Mon 30 Jan 2012
by Robin Meister
My husband is a drummer. He went to music school in the late eighties and locked himself in a practice room that smelled like sweat and pepperoni for eight hours a day. He played his drums for mid-day traffic outside Fenway Park in Boston. When I told him about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour maxim for mastery, he said to me, “Yeah, I’ve done that.” He is, without a doubt, a drummer. In fact, he probably assumed this title the moment he picked up his first pair of drumsticks, even before high school marching band and jazz ensemble.
Even though I write, I’ve never called myself a writer. A social worker, a teacher, a mom, yes, but never a writer. Sure, there were those poems I wrote in sixth grade. I found Natalie Goldberg in my twenties and “wrote down some bones,” tried to “free that writer within” before locking my notebooks away in a filing cabinet. In my thirties, I wrote an 8,000-word fictional memoir, noodling out some residual teen angst. It was rejected by The Ontario Review and hidden away in that same filing cabinet, in a manila folder marked “Girl in Car Story.” Calling myself a writer feels as fraudulent and self-important as calling myself a mechanic because I know how to top off the windshield washer fluid in my Hyundai.
I got my first publication credit last July in 50-to-1. And what a rush it was. But did it help me call myself a writer? Not quite. Then, there was THE CONTEST. I clocked ten more hours on my Gladwell timeline and created a 78-word piece that won me a trip to New York as a finalist in Esquire’s Short Short Fiction Contest. Oh, no. Now was I expected to call myself a writer?
I’ve always felt this tug, like someone pulling on my shirt, and when I look down there’s only an echo of a voice saying, “Don’t forget you want to be a writer.” Sometimes, this reminder comes in the form of a paper wad striking the back of my head. Lately, it’s a glaring yellow sign on every corner. Who was it that said, “It’s soon or never?”
The New York trip was an extravagant prize for writing something shorter than this paragraph: a two night stay in a swanky mid-town hotel, a workshop with author Colum McCann at the Hearst Tower, cocktails with the Editor-in-Chief of Esquire, and a literary “showdown” with nine other finalists at a penthouse in Brooklyn. Surreal. When I met a fellow finalist at the airport, she said, “If I wake up in a bathtub with a scar where my kidney was, I’ll be pissed.”
I decided to pretend I was an actual writer while I was there. I wore a magenta scarf I’d never wear at home. I bought new boots and wore a silky black raincoat. I introduced myself to a publisher or two at the penthouse and collected some business cards. It felt good to act like a writer. It made me want to be a really good one.
I shifted into high gear. When I returned to Buffalo, I wrote everyday and haven’t stopped since, trying to make up for lost time. People at work mistook me for a minor celebrity because of my 78-word ticket to New York. “Can we read it now?” they asked, and I said “Sure, sure, I’ll email it to you,” which roughly translates as “Absolutely not. My story is drivel. Give me a few more years. “
I sat in the lunch room, eating root vegetables and questioning my literary future. The chair of the English Department, a highly respected sage in his final year of teaching and a closeted poet himself, said to me, “Late Bloomers. Have you read what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about them?”
What he says is this:
Almost half of Robert Frost’s most widely-anthologized poems were written after his fiftieth birthday. The same is true of his literary contemporaries William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t published until Mark Twain was forty-nine. Daniel Defoe was fifty-eight when he wrote Robinson Crusoe. Alfred Hitchcock made his best films in his fifties and sixties. French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne did not have his first solo show until he was fifty-six years old. He often threw his paintings into trees and shredded his canvases in fits of self-doubt. People laughed at him and called his work ugly, a fear that has stalled my writing more than once and plunged me into my own “dark period.”
These observations offer some reassurance. But to truly call myself a writer, I feel I need to understand where I’m going. I find myself stuck between poetry and prose, flash fiction and the short story, sitting on a stack of ideas in search of a genre. Do the notebooks in my filing cabinet count for anything? Gladwell cites David Galenson’s research that suggests late bloomers, as opposed to youthful, more conceptual prodigies, take an experimental approach to their work. “[They] build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods.” (The New Yorker, 10/20/08)
And, just as I’ve wanted to throw my dead-end stories into the trees, minimize my few minor successes, Galenson warns, “These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.“
My husband is retired from drumming now. He did reach his goal and discovered it wasn’t his passion after all. He is embarking on new adventures: the mysteries of open-source software, perfecting his Spanish. What a view it must be, though, from the other end of 10,000 hours, looking back at what’s he’s mastered so far.
I don’t know if I’ll reach my goal, but I’m going to keep trying, regardless of fear or age or frustration. I have all those experiences to distill – from being a mom, a social worker, a teacher – and all those notebooks to dredge up. And I have to re-visit that girl in the car. And learn how to call myself a writer.
Robin Meister lives in Buffalo, NY, where she is an under-employed English teacher. She is an increasingly confident writer, thanks in large part to the motivational community of writers at Zoetrope’s Flash Factory.