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.