Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than twenty years. In 2008 she received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. While there, she won Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers and Washington Square's short story competition. Her stories have recently appeared in Greensboro Review, Guernica and Oxford Review. In 2009, she became the fifth recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation's $50,000 Gift of Freedom. Her first book, More of This World or Maybe Another, a collection of award-winning, linked short stories, was just released by Harper Perennial. She's on tour now.
On Getting a Late Start
When I turned twenty-five, I thought I might like to learn to whistle through my teeth. It seemed like a neat skill, very specific and useful. And fun to do. When I met people who could do it, I asked them to show me, to explain their techniques. I'd practice for a while, and then it would slip to the bottom of the list of things I needed to learn. Twenty-five years later, I asked a friend to show me, and then I went home and worked on it for a few days. Bam! I had it. I was fifty years old.
I tell this story for a couple of reasons. The first and maybe most important is that it illustrates a belief I have about timing, about how we get to things when we're ready for them. And also how the great preoccupations of our lives continue to reassert themselves for consideration. This is how, after spending most of my adult life working as a carpenter, I came to enter an MFA program.
Unlike learning to whistle through my teeth, my application to creative writing programs was fraught with a sense of having waited too long. But writing has always been on my short list, so when it reasserted itself, I was consumed with wanting to know what would happen if I had a few years to really focus on it. What would happen if I gave it my full attention and best effort? If I had the time to practice? It took me ten years to really master carpentry, and it seemed that I'd be close to death if writing took as long.
And this is the thing: the almost universal fear that an endeavor will take too long, that we will be way past our primes, our social usefulness, before we get to whatever it is we long for. And lurking underneath is the larger fear of not being good enough. To offset the fear, we manufacture obstacles and place them between ourselves and what we want. And, of course, there are all the real obstacles: no time, no money, other obligations. Unlike my carefree whistling program, my goal of being admitted to an MFA program seemed pretty unrealistic. I don't want to draw undue attention here to my dubious undergraduate work, so suffice it to say that I didn't look like much on paper. I couldn't imagine that schools would be interested in having an old broad come knocking at their doors with nothing to show for herself.
At the University of New Orleans, I was not the oldest person in the program. Nor the most or least talented person. Nor the only person with a sense of being a late bloomer. Writing is a great equalizer. Writing classes are not easier because you're younger or older. We all make the same beginner's mistakes. One day, over beers at our neighborhood bar, a couple of classmates and I talked about how we felt like late bloomers. They were in their early thirties at the time, and I was almost fifty. Thirty-three seemed young to me, but I could remember being that age and thinking I was on the downward slope. Then others—some in their twenties and some in their sixties—told me they had this late-blooming feeling, and I came to realize that the feeling isn't about age so much as it is about finally paying attention to what it is you really want in life. And that realization requires us to set aside our assumptions about how life works and what we should be doing, and to consider what our strongest preoccupations are. If we're lucky, we do this sort of reassessment over and over as time goes on. We fine tune. We just go ahead and reach for the seemingly unreachable. And we get there when we get there.
I have always searched for the others out there, late bloomers blooming. I think we see what we believe, and we can change what we see by changing our beliefs. And those late bloomers changed my belief about what was available to me in life. Both those in the public eye—Julia Child, Harriet Doerr, the blues guitarist, T-Model Ford—and those in my own community—the seventy-year-old freshman, for instance, a woman I tutored while working on my MFA. She had always wanted to go to college and finally found her way there.
I'm at the very beginning of a writing career that I assumed would be impossible. A first book at age fifty-two. Irrespective of what publication I might enjoy, there is a deep satisfaction for me in the act of writing. And in whistling through my teeth. And, most especially, in the knowledge that it ain't over till it's over. Bam! One day you know for sure what you want. After that, there's just the long stretch of practicing the awkward whistle until it's as much a part of you as any other thing.
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