Holly Robinson

Holly Robinson
Massachusetts, USA
December 03
Journalist Holly Robinson is the author of the novel Sleeping Tigers and The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir. Visit her web site at www.authorhollyrobinson.com.


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Editor’s Pick
MAY 7, 2012 3:57PM

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

Rate: 13 Flag

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.

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I'm 63 this year and I've yet to publish anything outside of photograph that appeared on the front page above the fold of the Christian Science Monitor in 1990... I've somehow misplaced my copy of that issue and the color Xerox of the check for $136.00 that they paid me. I still have a 1974 rejection letter from Analog signed by then editor in chief Ben Bova and I still get a pang of thrill every time I run across it as I rummage through my boxes of papers to research my own past. Bova actually read my short story and complimented me on my writing skills. Who knows, maybe, I'll end up being the Grandma Moses of novelists.
Well, people make decisions to dismiss people all the time, and there's tragedies that result too as to things getting missed. Happens all the time, if it makes you feel any better. Some day, I think we'll sit under rubble, and someone will approach someone and say,"I'm sorry we didn't listen to you."
I will always be promising because there will always be something more, something better than where I am today...I've promised myself that.
Robin, I think Fountain was being modest or ironic or maybe even sarcastic, having a "told you so" to some offstage curmudgeonly editor, perhaps the very one who made you weep so long ago. At the same time I suspect there is some merit in the argument one can be too old to interest the gatekeepers of highbrow literature, but I would suggest the merit is in the marketing aspect, which, altho the highbrow gatekeepers seem to loathe acknowledging to the hoi polloi, is what it's really all about - the business of book selling as in how many people will buy this sucker.

The so-called "legacy publishers" - the Doubledays, Knopfs and Random Houses - look for the long haul, just as a good car dealer looks for return customers as the epitome of salesmanship. Theoretically the sales volume will expand in direct proportion to the author's name recognition, provided his inaugural works generated some sizzle to get a little traction in the world of readers (I've picked up these marketing buzzwords over years of peering thru the window of the inner sanctum with my nose smudging the glass). Sizzle? Like with 50 Shades of Gray? Well, 'fraid that's part of it. But the prospect of longevity is a real and understandable consideration in a publisher's decision to take a risk on a new untested (marketwise) writer who isn't already notorious for some other reason.

Walker Percy explained this is why his own publisher turned down A Confederacy of Dunces, which he had recommended to them, because its author, John Kennedy Toole, had killed himself after failing to get anyone to look at his manuscript. Dead authors, no matter how talented, can be only a flash in the pan, marketwise, the wise publisher told Percy, who then went to the LSU press, which published the first edition, which probly brings a pretty penny these days. The book will never go out of print.

And don't forget Helen Hooven Santmyer who reputedly spent 50 years writing And Ladies of the Club, and finally had it published when she was 88. Amazon says it currently has 2.5 million copies in print.

Too old to have promise? Not if your heart's in the game and you don't murder yourself. And you have a bit of luck.
You are so encouraging. I have a play and I don't even know where to begin shopping it around. It's been sitting in my computer for years. Now, maybe I'll try harder.
Grandma Moses was 78 when she started her career as a painter. On the other hand, one of my songs is probably a bit close to reality for most of us:

I Don't Need You To Remind Me, I Got A Bright Future Behind Me
Jackie, I'm so glad you feel inspired! And as Chicken Maan points out here, yep, the trick is to not murder yourself over failures and just stay in the game.
I don't know how the concept of promise got tangled up in chronological age. In the visual arts there is "emerging artist." Can I emerge at age 59? If I am coming from somewhere else, why not? Thanks for the way you present this. Good to read with coffee, emerging into a new day of promise :)
Stunning. Don't let the word put you off...it just means that the writer has not seen your whole body of work and doesn't want to stick his neck out and say you are truly talented until someone gives you a NEA grant. Or a Nobel Prize. I'm jealous...that is awesome!
I subscribe to P&W too and read that article with the same feeling. WTF? I turned 50 last year and still haven't published a book, although I've had some poetry and a memoir piece published. Getting back to working on my one-woman show now. My answer is No, you're never too old. The U.S. is a youth-obsessed culture and I get tired of reading about all the young writers fresh out of MFA programs who have cranked out their first books and had them published. It's kind of a racket. Sorry for my display of sour grapes, but we can't all afford (financially or time-wise) to get our MFA in creative writing, nor does that necessarily make one a better writer. It is, however, a great way to network and produce your first book.
Love those new comments below, and so glad you're taking energy from the piece to start your day! I think I was very lucky in having the mother I did. She started tap dancing at 35 and did ballet at 40; she built her own riding stable from the ground up starting at age 32 and had a thriving business before she was 50. As I write this, she is 80 years old and touring Ireland with my brother in his sports car, and learning how to paint water colors!
From age 16 to almost 62, I have made many Promises to myself for achievement-goals & Success. I've learned through the years that we must walk on many Roads & go through many doors in order to achieve those goals. Most important-with Age not being a factor...We can Continue to go through New Doors with new opportunities. The Golden key to success is Persistence. That will help us climb the highest ladders. Very Interesting post. Thank you for Sharing.
Thank you for this piece. I sometimes wonder, in my late 20s, if it's too late for me to start writing seriously ... the pressure seems to build up as years go by at any stage of life, ridiculous as that may be.
Well, I am in the middle of my life I am almost 37, and I feel far too young to be so old, but I also feel that I am this saying“The thing is, you're a little too old to be called promising.” I try to find a gallery ''smart and brilliant'' enough to discover me, but still with no luck, and in my silent thinking, I feel a looser (but do not tell). I think that we all have and are our dreams. I do not know if we can make them our reality, but no one's word will make my world come to an end, because he/she finds me old. My work has no age. And I totally agree with Tom Cordle! Excellent and needed work!