I’m Too Old to Be a Prodigy

First of all, I’m trying to decide how I feel about the blog’s new look.  I inadvertently changed in when trying to figure out how to create a blogroll (which I did, thanks to litlove and the amazing power of the feedback manager…now I simply need to fix it) and I sort of like the sepia. It feels a little dreamy, and the old-fashioned theme lends an air of authority to my posts, or so I think. But I think I’m still partial to the cleaner lines of the original, and will soon switch back, just as soon as I can figure out what I did in the first place.

 Second of all, to the gentleman or lady who found my blog by searching “Will Dick DeVos cut my retirment benefits,” I am sorry that you couldn’t find your answer here, but according to a very gossipy luncheon I attended yesterday the answer to that would be yes. And every other item you hold dear.  The more I read and hear about DeVos, the more desperate I grow for Granholm to combat the onslaught of  publicity DeVos is spewing forth.  This state simply will not hold up under a Republic governor right now, but I’m scared Granholm is focusing on the wrong issues.  To boast about bringing 1000 jobs to an area devastated by thousands and thousands of layoffs and losses seems…like a misdirect.

But none of this is really what this post is about, so excuse me…

“I’m Too Old to Be a Prodigy”…is a line from the nonfiction book Dear Exile, a collection of letters between friends written after they graduate college and take separate paths (Kate joins the Peace Corps and marries, Hilary moves to New York City to establish her career). Hilary, the New York friend, laments this in a letter to Kate after realizing that doing well at work is not particularly praise-worthy, that the congratulations and attention many of us receive throughout our adolescence and early twenties eventually falls away and doing well, succeeding, is simply the expectation. My friend A., with whom I share most reading experiences except for the mysteries I read which she disdains, was particularly struck by this line and while it’s been a couple of months since she called me to share her thoughts about this, it’s been hanging around in my head a lot lately.

 I’m too old to be a prodigy. What a strange conclusion to reach and yet, it contains so much truth.  I’ve lately been a little rattled about my choice to become a writer, not because I doubt it, but because I’ve reached the point, as I have with other things, where the hard work comes in, and in the past I haven’t held up to the challenge.  I’m not sure what particularly it is about me that shies away from the truly hard work of doing what I love.  Fear of rejection? Failure? Fear of success?What makes us choose the paths we do?

As children, we try activities and personalities on until we find the ones that fit just right. For me, my right-off-the-bat failures included soccer (I spent more time strapping my shin guards around my chest to figure out what I’d look like with breasts), the french horn and Girl Scouts.  These obvious failures made room for ballet, acting and writing lessons, my parents just as happy to raise a future starving artist as they were an outdoorswoman.  Frankly, I really don’t think they cared much, so long as I didn’t get arrested for smoking pot on the beach and throwing parties long and deep into the night, like my brother did. The dancing, acting and writing all stuck until I turned about 16, which is an excellent age for weeding out the clutter in dance studios and it became obvious that I didn’t have enough natural talent to pas de chat and pas de deux competitively.  Which left acting and writing and so I read a lot of Sam Shephard. 

In the theater, I was much more often a comedienne than a dramatic actress.  I continued studying theater well into college, where I majored in English and minored in drama.  I had a terrible time getting roles in college my first two years, which came as a shock after so much success in my little home town. It also became obvious that compared to the many actors my age, I was not the best; in fact, i couldn’t touch the realm of even good enough. But my writing, ah, I could still bang out essays on Yeats and Shakespeare with the best of them; I could still write short stories.  And so, while I had some off again/on again success with the the theater program my junior and senior year, it was a very natural leave-taking that I took; I chose to be a writer instead of an actor.

The point of all this rambling, though, is this: it never occurred to me, for however much I loved the above activities, to try all that harder to succeed.  I followed what came easiest naturally, so that the path of least resistance seems to be the one I always took. My senior year of college I was offered a position with the Peace Corps, in Afghanistan.  Aghast friends and family talked me out of it, although admittedly it was my dad’s vehement opposition that kept me home.  I was also offered a scholarship to Italy for a semester that same year, which I also turned down, because I lacked the funds to go.  And in both of those cases, I never pushed forth, didn’t oppose my dad or find some way to pay for the trips. At the age of sixteen, when I knew I wasn’t as good as the other dancers, I didn’ t push for extra dance lessons, I didn’t practice more. I simply accepted. The same thing happened in college, when I met other actors and actresses – I assumed they were naturally more talented than I, and no amount of private lessons could change that. You see the pattern, I’m sure.

What I DID stick with was writing, and I went to graduate school, I taught, I wrote a book, I wrote a screenplay, I wrote short stories, I started a novel, and I find myself here once again, the place where the hard work happens. It’s time to send chapters from the book out, to pitch stories as a freelance writer, unless I want to keep doing what I’m doing, which is ghost-writing for a hundred other people, watching my words published under other names.  And this mountain of work, all of this hard work, well, I find it paralyzing. 

I don’t know how else to discuss except to say it’s the same feeling I get when planning my upcoming trip to Italy.  I leave in a little over three months and I haven’t even looked at a travel book, or read a restaurant guide, or learned to ask where the bathroom is. Part of me has been to Rome before, in books, but this whole other real, tangible experience feels overwhelming.  How do I travel somewhere new, when I’ve never even been there? Part of me wants to continue in my ignorance, to simply land in Rome and see what happens, to disregard my growing anticipation, but then, how would I know where to eat?

I’m not sure any of this makes any sense. I am trying to think through all this stuff, to get the gumption to send that first essay off, to start the third chapter of my novel, to start research on my next book.  I am trying to go to Italy. And I feel like I’m on a precipice – the possibility of falling so far down I may never come back up seems very real. 

As a little girl, I remember my rock-solid certainty that I would have an amazing life – that I would make a great difference in the world.  It never occured to me that having an amazing life and making a difference was anything more than a decision simply made.  And now here I am, a history of half-tries behind me, and it feels like it’s just me, and my words, and the whole great big world, and there’s no guide book to help me.

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7 Responses to I’m Too Old to Be a Prodigy

  1. bloglily says:

    Here is Mark Twain’s answer: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

    You don’t have to do everything at once. Pick the one that will be the most fun, and start in there.

    I know this isn’t easy — it’s something we all struggle with. But if you’re guided by your sense of enjoyment, and allow yourself to experience that, you’ll be just fine!

  2. kj says:

    All of our sucess is built upon failure. Or so it seems. I think you are really coming into your own. Your writing is getting better and better every day. And why? Because you’re doing it. Putting in the time. Making the effort. I wanted to be an FBI agent. A football player. A big-time CEO. Seriously. But all of that went by the wayside. Gone. Why? Because I followed what was inside of me. It’s not always about sticking with something, most of the time it’s about something sticking with you.

    Enjoyed this post very much.

  3. Courtney says:

    Bloglily – You are so correct, and that quote from Twain is a great guide. Last night I cleaned up my computer files and then wrote the first paragraph of my first short story ever, and both felt amazing. Tonight I will begin the research for my future project. I will guide myself mostly by what is enjoyable, and somewhat by what is necessary.

    Kim – “It’s not always about sticking with something, most of the time it’s about something sticking with you.” – this is beautiful. Thank you for that. You are absolutely right. As M. reminded me, I’ve written every day of my life, even if most of it has been journal entries! Other things need to fall away, to make room for the real work of your life.
    And yes, you and I have been at this a long time.

  4. bloglily says:

    Courtney, that’s so wonderful! It’s inspiring to hear you’ve begun work on a short story, and I’d love to hear about your future project! But, mostly, I’m just glad you can see your way toward permitting the thing you really like to stick with you! Best, BL

  5. litlove says:

    I know just what you mean. I am often struck with the feeling of being a failure (at 37) because I’d promised myself such wonders when I was 16. I think we have to mourn the loss of those excessive and glorious ideals and then have a look around for something more life-sized. But everything needs to have its place, and being sorry that world domination didn’t come off is as necessary as the gentle liking we might feel for the good things of real life.

  6. Katie says:

    As a former child prodigy (I skipped first grade), let me say that it was a rude awakening when I realized I couldn’t coast by on my reputation alone. A high-paying job would not just be handed to me. No one knew that I had been a terrific reader in preschool, or won jr. high spelling bees, or even that I could write a term paper in college the morning it was due. Didn’t matter.

    I love what you said about our activities slowly tapering off as we grow older, and realize we don’t have to do the things we aren’t good at. I occasionally try to force myself to do some things I’m not good at… just to build character… but 99% of the time, I go with the path of least resistance. I think we all do, to avoid embarrassment and to protect our fragile self-images!

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    wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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