January 2, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Christy Stillwell
I love a book that is unapologetically female. The market is brimming with explorations of female experience, books that examine issues such as food addiction, shame, sexuality and the process of aging. Men struggle with age, I know. Each time I complain about my gray hair, my husband points at his head and says, “At least you have hair.” But when it comes to perennial dieting, body shame, and loss of youth, women struggle in much different ways.
I devoured Hunger, by Roxanne Gay, and I’ve read everything by Brene Brown. I relished Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, an exploration about female desire. I am astonished to see the thread of shame and scarcity running through my own life. Even at middle age, I don’t know what I want. In fact, in an effort to immunize myself against disappointment, I’ve made a habit of not wanting anything at all.
When I found Dorothy Rice’s memoir, Gray is the New Black, the book felt like a cosmic gift. In this memoir of self-acceptance and healing, the writer lays bare her disappointments and struggles with sugar addiction, dieting, and bad men. What’s more, she digs into her past to see the part she has played in her own unhappiness, a courageous move.
A retired California civil service worker in her early sixties, Rice discovers she needs a year “to get my shit together.” She aims to “crack the code of living my life in the now” to make “peace with the past and embrace the present.”
Early in the book, her sister challenges her to stop coloring her hair, a loaded request considering that when Rice tried this years ago, she was mistaken for her sister’s mother. In the spirit of personal rebirth, Rice accepts the challenge, and the author’s gorgeously thick, gray hair becomes the central image of the book. Throughout her ups and downs—both in spirit and weight—her hair bolsters her. It is the one thing she allows herself to love about herself, even as she admits to a debilitating sugar addiction, a long relationship with a sexual predator, an abusive first marriage, and ongoing struggles with yo-yo dieting.
Rice is upfront about her food addiction. “I routinely eat myself sick,” she admits. “I claim to fear migraines more than anything, and when I’m in the grip of one, I vow never again. Yet I forget . . . . or rather, I don’t forget; I’m overcome with sugar lust.” The scene in which she loses her battle with a bag of Halloween candy reads like the description of a junkie shooting up. The power of the scene comes in part from the book’s structure; Rice lets readers witness the first binge early, and we dread the inevitable recurrence. We know, as she does, that the sugar will not only sabotage her weight loss, it’ll also make her violently ill.
The memoir takes a darker turn as Rice explores the root causes of her shame. Most women she knows have a rape story. It’s a fact—not defended or analyzed. Rice’s rape story is unconventional; she was not attacked late at night, but lured into the car of a twenty-something predator who trolled her high school. He didn’t pin her down and force himself upon her; he unzipped his pants, grabbed her by the neck, and forced her to perform fellatio. In his car. Parked on the side of the road. In broad daylight.
The (non)relationship with Ron continued intermittently for two years. Never gratuitous or self-pitying, Rice’s descriptions of these encounters are riveting, as is her honesty about her own confusion:
It’s hard to understand why I kept seeing Ron, why I didn’t stop. I do know that even as I came when he called and did what he asked, I desperately wanted a real boyfriend. I knew that what I did with him was nothing to be proud of. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t even like to think about it. Nor did I enjoy it or look forward to the next time. . . . It was never about me, or even about sex, but rather power, control, domination. I didn’t get this intellectually, but I knew it in my bones. I’d surrendered free will.
What sets Gray is the New Black apart from other self-reckoning memoirs is the author’s willingness to take responsibility for her own self-delusion. She’s openly curious about why she clung to these false truths about Ron. In a similar way, Rice investigates the stalemate in her marriage to Bob, and here the reader sees change unfolding.
A retired engineer, Rice’s husband is a “literal kind of guy” and more than a little dense when it comes to speaking his feelings. The author baits him repeatedly, trying to get him to say what she wants, a test he fails repeatedly. I “batted my lashes and hunched my shoulders so my breasts pressed together,” then she asked, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
Though he fails in the compliment department, he loves her. He tells so all the time. And Rice loves him. She admits that she can’t be angry; she has gained weight, knows she doesn’t look her best. By the book’s end, after a year spent excavating shame and a trip to a Utah fat farm, Rice faces herself:
I have waited all my life for a man to say the prescribed magic words to me, to perform the prescribed grand gestures. . . . I have felt cheated out of my due of Lifetime movie moments.
Understanding that this cycle of dissatisfaction is based on fairytales, she asks herself: Are these good enough reasons “to hold my husband at arm’s length until he utters the magic words?” No, she concludes:
It’s time to look at what I’ve been pining for all my life and ask if that’s still it, do I need that anymore, or am I a bigger girl now? Does my piano have more than one insistent sour note to plink?
With incisive, lyrical prose, Dorothy Rice articulates a longing for a generation of women seeking an honest way to see themselves, a way to authentically exist in the world. Her tunneling investigation into why it was once so important to fit in, to be wanted by a man, even the wrong man, feels essential. Even if Rice doesn’t give readers solid answers, it doesn’t mean they should stop asking the questions.
Christy Stillwell is the winner of the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. She is the author of The Wolf Tone (2019 Elixir Press) and the poetry chapbook, Amnesia (2008 Finishing Line Press). She lives in Montana.
April 11, 2022 § 38 Comments
by Dorothy Rice
It’s Spring 2022, over two years since life was transformed by a global pandemic. Meetings, appointments, and vacations cancelled. Professional obligations and expectations suspended. My longest stretch of workaday limbo, aside from three maternity leaves.
“I think we should stay away for a while. You’re in that vulnerable age group,” my son said, over the phone during the initial quarantine. “We can’t risk anything happening to you.” Which meant no son, no grandkids, for weeks that became months.
I had unscheduled time. Every writer’s dream. I might have completed that memoir, tackled my moldering list of essays, made progress on the middle grade novel begun as a break from the navel gazing of personal writing. But my thoughts were unfocused, too diffuse to distil into coherent sentences.
I excavated closets and cupboards, arrayed the leavings of five grown children and my recently deceased mother on the dining room table, wishing they were the pages of a manuscript. I held each object, felt its heft and texture. Victorian glassware and mismatched China. Grandma’s handknit, hand-sewn suits and dresses, each with a dyed-to-match silk slip. Mom’s Latin American textiles, photo albums from her world travels. Children’s artwork, their imagined futures in photos, award certificates and boxes of mementos.
I amassed piles. Keep. Gift. Recycle. Repurpose. Trash. The lines bleary as my thoughts. A can of baking powder that expired in 1988—trash or collectible? A sack of wooden spools from my own sewing days—string them into aclunky necklace for a kindergarten teacher?
The silverware drawer and pantry became marvels of cleanliness and organization. I ordered padded storage boxes (that appeared on the doorstep days later) for the glassware—one daughter said she’d want it if she ever left Manhattan. I assembled sewing baskets for my two sisters with surplus notions acquired from Grandma, Mom, and thrift stores. I did touch my writing. Documents dragged into computer folders. Journals arranged in descending year order. My office was ready for me whenI was ready for it.
Along with routines, schedules, and external obligations, I was suspended, in creative limbo.
In younger years, when I expressed angst about the future, Mom would remind me I was just a grain of sand on the beach of life, a cog in a great machine. “Find your cog and put your shoulder behind it,” she would say. I’ll show you, I used to think, I’m no cog, no grain of sand, I’m special.
Now I get it. I was, I am, a grain of sand, a cog, a Victorian bubble-glass goblet.
The urgency of anything I had to say withered in the face of world events. Global pandemic. Wildfires. Uncloseted white supremacy and bigotry. Gun violence, fake news, conspiracy theories. War, refugees, famine, closed borders. Earth gasping for breath. There all along. Then a massive hand shook the planet like a snow globe. Virus molecules insinuated themselves into every nook and cranny, leavening, and gas-lighting our differences, our placement on the privilege scale.
In light of life revealed, bruised and diseased, I was neutralized. Does the world need this essay, I asked myself. Does the world need another memoir? Does the world need anything I have to say? Of course, the things the world doesn’t need appears infinite and expanding. Does the world need another roundabout? Another dipping sauce, cat celebrity or meme? What the world needs now (cue music) is less, not more, a time out from human-kind’s machinations.
For two years I’ve treaded creative water, begun project after project, only to stutter, then stop, in the face of the blinking, blinding, why. Why these words, this topic, why me? No one will be hospitalized or cured if I don’t write. No one will despair. No one will notice at all. Was that ever the point? It’s not as if I believed my words could home the homeless, put food in children’s bellies, or avert another senseless war.
Joan Didion famously wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Of course, she’s Joan Didion, and I’m not. Yet isn’t it the same for any writer, no matter our success or visibility? I write to dissect what it is to be me, in this body, place and time, never knowing when my words will bring comfort, make someone feel less alone, or elicit a smile.
When I don’t transcribe life onto the page, when I don’t move words around until they resemble my truth, I’m left with a sense of lost opportunity. Does the world need another essay? No. But sometimes I do. How else to attempt to make sense of the world? And why cede my words to all that we need even less—another “reality” show, miracle diet, clump of big box stores. My words don’t take up space, interrupt traffic, create false hope, or defile what’s left of nature. Yet once written, they exist, one human’s experience distilled, like the petroglyphs and cave drawings of civilizations past.
After two years twiddling my fingers over the computer keys, I’m clicking them again, not because the world needs me to, but because I do. I’m a writer. That’s the cog I put my shoulder to.
Lately, when I see my ten-year-old grandson, he asks, “How’s that novel coming, Grandma?” If he were a fellow writer or nosy neighbor, I’d assume he’d asked because he knew it wasn’t. From my grandson it’s a reminder that he wants me to finish the dang novel so he can read it.
“It won’t be you,” I remind him, because I’ve told him the protagonist is also a ten-year-old boy. “There may be parts of the character you don’t like.”
“Yeah I know,” he says. “He can’t be all good. That would be boring, right?”
Which he knows because his grandmother is a writer and we talk about these things.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance, The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir, and editor of the anthology TWENTY-TWENTY: 43 Stories from a Year Like No Other. She is Managing Editor with Under the Gum Tree, and co-director of Stories on Stage Sacramento, a nonprofit literary performance series. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60. Find her on twitter at @dorothyrowena and at dorothyriceauthor.com.
May 14, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
The e-mail from the publisher of my first book popped into my mailbox on a Saturday. I was sitting in the wooden bleachers at a baseball game. My nine-year-old grandson was pitching. I didn’t open it, not only because I was cheering him on through the chain-link fence. I had no expectation of good news. After the game ended and we’d all hugged goodbye, I sat behind the wheel of my Subaru, blasting the air conditioning in an unseasonably hot Sacramento spring. I clicked on the email.
“I am writing to give you notice that The Reluctant Artist will be removed from our active title list on June 30, 2021 (hereafter the Termination Date).”
Which meant they would no longer sell my book. All rights would revert to me following the ominous sounding “termination date.” Mention of my freedom thereafter to publish the entire book or any of its individual poems let me know this was a form letter; there are no poems in The Reluctant Artist. I imagined a purge was underway and that many poets had received a similar missive. Out with the underachievers. A list my book belonged on. No quibble there. Royalty statements for the last two years of the contract were in the red. I wondered if I’d get a bill.
If I’m honest, I’d considered it an unexpected gift that it was published at all. With 73 pages of full-color photographs, it must have been expensive to print. Then there’s the size, smaller than a coffee table book, bigger than most others. And the contents. Neither fish nor fowl. A hybrid memoir/art book, written by a little-known writer about her even more obscure father.
Sitting in the hot car, air from the vents blasting my face, I skimmed it quickly and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I was used to impersonal rejection emails. This was sort of the same thing. Wasn’t it?
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d decided not to tell anyone. Not my husband, my sisters or kids (the primary audience for the book in the first place). Telling anyone would have made it too real.
The news nested somewhere in the back of my mind, behind conscious thought.
The following Monday, I sat beside my seven-year-old granddaughter, shuffling math worksheets and reading packets, organizing her materials for Zoom school. In the kitchen, I poured her favorite juice and spread Nutella on a toaster waffle. Savoring the scent of warm grains and melty chocolate, the termination notice resurfaced.
I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the author of two books from small presses—not one, two. Five years passed so quickly; my quirky book fading in the sunset hadn’t crossed my mind. With a typical rejection, I could consider where to send it next, or perhaps undertake another round of edits. A published book ceasing to be “published,” losing its home, its advocate and legitimacy in someone’s eyes other than my own, felt different. An erasure, an accomplishment withdrawn.
I could tilt at more windmills by sending it out to other small presses. I could self-publish. A viable option for an e-book. Even if I could finance printing an art book, I didn’t think I wanted to.
I snuck my granddaughter her breakfast. Eating “on camera” wasn’t allowed, yet making Eva wait until the 9:30 break wouldn’t go well for any of us, least of all the teacher. We finished the Number of the Day worksheet (32) and a math assignment about telling time, the “real” way, with two hands on a clockface. I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, poured Eva more juice.
“Drink it fast,” I said. “It might stop the hiccups.”
Ten years ago, when The Reluctant Artist was conceived, my dad had just died. The two essays that became the nucleus for the text were about finding my way back to writing as my father, a lifelong creative, was dying. I loved his art and harbored no doubts about its merits. I was not so confident about my own abilities or identity as a writer.
I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the book from my office and smoothed the cover with the flat of my hand— a self-portrait of my father from the sixties. Returning to Eva, my steps were light. Proud, nostalgic, and grateful, for Dad, and the writer I was.
During the 9:30 break, we watered the vegetables we’d sprouted from seeds then moved to wood-framed beds in the backyard.
“Look Grandma, this tomato has flowers.” Eva pointed to a spidery yellow blossom.
I was reminded of something I’d read and heard said several times. That you could write the same book every ten years and each time it would be entirely different.
Eva flitted from plot to plot, waving the misting hose like a magic wand. I’d water more carefully after our morning together ended. The Reluctant Artist had felt safe, finite and contained, a package. Yet themes and ideas I’d struggled with before and since are there, embedded in the text, their surface barely scratched, likely only discernible to me.
With Covid-19 and quarantine, my writing had suffered pandemic paralysis. Perhaps it was Spring’s arrival or that the economy and schools were slowly reopening. Or maybe it was the vaccines in mine and others’ arms. A sense of emerging on the other side, ready to pick up where I’d left off, or, better still, to begin a new page.
I wasn’t the same person or the same writer I was ten years ago. No longer hesitant to explore deeper, murkier corners—to pose questions, struggle to answer them and not feel I’ve failed if I only manage to come up with more questions.
To the persistent hum of bees sipping lavender pollen, I sensed the delicate pulse of new words, new thoughts and new ways of expressing them. I was excited to discover what would grow. Much as I anticipated the bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and beans to come. Promises for now, setting down roots, reaching for the sunlight, beckoning the bees.
Dorothy Rice is the author of two memoirs, Gray is the New Black (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing statewide environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Dorothy co-directs the literary series Stories on Stage Sacramento, reads submissions for Hippocampus Magazine, and works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit.
June 9, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
I am a writer. Combining words to forge meaning makes me feel whole, alive, as if I matter.
The global pandemic and quarantine measures to slow its spread changed the way we live, on a granular level, perhaps irrevocably. For me, as I imagine for many others, time seemed suspended. Connections to the world beyond the walls of my home and the tree-lined streets of my suburban neighborhood, were severed. Untethered from accustomed routines and obligations, I floated in a bubble. One day became another, then another, indistinguishable, unhinged from any broader context, meaning or purpose.
As the monotone days mounted, it became increasingly implausible to presume that anything I might write, or not write, do or not do, mattered. I wandered without a compass to orient myself, on the page, or in life. Suspended in time, I whined and worried over the loss of my creative spark. I took naps and consumed massive quantities of processed carbohydrates, all because the words wouldn’t come.
The brutal murder of George Floyd ended my quarantine limbo, jolted me back to reality, to the state of this nation.
I am a writer. I have long pictured nirvana as a secluded mountaintop cabin, a writing desk with an expansive forested view, my mind unfettered, free as an eagle to swoop and soar. Months of quarantine have convinced me seclusion isn’t the key ingredient, and that, though I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I am also connected, part of a community, a country, and the wider world. Absent those connections, relevance, significance and context are thwarted, minimized by self-absorption.
What happened to one black man in Minneapolis, and so many other black men and women, matters. This is our nation, our society. One where hatred and divisiveness, disparities between rich and poor, homed and homeless, black and white, have mushroomed in plain sight. One where truth is fast losing any meaning or importance, facts are considered opinions, and civility, decency and respect are belittled. One where privilege is so ingrained in white America, it’s hard to see, easy not to try, easier to enjoy and benefit from the rights and privileges that under the law should be afforded all Americans.
This latest unprovoked killing of a black man can’t be undone.
I miss President Obama. I miss believing we are on a path to a better, more equitable life for all Americans. I miss believing that what is good and right and fair will prevail in the end. I miss believing that there is an American dream, a dream any man, woman or child, anywhere in the world, can aspire to. I miss believing there is justice and liberty for all.
America, as one nation, undivided, never was. We are north and south, east and west. An agglomeration of territories wrested from the indigenous Native Americans. Stamped with the identities of conquering European nations. England. France. Spain. Enriched by waves of immigrants from every continent. A mix of languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures. We are the melting pot, the tossed salad, the seething cauldron. We are brutal crimes against humanity and moments of light, of wisdom and grace. We are welcoming arms and border walls, inclusion and bigotry, brave laws and surging white supremacy.
I am an American. Which means what? That I was born here, first generation on my Philippine-born father’s side, more deeply-rooted on my mother’s. My DNA may be mixed, but based on physical appearance, I am white, and on that basis alone, I enjoy the benefits of passing and blending, of not having to consider race, skin color, ethnicity or religion when I go about my business. No policeman, authority figure, gatekeeper or garden-variety bigot, is going to see me as distinct from the background. Just another white woman.
I am a writer. I work at combining words in ways that show me something I hadn’t realized before, that amuse, teach, reveal, deepen, touch and heal. I am responsible for the wrongs I lament, the optimistic, brightening world-view I miss so much. My words must do better, be better. I must do better, be better, at stepping outside my protective cone of white privilege and working, speaking, acting, writing towards solutions, towards equity and the elusive American dream.
Our words and actions matter. Both can hurt or heal, build bridges or widen the gap.
Black lives matter.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60 from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. She now works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit, and co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, a literary performance series. For more information visit dorothyriceauthor.com.
October 29, 2019 § 13 Comments
For some, writing is a solitary act, best done in the privacy of a room with a door. Others lack that luxury and find their muse on a favorite couch corner or in a coffee shop. You may require utter silence or prefer the murmur of voices, music and the hiss of espresso machines. While the setting and circumstances vary, it’s still a private conversation between your mind and the page. Alone, we grapple with ideas, wrestling them into shape.
Sharing our writing is the other side of the coin. Our thoughts, transformed in that magical, creative space, become part of a broader conversation.
Eight years ago, when I began to pursue my belated writing dream in earnest, I’d recently retired from a 35-year career in environmental protection. With what I now see as blind, beginners’ luck, I located a journal (thank you Duotrope) that accepted reprints of previously published work. An essay of mine (first published in a community college journal, American River Review) was reprinted in the Winter 2013 issue of the Still Point Arts Quarterly.
The Quarterly’s Editor, Christine Brooks Cote, also the founder/publisher at Shanti Arts, became interested in my father’s art (the subject of the essay). The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015) a full-color art book/memoir, became my first published book.
A book about an unknown artist by an unknown author, published by an independent press in an atypical format, was never destined to appeal to a wide audience. Yet thanks to the encouragement and support of colleagues I’d met taking classes and joining writing groups in my community, I was able to participate in half a dozen readings and events and share my father’s artistic legacy.
In the four years since, I’ve become enmeshed in my home town Sacramento’s literary community. One friend says of me that I, “write around,” a joking reference to my promiscuity in searching out opportunities to write and share with others. I’ve participated in workshops, classes and writing circles, convened submissions parties in my home, and provided comments on countless stories, essays and manuscripts for friends and colleagues.
Whenever I can, I attend readings and events to support other authors. I also read for literary magazines—beginning with Narrative, where I volunteered as an Assistant Editor for several years, and now as a member of the Hippocampus Reading Panel. Reading for journals is a rewarding way to give back to the journals we love; reading hundreds of submissions sharpens my internal editor.
As one outcome of my growing literary community, the launch for my second book, Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) was a vastly different experience than my first time out.
916 Ink, the literary nonprofit where I now work part-time facilitating writing workshops for area youth, hosted the event in their “Imaginarium”—an inspiring space filled with prompts, empty birdcages and whimsical clocks. Sacramento-based press River Rock Books, sold their recent releases alongside mine and 916 Ink staff were on hand to recruit volunteers and spread the word about the importance of creative writing in children’s lives.
Jan Haag, a friend and author who trained me in the Amherst Writers & Artists Method (AWA) and welcomed me into her AWA-style writing group years ago, introduced me. A handful of critique partners and fellow authors joined me in “acting out” scenes from Gray Is the New Black. Joey Garcia, critique partner, author, and founder of the Belize Writers Conference led an informal Q&A. One sister served up literary-themed cocktails, another dished out black-and-white snacks (I couldn’t come up with any appetizing gray foods!). The launch was a party, a celebration, not only of my new book, but of Sacramento’s vibrant and growing literary community.
The “then and now” contrasts continue: I forged enduring writing friendships at the first conferences and workshops I participated in five years ago, including One Story’s Summer Writers Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers Conference. Though we are spread around the globe, the writers I met continue to cheer one another on via Twitter, Facebook and on-line writing communities.
Journals that have published my work have been generous in spreading the word about my new book. Longridge Review interviewed me about Gray Is the New Black on their blog. Thanks to Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, I’ve connected with dozens of creative nonfiction writers and readers over the past three years.
Writing, even when it flows, can be lonely work. Sharing, whether one-on-one, online, in writing groups or via publication, closes the circle. Finding visible, tangible proof of this widening circle has been one of the most gratifying outcomes associated with the publication of my second book.
Four years of forging connections has transformed my life as writer and author. The Beatles, then Joe Cocker, sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. I’m singing from that same songbook, with a lot of help from my friends.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance and The Reluctant Artist. Her essays and stories have been widely published in journals and magazines, including Hippocampus, the Rumpus, Brevity‘s blog, and Longridge Review. A perennially-blooming author, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Find her at www.dorothyriceauthor.com and on twitter @dorothyrowena.
December 18, 2018 § 29 Comments
Back in the days when I was scrabbling my way up the rungs of California’s state civil service ladder, I’d ask my boss how he was doing. Without a trace of irony, he always answered, “Living the dream!”
While I admired his morale-boosting, I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing besides moving paper from one basket to another and engaging in petty squabbles over the picayune nuances of policy memos and budget requests. I wanted to be a published—and lauded—author.
As a gangly, frizzy-haired introverted kid, I’d always been more at home in the school library than on the playground, and my first vision of fame involved having a row of my books on one of the library’s shelves. The girls who didn’t want to be my friend would read my name on those spines, and boy, would they be impressed. By high school, I still wanted to find my books in the local library, but it was even more important that my photo grace the cover of Rolling Stone. All the boys who’d snubbed me would be sorry then.
In young adulthood, I pictured myself as Woman of the Year on the cover of Time, with an accompanying spread in Vogue. After all, I’d written the great American novel and I was a glamorous fashion icon.
Fantasies of how becoming a big-time famous author would transform every aspect of my life evolved with age, but the gist remained the same; books would be my ticket to international star status and all the trimmings—beauty, dangerous boyfriends, a killer wardrobe and enviable hair.
Eight years ago, at 56, I retired to write. Having spent decades plotting award-winning novels in my head, I blithely assumed they would leap from my brain onto the page and into publication.
Intellectually, I understood this was childish, magical thinking. Yet while I’d matured in all the visible ways, my dreams hadn’t. Deep in my adult psyche, writing was still bound up with the Cinderella, star-is-born, meteoric success fantasies of youth.
Eight years later, being a writer doesn’t resemble any fairy tale I’ve ever read. As for most writers I know, the journey has been paved with plenty of rejection, disinterest, and the rude realization that writing is hard work. It involves skills and insight that don’t accrue by wishing and hoping.
I’ve published some essays and a memoir/art book about my dad. I can reread most of my work without cringing. I’m part of a supportive writing community of friends, mentors and critique partners. I consider myself a decent literary citizen, reviewing for journals and facilitating writing workshops for kids. Best of all, I write most days and my family honors and respects me for it.
Along the way, I also gained forty pounds. My migraines have intensified. I’ve avoided far too many social occasions, and, as the coup de grâce, I suffered a life-limiting bout of shingles. All symptoms (I now think) of years suspended in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for the next e-mail, phone call or social media post to tell me I’m good enough. I’m finally a real writer.
What should have been the happiest, most freeing, time of my life, has also been the toughest and most humbling. Linking my sense of self worth, satisfaction and joy to validation from others—the one aspect beyond my control—proved a recipe for anxiety, disappointment and depression. My perceived failure to become ‘famous’ strikes at the core of my sense of who I am and hope to be.
I remain committed to becoming a better writer. And it’s time for a re-boot—a conscious shift in how I perceive and approach my work. It isn’t a race with prizes or a popularity contest.
It isn’t a contest at all.
At 64, I harbor no lingering need to date rock stars, nor do I especially want to encounter my wrinkled mug on magazine covers at the grocery store.
What I want now is to express what it is to have lived a particular life in particular places and times. When I get it right, when I read my words back to myself and think, yes, that’s it, there’s no better validation.
Living the dream doesn’t look the way I imagined it at ten, twenty or even fifty. It isn’t the incredible writing career I fantasized. But I have the luxury and time to live a literary life. This is the dream, here and now. The fairy-tale bits have fallen away, but my life is still transformed.
Dorothy Rice is the author of T 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a Memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.
August 30, 2018 § 54 Comments
For many writers of a certain age, myself included, Allison K Williams’ recent Brevity blog, about the tremendous response to her tweet listing beloved authors whose first book was published post-40, struck a nerve.
…the overall response was one of relief.
Thank you, I needed that.
There’s still hope.
I needed to hear that today.
A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.
I appreciated the post as another voice in the lively conversation about ageism, sexism, racism and other biases in the publishing world. I earned an MFA in creative writing at 60 and published my first book at 61. By most any barometer, I am a late-blooming author. I have mixed emotions about the label. On the one hand, I’m proud I’m beginning to realize long-held dreams. Other times I’m defensive, apologetic, even ashamed. Why did it take me so long? Is it too little, too late? What was I doing that was so damned important all those years I wasn’t writing?
“Late bloomer” implies a judgment. We use it for children who reach developmental milestones—walking, talking, tying their shoes—later than their peers. In adolescence and adulthood, “late bloomer,” often with a sigh or a philosophic shrug, describes those who are floundering, who haven’t yet found themselves, their passion or their path. The late bloomer is failing to meet someone’s expectations, be they parents, teachers, a spouse or employer, or the standards within their field.
Is it the same with writers?
Why not drop the “late” and just use “bloomer” to describe writers who publish post-forty? Yet that stresses the absence of a word, rather than the word itself. Oh, I get it, they dropped the “late.” If a plant-related reference is called for, I prefer perennial, as in enduring. Continually occurring. Better still, how about just “author”?
I’m betting many, if not most, authors labeled late bloomers have always written. We scribbled in journals or diaries, jotted poems in the margins of memos and reports. Sometimes there were long stretches when we only managed to write in our heads while commuting, pacing the floor with a colicky baby, or grocery shopping on the way home from work. We found little ways, palliatives, to keep the writing dream alive, fertilize our ideas while life took over and the urgent left little time for the important.
I’ve done no survey, scientific or otherwise, but it does seem that “late-blooming author” and “woman” often go together. Attend any writing conference or workshop and chances are a majority of the seats will be filled with women of a certain age, there to resuscitate dormant dreams and dusty manuscripts. A panel at the Hippocamp 2018 creative nonfiction conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “Breaking Into Writing After Forty,” was comprised of five women writers (myself among them). Scanning the offerings at next year’s AWP Conference in Portland, five women are slated to present “Better Later? Success and the Late Blooming Woman Author.”
What is it with all these late-blooming women writers? I imagine many, like me, spent their young adulthood and middle age juggling careers, kids, relationships, housekeeping and the rest. Not that there aren’t many men who do the same, and thank goodness for that. But we are still nowhere near gender equality in sharing all family and household responsibilities. Hats off to my younger writing colleagues who manage to keep at their craft while their children are still young and their careers on the rise. I wasn’t able to find the bandwidth.
Is the male attorney or doctor publishing a first book post-forty considered a late-blooming author, or a professional who parlayed his accomplishments in one field into another? I challenge myself to see my own life’s trajectory in a similar light.
The time I’m now able to devote to writing is relatively new—post-retirement, post-parenting, past caring how my house looks and whether supper is on the table—but it’s not as if I wasn’t taking care of business all these years. Let’s give ourselves credit for all the lives we’ve led and the myriad ways they have informed and inspired us as writers.
It’s not as if we weren’t blooming all those years. We were flowering, nurturing and gathering memory seeds. With a lifetime of experience to tap into, it’s time to plant and feed those seeds, to write the life stories we’ve lived.
Dorothy Rice is the author of The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.
February 16, 2016 § 43 Comments
A guest post by Dorothy Rice:
I have wanted to write books, novels to be precise, since I was a girl. Impressed by the likes of Alcott, Dickens and Austen, I pictured a respectable row of leather-bound volumes on the library shelf, each bearing my name in gold leaf.
The fantasy evolved over time. I admitted the possibility of paperbacks and stories that might earn a few bucks yet not ascend to the pantheon of timeless classics and fancy bindings. My books had titles, plots and characters. I designed cover art and crafted elevator pitches. But I didn’t write them.
I waited for life to simplify, for jobs to become less consuming and for children to grow, sustained by the notion that when I was ready, the stories I’d been saving up would write themselves. After all, the idea was the hard part.
Over five years ago, my father, nearing ninety, fell. He cracked his head on the kitchen linoleum and survived emergency surgery, barely. When I visited, he seemed to have shrunk several sizes. His voice came from a distance. His gnarled fingers gripped the thin blanket.
“One foot in the grave I’m afraid,” he said, attempting a wry smile. “Old age, I don’t recommend it.” He said that too, with a sage nod, as if the sentiment was something new. Platitudes, “old chestnuts,” were his conversational stock-in-trade.
He had always been a private man. He frowned at emotional excess, said it was unseemly, unnecessary. Not knowing how long he might live, there were things I wanted to say, and hear, conversations neither of us knew how to have.
Driving home from the hospital, cheeks wet with tears, the winding road swam before me. The obvious became clear. My father would die. And I was well over fifty, past the halfway mark. Yet I wasn’t writing. I feared I’d waited too long.
I began to write, not one of the novels I’d held in reserve but rather about my dad, a prolific artist and teacher whom I’d always admired and emulated, yet never felt at ease with. I sat by his bedside. Uninvited. I filled the awkward silent patches with prompts and questions and, when those failed to elicit any response, unbidden soliloquies, as I struggled to shake the tacit rules of our relationship.
“You remind me of a dental hygienist,” he said, his smile more sour than wry.
In the two years before he died, I filled notebooks with my father’s scant words and gestures and the memories they conjured. I then wove the minutiae of his final days around a contrived plot involving a fictive daughter losing the father she scarcely knew. It never occurred to me to attempt anything but fiction. When I imagined I was well along, I signed up for a novel revision workshop offered by the author of a series of detective novels.
He reviewed the initial pages of my manuscript, dragging a red pen down each page, circling the rare concrete noun or action verb. “Nothing happens,” he said, “try throwing a corpse onto the page.”
My rambling discourse on fathers and daughters became a murder mystery, the first victim an aging artist, the second his wife, a vamp with a swoop of dark hair covering one eye. There was now no doubt. This was fiction. The kids in the junior college creative writing classes I enrolled in dug my twisted mystery set in San Francisco in the 60s. Encouraged, I churned out hundreds of pages. The finish was in sight. To give my draft a final polish and secure an agent, I enrolled in an MFA program.
Initially my lead professor was jazzed. “It’s sort of noir,” he said. That sounded cool. I immersed myself in the genre. I pared down my sentences, distilled the dialog. In workshop there were questions about motive, character development, believability, lack of subtext. I puffed my manuscript back up, six hundred plus pages of forged art, foggy avenues, envy and lust.
My professor suggested the story was perhaps now more hippie soap opera than noir. Not the reaction I’d hoped for. “Set it aside,” he said, “work on something new, then reread it in six months and see if you don’t agree.” I waited four months and was grateful for his honesty.
I extracted the murders, the tenuous subplots and red herrings, the ill-conceived Irish detective, until I was back with my “fictional” daughter and her dying father.
In the final quarter of my MFA program—where for two years I’d studied fiction and screenwriting—I took a nonfiction class, my belated introduction to a genre I’d always associated with the terrifying true-crime books and celebrity biographies my sister devoured. My first essay was about finding my father in that hospital bed. Those few thousand words felt more honest, more alive on the page, than anything else I had written.
With the tools acquired over five years of reading and writing practice, of learning from generous, talented writers and professors, I abandoned the “novel” and returned to my initial pages about my dad. I accepted that it would be hard work, as much craft and persistence as inspiration. Alas, my stories would not write themselves.
I never planned to write memoir. But we write what demands to be written, what’s in our heads and our hearts. My father was in mine and all the convoluted efforts to wrap my truth in fiction rang false. What began as an attempt to rationalize our relationship, perhaps even to “fix” it by having us evolve beyond ourselves in fiction, became a tribute to a complex man, perhaps never to be understood, but to be honored nonetheless and depicted to the best of my ability. When I stopped trying to turn the hole inside me into a story, I found the story.
Despite my determination to force it into some other frame, the material found its form. It took awhile. But as my father used to say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Dorothy Rice earned an MFA in creative writing at age 60. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice 1918-2011 was published in November 2015 by Shanti Arts, and her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Louisville Review, Brain Child Magazine and a few others.