Guest blogger, Tess Callahan
As I sit here musing over this blog post, the sound of crickets pours through an open window. The chant is percussive and mesmerizing. This early autumn day still holds the summer warmth. Deep shades of green drench the maples and oaks, while a few yellow leaves cascade from the tulip and walnut trees. Weeks ago, most of the perennials in my garden pushed out their last buds, now ripening into seed pods, but a few late bloomers, asters and turtleheads, are just beginning. In a way, those late blossoms are the most potent because so many weeks of sun and heat go into their making.
As a writer, I did not choose to be a later bloomer, it chose me. It took me a long time to hone my skills. Years ago at a writing conference, a chapter from a novel I was working on was critiqued by an editor who in turn mentioned it to a prestigious agent. The agent signed me on and proceeded to auction my novel to five big publishing houses. His intention was to create a bidding war. When one-by-one each house politely declined to make an offer, the agent was disappointed. I, on the other hand, was devastated.
This month, while cleaning out an old closet, I came across the manuscript and read it. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it was awful – not because it did not have potential, but because it was unfinished, doughy in the center, the third draft of a work that needed two more. It was as if I had tried to pick the turtleheads and bring them into the house in May, before the buds had set. I shudder to think how I would feel today if that manuscript had been published. The devastating rejection of years ago now feels like a stroke of fortune.
Despite my disappointment, I continued to write. I also taught, traveled, lived abroad, and experienced life in ways that contributed to my writing. Well into a second novel, I became the mother of twins. Between teaching and parenting, I set my writing aside for months and sometimes years, only to come back to it with fresh eyes. After an excerpt of my novel was published in Agni and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, I sent out the book prematurely and lost heart. The manuscript accumulated dust until a friend convinced me to dig it up. With clarity afforded by distance, I saw what changes were needed. After years of writing, rewriting, abandoning, and reclaiming, I sent the revised novel to a new agent who sold it in two days. Like my character April, I am a late bloomer. I’m grateful to see April & Oliver in print, most of all because I have always had the mysterious sense that these characters want to live. Now, in the hearts and minds of readers, they do.
To get the best buds on late blooming perennials, it helps to keep trimming them back throughout the summer. This takes patience and discipline. At a certain point, late in the season, you simply let them go. Well into the fall, when the highest branches of the beech have begun to bronze and a few waning crickets chirp beneath a yellow carpet of leaves, bursts of color will unfurl from the asters and chrysanthemums. Working in secret, these late bloomers are storing up the last energy of summer to be relinquished when their moment arrives.
Tess Callahan is a painter, teacher, and mother of twins who has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio, AGNI, Cottonwood, Boston College Magazine and Newsday. Her first novel, April & Oliver, was recently published by Grand Central Publishing.
Visit her site, Tess Callahan.
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