This summer, for the first time in 15 years, I walked through the courtyard of the large brick building in Ann Arbor that was my home during my first years of college. Recently remodeled, the place looked shiny and new and was not the rougher one of my memory, where people smoked, boasted, and sometimes fell in love.
My advisor was a poet and letterpress printer whose wife, the painter Ann Mikolowski, was then dying of cancer. Although it faced the street, his office was directly off the courtyard, and it was through the door on the right side of the archway leading to Willard Street that I often went to meet him, Ken, to talk about my terrible poems.
I was an impatient student, eager to have everything happen yesterday, but Ken pushed back, telling me at one point that nobody does anything in literature before they’re 30. I was maybe 19 at the time. Thirty felt ages away. I protested, hadn’t Rimbaud changed the course of French poetry at my age? He grinned the way he did when, as often happened, I said something naïve or foolish or arrogant.
Naturally, I rejected Ken’s counsel and, to my detriment, spent my 20s obsessed with getting published. I was two months shy of 30 when my first book came out, 36 with my second. Neither changed the course of much, except maybe the life of the person who had written them.
Ken’s words sometimes felt like a hex, however well-intentioned they were. But these days when I encounter a particularly ambitious student, I find myself repeating them. It took me a long time to learn that talent, to paraphrase Rebecca Solnit, matters much less than endurance. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
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