The Benefits of Late-Arriving Flowers
When late is better than early, actor Ke Huy Quan, novelist Min Jin Lee, poet Chen Chen, and how I touched an Oscar via the associative property.
Winter in Colorado usually extends through May, but hints of spring appear earlier. I can always count on the first crocuses arriving before the end of February. Until this year. Three frigid, snowy months in a row left piles of grimy ice that dated to November like we were auditioning to play the role of Minnesota. The ground was too frozen, the temperatures too low, and the first crocuses didn’t open until a week into March.
I plant my garden for maximum flower coverage, crocuses giving way to tulips, then irises, then peonies, then lilies, and finally the dahlias, sunflowers, and chrysanthemums that stick around through October. So that makes only three completely flower-free months. In February, there will be flowers, I repeat as I trudge through the dregs of winter. But this year demanded more patience.
I was thinking about my impatience for the arrival of literal flowers while I watched actors receiving their metaphoric flowers at the Academy Awards on Sunday. All the winners of the acting categories were over fifty years old. None of them had won an Oscar before. It was easy to root for Ke Huy Quan, who was born in Saigon, entered America as a refugee, won hearts in the ‘80s for his roles in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, struggled to find acting roles for years and shifted to behind-the-scenes positions before winning the part of the sweet, beleaguered father in Everything Everywhere All At Once and the Oscar that came with it.
With all the snark and gossip that accompanies Hollywood success, nobody ever says a bad thing about Ke Huy Quan. That’s probably because he had years to hone his humility, years to ponder the meaning of his childhood success and the doors that closed to him after it. People who persist at some artistic pursuit for decades without much financial benefit or fame continue for something besides awards, and that authenticity shows in their work.
This made me think about writers I’ve known who’ve experienced early, significant success versus those who either failed for a long time or are still in the midst of failure, scrapping their way along on the edges of the publishing world. I much prefer talking to the latter, find them to be more enlightening writing teachers, and more generous. Occasionally I’ll listen to a guest speaker with my students at Regis and think, “Oh no. We have to debrief after this.” This happens when there’s a writer who, say, published their debut novel with a major press while they were still in college, or another writer who told the students something like, “I just head to the coffee shop, crack my knuckles, open my laptop, and start channeling the story.” I wish I were making that up. These spasms of good fortune happen, but they are not the norm, and it’s malpractice to present this to aspiring writers as either a common experience or proof of one’s own worthiness.
I went to the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Seattle last week, and had a blast seeing old friends and making new ones. As the daytime activities shifted to evening bar gatherings, I heard some grumbling here and there, most if it from writers who’d enjoyed significant success at one point. There was talk about sales being down overall, talk about the publishing industry being hostile to certain kinds of stories. I can see how the trajectory would look grim if you started as an acclaimed bestseller—it’s so hard for anyone to retain that level of success. But for those of us who have had our ups and downs—and maybe our ups have never reached higher than the top of a kiddie rollercoaster—it’s easier to appreciate how success results from a combination of talent, tenacity, and luck. And never discount the importance of luck in that triumvirate.
Min Jin Lee gave the keynote address at the conference, speaking to super librarian Nancy Pearl. (If you have an AWP pass, you can watch the recording online.) Lee said she’d been writing for thirty years, and had only been successful for five years. Pearl protested that Free Food for Millionaires (published in 2007) had been a success. Lee clarified, “in terms of getting invitations to do fun things,” such as writing an introduction to a new edition of The Great Gatsby, “it’s really been about five.” “I’m the patron saint of delay,” Lee declared, and I always find her insights about her early failures and the struggle of making art to be so beneficial that I herd my students away from those knuckle-cracking winners and toward any talk that Min Jin Lee gives. (Such as this one on Debbie Millman’s podcast “Design Matters.”)
Flowers that arrive later than expected are earned, they’re appreciated, they’re never taken for granted, and more often than not, they are shared. If you are still waiting for your flowers, keep at your work. When they arrive, you’ll know they could disappear at any moment, and that knowledge will enable you to appreciate them fully, without clinging to them.
The Assorted Whimsy Portion of The Tumbleweed
AWP was mostly about books, but it also served as a fashion show, especially for those of us who live in a town that GQ once listed among the worst-dressed cities in America. (Though that could change now that Deion Sanders is here.) The best combination reading and fashion show I saw was the two-hour, capacity-packed, 16-reader event put on at Elliott Bay Books by four literary organizations. Two hours can be grueling for a reading, but there were so many highlights, including Erika T. Wurth and Faylita Hicks, that the audience stayed engaged.
In keeping with The Tumbleweed’s tradition of featuring people in faux fur coats (see: the Deion Sanders edition), I now present the fabulous poet Chen Chen:
I am so busy reading fiction and nonfiction that I don’t keep up with poetry enough. I urge everyone to check out Chen Chen’s most recent collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. His poems are funny, meaningful, and accessible to those of us who normally stick to prose.
The Book Recommendation Portion of The Tumbleweed
If you care about Denver, or just want to read a riveting nonfiction story about a singular, complicated man, please check out Julian Rubinstein’s book The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood.
For High Country News, I wrote about the book and the documentary film Rubinstein shot while reporting the book, which is now streaming widely (“Invisible Denver Made Indelible in New Documentary”). As I mention in my review, I know several of the people featured in the book and the film, and it was especially heartening to see my former classmate, Gerald Wright, who was a Crip and was shot in the head in 1994, healed and working to prevent gang violence.
The Happenings & Links Portion of The Tumbleweed
It was thrilling to see Sarah Polley win the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for her adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking. Here’s a photo Polley shared on Instagram of Toews holding the Oscar:
Now, you will recall that just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Miriam Toews at the Tattered Cover:
If I understand the associative property correctly, those two photos taken together mean that I was basically touching an Oscar myself. (Math teachers: I welcome you to attack my atrocious application of that property in the comments.)
At AWP I got to meet novelist Joe Wilkins, the kind soul who selected Mixed Company for the George Garrett Prize, which is how it got published in the first place.
Stay tuned for Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Lit Fest, heading to Denver June 9-16. I’ll be teaching five craft classes, and I’ll share them here in a month or so when registration opens.
As always, The Tumbleweed welcomes your questions and comments about writing, reading, taco eating, rabbit wrangling, Deion Sanders, and what it’s like to touch an Oscar via the associative property.