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Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.
Ira Rosofsky Ph.D.

I'm a Late Bloomer Too: My Unlikely Path to Publication

I'm a Late Bloomer Too: My Unlikely Path to Publication

If you will indulge me in a bit of narcissism--something they say I'm good at--I'd like to talk about my unlikely path to publication at the non-juvenile age of 62. In my previous post--"Prodigies vs. Late Bloomers: Wolfgang Mozart or Elliott Carter"--I talked about the age disparities of scientific and artistic achievement. Mozart who died at 35 is one of the all-time great creative achievers. Elliott Carter is not chopped liver, but some of his acclaim comes from the fact that his first-rank music is being produced at the advanced age of 100. But this does not mean he is a pure late bloomer, more like a perennial--to extend the botanical metaphor. At age 15, he met Charles Ives--who in his day job as an insurance man had sold a policy to Carter's parents. Carter became a bit of a protégé to Ives who wrote a recommendation to Harvard. At Harvard, Carter studied with Walter Piston, received a masters in music at the age of 24 and went to Paris on the recommendation of Aaron Copeland to study with Nadia Boulanger. So Carter is not the kind of late bloomer who appeared out of nowhere. He is distinguished more in terms of long-life achievement that continues undiminished into very old age.

Are there true late bloomers? Are there achievers who spontaneously generate greatly accomplished works after a lifetime of non-achievement or not even trying?

Grandma Moses comes to everyone's mind. This is a woman who started painting in her seventies. But did her work appear in an art gallery near you fully-formed lacking any earlier preparation? Well, yes and no. She was what critics like to call a primitive, that is, someone unschooled--as are many other artists who begin late in life. But her biography indicates she took up painting after her arthritis prevented her from quilting. In other words, she was already an artist who, in effect, changed her medium.

Something similar is true about artists who definitely could not be called primitives Cezanne did not fully bloom until relatively late in his career. In his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, David Galenson, an economist, calculated that for Picasso--a prodigy who continued to paint into his nineties--his young works have a much greater market value than his later works. For Cezanne, the opposite is true. His early works sell for a fraction of his later works. Galenson suggests that Cezanne's earlier works were simply not that good and he required years of practice before he could produce his first masterpiece. This implies that his early works have value because of Cezanne's late greatness, and that had he fallen into the Seine at an early age, his surviving oeuvre would not have had much value at all.

So, the question again, are there truly any late bloomers?

I doubt that there are in the sense of someone discovering his or her artistic ability where there had been no prior suggestion of such ability before.

Which brings me to myself, publishing my debut book--Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare--at age 62. I even coined a term when I was trying to publish, senilia--artistic products of old age, contrasted to juvenilia--Mendelssohn composing A Midsummer Night's Dream as a teenager.

My book is not a psychology, self-help or how-to book, although when people see "psychologist" coupled with "nursing home," they tend to think it's about picking out the best home for mom. I tell people not to think of me as a psychologist who wrote a book in his area of professional expertise, but as a writer who had an interesting job to write about. That little piece of self-puffery aside, the cliché in the writing biz is to write what you know, and I know nursing homes.

I take my professional work very seriously but--sharing the mittyesque dreams of millions--I always wanted to be a writer. It was a point of honor to see my name on the cover without the PhD appendage.

But my book did not spring full-blown like Athena from my head. Before the nursing home book are at least two other books that went nowhere and sit in my proverbial writer's drawer. In my humble way--sort of like Cezanne--they were practice. And before that were more years of intermittent practice devoted to my craft. There were a series of articles in the Village Voice back in the 1980s about what I called the slum-end of the television dial--home shopping, infomercials, TV evangelism--ghost-writing for college textbooks--yes, you students out there, the second and third revisions of your textbooks are penned by journeymen like me, an op-ed in the The New York Times, and a business endeavor publishing newsletters for my professional colleagues. There's also about fifty poems--a few of which might not be half-bad--sitting in the same drawer as the two dead-end books.

So it's not as if I woke up one day and decided I wanted to be a writer.

All along I knew I had the writing chops, but feared the destiny of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,"

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Wanting to avoid interment as some "mute inglorious Milton," and having a story I believed in, I foolhardily plunged into the literary world in 2005. For me, it was easier to be in a nonfiction writer. I didn't even have to have a finished product. In the publishing business, protocol demands that novels have to be finished before submission. For nonfiction, you submit with a proposal, which is a kind of business plan for your book--essentially an outline and a sample chapter or two with information about the author and the presumed market for the book.

Academic books, which are mostly published by university presses, don't require literary agents. The author submits directly. But trade books--that is, books for a general readership sold in bookstores--typically require a literary agent--working on 15 percent commission--who acts as a gatekeeper for publishers.

At first, I thought it was going to be easy. The very first agent I contacted loved my stuff and it sounded like she was going to sign me until I suddenly received a "Dear John" letter saying she had decided not to take on any more clients. It only took about 80 more queries before I finally found an agent months later who took my proposal off the slush pile and offered me representation. Obviously, you have to deal with loads of rejection in this business, and like most hopeful authors, I took comfort in tales of many times rejected authors like J.K. Rowling.

It also helps if you really believe in the quality of your writing. It helps even more if you have reason to believe in the quality of your writing.

After my agent and I whipped my proposal into more commercially viable shape--literary pretensions aside, I love the sound of cash registers ringing in my head--we were ready to submit to publishers.

For about a year, I thought that landing an agent was merely a ticket to a higher level of rejection. As the rejections piled up, I hung my hopes on the fact that few of the rejections were due to lack of literary merit. It was more like, "Best title ever, but too depressing. People just don't want to hear about the walker before it's time." Or, "The material depressed me horribly and I couldn't see readers (or my sales force more importantly) rallying to this."

A year later--when I was about to give up and was thinking about literary Plan B or C--my agent happened to have lunch with a newly promoted editor who was looking to build his list. This editor saw past the depression and got the jokes, and a deal was at hand. I had a year to write the book, and yet another year after I finished, the book will be coming to a bookstore near you.

It was four years from conception--2005--to publication--2009. As I like to say, publishing operates at glacial speed until they need it yesterday. I could have started and graduated from college in the time the book went from idea to print on paper.

I'm still taken aback when people tell me the book is depressing, but I've come to accept that that is the book I wrote and have to live it. But many, like my agent and editor, see the humor, and the humanity. I take solace from comments likening me to a later day Dante offering a tour to a later day hell in a style that combines Marcus Aurelius and Jerry Seinfeld. We writers live for those types of reactions even though they won't pay us to live.

Without humility, I like to say that if Mark Twain had worked in a nursing home, this is the book he might have written.

How you readers out there will respond, remains an imponderable. Given the economy, I'll have that rationalization if my book tanks. But I remain cautiously optimistic. Against my nature, I pretend I'm a pessimist, because optimists are always disappointed, while pessimists are sometimes pleasantly surprised.

So am I a later bloomer? Only in the sense that I am publishing later in life. To be blunt, I don't think someone could bloom into a new, artistic profession, if the raw material isn't there. But that would be true at any age.

I plan to keep my hand in as a psychologist, and one of the advantages of the profession is that as long as you can sit upright in a chair and be sensible you can keep working at it. Another advantage is that you can work a reduced schedule--as I have been--leaving time for writing. But I hope to go on and spend my dotage as an author--fantasizing an obituary, if one is written, about my transformation from psychologist to writer.

More than three-hundred years ago, my hero, Thomas Hobbes, wrote that life is "nasty, brutish, and short." My book wonders whether life is still nasty and brutish--only longer. As a later bloomer, I may lack the time to wonder indefinitely, but I surely won't lack the material.

In one of my favorite movie scenes--a dinner party--the host cuts some flowers and places them in a vase without water.

"Why no water?" asks a guest.

"It only prolongs their agony," responds the host.

Me? Despite this. I hope to keep on blooming.


More on Rejection

Given that we writers are obsessed with rejection, here are some sites that underline this preoccupation--sort of like the car crash where you don't want to look but can't help it.

The Rejector--"I don't hate you. I just hate your query letter."--is a blog written by an assistant to a literary agent. Her role is to reject 95 percent of submissions, placing the remainder on her boss's desk, who goes on to reject more than 95 percent of those.

Literary Rejections on Display is a blog by a published, award winning author who, like the rest of us, experiences many more rejections than acceptances. The author's own multitude of rejections are on display, along with those submitted by readers.

Here's a link to the Wall of Rejection of author-blogger Stephen Hines. He sleeps under a wall papered with his many rejections.

Finally, there's The Rejection Show, originated by Jon Friedman, which is a theater piece where writers, musicians, comedians, and other artist-types can present their rejected material. Many of the rejected participants are otherwise quite successful. The show became so successful that they reached a tertiary level of rejection, and displayed material rejected by the rejection show. And in an archetypal example of making lemonade out of lemons, there is the just published, Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled. (When you buy my book, you have my permission to get this one too.)

About the Author
Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D.

Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Connecticut who works in eldercare facilities and the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare.

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