I remember well those years when I wondered whether anyone would ever publish my work. I was forty-one when my first book came out, a mere whippersnapper compared to Delana Jensen Close of Dublin, Ohio, who, at the age of 95 celebrates the launch of her debut novel, The Rock House.
It would be easy for me to dismiss this story—the book is a romance novel that Close self-published. The gatekeepers, of whom I suppose I’m one since from time to time I guest-edit issues of literary journals, serve as outside reviewers for university presses considering manuscripts for publication, and serve on various committees in my department that decides such things as who gets into our undergraduate creative writing concentration, would expect me to turn up my nose at a self-published genre-novel, but I can’t quite manage it. I still remember all too clearly how much I ached to see my words in print, and how much I still ache for that, truth be told. I have a world of admiration, then, for Close, who began working on this novel in 1955. I admire her because, as she says, “It had to come out.” She ignored the gatekeepers. She made her own gate. Then she kicked it down, and stepped through.
I’m thinking of her today because I’m remembering all the times I threatened to quit—I imagine all writers could tell a similar story—but something wouldn’t let me. Some streak of stubborn, some drive to tell the stories I had to tell, some inability to give up, some insistence on one day walking through that gate. I’m also thinking of all the people I’ve disappointed over the years with my own refusal to open that gate. I want to say to them, the gatekeepers aren’t always right. They make the wrong decisions all the time, and even if they make the right decision when they say no, it doesn’t mean that the next time they won’t say yes. Think about what you love to do—this process of moving words about on the page—and ask yourself whether you’d do it even if there were no such thing as publication. Would you write if there were no books, no chance at all that anyone would ever read what you wrote? Would you still do the work? That’s all that matters. Everything else will take care of itself in time, and if you’re 95, and you feel the hour getting late, you can do what Delana Close chooses to do. You can write. You see, she has two other novels underway. “There’s a lot to write about,” she says.
And so there is, gatekeepers and time be damned. Do what you love. Find your way. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was forty when she published the first installment of her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the newspaper, The National Era, said this: “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Let me close by saying this one more time. Delana Jensen Close began writing her first novel in 1955. It took her 63 years to finish it and to publish it. No matter it’s a genre book. No matter she had to self-publish it. She saw it through to the end even though she sometimes left it for years and years. “I always had it in my head,” she says. She found a way. Let that be our lesson and our encouragement as we keep doing the good work.