Thursday, February 05, 2009

Waiting For "The Big Break": Is 40 Years Too Long?

Yeah, yanno…well, there’s patience, and then there’s patience. If you don’t know the difference between those two words, you probably haven’t been a writer very long. (!)
We send out a query…and we wait.
We send out a partial…and we wait.
We send out full manuscripts…and we wait.
We send out short stories…
Or workshop proposals…
Or grant applications…
Or resumes for good plum writing jobs…
…and we wait.

Of course, some of us don’t have to wait quite as long anymore, with the advent of electronic submissions and the speed of response that comes along with them.
The good news is, well, that the good news can get to you faster. Submissions of queries, partials, fulls, and editorial decisions, when they go well, can result in books produced at a pace that feels like the speed of light.
The bad news is, those rejects hit our e-mail boxes a lot faster, too. You can literally submit now and get rejected within 24 hours…or less. I know. I have.

But as familiar a tradition as The Long Wait is for most of us in the writing biz, I’m thinking today in terms of a different kind of patience entirely.

Today is the 60th birthday of a colleague at work. That, combined with the sudden, shocking death of another former colleague at a mere 50, got me thinking.

I’m going to be 57 years old in August.
I submitted my first piece of writing to a contest when I was 17.
So, in one form or another, I’ve been considering myself an “up and coming” writer for going on 40 years.

Forty years.
I’m thinking maybe the “up and coming” label doesn’t fit anymore.

It’s hard to surrender to the plain fact that I’m no longer 17. I can look and act younger…and I do. (We’re not talking maturity levels here.That’s a whole other dish of tabasco sauce. Just sayin’.) But it is hard to realize that, at this point in my life, there may be things I’ll never do.
One of those may be Getting The Big Break.
And that’s a sobering thought.

If I get to the end of my life, whenever it comes, and I haven’t sold another book…or resold the rights to the first one…
…haven’t achieved entry into any of my target publishers…
…haven’t gotten any closer to it than I am now…
Then what?
Will my life have failed on some fundamental level?

At what, then, will I point to with pride and say, “No. No failure here”?

After all, I haven’t spent every waking minute of those ensuing 39-1/2 years writing. I’ve spent a lot of it yelling at athletic events (!)…or singing…or caring for people—and animals!—who needed taking care of. Not to mention the usual shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, drying, dusting, polishing, mowing, digging, weeding, praying…etc.

That being said, I have probably written easily a million, if not several million, words by now. Stories that have improved over the years, material in an amount that’s probably pretty impressive when sandwiched around all the aforementioned “life happening when you were making other plans” kind of stuff.

But I do wonder now at what point “hanging in there” and “getting better” and “staying at it” and “persevering” become foolishness. When almost 40 years of “waiting for the big break” becomes not proof of your dedication, but a sad joke—pacing a lifetime widow’s walk, scanning the horizon for a ship that will never come in.

Is there a point at which one needs to stop hoping and assuming it will come eventually—a point at which The Big Break has already passed one by, looking for a younger, more energetic or more “hip” aspirant to favor instead? Is a gray-haired middle-aged woman even eligible for The Big Break anymore?

I can’t help wondering.




Deb said...

It's not truly 40 years. Nothing you wrote before you were 25 counts.

Did you know beans from Shinola when you were 25? Well, maybe YOU did. I didn't.

I've been writing since age 10. Submitting since 1992. Don't ask. It was dreck, so I rewrote it.

Like you, except differently, I'm still waiting for the Big Dogs to take notice. I know I can write, but convincing THEM is harder than walking up the side of the Sears Tower with 6 kids on your back.

That said, you're a success because of the pleasure and thoughtfulness you've caused with your writing so far.

That's my say and I WILL have it. Besides, I'm under the weather. Fight with me later when I'm physically back to fighting trim.

My anti-spam word is Ungwuloga, the approximate sound my nose currently makes when I blow into a Kleenex.

Ian Ransom said...

Do not give up, Catholic Writer Chick, and keep your options open. Write write write. Query query query. Find an agent--rope one in. Everyone (even writers with agents) are having a tough time selling right now. Diversify your work. Be uber-creative. It will happen.