I’m a late bloomer. It took me longer to understand and appreciate the world than it did for you. My dual ambitions — success in love and in my work — didn’t come in sight until I was almost ancient: 40.
Now I know (having lapped 40 thirteen times) that 40 seems old to 20 only because it doubles your entire life. I imagine when I’m 106, I’ll look back at these first 50-plus years as a golden age of youth and vigor. Twenty years is a long time, though, to wait for something to happen.
I don’t know what I would have done if someone had told me that I would have to wait as long as I did, and work as hard as I did, to get what I want. And during that time, I never realized that getting what you want, ever, no matter how long you wait and work for it, is usually a mirage of desire that remains fixed, forever, just a little bit farther from where you are right now.
By the time I was 30, I had written three novels, 50 short stories, and one letter to the editor of a local weekly. Of those compositions, I published zero percent of the novels, 10 percent of the stories, and 100 percent of the letters to the editor. Based on these numbers, I should have gone into the letter-to-the-editor business, but the pay isn’t great. With the stamp, the envelope, the typewriter ribbon (all good letters to the editor are written on typewriters), it would have cost me money.
So I wrote a few more novels and finally published one of them. The trick, I think, was not giving up. If you don’t give up, the competition will get sick or move away, which leaves the field wide open for those with enough strength to hang around (I credit warm lemon water, once a day).
I met my wife, Laura, when I was 40, and she was worth the wait. After meeting her, it appeared that I had everything. But this illusion was far from true. Although I was an avid hoopster, I couldn’t jump high enough to place the basketball directly into the basket — what those in the know call “dunking.” I asked the advice of a ninth grader, who slam-dunked like a monster, and he showed me exercises to strengthen all the important muscles — calves, hamstrings, quadriceps — to lend the missing three or four inches to my vertical lift. These inches never happened. Three years later, I had a total hip replacement, which subtracted the two inches of verticality I already had. Now I have trouble leaping over garden beetles.
Other ways I arrived tardy to my own life: I didn’t leave the country until I was 21; I didn’t learn how to properly open a cardboard milk carton until I was 22; I didn’t know, until I was 24, that you could actually see a tear duct, a small opening on the underside of the lower eyelid. Did you know that? Really?
I was 25 before I went fishing for the first time. It’s now hard to believe that so many years of my life passed — not only without fishing, but also without even thinking about fishing. I’ll never forget the day I went. It was summertime, out at a crummy little lake near Saxapahaw, early in the morning before it got too hot. It turns out even fish don’t like it that hot, and they live in the water.
My brother-in-law took me. He gave me a night crawler and showed me how to hook it just so, a delicate operation that allowed the worm to appear a free agent, when it was actually a trap for the unsuspecting, famished fish. We stayed for three hours, and I only got a worm-stealing bite or two. But that was OK with me. It was my life. All I had to do was bait the hook, sink the line, and wait. And wait. And wait. I was a natural.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.