real reason I wasn’t writing fiction: I didn’t have anything worth saying.

I’ve always viewed successful fiction, the best fiction, the kind of fiction that endures, as having the ability to show us truths about ourselves and the world around us that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And certainly I had stories I could tell, life experiences that lent themselves to narrative. I’m doing that right now, in fact, with my second novel, which is based on my experiences in the US Coast Guard in the mid-1990s. I recognized a long time ago that I had the makings for a novel in my experiences during those four years of my life. But I had no idea what any of it meant, or more to the point, what any of it could or should or would mean to anyone else.

I’ve been carrying those experiences around with me for more than twenty years now; it took me most of that time to really understand what they meant, what they revealed to me about the world, about other people, about myself. And it took me even longer to decide that I was able to express that understanding through fiction, through stories, through my own creative process. Hell, I didn’t get there until after I turned 40.

So I started to read writing books, on technique, approach, mindset, whatever. Most of them didn’t help. Then finally, one of them did: David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist. I focused on a few specific technical suggestions and applied them to the first eight pages of an idea I’d had in my head for a few years. Then I put those pages in a drawer and forgot about them for a few more years. Then I found them, discovered to my surprise that they weren’t so bad, and decided to finish the book, even though I didn’t know how it was going to end. The result was How I’m Spending My Afterlife, which took me two years and change to write and which will finally see the light of day in October.

Understand that I’m not hoping to justify my late start in this post. For one thing, I don’t need anyone’s permission for or approval of the path my life has taken to this point. But more important, I don’t think that starting late requires justification.

But.

I’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t try to measure your own progress in life against anyone else’s. That’s certainly sound advice but is also nearly impossible to put into practice. It’s just human nature to look at someone else, someone who has achieved the success and status that you crave for yourself, and wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you’re lagging so far behind.

A lot of writers who have a career trajectory I hope to achieve are younger than me, sometimes a lot younger. It’s dispiriting sometimes. I sometimes feel like I could have already made it big by now, or at least respectably, if only I’d started sooner.

But would I have? If I wasn’t ready to write, I wasn’t ready to write. Yes, starting late was almost certainly a disadvantage from the perspective of building a real career out of writing fiction, assuming that’s even possible to do anymore. But it just as easily may have been the only way for me to do this at all. If I’d started too soon, before I was confident that I had anything to say, what would that have looked like? I mean, I remember some of the novels I planned to write, back when I was in college and before I knew the first goddamn thing about anything. They were formless, plot-driven, thinly-conceived. If I’d written those under my own name, I’d be calling myself Steve Bennett by now.

I think I did myself a big favor, honestly. I may have lost 20 years of back catalog, but I think the odds are good that I’m much more likely to remain proud of my work for years to come.

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