For me, it’s hard to read this essay without thinking about my own relationship to writing. That’s especially true in this passage:
My earliest boats were so small that when the wind failed, or when I failed, I could switch to manual control—I could paddle or row home. But then I graduated to boats that only the wind was strong enough to move. When I first dropped off my mooring in such a boat, I was an hour getting up the nerve to cast off the pennant. Even now, with a thousand little voyages notched in my belt, I still I feel a memorial chill on casting off, as the gulls jeer and the empty mainsail claps.
White describes how he progressed from smaller, more manageable boats to bigger boats and more challenging voyages. I think that’s what writers do, too.
Like White and his boats, I started small. I began writing mostly for myself, not really trying to publish during the entirety of my 20s, despite writing almost every day. I told myself there was no way I could ever make a living as a writer, so I would just claim writing as a hobby. Even in college, I never actually took a nonfiction class, though I did take some fiction and poetry courses. I’d never tried to write nonfiction at all, beyond the daily diary I’ve kept since kindergarten. I suppose my journals were forays into nonfiction, but I didn’t really think of them that way. (I was so glad to have them later—they were such helpful sources to go back to as I wrote my book.)
I joined a nonfiction writing group in my mid-20s. It was a period of my life before kids, before grad school, when I had more time—I just wanted to pursue different things I was interested in, so I joined a writing group and also took ballroom-dancing lessons. When I found that I really liked writing essays, it was kind of a shock. I kept writing and sharing with a few people at a time, but I would never have thought to publish those pieces. I’ve still never published them. Getting your sea legs is not a bad metaphor for what I was doing at that time. I was standing there, dipping my toes in the water, not really sure if I wanted to jump in. I didn’t pitch or publish my first piece online until I was 30 or 31.
I think it’s useful for everyone, no matter what stage of their career they’re at, to know it’s okay to write for yourself first—sometimes only for yourself. There are going to be things that you might need to work out on the page, alone, before you’re ready to share them more widely. I don’t think there’s always a rush. It’s okay to take the longer voyage.
I’m publishing my debut this year, at 37, and in publishing sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by young geniuses. My editor is younger than I am, and has already written an acclaimed novel. I’m not really a late bloomer, but I think of myself that way sometimes—especially because I have published so many emerging writers at The Toast and at Catapult, many of whom started a full decade before I did. Ours is, I think, an industry that praises and rewards bravery and spunk (and youth, too). For good reason—writers who are fearless, who know they belong and rarely doubt themselves, have a kind of confidence and magnetism I sometimes wish I had.