“When I started writing, I felt like my life depended on it. And my sanity.”
For Robin Black, published author and esteemed writing teacher, the literary world is a second act of sorts. While she dabbled in writing as a young college student, she spent twenty years raising children and focusing on domestic life — only turning to writing in her 40’s. Her work in the last decade has been fruitful: three books, numerous articles, op-eds and reviews, and faculty positions in two MFA programs.
She graciously sat down with me to talk about her career, her writing process, and what she hopes to do next.
A Mid-Life Shift
Many Late Style masters have lives marked by a significant change in creative direction. Black’s late style path includes this pivot as she shifted her vocational energies from home-life to writing. She explains what catalyzed this pivot, “I think the kick-off event for me was that my father died and, unbeknownst to him or me, he had been a kind of inhibiting force in my life. When he died and I suddenly felt like I could write… [when I looked back] I realized the first thing I wrote was three weeks after he died.”
While Black enjoyed a creative release after the death of her father, her writing career wasn’t always met with cheers from those closest to her. The shift was particularly hard on Black’s children. “I think that kids in general, recognize in creative parents that creativity is in fact in direct competition with them…it draws on the same kind of points of emotional openness and imagination and creativity and indefatigable interest that you can’t put down.” Early on Black wrestled with how to juggle her writing with expectations of motherhood, but she stayed committed to pursuing her craft. And it paid off.
A Transformational Process
Not only have Black’s books garnered literary acclaim, her writing has positively impacted her own mental and emotional state as well. She explains how her work has changed her, “I think it made me emotionally healthier…it helped me figure out what I care about in life, what my values are, what I think is important. I went though some years as a pretty angry person because I was frustrated and mad at myself…[writing] made me less angry because I was actually expressing myself.”
Before she began writing, Black also struggled with agoraphobia and anxiety. “When I started writing, I felt like my life depended on it. And my sanity.” Her anxiety made the process of connecting with the writing community and going back to graduate school that much more difficult. “It was kind of leaving the domestic sphere in this extreme version because I had actually been hiding. I wasn’t just home with my kids, I was home with my kids and scared. When I went off to graduate school at age 41 it was a big, big deal.”
Truth and Growth
As Black tackled her newly expanded world, both inside the written page and outside the home, she learned to embrace her voice as a woman and an artist. “I think for a lot of writers, and maybe especially women writers, it’s a process in beginning to accept the kind of writer you are and be true to that. What I’m realizing now, a few books in, is maybe the next step of the process is not to accept the kind of writer you are, so you’re not just playing into reader’s expectations or going over the same ground.”
Black explains that the challenge is not letting fidelity to ones identity “interfere with the possibility of growth. It’s complicated… you need to have a kind of nimble quality…so that you don’t dig in but you just sort of let things happen and change as they need to.”
This tension is complicated for writers, especially ones who have experienced “success” later in life. Black shares, “Had I started when I was younger, I think I would have felt more entitled to blow up the forms and experiment more. There was something about my particular path… I was home with my kids for 15 or more years before I started writing. I needed to sort of write the domestic stuff for a while before I could get the platform to do [something bigger].”
Black continues, “As a woman, when you hit 40 and then 50, I think it’s pretty universal in this culture anyway, to feel emboldened and to care a lot less what people think of you and just go for it. But in literature it’s difficult … Particularly after you’ve had a couple books out and you’re used to getting reviewed. I hope that my most masterful books are ahead of me but I do worry about the self-consciousness of the career.”
If It Doesn’t Feel Scary….
Black enters this next season of writing and growth in search of a masterpiece. “I feel like there’s some kind of leap I’m about to take, but I don’t quite know what it is…I have a little anxiety about whether I can actually do it. I’m not sure if my nerve and my skill set are going to live up to my ambition, but I want to give it a shot.”
Preparing for what lies ahead means asking herself tough questions: “Just because I’ve been this kind of writer does that mean I will always be this kind of writer? At this age does it make sense to try something bigger, try to be bolder? Can I write a book that I think is capitol ‘G’ Great? I’m 54 years old and that feels like the appropriate ambition now. When I was coming out of being home with my kids, it felt like a miracle that I could get a book published. Now it’s about, Can I go further?”
If Black’s previous work is any indication, she will definitely go further. She continues to teach and write and push herself to take on new, ambitious, projects. “I tell my students, ‘If it doesn’t feel a little bit scary, it’s probably not worth doing.’ But now I have to tell myself the same thing!”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.