Much has changed since I finished a draft of a novel in (I think?) 1996. The Web barely existed; I remember considering Michael Kinsley's decision to leave the New Republic to found Slate to be some sort of semi-ludicrous, inexplicable gamble. It was pre-9/11, of course. Both of those things combine to make the novel I wrote (which involved, among (many) other things, a shadowy organization plotting a terrorist attack in New York City) outlandishly dated, something that is probably a blessing in disguise. Recently I was reading it over and many times had the thought, "This isn't half bad; with some aggressive reworking and editing, it might be publishable." And if it weren't so dated, I might be tempted to have another go at it. But really, I think that's a temptation I should resist. I started writing it nearly 20 years ago, and I know that, whatever its merits, there are reasons why it was rejected. Right now, I think it would be a pretty big mistake to go back.
Obviously, things have changed for me personally as well. When I finished my draft, I hadn't yet acquired either of my post-graduate degrees; I was still in the process of getting my MFA. (Ironically, I took a semester's leave of absence to finish my novel!) And, of course, I was still unmarried, still no kids. But from the point of view of becoming a writer, the biggest change is perhaps that I was then very young, and I'm now (at least by the standards of first novelists) old. I turned 41 last month. The Millions has recently started a feature on "over-40 bloomers" as writers. They certainly exist, but there are not many of them, and their stories are all so idiosyncratic that they hardly provide definitive reassurance that there is any sort of well-trodden path to making it as an older writer.
On the other hand, I suppose, the mere existence of the "over-40 bloomer" category is heartening, suggesting that some sort of narrative of late blooming exists just as surely as the (more familiar one) of the literary prodigy. This 2008 piece by Malcolm Gladwell suggests that precocity and slowness-to-get-off-the-ground are simply two different models of artistic success. I feel a bit odd to somehow embody both models. When I was taken on as a client by an agent in 1996, I remember her saying something on the order of, "We decided to go with you because we thought, well, if she's writing this well at 25, imagine what she'll be doing at 40." My novel, as everyone recognized, had flaws, but somehow being young and promising made them all OK. Well, here I am at 41. I forfeited my eligibility for all those "Best under 40" awards a couple of years ago, and what I was doing at 40 was teaching civil procedure, taking care of my kids, and writing law review articles. But now at least, thanks to The Millions, if I ever manage to write something in the future, I'll have a new label, no longer young and promising but at least an "over-40 bloomer." And (I mean this quite sincerely!) I appreciate that.