Harder, Better: Debuting Late in Life
Leslie Lawrence | July 2018
I was in my mid-twenties when I began writing in earnest; by the time I had a book accepted for publication, I was on Medicare. I’d wanted a book for so long, and come close so many times—not just with this memoir but with three previous manuscripts—well, some serious whooping and sobbing were in order, and I indulged freely. Yet, right from the start, the chasm between my antiquated fantasies and current realities revealed itself.
Wonderful news, I still assumed, would arrive in an embossed envelope—just as my college acceptance had—in 1967. The letter would be typed on thick ivory paper with a palpable weave. Or, better still, my landline would ring and, instead of my friend saying she’d be late, I’d hear a booming (male) voice declaring that it would be an honor and a privilege etc. Yes?
On December 30, 2014, my good news, from a good university press, arrived, without a soundtrack of trumpets, via email.
Be careful what you wish for! Within a few days that old adage began to peck at me. Coincidentally, I was leaving for India in less than a week. Now, in addition to all those things that anxious adventurers of a certain age need—trekking poles for bad knees, Metamucil for regularity, passwords for just about everything—there was this business of a book contract! In my pre-trip frenzy, I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to sign it even if I’d understood (and liked the sound of) what I was signing. Which I didn’t. And didn’t. So, after decades of lapsed membership, I rejoined the writer’s union, which entitled me to a free consultation with a contract expert. The dues were modest, the help substantial; even so, this was the start of an avalanche of funds going in the opposite direction I’d once assumed a book would send them.
Eventually, I’d learn that the strain of negotiating a contract (tabled until after India) was minor in comparison to that of nearly all the other jobs before me, e.g., making final editing decisions about personal (and I mean personal) essays that conceivably would now be read by more than a few dutiful friends and kindred spirits who subscribed to the literary journals where many of them had originally appeared. Collected in book form, they could be read by, well, anyone—parents, children, neighbors, students, one’s periodontist and dermatologist. All this made me think twice (ten times?) about including that bit about masturbation, that not entirely flattering portrait of a beloved family member, those many passages showing me at my most petty, vain, self-centered worst—not to mention the whole matter of my “life-style!” The title essay of The Death of Fred Astaire—Essays From a Life Outside the Lines chronicles my decision in the eighties to get pregnant (somehow!) and raise the child with my lesbian partner. There was no way to edit that out, nor did I want to. But now it was 2015. Obama was still in office, gay marriage almost ho-hum; I worried that the angst I described would seem quaint at best; at worst, homophobic. At the same time, with backlash likely on its way, I feared that some fanatical “family values” 2nd amendmentist would somehow get wind of the book and do me in.
Almost worse than my most paranoid fantasies were my fears of humiliation—of being deemed a fool and a fraud. Sure, everyone knows a bad review in The Times is better than no review, but as the slurs formed in my mind (“self-indulgent hodgepodge,” “sophomoric,” “banal”), I was sure I didn’t have the constitution to bear them. Moreover, these fears in themselves were humiliating. Hadn’t decades of therapy done them in? Apparently not. I even had that standard issue dream of appearing on stage in my altogether.
Given these anxieties, sometimes I was actually grateful for the countless distracting tasks I needed to attend to. There were costly permissions to acquire; an acknowledgements page to write. (Surely, I couldn’t neglect to mention the high school English teacher who praised the alliteration in my poem about A Tale of Two Cities!) And so many big decisions:
High end publicist? Low end one? None at all? (Long gone were the days when your press provided one.)
Distinguished-looking (gray and weathered) author photo or perky snapshot from when I was still coloring my hair?
Dare I ask that professor I studied with thirty-five years ago for a blurb?
And what about the all-important cover?
It was great that my press was so willing to collaborate on design issues, but what a time sink those turned out to be! Good thing I was mostly retired. I spent hours getting up to speed on TIFF and DPI, weighing in on “kerning,” and “dingbats” with which I had no experience but suddenly plenty of steely opinions. I spent days trying to track down that possible cover photo of two women dancing, eventually tracing it to the Belfast (Ireland!) Rainbow Tango Facebook page.
And who knew that the author herself wrote the jacket copy claiming she combined the crystalline brilliance of Virginia Woolf with the warm accessibility of Elizabeth Gilbert and the edgy irreverence of Lena Dunham!
Of course, some of these jobs can be interesting, even fun, but not when they all need to be done at once, and one’s short-term memory is shot, and she heralds from an era when self-promotion is seen as unbecoming, if not downright revolting. Well, it’s a recipe for hair loss (though some tell me that happens anyway at around my age).
Oh, how I wish that instead of hiring that low-end publicist, I’d hired the even cheaper one who at least would have landed me interviews on a few feminist radio shows in Southern Kentucky. Or better yet, I should have skipped the publicists and signed on for the Launch Lab offered by Grub Street, the excellent writing school in Boston where I occasionally teach.
This last regret hit hard as soon as I walked into their session at a recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, the very conference where my book made its first public appearance. I was a little late for the session, a year or more late for making acquaintance with “The Logic Method” that the Lab employed. As I slid past several pairs of knees, I took in that mother of a question in bold letters on screen:
What Do You Most Want From This Book?
Below it, a list that went something like this:
Another Book Contract
A Better Job
Connection with Readers
The Power to Influence People or Promote a Cause Important to You.
Not yet settled in my seat, I could see where they were going with this. My heart sank. In the past year, flitting frantically from task to task, rarely bringing a single one to completion, I’d learned the hard way that there was no end to the things one could do to promote a book. (Contact all your alumni magazines, advertize in your son’s summer camp newsletter, thrust postcards into the hands of your fellow gym rats…) Given the hours in a day—not to mention years remaining, I felt a little foolish spending so much time on these, and so much money on postcards and web designers, publicists and public speaking coaches, flights and hotels. And given that I had neither the skills nor the temperament for most of these undertakings, I would have been wise to engage in the least expensive, least time-consuming, least humiliating activities most likely to achieve the most desired goals. They didn’t call this the “Logic Method” for nothing!
But what were my most desired goals? Writers want books. Did I ever even ask myself why—what it was I really wanted? That list gave me a queasy feeling. On first glance, every objective looked appealing. What wicked fairy would make a person choose!
On closer look, I was relieved to spot one I could immediately delete. Whereas once I would have loved to replace my adjunct position with a tenure-track job, now I was perfectly happy teaching part-time in my home. As for financial gain? There was another item I could, if not cross, place near the bottom of my list. In my thirties, more money might have meant different decisions, less fretting, but now my son was grown, my house paid off, and I’d inherited my deceased partner’s pension.
Celebrity? That, too, held little attraction. I wouldn’t have refused a spot on NPR, but I no longer harbored fantasies of fame; in fact, the stresses of the last year left me longing for that quality I once thought only old boring people wanted: peace.
Critical acclaim! We already talked about that one.
Respect, acknowledgement and validation? I wanted all of those! (Weren’t they more or less the same?) But from whom, aside from those critics, did I most want them? From my father for one—once upon a time. Midway between the book’s acceptance and publication, he died. And besides, as we both aged, I felt I’d achieved his approval in other ways.
Influence? The Power to Promote A Cause? Immediately I felt these should be high priorities, perhaps my highest, yet truth be told, I’d been so caught up in just getting the damn book out there, I hadn’t gotten around to even considering them!
Which is all to say: Readying the book for publication was far more trying—I’m tempted to say grueling—than I could have imagined, but publication and its aftermath were far more gratifying.
Where to begin? And how? With the good stuff it’s easy to sound sappy or self-congratulatory, but I’ll just have to risk that.
Turns out, I need not have worried about being panned by The Times. I didn’t get reviewed there, or in any venue of its ilk. But if there’s a pleasure greater than feeling “gotten”, I don’t know it. Perhaps it’s what people of faith feel from their God everyday. If so, I want what they have! No, we’re not our books and our books are not us, but with memoir, especially, there’s an awful lot of blood flowing in both directions.
Dayenu, I said to myself, teary-eyed, after reading my first full-length review. I felt seen for both myself and my work—“work” as both noun (book, its quality) and verb (sweating it, hour after hour, year after year). This critic allayed my fears. The book wasn’t a hodgepodge, according to him, but an artful whole. It wasn’t self-absorbed; rather, (I’m extrapolating here) it did what my hero Patricia Hampl says memoir should do: gave the reader not just a self but a whole world—a time, a place, a chunk of cultural history. Most heartening, this reviewer seemed to have had fun thinking about my book. So playful and exuberant was his language that I couldn’t help feeling he’d caught the spirit of the thing. Dayenu is what Jews declare at Passover seders after hearing each step God took to liberate them from slavery. This alone would have been enough!
But there was more—a lot more. Take my reading at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Manhattan. Before we divorced over irreconcilable differences, my publicist booked me there. Was I pleased? I wasn’t sure. I’d never been there. I’d grown up in neighboring Queens but had spent the last forty-five years in New England. I didn’t want to minimize my book’s LGBT angle (or audience!) but the book had plenty of other angles too—narratives on teaching Hamlet to immigrants, on tending to a dying donkey in Morocco; mediations on the nature of beauty and creativity, as well as the lure of yard sales. I feared the venue’s name alone would discourage some of my straight (and straight-laced) family and childhood friends. And if it didn’t, if they braved it and were greeted, as I imagined they might be, by life-sized images of naked he-men dripping with chains and fat, sinewy cobras…
I crafted an email to the guys in charge, in a tone I hoped would assure them that of course I would be fine with photos of giant phalluses, but some of my guests might not be.
The Keith Haring bathroom is an amazing orgy of men (cocks everywhere!), so tell them to just march to the right at the top of the stairs and they'll be fine… Other than that there are two very large David LaChapelle photos of young male nudes in the hallway which they'll need to go past in order to reach us. But they're lovely…
Who would have thought my clichéd fantasies would be spot on! I was amused but not reassured. I toyed with culling my invite list—after all, I’d already had a successful reading in my current hometown. But greedy ambition prevailed. I’ve waited some forty years for this milestone, I said to myself. I’ve celebrated scores of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and more books by other writers and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a few big cocks stop me from making another all-out effort to bring in a crowd.
And what a crowd I got! Cousins schlepped in from Long Island, one brought her grandchild. My college roommate’s daughter came with two friends. My son corralled his buddies from camp and college. My sister brought her large cohort from high school. A month before, on a shuttle to my 45th Oberlin reunion, I met a young writer attending her 5th (10th?) and she came, too. There also was a veteran NYC assemblywoman who’d been in my high school gym class; someone I’d met on OK Cupid; a woman I’d known in third grade and had barely seen since; my ninety-two-year old mother—who’d taught me to love books (and mind my grammar!); a former neighbor whose long-deceased dog was once my long-deceased dog’s best friend; an ex’s ex and her current partner and four of their friends… And if any of these people stumbled into the Haring bathroom or was offended by LaChapelle’s “lovely” nudes, he, she or they didn’t tell me! The mood was ebullient. The two guys who hosted were so warm and gracious—everyone was so warm and generous—that by the end of the evening everyone was hugging everyone... Two days later, at a gay nightclub in Orlando, a man killed forty-nine people but on the night of my reading, peace and love reigned.
Which brings me to that L-word. I’m haunted by how, as my eyes initially went down that power point list, I summarily dismissed that four letter word sandwiched somewhere between “critical acclaim” and “respect.” Love! I remember thinking, almost scoffing at the word as if there was something unseemly or at least ridiculous about thinking a book could get you that. Yet, if you’d ask me now what the sweetest, most enduring aspect of the whole experience has been, it has a lot to do with love.
From the start, I had an inkling this might be the case. Preferring the multi-sensory pleasure of sharing the news of the book’s acceptance face-to-face, I restrained from immediately calling everyone I knew. As the days passed and I had the chance to tell friends in person, I sensed in their expressions and hugs, something that felt like—well—love. And I remember thinking: This feels so good—as good—no better than the good news itself. However, I must have repressed the thought—surely a real artist would have her priorities straight, preferring the enduring heft of publication over the momentary, sympathetic joy from friends! I know I forgot all about that joy until… the party—or parties in my case.
By the time you’re in your sixties, you’ve lost at least a few key people but have become acquainted with many more: I had to have two parties to accommodate them all, but I didn’t mind. Of all the tasks associated with the book, throwing a party was the only one I felt fully qualified to undertake. Sometimes, only half-jokingly, I wished I could just skip the whole business of the book and just have the party!
Though neither had the wild dancing that would have once been a requirement, age had rounded out my perfectionist edges. In my sparkly, lilac, thrift store sheath, I worried not a whit about my bad hair and simply basked in the love I felt—for and from. And if not exactly love in every case, affection, warmth, “fellowship” is the word that often comes to mind. If I’ve become one of those corny oldsters, so be it! I felt blessed.
And I felt this way again and again throughout the coming year—astonished by the goodwill and generosity displayed by everyone from the cashier at my summer town’s general store to the beloved English teacher who took a group of us high school kids to live with the Blackfeet in Montana. A couple I’d shared a house with for a single summer in my twenties hosted a party for me in North Carolina. And who showed up at my reading in San Francisco but a friend of my son’s from pre-school. To my reading in Maine came the now-retired veterinarian who’d once worked for my father and also served as my date for my sister’s wedding when he was closeted and I was seventeen.
The other day, I ran into one of my son’s pre-school teachers. She teared up as she explained that her husband was having trouble accepting their daughter’s lesbianism—the long-view in my book gave her hope. “Connection with Readers,” “Influence.” How could I have thought so little about how good they’d feel!
One totally unanticipated delight arrived when a reader congratulated me on a “life well-lived.” It’s the kind of remark a young author wouldn’t get, and although it had a slightly ominous tinge, I couldn’t help feeling pleased.
Writing memoir offers a chance to live more deeply. By reflecting on who we once were, we can better understand who we’ve become. Publishing a memoir—and through it reconnecting with the people we’ve known and the world we’ve shared—well, it’s a delicious kind of recapitulation, reinforcing the very gifts the process of writing bestows.
While I can’t pretend I’ll stay in touch with the dozens of old friends I’ve re-met through my book, each encounter, whether brief or extended, brought something back to me.
That English teacher? With him came Montana’s seriously Big Sky under which I, at sixteen, rode bareback through the foothills of the Rockies.
That handsome, young, closeted veterinarian? I can see him in his tux, me in my long, hot pink bride’s-maid dress; Fred to my Ginger you might say—though we danced only passably.
But there’s more to it than just the vibrant return of long-hibernating memories. I’m thinking of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—the way the spare opening aria returns after 32 complex variations. The notes in the aria are exactly the same as they were less than an hour before—and they are often played in the very same manner—but all that has transpired since then makes them so much more plangent.
Change and continuity: the ingredients of a fine work of art—as well as a rich, coherent life. Writing, publishing, promoting—headaches and breakdowns aside—they all allowed me to consider what I left behind and what I carried with me as I forged a life that felt like my own.
Leslie Lawrence was raised in Queens and attended New York City’s public schools. A graduate of Oberlin College, Brown University, and Goddard College’s M.F.A. program (now Warren Wilson), she is a recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been published in many journals and periodicals, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Solstice, The Forward, and The Boston Globe Magazine. A devoted teacher, Lawrence received Boston University’s Sproat Award for Excellence in Teaching. Currently, she conducts writing workshops from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she also practices a dance form called contact improvisation. The Death of Fred Astaire, her collection of essays, is available from SUNY Press.