That we have all survived literary blogger Maud Newton‘s 40th birthday – it fell on the same day as the rapture that wasn’t – is no excuse for you not to read her fabulous piece in The Awl about that coincidence.
To celebrate our survival, I wanted to highlight that part of her essay in which she dissects her ambivalence about turning 40. She writes:
“Obviously I don’t think 40 is the end of the road—some of my favorite people are closer to twice that. It’s just that some of us age more naturally, more gracefully, more normally than others. I think a lot these days about the fact that I haven’t had children; it’s not that I regret the decision, just that it sets me apart, defines me in some way I’m not sure I was prepared to commit to. I’m a reluctant New Yorker, a loving but irregular wife, a refugee from the practice of law, a blogger who’s lost interest in regular blogging, a critic who never planned to be one and a supposed writer who’s only now finishing her first novel. What the hell, in other words, am I doing with my life?”
I just wanted to thank Maud Newton for writing that paragraph. I wonder what I’m doing with my life on a weekly basis, if not more often, and I know I’m not alone in that. My surprise in reading it was a jolting reminder of the discrepancy between a reader’s idea of the writer, and the writer’s idea of herself. As a reader, it’s so easy to confuse an author’s regular byline or blog post with a rock-solid sense of self. Identity formation in the internet age – “you are what you publish” – comes with the corollary that you are nothing if you do not publish something. And as we are all writers and publishers now (and photographers and web designers and and and) – what does it even mean today to call yourself a writer?
As Maud Newton’s self-questioning attests, we are defined by our choices. Inevitably choices have consequences, some of which we see coming, and many of which we don’t. I have a PhD in American Literature but never wanted to be an academic. I was a book editor for a major publishing house in Australia but was unhappy because I wasn’t writing. I was a widow when I had never anticipated being a wife.
My 40th birthday was a grim affair. I did not know whether to stay in Sydney or return to New York, or what I would do to keep myself interested in either place; whether to continue trying to write the second book that I thought would come easily but which continues to emerge at a glacial pace; whether I would ever meet anyone I would love as much as I loved my husband, who by then had been dead for more than five years. Marrying a man with a terminal illness is a choice with many consequences.
It’s now about 18 months since that birthday, and I am happily living in New York, and the second book is coming along, if too slowly for my liking. I even fell in love. I try not to compare my creative output-to-age ratio against some of the more prominent regularly published figures of what passes for the online literary establishment. I try to remember that I am a late bloomer, and that there are many of us about. (Maldolm Gladwell wrote a marvellous essay on late bloomers, which helped me enormously.)
So, Maud, I look forward to your novel when you finish it. One word at a time. You just keep making it up as you go along, as we all do.