“On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”
- “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Ludovico Sinz
When I was a child, my parents did everything to encourage my writing ambitions. They equated writing with first becoming a good reader. They gave me a library fit for an author-in-training —it even had abridged classics (Some plots were altered in the name of childhood education: I was disheartened to find in in adulthood that Beth really does die in Little Women.)
I developed a reputation as a bookworm. I would go to sleepovers and forage through the bookcase; in time the number of sleepovers I was invited to was inversely proportional to the number of books I had read. (Sidenote: When I was 12 years old and carted off to summer camp, I took John Galsworthy’s A Man of Property with me. I had seen the BBC mini-series, The Forsyte Saga, and become obsessed with the lives of this patrician family with their puritanical streak and penchant for debauchery.)
I wrote really bad poetry, prodigiously and with great passion. Sheets of foolscap carpeted my bedroom while I listened to melancholy rock songs with way too many guitar solos. (It was the ’90s.)
My grandparents encouraged my precocity as I rattled off self-indulgent letters and birthday poems every year.
In time I improved, earning third place in a middle school poetry contest. The subject of the poem was heavy indeed: a boy shoots a bird and then as it lies dying in his hands, he realizes that he is holding “the meaning of life” in his hands.
So I was a little melodramatic.
But in high school I flourished and even had a short story published in the local newspaper. It was generally assumed that I was destined for some success in writing.
Fast forward to 2011. I was out for dinner with a high school friend, Jamaal, in Toronto. I updated him on my life: how I had switched careers last year, that I had finally studied journalism and was now working my way up the lower echelons of publishing while freelancing along the way.
And he said: “What happened, Waterfall? You were the golden child.”
Jamaal had struck a chord; it echoed the tiny, reproachful voice inside me that wailed: Why did you waste all those years not doing what you loved? Why did you get distracted by (INSERT boys, sports, life etc. HERE)?
I did enjoy some of my jobs some of the time — although much of that enjoyment was found in the people I worked with and not in the work itself. Experience materialized over time, neither rocketing me to the top of my department nor dispelling my sense that I was faking my way through my professional life.
I had basically been waylaid by routines: the regular paycheque, the “regular” job and the myriad distractions that plague a twentysomething woman when she isn’t sure what she wants to do.
In other words, my epiphany was slow to arrive. It was only when I was handed my walking papers that the possibility for change arose. But in that moment, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I remember furiously blinking back tears in the back of a taxicab. A cardboard box with my meagre, personal effects — Post-its, pens with chewed-off-tips and Christmas cards — sat next to me.
The taxicab driver feigned ignorance and turned the radio station up to muffle my sobs. (I was grateful for his discretion.)
I emailed my brother. The first thing he said was: “Congratulations!”
And then the life that I should have begun 15 years ago finally began.
In a sense, being downsized out of a job gave me the freedom to figure out what I really wanted to do — 2010 was the year that I resolved to make up for lost time: I took a Travel Writing course and a postgraduate diploma with the London School of Journalism. I interned at an online magazine, Sweetspot.ca, and an independently owned newspaper, The Gleaner. In August I started working in digital media as an editorial coordinator. I felt re-invigorated.
But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m way behind. I believe the term is “late bloomer” (a lovely phrase that incorporates the word for a bulky, inelegant, 18th-century undergarment). The phrase does have a negative, slightly condescending connotation: in a society where you’re conditioned to aim high, no one likes to be on the “slow track” behind their peers.
But I read an article in The New Yorker, Late Bloomers, that disputes such a facile interpretation. The sub-head states: Why do we equate genius with precocity?
Writer Malcolm Gladwell focuses on one guinea pig, Ben Fountain, who “suddenly takes the literary world by storm”:
“But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight…“
Gladwell agrees that genius is not just the republic of youth and uses economist David Galenson to support his argument. Galenson “quantified” literary merit (something literary scholars will certainly scoff at): He looked at 47 major poetry anthologies published since 1980 to count the poems that appeared most often. His conclusion was that some poets do their best work much later in their careers.
He also said that the late bloomer’s “approach is experimental”. Through trial and error, they craft their careers over many decades before achieving success.
I’m not a late bloomer in one respect: I don’t sense genius lurking below the surface. But I think that becoming a better writer is inevitable when it becomes a regular part of your life.
Galenson used Cézanne as a prime example of how some artists save the best for last. The painter succeeded thanks to his support his network:
“He had a dream team in his corner…This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others…She believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and—in his own, querulous way—[his father] Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne.
Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
If this is the formula that presages the success of some late bloomers, then at least I’ve gotten the first part right. And it’s not so bad to be late if you — and your “patrons” — believe you’ll eventually get there.