by Meganne Fabrega
It was one short paragraph in her obituary that caught my eye: “When she was 16 she made her first contribution to the press. Three years later her first book was published. It was not until 1893 that she obtained her first success with her stories.” I quickly did the math in my head. Thirty-seven. It wasn’t until she was 37 that she was considered successful.
Late bloomer, I thought, and like that I was hooked.
I had come by Amy Ella Blanchard’s obituary—as well as her crumbling scrapbooks, journals, cat photos, and pressed seaweed—because no one else in the family wanted the heavy, dirty cardboard box that had been abandoned in the attic for the last 80 years. Blanchard was the great-great-aunt of my stepmother: a childless woman who built a compound of sorts on an island in Maine with her lifelong companion, the artist and illustrator Ida Waugh, another woman who didn’t reach “success” until she was well into her 40s. Her novels supported a family made up of her widowed sister, her two nieces, and her brother who still suffered from the atrocities he witnessed during the Civil War.
I opened and closed the lid of the box several times before I could bear to pull out a couple of scraps to read. Just the thought of reading through the disorganized papers of a long-forgotten author overwhelmed me and, admittedly, made me uncomfortable. Would all of my writerly hopes, dreams, and accomplishments meet this same bleak fate? I tried to return the box to my stepmother, even buying a shiny new plastic bin to increase its appeal, but Instead of taking it, she gave me Blanchard’s watch: an inexpensive timepiece by any jeweler’s standard, but a priceless gift from a woman who loved me more than I could ever appreciate as a child. The box stayed put in the corner of my living room marking its territory, refusing to budge.
A child of the Civil War, Blanchard had no use for idleness. She left her home in Baltimore at 15 to make her way in the world as a governess, a teacher, and a perpetual student of drawing and painting. Like many others in her time, including her father, Blanchard wrote poetry and shared many of her poems with her cousin—and for a time, paramour—George. In the late 1880s Blanchard left George behind, admonishing herself in her journal to “remember Lot’s wife”, and cast her lot as the unmarried woman artist, joining forces and households with Waugh.
But I didn’t want to write Blanchard’s story. I needed to spend my time on my novel, my short stories, my “real” work. But this story, her story, kept tapping at my window like a neglected lover. What about me? it asked, don’t I matter?
When Blanchard decided to fully commit to and “pursue her literary labors” she was 34. She had written verses for Waugh’s picture books some years earlier and decided to capitalize on the name recognition she had developed with Waugh. Once she started she was unstoppable, writing over 70 books for girls from age six to 18, some illustrated by Waugh, who had by then come into her own version of success. Blanchard would often note in her journal when she’d finish a book, and the very next day would start another. Her inspiration was not merely creative; she was unmarried and had bills to pay, so she needed that income to survive. She filled in the time between books with short stories, poems, and articles for a variety of magazines.
I’d grown up with the ghost of Blanchard in the corners of the family’s summer cottage and now she seemed to have followed me off island. As I dug deeper into the box of unpublished manuscripts and yellowed clippings of reviews of her books, I desperately hoped that this wouldn’t turn out to be a cautionary tale.
All I ever thought I would be was a writer. Since I was a child I was never without a book, I filled my journals religiously with tales that only adolescents could find plausible, and there wasn’t a creative writing assignment that didn’t earn me an “A.” In the days before email I sent hundreds of letters to friends, some of them still lingering at the bottoms of their own cardboard boxes, I’m sure.
I studied literature at my liberal arts college, as my skin was too thin for the punctured barbs of the pre-hipsters that frequented the creative writing courses. After college I fancied myself a writer, but reading about writing was much easier than putting pen to paper. I took a short story class with an embittered novelist who freely admitted he was just there for the money. He gave us each a pencil, bright blue, with the saying STOP DOING DONUTS embossed on one side in gold ink. I took it to mean stop spinning your wheels, stop going in circles, stop making the same mistakes over and over and over.
As I sifted through Blanchard’s letters I wondered why she started writing her novels later in life. She had won awards for her paintings, and her children’s books with Waugh sold quite well. Did she feel the need to commit to one art over another? Maybe not, as she noted in her scrapbook that she “illustrated my first book!” in 1897 when she was 41. Even her novels were all over the map: historical fiction, Camp Fire girl books, middling romances, a play for adults, and series after series featuring little maids, college girls, and four cousins who traveled around the world. There wasn’t a subject she didn’t tackle. She slid her personal beliefs in between the pages, disparaging corsets and encouraging independence for girls.
As for me, I snuck up on writing again after my daughter was born: tentatively dipping a toe in the waters, writing for free, then for pay, then with assignments and intentions that bolstered my courage. It was my side hustle, nothing that would pay the mortgage (or, let’s face it, the grocery bill). I had a hard time respecting my creative work so, of course, my family didn’t either. Even though I would squawk about having a deadline or not having enough time to work, I would step away from the computer to make fresh brownies for dessert or wipe down the counters before my husband came home, grumbling the entire time about my lot. It was hard to admit, most of all to myself, that caretaking was easier than writing, cleaning easier than creating.
Because really, when I had a family to take care of, a job to go to, a dog that needed to be walked, who was I to even think of putting my work first? Did what I write actually matter?
Did I matter?
It’s been ten years since I started writing, and while I can find my name under a multitude of bylines for book reviews, travel pieces and essays there is still a hunger for more. A novel sits silently in its drawer, short stories layered like mille-feuille in electronic submission piles. I didn’t want to take on a big dirty box that would get shuffled from one end of my office to the other. I was scared. I was scared because it would take too long.
I’d spent enough time doing donuts in the 22 years since I’d been handed that goddamn pencil (that I finally broke in half and threw away during a particularly difficult creative period). I needed to be faster, to prove something to myself and to my family: that writing is not just a hobby or a side hustle for me, it is me.
In Claire Messud’s brilliant novel The Woman Upstairs, the 37-year-old protagonist, Nora Eldridge, riffs off of a lyric of Marianne Faithfull’s song “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” that goes “At the age of 37, she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair” Nora goes on to say that “Marianne is right that the age of thirty-seven . . . is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all that your life has a shape and a horizon.”
37: the age Blanchard was when she was considered successful, the age I was when I decided that my own writing was worth something.
My husband, an artist himself, was skeptical when he saw me with the box. He knew that my attraction to old objects ran deep; I spent enough time in thrift stores and flea markets to consider them second homes. I could fuss around with this box for years. “Are you sure you’re going to do something with all that?” he asked. I sat surrounded by brittle newspaper clippings and cracked spines.
“There’s something in here,” I replied. “I know it.” The fact is that I felt guilty. Turning my back on Blanchard felt as if I was turning my back on myself.
Blanchard ran hard and fast to keep up with the world: she and Waugh were constantly on the move. I’ve had to get used to the slower pace of a big project alongside of my other work, thinking in terms of years, not weeks; baby steps, not gazelle leaps. When I was 20 I pictured myself with a book or two under my belt by the time I was 30, but now that I’m in my 40s I appreciate the time I’ve had to wrap myself in a confidence that at 20 would have been baseless.
She is pushing me now, looking over my shoulder. I’ve spent the last few years cataloguing her papers, following the trail of breadcrumbs that she and Waugh left behind. She helped me earn my first creative fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and I am hard at work on the narrative of their lives. They’ve shown me that it is the forgotten ones that may have the most to say; especially where women’s history is concerned.
In one of her author profiles Blanchard proclaimed that “The morning hours from nine to one are those I find most impelling” for writing. I’ve adopted her schedule, winding her watch every morning, giving those working hours their due. Like Blanchard, I keep other artists close, trading insecurities and encouragements like baseball cards. Like Blanchard, I work and play with equal enthusiasm and I don’t see the clock as running out, but as an opportunity every day to commit to a life, and work, that matters.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and reviews books regularly for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She was recently awarded a Jay and Deborah Last Fellowship in American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society in order to research the lives of Amy E. Blanchard and Ida Waugh, and is currently working on a book about the pair. Her home online is at www.megannefabrega.com where you can find links to published work, sporadic blog posts, and more information about Blanchard and Waugh.