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At Twenty-Four


Donald Hall said, "At sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. Alas, at twenty-four the same poet wants to be in The New Yorker." At sixteen, I don't think I'd even read Homer yet and I didn't get Whitman. I was, however, playing a lot of Flight Simulator and worrying about Y2K. I also wrote essays about The Struggles of Life and about aerodynamics, about cures for AIDS (the key was to drain the body of all fluids -- using something that I guess kind of resembles either a dialysis machine or something out of a vampire comic book -- oxygenate every cell until the HIV viruses exploded, and then pump the newly purified cells back into the body.

Imagine a time when people worried about Y2K!

Other writers talk often about finding solace in books when they were young. I don't think I ever felt that. Books were just the easiest way to spend time when I was by myself. There was no drama to the choice of spending my time reading. I just liked it. I liked the smell of Borders and Barnes and Noble. I liked being right about where a plot was going. I liked checking books off of lists that I made.

At twenty-four, I won a prize called "The Emerging Writer in Fiction."

Except actually, I came in second. Another student at The University of Chicago won it, but she couldn't attend the award ceremony or have lunch with the novelist who judged the competition. So the Creative Writing program gave it to me instead.

The novelist, when we had lunch, told me that I should read Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. He seemed so stressed out about his novel, which was coming out soon, or had just come out, and had landed with a little bit of a thud, or maybe he was just always stressed out. We wondered what I was emerging out of, as an emerging writer. I suggested a cake, which seemed obvious. He didn't laugh, but I got the immediate impression that he didn't laugh because he wished he had said it instead.

This is a thing about a certain kind of writer. They're worried that once someone other than them expresses an idea, explores a plot, or creates a scene, that the game is over. They have lost in the great struggle to come out with The Big Idea first. Never mind that there's no such thing as an idea that someone hasn't already expressed somewhere (the internet has been quite a salve in this department; that is: the department of helping people realize that there's nothing new or original, only revisions).

At twenty-five I started submitting essays to websites. It wasn't until a year later (this is the part that I always forget when I get rejections these days) that I got my first maybe. That maybe turned into a yes, but only after sending my pitch to a site that I had never heard of before. The work went on and on.

I still haven't read the copy of Wings of the Dove that I bought in a used bookstore a week after I emerged, not from a cake, as a second-place winning writer.