A 42 year-old accepts the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award
November 12, 2012
Wow. I hardly know what to say. I know a lot of you are probably wondering—wow. This award belongs to all of us. Really.
So, it’s been an uphill battle. I’ve never been one of those guys who can slam a book out every year. This book, my first novel, has taken me over fifteen. When I was in college, I had a professor who told me that he didn’t want to see anything published by me for twenty years because I wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to say. That really stung at the time, but over the last decade, his comment made me feel better about my inability to keep up with my colleagues—a lot of us were classmates, actually, and they’ve got about five books out now—but I would think of Professor Harper and say to myself, Bradley, you’ve got time.
I don’t mean to stand up here so flustered. This morning, or last night actually, I tried to write a speech, but I thought, don’t kid yourself, there’s no way you’re gonna get it, it’s more or less illegal. But then I thought about the blood and tears—I mean literally—and the unraveling of a lot of personal relationships that occurred in this book’s wake, including the one I had with my wife; I thought about the sacrifices and the life I put into this novel, and this morning I woke up with a sick feeling in my stomach, like, maybe I have a chance.
God. Sorry. I thought I’d make it through this without crying. I know a lot of you are probably angry about this. About this exception. But like, if you’d been in my shoes…the years just come so quickly.
Sometimes, I’ll be walking around the city, trying to remember what I’ve come out into the street for, knowing that I have to buy bananas but that there was something else—there’s always something else—and for one reason or another, I’ll forget how old I am. Believe me, it’s as much a disappointment to me as it is to you when I remember that I’m forty-two years old. It snuck up on me. The time.
I mean, I can remember as if it were yesterday when I was twenty-eight and considering getting married, and it seemed more and more like the very thing I needed, like the best idea I’d ever had, so I went out and I got a ring, just like that, from an antique store. It was beautiful. A little beaten. It was a kind of gold coin with the profile of a woman on it, and there were these little green jewels in her hair, like jade. I remember—I imagine we all have these hopeful little moments. And then you’re married. You’re married. No one tells you honestly what it does to your life. So I lost three years there, just coping, and then we had a kid.
Those of you in the audience who have kids and are still writing, who manage to wake up in the morning and put orange juice in a glass—in a fresh glass, not the glass that you’ve sort of designated as the orange glass for the week—those of you who manage to feel real tenderness for the person you share a bed with; who still desire to reach out and touch her; who still kiss with tongue; those who are able to wrangle a toddler into all that clothing—to put his feet in socks without breaking down and wondering how you’re gonna make it; and after all this, without sleeping, and without maybe as much money as you’d like, you get to your desk at some point and you write—well, it was hard to be productive knowing you were out there. So I lost four, let’s say five more years right there, just ‘cause I’m competitive.
Give or take a couple years, that got me up to thirty-eight. Thirty-eight years old. I’m sorry if I’m going too far here, but you have this idea about the direction your life is gonna take, and then one day, you get out of bed and you’ve got your feet on the carpet, and the carpet isn’t clean enough, and you look down, and you’ve got gray pubes. And all of the sudden, you’re back to where you were when you were twenty, with this lost decade in between. And you’re renting an apartment and you’ve bought a plant for the apartment, just a single plant, and you had no idea what type of plant to get. You know nothing at all about the names of plants, and flowers, and you feel like a young boy, but the world does not welcome you into to it as a young person, the world expects things from you. It wants you to grow up.
That’s when I started writing my novel. I lived on noodle packets and flavored coffee and these Samoa Girl Scout cookies I keep frozen in the fridge, and I wrote and I wrote and I felt strange and great about it. I went to a strip club once, just one time. I thought maybe I might become a regular, like it might become my “thing.” I was reading Houellebecq. I don’t….I’m sorry. I know I’ve gone over time.
Despite what I’ve said, I’ve never been happier nor more proud about anything in my life than I am about this prize—except maybe when I finished my novel. Although that feeling didn’t last very long, because then I thought, what next?
So thank you so much for recognizing my work, and allowing me the extra time to get it finished. And thanks to the other recipients. Please guys, don’t say bad things about me when I get down from the podium. I’d be younger, if I could.
Courtney Maum is a humor columnist for Electric Literature, an advice columnist for Tin House, and a book reviewer for Bomb. She just finished a novel written entirely from the first person point of view of the celebrity recording artist, John Mayer, and publishers are interested in it, but they wont publish it without a letter of consent from John Mayer himself so if anyone reading this knows Mr. Wonderland or knows someone who does, can you please help Courtney find him. http://courtneymaum.tumblr.com/ twitter/cmaum