Offbeat Lessons From Three Late-Blooming Writers

by Guest Contributor

Smiling woman holding sunflowers outside

Today’s post is written by Debra Eve, a finalist in The First Ever Write It Sideways Blogging Contest. Thanks, Debra!

Remember the uproar last summer when The New Yorker published their 20 Under 40 list of young fiction writers?

Gawker retorted with How To Complain About The New Yorker’s 20 Favorite Writers Under 40. They advised:

DON’T claim that you could come up with a better group of writers.

DO act skeptical about the concept of “lists.

Sample: “So these are, what, the best writers under 40? Huh.”

But plenty of writers publish later in life, as The Huffington Post‘s more thoughtful 41 Over 40 attests. Thank goodness, since I embarked on my writing career at age 50!

My favorite late-blooming storytellers are Bram Stoker, P.D. James and David Seidler. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from them:

Bram Stoker (1847-1912)

“We learn from failure, not from success!”  –Dracula, Chapter 10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 and has never been out of print. So what would Stoker know about failure?

Stoker didn’t publish Dracula until he was 50.

In his 20s, he couldn’t settle on a career. He worked in civil service, attended graduate school in mathematics, and wrote theater reviews. He penned a gushing piece about Henry Irving (Victorian England’s most famous actor) and the two became friends. Stoker spent the next 20 years as Irving’s personal assistant.

Irving was a notorious egotist whom Stoker idolized but found insufferable. Perhaps to assert his own identity, Stoker started writing. He published a few novels in his 40s, but they flopped – until Dracula.

But when Stoker asked Irving what he thought of the book, his employer replied, “Dreadful!” He refused to star in a theatrical adaptation. Some of Stoker’s biographers think his soul-sucking boss inspired the world’s most famous vampire.

Irving died in the early 1900s, unaware he’d turned down the role of the century. Stoker wrote prolifically until age 65, completing seven more novels and two short story collections.

Bram Stoker reminds me to learn from my flops and ignore dramatic naysayers.

P.D. James (b. 1920)

“Nothing that ever happens to a novelist is ever wasted.”

Dame Phyllis Dorothy James got the idea for her latest whodunit, The Private Patient, while recuperating from a broken hip at age 87. In fact, many of P.D. James’ stories take tidbits from her life. She spent over 20 years in civil service, running a psychiatric clinic for the NHS and managing the Home’s Office criminal law office – a perfect background for writing crime fiction.

Like many late-blooming writers, James needed her day job in order to support her family. Her husband came home from World War II with PTSD and never worked again. She says:

It was sometime in the mid 1950s when I suddenly realised that there was never going to be a convenient moment to write the first book. You become a writer by writing. I had to make it happen.

James published her first novel at 42 and retired from the Home Office at 60. The Private Patient marks the fourteenth case for her ageless detective, Adam Dalgliesh. She also wrote Children of Men, a dystopian story adapted to the big screen with Clive Owen.

P.D James reminds me to milk my day job for all its worth (in stories and in benefits)!

David Seidler (b. 1937)

“Stories about people who’ve had the courage to change their seemingly preordained destinies. That’s what interests me.”

David Seidler developed a stutter as a toddler under harrowing circumstances. He survived the London blitz and saw the Germans bomb another ship during his family’s escape across the Atlantic. But he remembered the radio broadcasts of King George VI, a fellow stutterer who overcame his speech impediment to lead England through war.

Seidler vowed to tell the king’s story. It took him almost 50 years.

Seidler eventually outgrew his stutter, married and embarked on a string of careers. He wrote copy for an advertising agency, dubbing scripts for the Godzilla movies and propaganda for Fiji’s independence movement.

His big break came at 40 when his former classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, recruited him to write Tucker. But the movie bombed at the box office and Seidler became a Hollywood hack. “In retrospect,” he says, “I made not brilliant career choices.”

Yet he never lost his admiration for George VI – affectionately known as “Bertie.” It wasn’t until Seidler got cancer that he thought, “Well, David, if you’re not going to tell Bertie’s story now, when exactly do you intend to tell it?”

Seidler beat his cancer and finished his script, The King’s Speech. By following his obsession to tell a stuttering king’s story, Seidler became the oldest Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay at age 74.

David Seidler reminds me that I can change my destiny by following my weird!

Persevere and Follow Your Weird

You might not share my hope to make the inevitable “50 Over 50” list, but these lessons apply to any writer: Learn from your flops, ignore dramatic naysayers and milk that life experience.

But blooming later might offer another dimension. Stoker, James and Seidler have brought vampires, murderers and an almost-forgotten king to life. Joseph Campbell said “follow your bliss.” But at some point, Bruce Sterling’s advice to “follow your weird” might be the ticket. It’ll certainly keep the journey exciting, no matter how long it takes!

Debra Eve is a proud late-blooming writer who has variously been an archaeologist, martial artist and software trainer. She currently uses the pen name Elle B at LaterBloomer.com, where she profiles other folks who’ve followed their creative passions later in life. You can find her on Twitter at @Later_Bloomer.

 

{ 43 comments }

Stamperdad April 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for this inspiring article. I too am an older writer. Been writing in some form or another for most of my life, but not really seriously. Several years ago realizing I was not far from retirement I took it up seriously. Now at 61 I am published fairly regularly in magazines and journals. Now working on a novel. My message – it’s never too late to do the things you really want to do.

Steve

Elle B April 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm

That is so exciting, Stamperdad! I’m exactly in the same boat. Retirement is still about 12 year away, but if not now, when? And how better to spend those years? Thanks for the confirmation.

Christi Craig April 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Debra,

I love that quote from P.D. James and the lessons from all three authors. I’d say I’m a late bloomer (embarking on my dream at 40 years old *cough* did I just admit that?…). But, I don’t think I was ready to be a writer at 20.

And, why not strive for the 50 over 50 list? I love it!

Elle B April 14, 2011 at 7:10 pm

I agree, Christi. I know one of my other favorite writers, Mary Shelley, penned Frankenstein at 18, but life experience has inspired me to write. And 40 is pretty young these days! We have a whole life ahead. Thanks for stopping by! –Debra

Susan Bearman April 25, 2011 at 5:29 am

Me, either, Christi. It’s taken me a while to find my voice.

florence fois April 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Debra, it’s good to know that a fellow “boomer” is also a finalist … Love, Love, Love this post and I will become a regular visitor to your blog. LateBloomer.com …

For your reading enjoyment, I am sending you a two posts about myself and my “vintage.”

Thanks so much for a great post :)

Read me: http://ramblingsfromtheleft.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/crabby-cranks/

… and: http://ramblingsfromtheleft.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/baby-boomers/

Have a great one …

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 2:44 am

I was looking for you last night, Florence! Just followed you on Twitter. Love those articles and the retro graphics.

Eugenia West has a sexy age 50 former opera singer starring in her fabulous mystery series, so it’s happening! The demographic is definitely skewed in our favor. It’s only a matter of time :)

PatriciaW April 14, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I’ve been amazed to learn the ages of many of my favorite authors. Even though they may write contemporary romances with young protagonists, many are over 40 and upwards of 50 or 60. Since I too am getting started late, at least in terms of publication, I love it. Thanks for letting us know the club is bigger than it seems.

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 2:47 am

It certainly is! I constantly return to that HuffPost article “41 Over 40″ for inspiration. Thanks for stopping by, Patricia! –Debra

Linda Poitevin April 14, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Hear, hear! (From another late bloomer) :)

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 2:50 am

Thanks, Linda. Sometimes I wish I’d started early, but it’s so much fun starting now!

JT Webster April 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm

As a late bloomer myself – started writing at 47 – your post was inspiring. I’ll remember your words when I have a “It’s too late for me to have a writing career” day.

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 2:58 am

Thanks, JT! Love your tag line “Historical Tales of Love and Adventure” — right up my alley! Just fixing your link for the other readers: http://jtwebsterbooks.blogspot.com/

Looking forward to spending more time on your site! –Debra

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm

JT, love your tagline “Historical Tales of Love and Adventure.” Just fixing your link for other readers: http://jtwebsterbooks.blogspot.com/

“It’s never too late” is no longer a cliche, it’s the simple truth!

Elle B April 16, 2011 at 12:36 am

JT, thought I replied to your earlier. Love your site. “It’s never too late” is no longer a cliche, it’s a truism! –Debra

Ashley Prince April 15, 2011 at 1:15 am

Although I am not late bloomer, I can definitely appreciate what your article has to say. Especially the bit about learning from your failures. I tend to appreciate things more when I’ve gotten them wrong a couple of times, and then have it create a bigger impact once I’ve fixed said problems.

Thanks for the article. :)

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 7:10 pm

So true! Also, it’s amazing how many famous writers have been rejected umpteen times and not very nicely. If any of them had given up, we’d be missing some of our most-loved masterpieces. Check out this article: http://exm.nr/gtAvL1

Elle B April 16, 2011 at 12:34 am

Hi Ashley, I replied to you earlier, but it got lost. It’s hard to learn from flops (I prefer that word to failures!), but sometimes it’s the best way, as you’ve noted. Thanks for stopping by! –Debra

Suzannah April 16, 2011 at 2:09 am

Hey Debra, sorry about your comments not showing up right away. When comments have links in them, they get put through a spam filter and I have to moderate them manually. They’ll turn up eventually! Thanks :)

Elle B April 16, 2011 at 2:55 am

Ah, that explains it. Thought I was going nuts!

Deb Mallett April 15, 2011 at 4:34 am

Lovely article, Debra – three inspiring and important lessons. I had to look up that Bruce Sterling quote, “Follow your weird.” And right after those words in his speech he said, “Forget trying to pass for normal.” Maybe that’s the key. After a long life of so-called normalcy, it’s a relief to give up the pretense. It breathes energy into a tired life and, as you say, keeps the journey exciting. Sounds just right for blooming late!

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Love Sterling. I agree about normalcy. I’ve become more myself as I grow older, because I don’t try to conform anymore. Thanks for stopping by, Deb!

Suzannah April 15, 2011 at 5:26 am

You know what I loved about this post? I believe from experience that writing is one of the few things that improves the older we get. It’s not like modelling, where you’re washed-up by the time you’re 25.

Sure, at 18-years-old, I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I had absolutely no life experience. Now that I’m nearly 31, I feel like I’m just on the verge of a major breakthrough with my writing. And even though I don’t feel ‘young’ exactly, I know that by publication standards, I am!

Who knows, maybe my first novel won’t be published until I’m 40 or 50, but at least I’ll have plenty of practice by then!

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

I’m sure you’re on the verge of a major breakthrough, Suzannah! I used to think writing was only about inspiration, but I know it’s more about practice and learning from more experienced writers. And I learned so much by reviewing the editing tips you published for the contest. Thanks for this great experience!

Michael P. Dunn April 15, 2011 at 2:54 pm

It’s good to be reminded that there really is no age limit on getting published. I remember some years ago, in the local mall, a bookstore was advertising a signing by a first time author. I don’t remember the author’s name or the title of her book. What I do remember is that the ad mentioned she was 67 years old.

While I’ve been writing for quite a while, it’s only within the last few years that I’ve become serious about getting published. So at age 47, I’ve had four stories published and I’m hard at work on a novel and two other stories.

Have to remember Sterling’s “follow your weird”.

Elle B April 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Congrats, Michael! I suspect the over-40 pub club is much bigger than we realize.

Besides being a great sci fi writer, Sterling is an inspiring “out of the box” thinker. I return to him again and again. –Debra

Kathy April 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Thank you! “Late-Blooming Writer” is my new bio catchphrase!

Elle B April 17, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Don’t forget the adjective I use: “Proud late-blooming writer”!

Rebecca Burgener April 17, 2011 at 1:02 am

At 27, I don’t want to be a late-blooming writer, but I definitely see my writing becoming deeper and more meaningful as the years go by.

Elle B April 17, 2011 at 7:56 pm

So true, Rebecca. As Suzannah pointed out, writing is not a field like modeling where you’re washed-up by age 25, it’s one where we can keep improving for as long as we’re around. That’s true of very few areas!

Eporter70 April 17, 2011 at 5:35 am

Like others here, I, too, thank you for this. I’m 49 and was just laid off from my day job of 26 years, a job I took to help feed the family and pay the bills until the time came for me to write. The time is here; you’ve shown it’s never too late.

Thanks!

Elle B April 17, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Even if I got a book deal tomorrow, I’d keep writing my late bloomer stories just for feedback like this. Thank you. It’s wonderful you’re seeing a potential set back as a way forward. Hope you got a nice severance package to start your writing journey!

Helen April 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

This is great… Very upbeat and encouraging! I started writing at 45 and almost didn’t because it felt so late. I’ve always been encouraged by the story of MFK Fisher who took a 12-year hiatus from writing when she went back home to care for her aging father, not knowing she’d ever write again.

Elle B April 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I didn’t know that about Fisher. Interesting woman. Thank goodness you didn’t listen to that insidious little voice, Helen!

Helen April 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Well…sometimes I do. This is why I started my new blog, WritingNurture. !!!

Elle B April 23, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Great blog…you’ve got the right tagline!

Erika Liodice April 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Fabulous insights, Debra! I think it’s important to celebrate everyone who finds the courage follow their “weird”…no matter what their age. Good for you for following yours!

Elle B April 20, 2011 at 12:05 am

So true. Thanks, Erika!

Susan Bearman April 25, 2011 at 5:28 am

Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 87 — more inspiration for us late bloomers.

Elle B April 26, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Love her! Just checked…she published her first book in 1950, which means she wrote consistently for 47 years before receiving that honor! Thanks, Susan.

Bandsfitz2002 May 11, 2011 at 8:45 pm

yeh Debbie!!!!!! Love, Brat

Elle B May 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Thanks, dearest Brat! 

CJ McKinney March 30, 2012 at 2:30 am

This is such a great blog and I love the name –Write it Sideways. I was an “early bloomer” in the world of writing, first published at 16! But I’ve taught writing in the community for quite a long time and so many of my students are those later bloomers who’ve bought into the myth of early success or none at all. They sit in class, mostly midlife women, so tentative about their dreams, as if waiting for permission to put those dreams on paper. These posts are an inspiration for them all. I once had a student who was 90. She wanted to write “a little something” about her life for her grandchildren to read. She ended up with enough material for a novel and with the encouragement of the class started to write it. Bravo to everyone who is challenging the myth that everything important happens in the first half of life!

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