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Are We Ever Too Old to Be Called “Promising?”

 When I received my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, I did what I always do: I put it in a special place on the nightstand, where I could devour it after finishing work, dinner, dishes, and putting my youngest son to bed. I’ve been subscribing to this magazine for many years, and the ritual is always the same. I treasure each issue for the same reasons my software engineer husband loves his subscription to Technology Review: these magazines help us feel connected professionally, and keep our dreams of being successful alive.

Imagine my horror, then, when I read the interview in this recent issue with Ben Fountain, one of my favorite fiction writers since the appearance of his brilliant collection of stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, in 2006, and stumbled across this quote: “It’s slightly ridiculous to be fifty-three years old and about to have your debut novel come out…There is an absurd and pathetic aspect to that…”

Really, Mr. Fountain? Really? These are the words of inspiration you have for the rest of us, on the eve of publishing your novel, Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, with Ecco?

Come on. It’s not like writers are ballerinas who can’t do splits without injuring ourselves after a certain age, or even football players too fat to run. Is it?

Or maybe it is. For a little while after I read that interview, I was fretting, thinking my prime must have zipped by me so fast that I didn’t notice it leaving me behind. I didn’t have the successful law practice Mr. Fountain had before luxuriating in the full-time writing life (courtesy of his very supportive attorney wife). I am a working mom, a fixer-upper of houses, and a wife. All of that means that I’m juggling more spinning plates in the air than I can count, and yes, I do occasionally drop one and smash it. Should I feel absurd and pathetic? Or even slightly ridiculous, on the eve of my own debut novel?

Many years ago—when I was a mere slip of a girl, scarcely 32 years old—I had a short story “almost accepted,” as I joyously raved to friends, by an institution no less brag-worthy than The Atlantic Monthly. After receiving compliments in a letter from the magazine’s fiction editor at the time, I decided to zip on down to the stately Atlantic offices in Boston. Since I had no day care, I brought my first child with me, a son who today is old enough to be writing his own fiction.

The Atlantic editor was a curmudgeonly New Englander outfitted in a Mr. Rogers cardigan. He very gallantly admired not only my fiction, but the baby as well. Then, after we discussed the state of fiction at some length—at such a length that I had to nurse my baby right there in the office, to keep him quiet—the editor said something that made my blood run cold: “The thing is, you’re a little too old to be called promising.”

Of course I was crushed. Once I could pick myself up off the chair, I gathered the baby, stuffed him into his snowsuit, and drove back to my seedy little apartment north of Boston, weeping the entire way home.

Did I stop writing? For a few days. And then I had another story idea, and another, and yet one more, and soon I was happily weaving together sentences for my own amusement. I got an agent, who tried to sell my novels but failed, until finally he sold my memoir. I cobbled a living together as a journalist and essayist, still writing fiction, still failing to sell it. Until, one day, I did.

It took me twenty-five years to sell a novel. I am, as the venerable Steven Tyler said recently on American Idol, “Much too young to be this old.” And yet I don’t feel pathetic, or absurd, or even slightly ridiculous, Mr. Fountain, thank you very much. I just feel happy. Really, really happy. My main thought is this: “Holy cow, I did it!”

I suppose it has helped that my husband has fantasies of creating his own software product, and he isn’t much younger than I am. He has worked for big companies and small start-ups, and he occasionally rants over seeing one of his friends—a billionaire, usually, who has sold some world-altering innovative product—featured in Technology Review. In his darkest hours, my husband also wonders if he’s too old to become successful. We prop each other up however we can during these crises in confidence. I know that my husband can create a cool new product and have fun trying to bring it to market. It’s just a matter of time.

Are we ever too old to be called “promising?” Do we really have to feel pathetic or absurd if we don’t succeed at achieving our dreams until we’re in our forties, fifties, sixties, seventies or even beyond?

Not even a little bit, Mr. Fountain. For what is life, without passions to follow? That is the point of it all.