Late Bloomer

I consider myself a professional writer now, but it took me a long time to get there. And it took me a long time to decide what being a “professional writer” meant or what it looked like to earn the right to call myself a writer at all.

In another lifetime, I studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Hiking to class through the coastal redwoods, I imagined myself following in the footsteps of John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Never women writers back then—although I read novels by Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and short stories by Doris Lessing, men writers wrote the bulk of the classics I studied, and in my twenties, I didn’t much question that. I was encouraged in my dreams—my freshman literature professor wrote that I was “already a first-rate student of literature and potentially a critic to watch.” I thought I was on my way.

My education and my writing dreams were put on hold while I raised my family—not because I was raising a family but because I thought I’d take a short break and pick it up again “soon.” I hadn’t yet heard the very true thing John Lennon said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I set writing aside in favor of a steady paycheck. I took a job as a paralegal, imagining that analyzing judicial opinions and writing legal briefs was as close as I could get to reading and writing for a living. I’d get back to writing fiction. Soon.

No excuses—I could have continued to write. I’ve heard stories about women writers like J.K. Rowling, a single mother who wrote her way out of poverty, and Danielle Steele, who wrote late at night while her children slept and then woke up early to get in a few more hours of writing before they woke up. That wasn’t me. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t have it in me to do both. I wasn’t even navigating motherhood well, to be honest. But I continued to dream that, one day, I would write a collection of short stories or a novel that would sit on my local bookstore’s shelves. Once I did that, I thought, I would have the financial freedom to write full-time. I know now that very few writers make their entire living by writing fiction. And here’s something else I didn’t know, something Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “A dream without a plan is just a wish.” Daydreaming that I’d write again “soon” was useless and meaningless without action.

I became a professional writer about 20 years ago. After receiving my first rejection slip from a major magazine and publishing an opinion piece in a local newspaper, I began to seek out other writing opportunities. A revolution had taken place in the writing industry since my days at U.C. Santa Cruz, mostly spurred by the advent of the internet and email. There were opportunities available for someone who wanted to make their living as a writer. I didn’t write fiction, but it was possible for me to supplement my freelance paralegal income by writing web content and magazine articles.

I began to split my time between freelance writing and freelance paralegal assignments. At first, I enjoyed my writing assignments. I liked the fact that I was able to use my life experiences as a paralegal, an entrepreneur, and a mom, as fodder for a simple content writing career. I also enjoyed taking assignments on topics I knew little or nothing about—I liked learning new things. I began to make a little more of my income from writing, and a little less of my income from paralegal work. But the bottom fell out quickly. It took a long time to write quality, SEO-optimized web content, and the pay was dismal in relation to the time I was spending on it. So I stopped writing. And I didn’t start up again for another ten years.

George Eliot decided to write a novel when she was 37, at a time when life expectancy was only 40. So she was a late bloomer, too. I decided to write a novel when I was 52. I’m 62 now, and I’m just now feeling ready to query that novel. It took me a short time to write it ten years ago—I wrote the first draft in a month. But it took me a long time to rewrite it. I spent ten years learning how to write and rewriting and completely restructuring and revising and editing and polishing that novel and making it good.

My children are grown now, and I have four grandchildren. I no longer have a family to take care of, which makes me sad, but I’m still busy. I still have to earn a living, so I can’t write all day long. These days, I don’t make a living from writing, but I make part of my living from writing-related pursuits I love, like book coaching and editing. And I give myself, my writing life, the best part of my day—that first hour or few hours after I wake up. Those belong to me now. I’m working on my second novel, and I’ve found the courage to not only call myself a writer, but to write.