Debuting at Forty-Two or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Writing Process

From the age of nine or ten, I was passionately certain I would be a writer when I grew up.

Now I’m forty-two, and my first book has just come out.

If I could talk to ten-year-old me about this, she would be appalled. What have I been doing for the last thirty-two years? Shouldn’t I have had a novel out by twenty? That was always the plan. I was going to get my career started early, get popular, get rich, buy a house in the country, fill it with dogs (I was ten. Dogs were still better than boys.), and steadily write novels while simultaneously answering letters from my adoring fans. It was my destiny to be a writer. I had a knack for writing stories, and I loved doing it, so how could I not succeed? As I progressed through my teens, I started picking up those writing and publishing guides no one buys any more because all the information is online now. There was no Internet during my teens. We got our first computer when I was thirteen, and it wasn’t connected to anything but the wall. I learned about the publication process the way I learned about everything else: by going to the library.

Boomers tend to heap scorn on Millennials for being entitled enough to assume they deserve to achieve their dreams. Everyone forgets about Generation X. We were told from the beginning that our dreams were ridiculous and unachievable. We should try, of course, but we shouldn’t expect anything to come of it. So my expectations about my writing were always kind of split in two. I was sure I was a good writer; I was sure I was a terrible writer. I knew I would succeed; I knew I would fail. I sent out a manuscript in my early twenties and was kindly rejected by a small publisher, and even though I knew this was something every writer went through and I should just suck it up and try again, I somehow stopped sending stuff out after that. It was the writing I enjoyed, not the attempt to figure out a publisher’s guidelines from the brief and inaccurate entry in some publishing guide or other and the agonising wait for the rejection to come in the mail. I churned out novels and put them away on shelves. I told myself I was “practising.”

Life has a way of getting away from you. You’re always going to really get going on it next year. Next year I’ll write a novel worth publishing. Next year I’ll start researching publishers again. Hey…I hear publishers are starting to put their information online now. Look how easy that makes it! I can start trying again. But I have to get going on this Ph.D. thesis too. Maybe next year.

And then I was in my mid-thirties, and I didn’t have a single publication credit. No short stories. No academic journal articles. My procrastination was my masterpiece. I had a webcomic because there was no barrier to publication there; I just had to stick the comics online. I still wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but most people do consider thirty-five pretty grown up.

Feeling like a failure is always more fun when you know for a fact that the failure is your own fault. I hadn’t been super successful at grad school either, but there, at least, I could partly—even if rather unfairly—blame external factors. With my writing, I couldn’t know the reason I hadn’t succeeded was that evil agents and publishers were trying to keep me down, simply because I hadn’t been approaching agents and publishers. I was a secret writer. I told myself I wasn’t sending my work out because it just wasn’t the right time. Publishers weren’t looking for fantasy. Then Harry Potter happened, and publishers were looking for fantasy, but if I sent out my fantasy, wouldn’t I be seen as a copycat? Along came Twilight, and my stuff didn’t have love stories in it, so no one was going to want it. Excuses were everywhere. I kept hoping for some miraculous event in which I would be “discovered.” At the same time, as per my split approach to writing, I knew this was absurd.

There was also that nagging little voice in my head. You know the one. The voice kept telling me that everything I did was doomed to failure. Why even try? No one wanted stories like mine. I was writing in a vacuum, with occasional feedback from my sister and maybe a friend or two, and even when they said nice things—which they didn’t always—they probably didn’t mean them. The nagging little voice in my head was very dramatic and usually had the back of its hand pressed firmly against its nonexistent forehead.

When I try to figure out what changed, propelling me to the point where I was willing to work at getting published instead of sitting around and wishing on a star I didn’t really even think was there, I focus on two unrelated events. In my mid-thirties, some friends and I formed a writing group. Around the same time, my mother, who lived with my father on Vancouver Island, started repeating herself during phone conversations. It was still two years before she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to know. I told myself it was fine. I’ve always been a little too good at deciding that everything is going to work out in the end.

The murky anxiety about my mother added a bit of fear to my life: fear that I would lose her before I could become worthy of her, maybe. It feels strange to type that, but I think it’s true. As my mother became more confused, everything seemed to grow more urgent. Simultaneously, I was meeting with other writers, and we were giving each other real feedback. We were a pretty blunt writing group. It was all very much, “Hey, it’s great to see you guys. I brought some Cadbury mini-eggs to tide us over. I don’t like your protagonist, and the way you treat dashes is as poison to my very soul.”

It was amazing.

As a grad student, I was used to receiving criticism designed to crush me into a quivering mass of blood and nerves. This was different. We were honest, but we also encouraged each other. For the first time in a decade and a half, I started considering not putting my writing away on a shelf forever. People were reading it. Sometimes they liked it. Sometimes they didn’t. I could survive them not liking it. When enough of them didn’t like the same thing, I went away and revised it. I was astonished at how much better this made my work. I still knew I was doomed to fail, but I think this was when I began to believe there was a chance I could succeed, not via the machinations of the Magical Writing Wish Fairy who would grant me the fulfilment of my destiny but due to my own actual attempts to write something that was not immediately bound for the shelf of doom.

Weave a Circle Round was born in that writing group. It was the second novel I wrote for the group; the first was long, convoluted, and ultimately unworkable, but Weave a Circle Round had something about it I felt was worth taking further. It wasn’t a particularly new story. I’d had the characters, or versions of them, in my head since my teens. Back when I still believed in the fantasy of the luxurious writing career and the big house filled with dogs, Cuerva Lachance and Josiah sprang fully formed from my love of Norse mythology and started dancing through my stories. They appeared in a play. Freddy, who would become Weave a Circle Round’s protagonist, popped up in a novel I wrote one year in my early twenties for an annual three-day-novel contest. I imagined out bits and pieces of the story over the course of decades.

When I finally wrote it down, it felt like the culmination of something. It felt like the one story I had written so far that might be able to venture out into the world to seek its fortune. The fact that it was really an old story, a story that had already gone through several permutations, just made it seem more right for my first real attempt at publication. I could tell myself I was simply an extremely slow bloomer. All that practice had happened because this one story hadn’t been ready yet.

Of course, writing Weave a Circle Round was only the first step. By the time I’d edited it strenuously enough that I was reasonably pleased with its shape, I was thirty-six. I took a deep breath and, with the encouragement of my writing group, started sending it out to agents and small publishers. The rejections began to arrive. This time, I powered through them. I was also doing other creative things: working on my webcomic, writing and performing funny music, even producing a couple of independent albums. I submitted the novel twice to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest, which was kind of like American Idol for prose fiction. More rejections happened. I still didn’t give up, though I was beginning to wonder if I’d been too optimistic about the novel. Maybe I wasn’t ready yet. Maybe I needed more practice. Maybe my shelf of secret writing wasn’t full enough.

My split-in-two approach to my writing was re-emerging, dangerously. It would have been easy to give in to my personal Gollum, whispering in my ear that I would never be a real writer. I think I almost did give in. When my mother was definitively diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the whispers became louder, more persistent. It was urgent I should succeed, but did my success or failure really matter in the face of what was happening to my mother?

I was thirty-seven, and no one wanted to read the manuscript. I was thirty-eight, and agents wouldn’t reply to my queries. Weave a Circle Round was looking more and more as if it were bound for the fatal shelf. I didn’t want to let these characters go, but I wasn’t sure I was going to have a choice. I tried to write a sequel and got stuck halfway through. One thing about being a secret writer is that at least you can tell yourself you would be successful if you weren’t a secret writer. Now I wasn’t secret, but I wasn’t successful either.

I got my acceptance at forty. The story behind it is a little weird and magical and, yes, wish-on-a-star-y; it involves an album of mine called Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and two coincidental and unrelated encounters on two different continents between Tor editor David Hartwell and two of my writer friends. It was a surprise. It happened when I had nearly stopped trying, when I had regressed to telling myself I would send the novel out again someday, but not quite yet. The whole thing left me simultaneously wildly excited and oddly ashamed of myself. Hadn’t I just spent decades working through an entire inner journey in which I had discovered that wishing on a star wasn’t good enough? Hadn’t I made a whole big show of becoming a genuine aspiring writer and sending out manuscripts and papering my walls with rejection letter and just generally trying? Hadn’t I discovered that trying wasn’t working for me either, and maybe I truly was a failure? Had I really got a publishing deal by accident?

I hadn’t, of course. I just felt as if I had. I’d been working at getting a publishing deal since I was a teenager, but I’d done a lot of the work—the hardest part of it, I think—alone.

Perhaps we need to start thinking about this whole “becoming a writer” thing differently. We put a lot of value on “success,” with “successful” writers being the ones who get those shiny book deals or attract those adoring fans. Perhaps the toughest part of becoming a writer is realising you’re not ready for the public part of the process yet. The bit of me that always felt split in two, stuck between the need for the writing career and the certainty that I would never be good enough for the writing career, was the smart bit after all. I was a writer at twenty, but I wasn’t good enough yet. As frustrated as it made me, I needed that time as a secret writer. I needed to work my way up towards the surface, to find my own fumbling path towards the point at which I could write my strange little book and not hide it away forever.

The funny thing is that I’m glad I waited until I was thirty-five to write Weave a Circle Round. I’m even okay with debuting at forty-two. No, I was never published at twenty. No, I don’t live in a dog-filled house in the country. Yes, it often feels as if I hit the pause button on my life after my first rejection and unpaused it fifteen years later. Yet I really didn’t. I never stopped writing. I just stopped trying to share my writing. Though that wouldn’t have been the best decision for everyone, it did allow me to make a colossal number of writing errors all by myself in the privacy of my own apartment. I had years to figure out they were errors and fumble my way through the corrections.

The story of the tortoise and the hare has always bothered me a little. In a way, I identify a lot with the tortoise. In another way, the tortoise strikes me as a bit smug. The story is about persevering and succeeding where flashier opponents fail, but if you tilt your head and squinch your eyes half-shut, you can see the wish fulfilment and envy peeking out from behind the tale. Of course the tortoise wins. In fairy tales, the person who wins is almost always the person who would lose in real life. Fairy tales tell us that the born loser is destined to win. The tortoise’s victory depends on the laziness of the hare, not on the tortoise’s talent. The only reason the tortoise doesn’t lose is that the hare isn’t worthy of winning.

Perhaps I’m partly the tortoise, but I’m racing only against myself. The way I meandered my way into a writing career doesn’t say anything about the much younger writers who have been published in their early twenties or even, in some cases, their teens. They’re amazing, and I’m glad they’ve found their voices so young. But I hope the older secret writers, the ones who scribble away in private and hide their writing in trunks or on shelves or even just on dusty old hard drives, don’t give up. Some people publish early and develop in public. Some wait, voluntarily or otherwise, and develop in private. There’s no one right way, even if it feels as if there should be.

Maybe things aren’t always as simple as we want them to be. Maybe plans are mostly just there to comfort us. Frodo Baggins didn’t stand at the summit of Mount Doom and think, “Well, that all went according to plan.” (He mostly just thought, “Ow.”) I never planned to end up on this path, but I’m on it now. I have absolutely no idea how it’s all going to play out in the end. And, though I’m pretty sure I would never have said this when I was eighteen and determined to be famous by twenty-four, that works for me.

Kari Maaren is a Toronto-area writer, award-winning musician and cartoonist, and academic. She created the webcomics West of Bathurst and It Never Rains, and is also known as a musician for her popular song “Beowulf Pulled Off My Arm.” Weave a Circle Round is her first novel.

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