There are scores of encouraging stories about writers who didn’t find success easily … or even early.
Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes at age 64, and Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel at age 61. Belva Plain, a bestselling author from right here in New Jersey, didn’t publish her first novel until she was a 63-year-old widow. She went on to publish 21 novels that were on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 30 million copies of those books were in print at her death at age 95.
I find these statistics encouraging. Do you? Have you ever looked at a published author’s age and thought, “Oh, I still have time?” I know I have. Though as the years, the publications and the rejections have added up, I find myself doing that less. I am far more interested in my own trajectory than seeing how it compares to someone else’s.
My first story collection, Sympathetic People (Serving House Books), was published in 2013, when I was 62, and received some blush-worthy blurbs ("Donna Baier Stein is a discovery," according to C. Michael Curtis, fiction editor of The Atlantic, and New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt called the book, "…a brilliantly edgy collection of stories that gets under your skin as even as it illuminates love, lust - and everything in between."). Most of the stories in this book were written and published in literary magazines in the 1980s, and an early version of the manuscript was a finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards. Still, many, many years passed without my seeing it in book form.
Why? Because I didn’t make writing a priority. Over the previous three decades, I had a thriving career as a copywriter, two children, a busy husband. I undertook several major moves. At times, I let myself be both distracted and insecure. There were very few days devoted only to creative writing. More often, I squeezed extra hours in early in the morning while my children slept and before copywriting client demands filled the work day. When I turned 40, I put my copywriting work aside for a year to earn an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where I studied with a long-time writing hero of mine, John Barth. My thesis was a very early version of Sympathetic People.
Instead of continuing to pursue publication of that collection, I wrote and published new stories and essays. I published a poetry chapbook. I wrote a novel that won the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction and had a top agent from William Morris try to sell that book. "Close but no cigar," we were told by 17 New York publishers.
I sometimes felt like giving up but somehow never did. I sent the collection out to about five more publishers and finally, to my great delight, Serving House Books offered publication. I was thrilled!
Having my story collection finally in book form gave me a nice injection of can-do confidence. So I resurrected the novel I’d been working on for years and rewrote it almost from scratch. And started a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton paintings.
Sometimes, hopelessness about “being too old” or “not good enough” still takes hold. What we as writers try to do – to create something from nothing, to have our insides be heard – is hard. I’ve come to think that occasional hopelessness may just be part of the creative package.
So, how do you switch hopelessness to hope? Here's what I do.
Talk to other writers, and gain perspective. I know a lot of “famous” writers. And every single one of them has a tale of woe to tell about some stage of their publication history. No one is immune from that.
Discover what you need when you want to stop. For me, physical exercise and meditation are both big helps. So is finally learning that first drafts can be, as Hemingway said, “*&($.” Getting anything on the page is a step in the right direction.
Accept that sometimes a step back takes you forward. Every time I’ve gone through a cycle of hopelessness, I have come out the other side a better writer. This is a fact. Sometimes we have to trust that growth occurs even during fallow periods. And keep on writing.
At a commencement speech at Duke University in 2008, author Barbara Kingsolver said, “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides."
I love this image, this idea that hope itself is a space in which we can live, no matter what our age, no matter what our publication history. Writers need hope. Very few of us are overnight successes. And the only thing to do in the face of rejection letters and passing years is find that hallway of hope, set up your computer or yellow pad, and write.
Notes from Lisa: Donna would like to send one blog reader a complimentary copy of her short story collection. Simply leave a comment by end of day on Friday, Sept. 26, and we'll choose one winner at random (U.S. postal addresses only).
New Jersey residents can see Donna read from her collection at the Bernardsville Public Library on Tuesday, September 23, at 7 pm.
Donna's poetry chapbook is Sometimes You Sense the Difference (Finishing Line Press, 2012).