LATE-BLOOMER, ARE YOU?: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

During my fiddling poet performances, I sometimes mention I’m a quintessential late-bloomer, and ask if anybody in the audience can relate. Invariably a few hands shoot up. I explain how a few years earlier, as a visiting writer at a small Catholic college, I went to dinner with the poet on campus, and one of his English Department colleagues, Sister Margaret. Twice during the meal, I had reason to explain away my youthful indiscretions by remarking I was a late-bloomer. The second time, Sister Margaret flung out her right hand, as if sweeping my messy words away, and said, Enough with this late-blooming–at least you bloomed!

I was properly chastised. Ever since, on mentioning my late-blooming life, I recall Sister Margaret.

I wrote my first short story in an undergraduate Creative Writing class. A Management Sciences major at Duke University, I took the elective as a junior year diversion. After graduation, during a period of cycling through a series of menial jobs in Boston, I took an eight-week fiction writing workshop. There, I wrote three stories, and started others.

In both settings, encouraged by classmates, more-or-less tolerated by workshop leaders, I began learning the craft. After my time in Boston, on a whim I applied to the MFA program at University of British Columbia, where I was wait-listed, then accepted at the last-minute. This was thirty years ago, a more innocent time technologically. I didn’t have a telephone answering machine and didn’t get the acceptance letter for two weeks. By then the spot had been filled.

Five years later, 29 years old, after a move to Seattle, I wrote my next story. That one was a struggle and despite the satisfaction in finishing, I knew the story lacked something essential. But what, I couldn’t tell. Maybe in another five years, I thought, I’d write another; maybe I never would.

Three months later, in the midst of personal tumult, I started a new story and completed it quickly. Something had shifted. I’d found my voice, or, more accurately, had happened onto it. Afterward, I understood that not only had this new piece, which was the best I’d ever written, come more naturally, but I knew I could duplicate the feeling and effect.

Over the next months, I applied to the MFA program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, was accepted, and moved to the Alaska Interior. During my three years there, I wrote plenty more stories, started scribbling poems, composed critical papers and short essays, taught composition and creative writing classes, and day-by-day went about building the foundation of a life where writing, in some form, had a daily, central place.

Just like there are good and bad days, some seasons have been easier, some tougher. Sometimes the focus has been on generating. Sometimes on editing. Sometimes on publishing and marketing. Even when everything has gone well, I’ve had my distractions (for instance, over the years, I’ve learned it’s virtually impossible for me to do anything while on tour but be on tour). But since composing that story in 1985, the one that felt that, yes, now I’m a writer, every major decision I’ve made has been to support some aspect of my writing.

Late-bloomer? In 1989, when I was 33 and had just finished my MFA, I had my first stories and poems accepted in literary journals. In 2000, when I was 44, I had my first full-length poetry collection published. The past ten years I’ve been fortunate to have had a variety of small presses bring out five more full-length poetry collections, a memoir, and a children’s book. With eight books now, nine CDs, and a busy touring schedule, I’ve invented a full-time writer’s life for myself, even if it’s unorthodox by most standards, and a little late in the game. At least my work is out in the world, available to anyone interested.

Of course, that’s not enough. It never is. There’s always the next project, and with it the next round of challenges. The books and CDs are gratifying, but what am I to do with the unpublished novel, story collection, memoir, and four poetry collections? And amidst days that are already full, how do I find time to sit down and write the new books, ones that in some cases I’ve been thinking about for years?

Here, I recall five lessons. They helped late-blooming me before; they may well help me again. And maybe they’ll help you, whether late-bloomer, or not.

1) In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I read all the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series. In the volume by Robert Bly, Talking All Morning, he advised that if you want to learn to write, don’t take a writing class, but, rather, apprentice under a master in a field you’re passionate about. According to Bly, as an apprentice, you’ll learn what it takes to become truly expert, and from there it’s a relatively easy process to adapt those kinds of skills to writing. Bly went on to explain that the biggest benefit in working this way is that when you do turn to writing, you have fresh stories from the field in which you apprenticed, as well as an authentic vocabulary from that field.

Twenty years later, I still recall this. In fact, expanding Bly’s point, I’ll say that since life experience is cumulative, ANY experience is fair game for the writer, and the more mature the writer, the wider the range of experience. Doctor, lawyer, farmer, chef: the world is full of stories. There are stories, as well, for any long-time husband or wife, or any long-time single man or woman. Special vocabularies, too.

And writers CAN benefit from writing classes; they need only pay extra-close attention.

2) In graduate school I got in the habit of reading interviews with writers. Who isn’t curious how the most successful ones practice their craft? There are surely lessons in hearing that diametrically opposed strategies can work. One writer might carefully outline a project before starting; another might avoid an outline of any kind, feeling a loss of spontaneity ruins enthusiasm.

There’s never one absolute answer, only the answer that’s correct for you. So, while reading interviews can be inspirational, they’re a means to the end. Afterward, make time to sit down (or lie down, stand up, stand on your head) and write. Write in bed, at a coffee shop, with a friend, on a retreat. Try everything. Eventually
you’ll know what works best for you.

3) Alas, as much as you’d like to, you can’t do everything. Maybe you have a family that will always come first. Fine. But if your day job always comes second, friends always third, a clean house fourth, and on and on–and the list is always endless–then the question becomes where, realistically, does writing fit. New poems, short stories, essays, and articles are intrinsically a time-consuming, messy business. Beginning a novel is a major undertaking. Completing one will take months, more likely years. If there are other priorities, fine. There’s never a single way.

But if you want to write, sometime you have to be selfish and make time, which might well mean examining how you’re spending days, and then negotiating (with yourself, and others) how to find necessary hours. That might well mean putting in motion a process that will change your life in fundamental ways.

Recently, starting a memoir, I spent Christmas week writing instead of visiting my partner’s family, three thousand miles away. Not everyone is in position to sidestep those kinds of obligations. But I was. Thanks to the momentum from that week, I finished a first draft within two months.

4) A tip about sharing. In workshops, writers will sometimes share copies with other participants, who read the work at home and write comments. At the next session, after a discussion, those take-home copies are handed back to the original writer.

While it helps to have readers who offer advice, what do you do with all those comments? Listen to everybody? It’s the old cliché of cooks and broth. A friend once told me that if you were fortunate in a setting like that, you’ll find one reader making one comment that truly resonates. That’s the suggestion that points to a key edit that otherwise may have taken weeks, or months, to discover.

While a writer can’t–and shouldn’t–take every bit of offered advice, a writer does have to be open to changes. By cultivating a trusted reader or two who makes thoughtful, smart suggestions, you’ve found more than a friend. Treat these readers accordingly.

5) Back to the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series, and a book of essays by William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl. While I was never fortunate to have a real-life mentor, I met Stafford through his poetry and prose, which always managed to inspire. He made it seem simple: if he could do it, so could I. This book of essays explains his writing process. When he says, “lower your standards,” he doesn’t mean to write badly, but to allow yourself to write imperfectly. Stafford woke early, wrote daily, prolifically. He seemingly never got stuck, because he accepted whatever came to him. A late-bloomer, his first book of
poetry was published when he was 46. My take on his philosophy of writing: The more we write, the luckier we get–so what are we all waiting for. Instead of reading about writing, or talking about writing, let’s get back at it.

4 thoughts on “LATE-BLOOMER, ARE YOU?: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman”

  1. Ken, thanks for your mention of Sister Margaret. It reminded me of someone I haven't thought about for years – a favorite nun from my teenage years, Sister Gilmartin.
    She could puncture any pretence or too-precious self regard with her wit and good humor.
    What a fabulous woman she was.
    I'll keep her in mind more often as I write. I can feel the good effects already.

  2. Ken,
    Your point number three resonates with me. Making writing a priority is difficult when there are so many other important demands on my time. It feels like I am constantly negotiating an hour here or fifteen minutes there between all of the other stuff.
    And as far as late-blooming goes, I feel like I'm the queen; MFA (finally starting this year) at age 43.
    Thanks for the great post.

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