Not Too Late

You watched or read Annie Proulx’s recent speech at the National Book Awards, didn’t you?

If you didn’t, you really must. Her talk is at once urgent and quirky and eloquent and moving, like her novels. And the most important part might be her opening line:

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58.

That’s only sort of true. Proulx—like you, I suspect— began writing as a kid, finishing her first short story when she was 10. She worked as a journalist in Vermont and even helped to found a newspaper.

She “yearned to write fiction,” according to Biography, but, she said, “there wasn’t any money in it. I could only write one or two short stories a year.”

When she was 53, she started publishing her short stories, and four years after that, she published her first novel, Postcards. She’s published 10 books since then, seen two of her works adapted into films, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The same week that Proulx made her speech, I stood in my classroom handing tissues to a student who was in tears, frustrated that her story wasn’t finished, worried it might never be finished. Then she told me her age (which I’m sorry, I don’t remember), and said, “it’s so late already! Maybe I’m too late!”

I’ve heard that countless times, from students of all ages. “I’m 70, I’m 46, I’m 55, I’m almost 30! Maybe I’m too late.”

No. You’re not. If you don’t believe me, ask Annie Proulx.

We have to stop obsessing on these arbitrary age deadlines that we set for ourselves and instead focus on our work. It is the work that matters, now more than ever. As Proulx said:

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds…yet we still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending…we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

In writing, as in anything, there’s really only one deadline, which Viola Davis mentioned when she accepted her Academy Award for Best Supporting Acress earlier this year:

You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard. Exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories, the stories of the people who dreamed—big—and who never saw those dreams to fruition, of people who fell in love and lost.

It doesn’t matter how old you are when you start writing, or publishing, or shoot your first short film or win that first contest. What matters is that you exhume the stories. What matters is that you start.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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