On Being a Late Bloomer: Success Doesn't Happen Overnight

12/06/2012 11:45 pm ET

By Emma Straub

When I graduated from college, full of hubris and ambition, I decided that I wanted to be a novelist. Actually, I’d always known that I wanted to be a novelist, but when I was through with college, I knew it was time to get moving. I wrote three novels over the next few years, each one more convoluted and complicated than the last. It perhaps should have been a red flag that my then-literary agent and I spent more time talking about who would star in the movie adaptation than the book itself, but I was 22! What did I care? I was going to be an overnight success.

Except I wasn’t.

All three books were rejected. When I say they were rejected, I mean that my literary agents (I had two during this period) sent copies of my books to scores of editors, and every single one said no, over and over again. This process lasted approximately four years. Four years is the time is takes to go all the way through high school! Some editors read all three books, rejecting me three times in a row. When I remember this period in my life, I picture those Whac-A-Mole games at carnivals, where a little furry badger pops up out of the board and you swing an oversized hammer at its head. In my case, every single hammer connected with my little badger head.

I was disappointed, of course, but not dissuaded. What did they know? I was confident that I was a hard worker, and a good writer, and that I had things to say. I set a deadline for myself—as long as I published a book by the time I was 25, I would be happy. Then it was that I just had to sell the book by the time I was 25. Then I was 25 and bookless, and nothing bad happened to me. No pianos fell on my head, no witchy old ladies cursed me, I didn’t suddenly die in my sleep. Most important, nothing happened to my drive to write—there was no age limit on my imagination or creativity. This was a revelation.

The actress Susan Lucci became my guiding light. Lucci played Erica Kane on the soap opera All My Children for more than 40 years. I loved Erica Kane, the most powerful woman in all of Pine Valley, the fictional town where the soap took place, and so did the Daytime Emmy voters. For nearly two decades, Susan Lucci was nominated for Best Actress, but every year, she lost. Susan Lucci lost 18 times before finally winning the award. Think about that. This woman lost the biggest award in her field EIGHTEEN times. When she finally won, the entire crowd stood and clapped for several minutes, every single one of them thrilled for her. (The other actresses in her category were no doubt royally pissed, but I’m sure they got over it.) I wanted to be the Susan Lucci of novelists, so dogged in my pursuit of my goal that by the time I got there, everyone would be on their feet and clapping for me. Not necessarily because they loved my book (which would have been wonderful, of course), but because they knew how long I’d been trying and failing, how dedicated I was, how much I wanted it.

When I finally sold my first novel, at the ripe old age of 30, five long years after my initial deadline for myself, I cried for days, more happy tears than I thought were possible. And though I hadn’t let myself dwell on the likelihood of this particular book selling before it actually did as I didn’t want to jinx myself, I also wasn’t surprised. That was one of the major differences between this and my Lucci-style-losing-streak, if we can call it that. When I was 22, I thought that I deserved success just because I wanted it, and not because I’d actually earned it. If I had sold one of those books, I would have thought that the writing life was going to be an easy one, like living inside a bouncy castle, with no sharp edges anywhere. By the time I sold the book, I’d done a lot more living—I’d gone to graduate school to study writing more earnestly, moved in with my boyfriend, married my boyfriend, had a bunch of jobs, made new friends, moved out of New York and then back—and when it happened, it made sense. I had done all the work necessary to make it possible. There’s a saying that I like, which has been attributed to both the Roman philosopher Seneca AND Oprah: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Despite its obvious cheesiness, I think that’s really true. So much of what happens in the world has to do with circumstances outside your control. All you can do is work as hard as possible to get ready when your turn rolls around. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in myself, and in karma, and in having patience, and in working my effing ass off.

So, yes, for me, this happened when I was 30. Even so, people around me acted like I had come out of nowhere, like I was some overnight hit. If that sounds familiar, maybe you’ve been watching the same movies I have—the Justin Bieber documentary, or the Katy Perry documentary. In Katy’s case especially (I can talk about her on a first-name basis, because I’ve seen Part of Me and am positive that we’d be friends, so just back off), the movie took great pains to show how hard she worked to get to that magical “I Kissed a Girl” moment. Getting dropped from labels, writing songs that no one wanted to hear, being told that her music wasn’t right—Katy started recording music when she was 17, and “I Kissed a Girl” wasn’t released until she was 24. That’s still very young, of course, but regardless, those must have been seven long years. In spite of that struggle, Katy made the music that she felt like she needed and wanted to make, and now when she goes on tour her stage looks like Candyland, and she and her best friend dressed up like Daria and Jane for Halloween, and what could possibly be better than that? And Katy is just one example of that kind of seemingly superhuman perseverance.

The other glorious, inspiring truth is that some people are naturally late bloomers. Leonard Cohen didn’t release his first album until he was 32. Julia Child didn’t move to Paris until she was 36, and she didn’t get her famous television show until she was 51. Wallace Stevens didn’t publish any poems until he was 38. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada didn’t found the Hare Krishna movement until he was 70. There is time for all of us to figure out what it is we want to do—and to change our minds over and over again, if necessary. No one is timing you. Let me repeat that: no one is timing you.

It’s so easy to get caught up with what other people are doing—whether it’s personal or creative, a date to the prom or a hit single on the radio—that we forget that we only know part of the story. I used to get obsessed with what other writers were “getting,” whether it was publication in a really good magazine, or a prize that came with a big check, or even just an invitation to a fancy party that I wanted to attend. It’s easy to get sucked into that, and to spend more time worrying about what other people are doing than working on your own stuff—but if you want to stay sane, remember that no one’s life is easy, even if it looks that way from a certain angle. Being a human is complicated business, and when one issue in life (WHEN WILL I PUBLISH A NOVEL?!?) is resolved, others spring forward to take its place. It’s important to pause long enough to feel truly grateful for whatever goodness has occurred—and then, yup, get back to work. ♦

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