The seeds for my midlife crisis were planted in 1992, when I graduated from college. That was a distinctly low point in my life, because all I really knew how to do was go to school, and suddenly, I had to find a job. To this day, the sound of “Pomp and Circumstance” makes me want to hurl.
I knew what I wanted to do; I wanted to write. But “writing,” at least then, wasn’t a real job. Blogging wasn’t a thing. Now, you can blog and post and contribute to ‘zines, online newspapers, and forums. You can publish your own Kindle single and charge strangers 99 cents to read your short stories on their iPads. But in 1992, with a bachelor’s degree in English, I was faced with three distinct options: I could become a journalist, an editor at a publishing house, or a teacher.
Of course there was a fourth option, which was to follow what all artists do when they follow their passions: become a waitress. Become a waitress and write the rest of the time. This option, although perhaps the most direct route to my desired outcome, seemed way too risky to me. I couldn’t even imagine trying to explain it to my parents. I was a responsible, fancy sorority girl from Scarsdale who suddenly wanted to turn bohemian, but not really too bohemian, because I wanted to live in a nice-ish apartment in the West Village and join Crunch fitness. And so, I did what I knew best and went back to school, this time for a Master’s degree in English Education, moving in with my parents to their Upper East Side apartment and commuting to Columbia University.
Eventually, I moved into that West Village apartment with a friend and started teaching. She is an editor at a publishing house who has since published 4 or 5 novels of her own. I’ve lost count.
When I watch the new HBO series Girls, I think about the way creator Lena Dunham’s life is the path less travelled…by me. In case you don’t know of her, Dunham is a 26-year-old writer/creator of this hit show about 20somethings in contemporary New York. It’s gritty, real, and raw. Girls removes the pink lip gloss of Sex and the City and presents younger, edgier characters than Carrie and the gang, although they struggle with similar questions of love, work, friendship, and personal identity. I love the show, and I simultaneously loathe it, because it reminds me of the writer me I wanted to be when I was 22.
In particular, I remember a short story I wrote in which the main character, who was like me but not me, had a roommate in a West Village apartment, who was like my roommate but not. This roommate had a long-haired carpenter boyfriend who, like my roommate’s long-haired carpenter boyfriend, built the girls a sleeping loft, stayed over 6 nights out of 7, and consistently clogged the shower drain with his thick, Braveheart locks.
When the main character decides to move to her own place after the year’s lease is up, she heads to an agency and describes her ideal apartment to a middle-aged, balding realtor, who slides around his office in a wheelie desk chair.
“It has exposure on at least two sides, perhaps south and east,” she tells him, “and a kitchen big enough to actually cook in. A renovated bathroom would be nice. In a doorman building. With lots of closets.”
“For $800 a month,” he says, giving her a long, hard stare.
She squirms. “How about…something big enough for my bed? With a front door that locks?”
He rolls across the room and pulls a file from a cabinet, seemingly satisfied with her answer.
“And that,” he says, placing in her lap a folder marked cheap studios, “is exactly what we will find you.”
It was a decent story, and I worked on it for a while in a writing workshop that I eventually dropped out of at The New School. Unlike the writing itself, workshops usually disappoint me and so I tend to drop out of them.
When I returned to teaching in 2008 after a 4-year childcare leave, the roots of my midlife crisis deepened, and leaves grew on the stems of my discontentment. To me, it felt like so much time had passed and yet nothing at all had changed. Here was my classroom, here sat the children. Here was Johnny Tremain, who, every year, burned his hand, and Tom Sawyer, who, every year, got locked inside the cave with pretty Becky Thatcher. I felt acutely the sense of a dream deferred and, while I enjoyed teaching teens to write well, I wasn’t writing at all, and that was hard to live with.
And so I quit teaching to write, and, after a battle to the death with a dissertation that just had to see completion, here I am. You and me, writer and reader, engaged in the relationship I always imagined. I now write for several publications. I wrote my first novel (well, technically it’s my third, but it’s the first to leave the house), and acquired an agent. Crisis averted, right?
Yes and no. For herein lies the third prong in my three-pronged midlife crisis. After a year of waiting, I cannot seem to wait any longer for my first novel to get picked up by a publisher. I think this is due to the fact that this one perceived year is actually just the tip of the iceberg of an accumulation of 20 years of waiting patiently for my writing life to take off.
Which is why I emailed my agent every few weeks, asking for updates, for news, wanting to know who else she had spoken to and where else my manuscript was sent.
I think I really annoyed my agent.
“Fiction is slow,” she would report. Others in the industry would agree. “First novels are the hardest to sell. Comic novels even worse. Mommy-lit is dead,” they said. Blahbetty blah blah blah. “It could take several years. Just be patient.”
Screw patience. I have decided that my writing life is taking off now.
Because now is the right time for me. 22 clearly was not. Neither was 38. And so the “crisis” in my midlife crisis seems to be that, while I am now completely ready, others are telling me to wait. It makes me anxious, this waiting. It makes me angry. It makes me want to take control of my own destiny. Because, now, I finally have real stories to tell. I have life experiences that I can pull from, crafting meaning both for myself and – hopefully – others. I have maturity, and reflection, and a stockpile of oddball characters living inside my head. These crazies really need to spew funny dialogue to an audience other than my husband.
I feel compelled to act.
“I think you should self-publish your novel,” my agent said.
“I think I should too,” I said.
It was the nicest break-up I’ve ever had.
And that is the end of my midlife crisis, and the beginning of my story.