Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, May 22, 2015

Crowds of the Rare

Dear Readers:

This post today is dedicated to my thirty-year-old friend, and the subject of today's discussion will be "Wunderkinds." Thanks, Philip Graham, for sending me Alexander Chee's article, which pretty much sums up my generation's chronic state of I'm-not-good-enough.

This thirty-year-old friend was in town a few weeks ago; she lives in New York City and is surrounded by Wunderkinds (wun·der·kind = a person who achieves great success when relatively young). She's feeling the pressure. Everyone around her, it seems, is succeeding, thriving, finding little spurts of fame...and she, well, she's getting by.

Once, simply getting by in NYC made you a Wunderkind. Paying your own bills, working a job (one job! one single job!), feeding yourself, and managing to have a little fun every once in a while once meant that you were living large. It was New York City after all! People dream about it all their lives! And here is my friend, making a decent salary NOT waiting tables, living on her own, dating fabulous people, and eating out most nights.

Nowadays, that makes her one in a million, a slender, hungry fish in a massive sea. And if she is financially independent and manages to carve out time in the week, in the month, in the year to be creative, well, join the club.

Chee, in his article "Against Wunderkinds," writes, "In writing class after writing class, I see time and again how the question of talent haunts the young, who come to class hoping to make it into that anointed group—those who publish to glory young." That anointed group, all right—glory without the required experience. Chee is describing a haunted population I know well—a population, in fact, that I'm a part of. We went to good colleges, after all. We graduated with good degrees; we moved to big cities; we got good jobs. We were told we could be artists in our spare time. We were told we were responsible for our own futures; we needed to use our connections if we wanted to get anywhere. Our parents cut us off; work took over our lives; our dreams of being different became nightmares about running late to our jobs. We lost our time and motivation to be creative, and just now—now that we're finally leaving our twenties and entering our thirties—we're finding security, stability, and - finally - time to create.

My friend moaned and groaned about NYC: the pace, the competition, the way you're surrounded all the time by people more beautiful, more successful, more charming than you are. Funnier, richer, more popular. You're nothing, basically. Just to fit in, you have to stand out—in my friend's case, she stepped off the plane in bright Converse low-tops, zebra-print stretch pants, bleached-blonde hair, red lipstick, and sunglasses with light blue frames. 

She is a vision to behold, my friend. She looks the part of the celebrity, and she plays it, too. She goes out to dinner with famous comedians, and was interviewed to be one of Hilary Clinton's most high-profile campaign workers. She's published in Cosmo. She is beautiful, fabulous, brilliant, and hysterical.

Most of the time, she goes around hating herself.

I know how she feels. Whoever you are, there will always be someone younger and smarter and, well, better than you. I keep my eye on the 30 below 30 lists -- best new memoirists, best new novelists, best new poets -- even though I'm not below 30 anymore, and I will never make those lists now. Women in my graduating class have published books, and a 25-year-old in my department has three master's degrees already. I used to torture myself, never letting those numbers escape me.

When I was last home in upstate New York, I told my dad about a friend of mine who was publishing her first book. Norton had picked it up, and she was going places. Big-name journals wanted her, I told my dad, pinching a smile onto my face.

My dad read between the lines. He looked at me, smiled a little, said, "You'll get there, you know."


I still check the 30 below 30 lists. I still wonder about people's ages, and do many calculations involving my own: If I publish my first book in two years, I'll be thirty-three. If I get married by thirty-five, there will still be time for a kid. Because it's not just about art in the generation of I'm-not-good-enough -- it's everything else, too. Love and marriage. Babies, houses. Cars and incomes, vacations, mortgage rates.

But I write first thing in the morning now, and I don't type. Instead, I take the time to savor pen on paper, that luscious scratching sound writing makes. I doodle in the margins. I write things down and cross them off and rewrite them. I test different theories involving characters in my stories; I let myself wander and wonder. I toy around with fiction. I start another book. I look out at the breaking morning, avoiding the clock. I sip coffee, and when the sky is fully light I dress for the job that pays my bills.

In short, I am kinder to myself now. I make time to write because I love the act of it. I let myself stop when I am tired. I write about what I think is important, and I bask in what little successes come my way. It sounds morbid to say, but someday we'll all be dead, and every book will eventually be forgotten. 

Remember: the most important moment is right now.

So here you go, dear thirty-year-old friend: another post for you. You have done great things with your life already; remind yourself of that. I'll try and do the same. 


  1. I just read the Wunderkids, too. I am fifty and have often wondered, why ain't I famous yet? I've always wondered why ain't I famous? And I wrote a writer friend recently, who also wonders why I'm not famous, that I think I just haven't worked hard enough. And I haven't had enough luck. But as you point out here, there is just more to living. I've raised two children, worked full time, made a successful marriage, kept old friends. And by a lot of writers' standards (which were once my own) I am very successful. But I am also viciously jealous of, say, Lena Dunham and think, if I had grown up like that in that place with those people and parents I would have been that person. Only better.

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