On Being a Late Bloomer

Illustration by Cynthia

I’ve always known I wanted to be a novelist, and when I graduated, full of hubris and ambition, from college, I figured it was time to get moving. I wrote three novels over the next few years, each one more complicated and convoluted than the last. It perhaps should have been a red flag that my then-literary agent and I spent more time talking about who would star in the movie adaptation than we did about the book itself, but I was 22! What did I care? I was going to be an overnight success.

I was not an overnight success.

All three books were rejected. When I say they were rejected, I mean that my literary agents (I had two during this period) sent copies of my books to scores of editors, and every single one said no, over and over. This process lasted approximately four years. Four years is the time it takes to go all the way through high school! Some editors read all three books, rejecting me three times in a row. When I remember this period in my life, I picture those Whac-A-Mole games at carnivals, where a little furry badger pops up out of the board and you swing an oversize hammer at its head, and then it pops up out of a new hole and you whack it again, and again, and again. Every single hammer connected with my little badger head.

I kept popping back up, though. I was bruised and disappointed, but not defeated. What did those editors know? I was confident that I was a hard worker and a good writer, and that I had things to say. I set a deadline for myself—as long as I published a book by the time I was 25, I would be happy. When that didn’t happen, I made it that I just had to sell the book by 25. Then I was 25 and book-deal-less, and nothing bad happened to me. No pianos fell on my head, no witchy old ladies cursed me, I didn’t suddenly die in my sleep. Most important, nothing happened to my drive to write—there was no age limit on my imagination or creativity. This was a revelation.

The actress Susan Lucci became my guiding light. Lucci played Erica Kane on the soap opera All My Children for more than 40 years. I loved Erica Kane, the most powerful woman in all of Pine Valley, and so did the Daytime Emmy voters. For nearly two decades, Susan Lucci was nominated for best actress—but year after year, she lost. Susan Lucci lost that title 18 times before finally winning in 1999. When she finally won, the entire crowd stood and clapped for several minutes. I wanted to be the Susan Lucci of novelists, so dogged in my pursuit of my goal that by the time I got there, everyone would be on their feet and clapping for me. Not necessarily because they loved my book (which would have been wonderful, of course), but because they knew how long I’d been trying and failing, how dedicated I was, how much I wanted it. Because they felt I’d earned it.

Now, of course there is something completely ludicrous about that idea—no one deserves a book deal or a Daytime Emmy; those kinds of things are based not on merit or character but on some equation of popularity and perceived earning potential. But there is something to be said for the long haul. For working your ass off, putting in the hours and the months and the years, for giving something every last ounce of yourself. Because that is how you come to understand why you haven’t been successful so far, and how you learn what you need to know to get there. And this kind of hard-earned success feels bigger than the overnight kind. If Susan Lucci had won the first Emmy she was nominated for, I’m sure it wouldn’t have meant as much to her, and she wouldn’t have gotten that standing O. And if I had sold a book back when I was 22, I would have taken it for granted—back then I thought that I “deserved” success just because I wanted it. I thought that the writing life was going to be easy, like living inside a bouncy castle, with no sharp edges anywhere.

By the time I finally sold my first novel at the ripe old age of 30, five years after my initial deadline, I’d done a lot more living—I’d gone to graduate school to study writing more earnestly, moved in with my boyfriend, married my boyfriend, had a bunch of jobs, made new friends, moved out of New York and then back—and when it happened, it made sense. When I got the call that the book had sold, I felt a tidal wave of joy, gratitude, and relief. I cried for days, more happy tears than I thought were possible. Because I didn’t just feel “lucky”—though of course luck was involved. I felt proud of myself, because I knew everything that had gone into making this moment happen.

When my first book was sold, even though it had taken me years of work and rejection to get there, people acted like I had come out of nowhere, like an “overnight success.” But look closer at any “overnight success” and you’ll invariably find years of hard work. I recently watched Part of Me, the Katy Perry documentary, and was struck by how long it took for her to get to the moment when “I Kissed a Girl” became a hit—there were years of getting rejected by labels, getting dropped from labels, being told over and over that she would never make it, that no one wanted to hear the kind of music she made. Yeah, she was 24 when her first single hit, which is not “late” by anyone’s calendar, but she’d been recording music since she was 17. Or look at Leonard Cohen—he didn’t release his first album until the age of 32. Julia Child didn’t get her famous television show until she was 51. Wallace Stevens didn’t publish any poems until he was 38. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishna movement when he was 70. Most of us will not be child stars or wunderkinds. Some of us will take a very long time to be successful at what we want to do, or to even know what we want to do. There is time for all of us to figure out what it is we want to do—and to change our minds over and over again, if necessary. No one is timing you.

There’s a saying that I like, which has been attributed to both the Roman philosopher Seneca AND Oprah: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Yeah, it’s cheesy, but it also happens to be true. So much of what goes on in your life is beyond your control. All you can do is work as hard as possible to get ready for those moments that might change everything. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in myself, and in karma, and in having patience, and in working my ass off. Being human is a complicated business, and when one issue in life (WHEN WILL I PUBLISH A NOVEL?!?) is resolved, others spring forward to take its place. It’s important to pause long enough to feel truly grateful for whatever goodness has occurred—and then, yup, get back to work. ♦

Published by

Emma Straub

Emma Straub has written three books, which you can find at If you'd like Emma's thoughts on chocolate, party dresses, and movie stars, follow her @emmastraub.

72 thoughts on “On Being a Late Bloomer”

  1. good so it’s not just me!

    there’s a lot of pressure now more than ever to be something worthy in this era of pop-up celebrity!

  2. This is really helpful. I’m a novelist as well (though I’m a horrible procrastinator and have yet to complete a single novel)(I’m also only 22), and sometimes I just get caught up in the idea that I have to be an awesome writer right now and that if I wait too long the awesomeness will be drained out of me. But when you really sit back and think clearly about it, you have to wait for yourself to be ready to do some things. Like, as I’m working through story ideas, I sometimes ask myself “am I ready to write this kind of novel now?” But then I still want to be some kind of fresh-out-of-university prodigy! It gets hard to keep a balanced perspective sometimes, like balancing between thinking that your work is worth reading as well as that maybe you need to mature a bit more to really write the kind of stuff that you want to be writing.

    Anyways, it’s always great to be reminded that I’m not the only one going through this, and I’m also super happy for you that eventually it all worked out. Having a novel published at age 30 is a major accomplishment, so congrats!

  3. Wow, right timing. i really needed this, i’m beating myself up constantly for not achieving things and i’m 20 in a few days and i’ve been thinking that i haven’t achieved anything (and i’m almost 20! fuck no, i have no talent!) and others have and that i’m worthless. but yes, you’re right, really, thank you!

  4. I turn 23 on Friday so this comes as a huge sigh of relief at just the right time! (Especially after reading a few “Why Can’t I Be You” interviews. jeez.) Thanks for keeping it real Emma Straub.

  5. this is wonderful and so on point. i needed this in a major way right now. i’m 25 and working at a place that’s VERY far from being my dream job. there’s so much i want to do and it always feels like i’m running out of time. it’s so awesome and necessary to be reminded that there’s still so much time left and that i can continue working towards the things that i want everyday. THANK YOU.

  6. This was definitely some advice I needed to hear! I just worry that I’m not passionate enough to ‘make it’ in the art world… I harbor a secret hope that the fact that I can cry over and over again thinking about wondering if I’ll ever give up on myself means that I never will.
    I feel like part of this is also that, especially as teenagers, we’re all sort of expected to admire this Romantic ideal… living, fast, dying young, being a prodigy or a genius, the misunderstood bad boy. It’s just as much of a struggle to be a yogi as some kind of Van Gogh. Maybe we just have to decide whether it’s work it to be remembered after you die or just live a happy life, if the two are mutually exclusive…
    just a thought.

    1. Chloegrey, I know of what you speak. All my life I have dreamed about being an artist/writer/creatrix. Seriously, when I was 7, I started folding slabs of notebook paper in half and stapling it down the sides, and then making it into a book and illustrating it…by the time I was 11 I had a treasure chest FULL of these. I made drawings like crazy, and also recorded on cassette tape everything that I did, from my own “talk shows” to made-up interviews to recordings of my friends and I getting crazy during slumber parties. I made my own “albums” of me singing under other names, complete with cover art and lyrics.

      As I got older, my priorities shifted, and I became enmeshed in the world of teenagerdom. I just remember waking up one morning when I was 13 and saying to myself, “This is the first time in my life i haven’t felt happy.”

      And as an adult, I have desperately tried to hold on to that creative spark that I nourished as a child, but it is so hard. the world is full of awful things, and the fight for basic survival takes up a lot of my time.

      Still, I really hope that that little girl hasn’t been completely extinguished. Perhaps I peaked too early? I like to imagine that in a few years, when financial matters are more settled, I will once again find my voice and let it out into the world.

    2. Hi, THANK YOU for your comment, because I’ve been thinking I’m the only young person in the world crying at the thought that maybe I’ll never write a book, or travel the world, and maybe I’ll give up on myself instead and die lonely, unfulfilled death, like, tomorrow afternoon. These worries plague me everyday. I just wanted you to know that your comment made me feel much less alone in these anxious-creative-young worries, and I hope you feel less alone, too. I don’t think it’s much that the crying keeps us from giving up on ourselves, but it surely helps at getting me to start working so the crying will stop, and I feel so much better after getting all that pent-up creativity out.


  7. I needed this to. I’m fifteen and I wrote three novellas when I was in middle school. I haven’t written anything since I entered high school, and I’ve really been kicking myself over it. This is really comforting to hear!

  8. As Lalaina Pierce said, “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23.”

    Take it from Troy Dyer though: “Honey, all you have to be by the time you’re 23 is yourself. “

  9. This was so wonderful to read. As a university student, I am constantly feeling the pressure to accomplish everything AS SOON AS POSSIBLE OR ELSE YOU’LL NEVER BE SUCCESSFUL ZOMG. It’s refreshing to realize that you can indeed take your time :) I love that Oprah/Seneca quote too haha!

  10. This couldn’t come at a better time. I’m at that stage where i’m finally chilling out about life. I used to be so worried about making mistakes and not getting the dream career or life that i’ve sculpted in my head…’s all going to be great with the right attitude. (It’s ALL about the attitude)

  11. Thanks for this.
    I’m just around 15 and I’ve been writing since I’ve known how to read or write – and writing is like breathing to me, I can not live without it.
    All my classmates know that and they kinda mockingly ask me if I’ve written my book yet, am I going to publish it soon an why not and why am I that shit that I haven’t written anything to publish yet?

    So yea thanks for this – because after all I realized that dear god I’m YOUNG and I have a lot of living and just writing to do before publishing anything.

  12. rookie is 100% relevant to my life, all the time. i’m going to remember that “no one is timing you” line forever.
    on another note, i just saw the box on the right saying you guys want submissions about non-christian faiths? which is SO PERFECT but SO UNFAIR because i’ve always wanted to submit something about islam to rookie but this month i’m just too swamped with studying for my midterms. oh well.

  13. Ah that’s EXACTLY how I feel right now. The plan was always graduate with a good degree – pester magazines and work my butt off until I got a journalist job – write a novel – publish – write more novels. At 26 I panic everyday that I’ve not even landed the journalism job yet.

    I listen to this daily and it helps:

    Thanks for the post, much needed!

  14. This could not be more applicable to my swimming thoughts about life.
    Deep breaths. Take your time…
    Thanks Emma!

  15. the sartorialist didnt pick up a camera until he was 30, this always makes me feel a lot lot better about everything.

    1. Yeah but the Sartorialist was also dating Garance Dore and knew basically every body powerful in the fashion industry before he even begun hence he shot to fame in like… two seconds?

  16. thank you thank you thank you!!! moving to new york right after you graduate to find a great job doesnt exactly lend itself to feeling great about yourself… needed this. THANK YOU!!!

  17. I always think of late bloomers in Gymnastics – like Mohini Bhardwaj, who missed out on being one of the Magnificent 7 but came back 8 years later to be part of the 2004 team (with a little help from Pamela Anderson!). Or, of course, the fabulous Oksana Chusovitina, who was never top of the heap in the Soviet system but has since proved herself time and time again, with her highest honour being an Olympic silver medal in 2008 at the age of 33!

  18. I relate so much to this, even though I’m only 15. I always feel like I have to do so many things and that my time is running out. It seems like in order to succeed in something, you have to have been doing it since you were very, very small. I really needed this so thank you.

    (I tend to make really long comments but I'm not going to do that now, because I LOVE THIS summarises my feelings quite accurately)

  20. I turn 25 this month, a birthday I have not been looking forward to because I don’t feel I’ve accomplished enough…in the eyes of everyone around me. I feel like society (generalization) is telling us how important it is to be “successful” at a young age and stress how old someone is when they accomplish something. These are thoughts I am actively trying to discourage because I think it can get in the way or someone accomplishing something great. This was a great and important read and I think it’s important to realize “no one is timing you”.

    1. These are thoughts I am actively trying to discourage because I think it can get in the way *of someone accomplishing something great.

  21. Thankyou so much for this. The past year has been one of my most difficult, having dropped out of uni because I was very unhappy there I’ve felt like a disappointment and a bum. Time to dust off the overalls though, art school won’t apply for itself.
    Thanks Rookie!

  22. All I wanted to do is be Baptiste Giabiconi and get a Dior campaign the same year he became famous- at 18. I even have my hair growing long. But now I know that probably isn’t a reality.

  23. Honestly, though, 30 is so young and I think right on the mark to have a book published, because you’ll be entering your “adult” years as a successful author. I definitely think 20s are a good time to work hard, play hard, and be poor as dirt.

  24. I needed this… sometimes I feel as if I’m nowhere in life, or like I’ll NEVER be able to be successful… thank you <3

  25. I understand. I used to focus on when people would say they liked my writing. And I knew how it’s nearly impossible to get published, and that most published authors didn’t deserve as much as some unpublished ones who were less willing to conform and write another twilight-esque novel.For a while I used to focus on succeeding. But I after seeing other people who didn’t get published I started to make fun of myself. I said that most likely I would be a lady who worked all day in a mediocre job only to return to a tiny and cat-filled apartment. I would work into the night on my novel and post it on a website among thousands of others. The next morning I would be exhausted, and start the cycle all over again. But now I like the idea of being a crazy cat lady writing her energy away on blind devotion better than one of being famous. I don’t need other people to see my work. On some level I don’t even want them too. Then, where’s the fun for the crazy old cat lady me?

  26. Good piece, but be fair to Leonard Cohen… He published his first book of poetry — Let Us Compare Mythologies — when he was only 22. He didn’t even try breaking into music until he had published five books (3 volumes of poetry and 2 novels). Several of them are even very good.

  27. Its like everyone at Rookie is either secretly spying on me or can read my mind from a distance. Right before I logged on, I was feeling disappointed because of an article I’ve recently read about a child prodigy who was exactly my age when he got accepted into a prestigious college. I was so mad, I felt like everything I’ve ever accomplished is completely useless in the eyes of this random kid who may or may not be completely miserable right now. This really helped me realize that I have to do things my way and even if I don’t get discovered like this kid, who knows, I may find the cure for cancer? Thank you, Rookie team

  28. When I saw Susan Lucci in the tags I knew it was going to be a good one, but this really caught me off guard. i really needed this, and I’m 22. Saving this one, got a feeling this is the first one of many reads.

  29. As a Junior in high school, I spend a lot of time worrying about not having a plan and not falling into a niche.
    In middle school I had A’s and B’s and was arguably best artist in the school. Middle school was a small, cozy, village, and high school is a city.(It always feels like I’m getting smaller and at the same time the world is getting bigger and bigger, I guess that’s just what growing up feels like)
    For the past 2 and 1/2 years I’ve been struggling with grades and learned that art just isn’t going to be my niche.

    But I believe that there’s a lot more to life than success; whether you’re rich or poor, young or old, no matter where you go, life consists of the same things.

    I still don’t know what I’m doing after high school, but I’m trying to find some kind of place in the world.

    Congrats to you for finding your place, and thank you for reminding me how much time I have to find mine.

  30. This was a fantastic article and it came at the perfect time.
    I’m 27 and am trying my hand at being a writer while I work in mental health care during the day. I really needed this boost of confidence and reassurance.
    Good job, Emma! And bravo Rookie – I love you.

  31. “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in myself, and in karma, and in having patience, and in working my effing ass off.” Emmmmaaaaaa let’s make t-shirts

  32. I don’t think 30 is old at all to publish a book. I don’t understand why people like the writer feel like they are entitled to success at the age of 18, 22, or by ripe old 30. What Emma Straub does not tell you in this article is that her dad is a famous writer, she knows everyone who’s important in New York, and that is why she had an agent when she was 22. This is condescending to people who don’t have a famous writer dad, and to anyone over 25. I’m disappointed.

    1. I can see your point, totally. Very few of us have the blessing of an artistic parent to encourage and connect us. But I also think it’s a great article.

    2. To be fair, this isn’t a website for people over 25. I’d say Emma made it clear in the article that she was silly to ever believe she should have success at 18/22/30.

      1. Tavi, I disagree that this isn’t a website for people over 25. Many of the articles are strikingly insightful and actually quite relevant to humans, regardless of age.

      2. Tavi, as a woman who is 33 and adores Rookie like crazy, I am so disappointed to hear you say this website is not for women over 25, or of any age! Can’t all ages of woman enjoy this site? Rookie seems to draw inspiration from women of all ages and walks of life, so there is no need for ageism here.

        And I think RickyZicky’s point of nepotism in the industry should not be invalidated, with all due respect to all ladies here.

        1. I’m not trying to speak for Tavi, who can speak for herself much better than anyone, but as an editor here (who is also older than 25!) I have to point out that it says in the right-hand column of every page of this site that “Rookie is a website for teenage girls.” That doesn’t mean we don’t welcome our male and non-teenage readers (myself and my peers being many of them), but the site is not FOR us. It’s OK to enjoy things that weren’t made with you in mind.

          And I don’t think anyone tried to invalidate anything about “nepotism,” though I would point out that most children of successful writers and artists are not successful writers and artists, and that most successful writers and artists are not children of successful writers and artists. To have success in any creative field is such a long shot that even the admitted advantage of having a successful parent to give you advice and make introductions doesn’t really change the odds in a dramatic way, you know what I mean?

  33. I’ve been feeling really down about this kind of thing, and this article really helped me. Inspiring :)

  34. Oh my greatness! THIS!!!
    I’m 20 and I’ve never had a boyfriend. Though I know my “she doesn’t play well with others” disposition would make a meaningful relationship near impossible right now I still wonder “what’s wrong with meeh?” sometimes. I would love to work in advertising in a major way, be a cultural/urban/youth activist type person shaping South African identity and have someone get my mostly nonexistent aesthetic and have them ask me to come to nice places and be a loner there…

    It just reminds me of Sue Heck (The Middle) and the pity she felt for Brick when he got the first thing he ever tried out for the failure Sue has endured is character building stuff. Sue Heck is my hero.

  35. I love this

    I’m 25 now and have been playing in bands since I was 13, this particular band since I was 17, and have had some amazing opportunities but things take time, and things that take time are more worthwhile I think!

  36. This is a website for teen girls that I started reading to see whether I wanted to recommend it to my (now 12-year-old) daughter. But I became interested myself, and every now and then an article is absolutely perfect for my non-teen-girl self.

    And this is one. I planned to be an author from when I was small, and have a B.A. in English with an emphasis on creative writing from a very good university. But shortly after graduation, life intervened, and I am only now (well past 30) seriously working on my first book.

    It started as an idea about eight months ago that just wouldn’t quite let go. I keep writing and writing and it keeps getting more and more possible and in the past week or so it passed some boundary between “pipe dream” and “holy crap I can do this.”

    We’ll see. But wanted to say both thank you for this article, and that if this all works out (everything crossed), it’ll be another example of “no one is timing you.”

  37. I really really needed to read this right now. I feel so stressed out about my future all the time, like I need to choose the RIGHT path NOW and I have no time to think beacuse I’d never get a job beacuse of the unemployment rate of young people and serieosly: who’d hire me? And all my family is nagging me about it and pressuring me to study something prestigious… And all I want to do is draw but I’m so stressed out that I can’t seem to gen any inspiration.

  38. Thank you so, so much for this. This came at just the right time. At 20 years old I feel like I’ve failed myself the past 7 years, because although I’ve been saying “I’m going to publish a zine, I’m going to write a book, I’m going to send this into this magazine and do this, I’m going to travel the world” I haven’t done any of that, and it feels as if I don’t do it RIGHT NOW I’m never going to. Thank you for reminding me to breathe for a moment.

    Also, I think the song Live Fast, Die Old by Frank Turner it totally relevant to this, SO:

  39. Thank you so much for this! I’m kind of all over the place with my ambitions so I don’t really advance or move forward very quickly with them. I often feel like a late bloomer in many aspects, so this helped me feel better about myself and my situation. I can do whatever I want WHENever I want, and people shouldn’t judge me for it, yo!

    Oh, and as a senior in (a very competitive and pretentious, ugh) school, I have a lot of pressure on me to choose THE right career, with my parents pressuring me to the one that will make me more money (pharmacist) than what is more of my passion/what I enjoy (psychology). I wish I could just do a little bit of every single thing that interests me, but sadly that will get me pretty much nowhere in life. My friends are all pretty set on the colleges their going to and/or their majors, and I’m still deciding. Oh well. What will be will be, and it will all play out in the end. :)

  40. I just wanted to add that succes isn’t a goal, it only is a way to bring you closer to your actual goal.
    The goal of a good artist- or anyone else -isn’t to be successful. His goal is to be free to do what he wants. And yes, succes can be (very) practical to obtain that freedom.

  41. I didn’t start writing until I was 52. I’ve been published (not paid, mind you, just published). Computers and word processing got me over my fear of endless rewrites and corrections and made it possible. So hang in there, do what you love everyday or every day that you can. I still have hope that I will be paid for my work before I’m 70.

  42. Every single time I get on Rookie and skim through the articles, there is always something massively relevant to my life at that moment. I sincerely mean this: I am so, so thankful this place exists on the internet. You’re all wonderful and I love you.

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