Five Authors Who Prove It's Never Too Late To Start Writing
Some women are badgered mercilessly by biological clocks that tick louder and louder as infertility approaches. "Have a baby," the clock tells them. "Just look how cute that baby is! You need a baby. Now! While you still can." That part of me doesn't exist, but in its place is some sort of literary clock, every bit as annoying in its insistence and ubiquity. "Write the book," it says. "Look at that store full of books. One of those should be yours."
Around my birthday, it turns rather mean spirited. "Another year with no book," it mocks. "If you were going to be a successful author, it would've happened by now. You should probably find some other career path." This literary clock knows how to push my buttons, reminding me that Jonathan Safran Foer wrote Everything Is Illuminated when he was 19. Stephen King published Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining before his thirtieth birthday. Dave Eggers was a Pulitzer Prize nominee by the age of 30. Even Elizabeth Wurtzel pulled herself together long enough to write a best-seller by 26.
But when I can get my internal literary clock to hush long enough for me to think logically, I realize that turning 30 without a novel under your belt doesn't mean you'll never see your name on the best-seller list. Neither does turning 40, or 50, or 60, or 70 for that matter. Here's what we need to remember: We are writers. Not Olympic gymnasts. Not runway models. Not strippers. We don't need to cash out at age 20. We've got plenty of time to master our craft, ditch some manuscripts that don't work, get rejected, and start again. We've even got time to build another career that's altogether unrelated to writing, decide that it's not right for us, change direction, and become successful in publishing. As long as we can move our fingers on the keys, we still stand a chance at making our authorial dreams come true. So if you've been questioning whether you've missed the literary boat, stop worrying and start writing. Here are five late-blooming authors to inspire you...
"We learn from failure, not from success." —Bram Stoker in Dracula
Before writing: Even poor Bram's Wikipedia page comes right out of the gate with the fact that, during his lifetime, he was better known for being an actor's personal assistant and manager of London's Lyceum Theatre than a writer, which just goes to show that even if you pen a genre-defining classic, your stint as an Applebee's bartender is still going on your Wikipedia page. The internet misses nothing.
Prior to his PA and theater management days, the author of Dracula got a degree in math, worked in civil service at Dublin Castle for a decade, and wrote some unpaid reviews of plays. Through those reviews, he got hooked up as the assistant to actor Henry Irving, who was, from what I gather, the Tom Cruise of his day—exceptionally famous but batshit crazy. When Stoker asked Irving to give his opinion of Dracula, Irving told him it was "dreadful" and flatly refused to play in the theatrical adaptation.
Turning point: Stoker had dabbled in writing for years—theater reviews, a number of short stories in his late twenties and early thirties, and things like a guide to the duties of clerks of petty sessions in Ireland—and some of it had been published in magazines, but he didn't devote himself to longer works until 1890 when, at the age of 43, he published The Snake's Pass. Heard of it? Probably not. That's because it would be another seven years before Stoker wrote Dracula, the book that became his legacy. The author was 50. He hit a prolific streak at the end of his life, churning out seven more novels before he passed away in 1912 at the age of 64.
"There is no great loss without some small gain.” ― Laura Ingalls Wilder
Before writing: As a child, Wilder lived in a little house on the prairie. Go figure. Her father moved Laura and her four siblings around the Midwest until she settled into a teaching position in a one-room South Dakotan school house at the age of 16. She went on to help her husband through diphtheria, lose a child, watch her home burn down, get smacked around by drought-induced crop failures and other prairie challenges, and struggle to make her family's settlement profitable. She moved around some more, worked as a seamstress, served meals to railroad workers, became an authority on poultry farming—pretty much conquered everything except for writing.
Turning point: Enduring the kind of hardships that Wilder endured without telling those stories to anyone outside the family would've been downright criminal. After all, if David Hasselhoff and Paris Hilton can sell their stories, certainly the harrowing tales of a family struggling to survive frontier life were worthy of some ink. Fortunately, Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a writer who was able to inspire (and probably assist) her mother in writing down the dramatic stories of her youth, first in a column in the Missouri Ruralist, then in the elder Wilder's famous Little House series. Wilder published her first book, Little House In The Book Woods, at the age of 64. The eight-book series has since been translated into forty languages.
"When you stop growing, you start dying." — William S. Burroughs in Junky
Before writing: Before becoming a voice of the Beat Generation and acclaimed author of eighteen novels and novellas, including Naked Lunch, Burroughs lived a life so absurd, it sounds fictional. He got an English degree from Harvard, and that's the last standard step he took on the path to writerdom. His wealthy parents bankrolled him, which left him with plenty of time to develop a wicked drug habit, pick up boys in Austrian steam baths, drop out of med school, and get arrested several times. He married a Jewish woman in Croatia to help her get to the U.S. He severed the little finger of his left hand at the last knuckle to impress a dude he was crushing on. He enlisted in the army but was discharged because being infantry rather than an officer made him too depressed to carry on. He was an exterminator and waiter in Chicago.
And that was before he became BFFs with fellow Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in NYC. Burroughs and Kerouac were too busy getting fucked up on morphine to bother reporting a murder they knew about, which landed them in a touch of legal trouble. Then Burroughs forged a narcotics prescription, which landed him in more legal trouble. He married Joan Vollmer and had a child with her. They fled to Mexico after police discovered letters about pot that he had written to Allen Ginsberg. South of the border, Burroughs studied Spanish and "Mexican picture writing" (aka How To Draw Chihuahuas In Sombreros 101) for a while before drunkenly shooting his wife dead in an ill-advised game of William Tell. For the record, all games of William Tell are ill-advised. He was charged with manslaughter, but thanks to a combination of bribery and lies, was able to get his sentence suspended. He drifted through South America, like a drug-addled Ponce de Leon, for a few months in search of a drug that supposedly gave its users telepathy.
Turning point: Sadly, it took shooting his wife in the head to get Burroughs focused on writing. He said, "I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing." He began writing Queer while he awaited trial and, once off the hook, moved to Morocco and started writing like mad. He was 39 when he published his first book, Junky, and 45 when Naked Lunch saw its controversial release into the world.
"Keep scribbling! Something will happen." — Frank McCourt
Before writing: When the author of Angela's Ashes was kicked out of school at the age of 13, he turned to theft and odd jobs to help support his single-parent family in the Irish slums. We're guessing nobody saw that kid swiping bread from the local shop as the future Pulitzer Prize winner he was to become. He headed back to the States, where he had been born, when he was 19 and got a job at a New York hotel until he was drafted for the Korean War. McCourt was shipped over to Bavaria to train dogs. Despite his lack of formal education, McCourt was able to use his G.I. Bill and love of words to get into New York University. He was, presumably, one seriously smooth talker to make that happen. He earned a bachelor's and eventually a master's degree then spent most of his life as a teacher.
Turning point: McCourt did not start writing until he'd retired from teaching and did not have his first book, Angela's Ashes, published until 1996. He was 66 years old. Were it not for his second wife—Ellen Frey, who told him he should write down his stories rather than just sharing them down at the pub—McCourt might never have put pen to paper at all. Just in case you never meet your Ellen Frey, let me be the one to say this: Those stories you're telling everybody? Write them down. My job here is done. He went on to win the Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, and L.A. Times Book Award. Angela's Ashes was made into a movie and the author wrote two more memoirs.
"My ambition is handicapped by laziness." — Charles Bukowski in Factotum
Before writing: You could assume by reading prolific poet, novelist, and short-story writer Charles Bukowski's work that he didn't have a picture perfect Brady Bunch upbringing. And you'd be right. Born in Germany and raised in the U.S., Bukowski was regularly beaten by his father, mocked by boys for his accent and clothes, and rejected by girls because of his severe acne. The combination was sure to lead to either a prom involving pig's blood and fire, or a ten-year bender. It was the latter. He moved to New York to become a writer and had two stories published in his mid-twenties then hit on a streak of rejections that left him disillusioned with the whole process. Cue ten-year drinking binge. He worked at a pickle factory for a while, married a woman he'd never met, and nearly died from a bleeding ulcer. He eventually settled into a routine and worked at a post office for more than a decade.
Turning point: While working at the post office, Bukowski was able to get some poetry and shorter works published. When small indie publisher Black Sparrow Press offered him a deal in 1969, he quit his day job to devote himself to writing at age 49, saying, "I have one of two choices-—stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." He did not, in fact, starve. He had finished his first novel, Post Office, within four weeks of leaving the post office and just kept going from there, eventually publishing thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels.
Photo courtesy of the Estate of Charles Bukowski
The New Yorker has a great piece on late bloomers that ponders the difference between taking a while to discover that you have a natural talent and taking a while to develop a talent. It's a pretty inspiring read.
Do any of you guys share my (admittedly unhealthy) habit of comparing yourself to the accomplishments of writers younger than yourself? Do you feel like you should've started writing earlier? Comment away so I don't feel neurotic by myself about this.
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