“The beauty of a writer vs. an artist is that a writer tends to get better over time. More experiences and living equal more grist for the mill.”
[Oh, dear. I no longer know who I am quoting. Sorry. If you are living, please identify yourself.]
One of the issues that baffled me when I was trying to write, as a recent college graduate in my early twenties, was lack of living experience. I knew I didn’t want to write the Great American Novel about my growing-up years and my father’s struggles, even though it would have been interesting to some people. Writing about my family life would have been way too personal and recent. I’d hardly digested those experiences myself, which left me nothing much to say until I gathered some experiences of my own.
Many young women my age back then would have already lived a lifetime’s worth of intimate personal experiences. However, I come from a family of late bloomers, and considering my complete lack of a social life throughout high school (unless you call meeting one girl on Saturdays to check out bookstores in Georgetown a social life), I needed to get up to speed during college. My college years were when I had my first dates, my unrequited crushes, my innocent little relationships, etc. Very virginal compared to my many friends, who were already openly living with boyfriends, having serial romances, and yes, having abortions because situations were not always perfect. I knew one girl who married in her freshman year in college. I never envied her the steady boyfriend she had in a husband, because she always arrived in English class looking exhausted. I believe she did graduate, but at what price? It did not seem to be the right time to be distracted by being part of a couple. But then, what did I know?
A romantic life is not the only marker of experience, of course, but having been through my father’s catastrophic illness and first amputation, and the resultant misery for the whole family, I was not looking for more of the painful and bloody events that happen near the end of life. I was looking away from them. I knew too well what the endgame looked like. What I did not know was how to be with a person who had a future.
My interest in comic books was the crucial connector that gave me a range of friendships that were strictly friendships. With those people I learned how to be casual, how to connect with people my own age, and more. College friendships completed my social training. What I did not quite learn was how to separate my ambition to have a romantic life from ambition itself. The boys I knew in comics were quite good at that. The boys I knew in college were in the career waiting stages as I was, but they were heading for a different kind of future. When I got out of college, I met the cold, cruel world and floundered in confusion.
I learned. I experienced. It all happened. There had been many moments as an adolescent when I wondered when or if my real life as a person, not as a daughter, would begin. Finally, achingly slowly, it did. I even achieved that endless-but-brief period called motherhood, with its crazy-making stretches of tedium interspersed with moments of raw joy. I would not have missed that for the world.
And now? Another act, of course. None of us gets to skip the sequence of our lives, whether we live them over many years or merely a few. I have plenty of time ahead, I hope, but that does not mean I get to while away several decades doing nothing. There is so much to accomplish. I have so many stories to tell. The ones in my novels are strictly fiction, of course, but informed now by my understanding of the arc of human experience, something I simply could not fathom when I was young. Am I a better writer than I was at twenty? Oh, yes. The challenge now is to produce my best work, before the arc of my own life sequence sends me, inevitably, into the decline I saw too intimately when I was a teenager.