I respond with a mixture of envy and fear every time a writer tells me they were born to write. Every time I read about this famous writer getting their first type-writer at 10, or that famous writer publishing their first story at 14, it rankles.

It’s not all bad, starting late, there is an upside; but we’ll get to the upside later. For now, the envy and the fear.

(click PDF icon, upper right, if you prefer to read black-on-white) 

Ursula. Fox.

Envy, because these others have had this sense of a calling, right from the start; because they were born into a family where the fulfilment of this dream was encouraged (or tolerated); because they’ve had decades to hone their craft; because my calling didn’t turn up until I was 28 – and it sure as hell wasn’t writing.

Fear, as sometimes I worry I’ve left my run too late. Perusing the bios of my favourite authors does not assuage – Kazuo Ishiguro started writing in his teens, publishing his first novel A Pale View of Hills at 28; Ursula Le Guin wrote her first story at 9, was publishing regularly in her 20s, and blew the world away with A Wizard of Earthsea when she was 29. Vonnegut started relatively late, publishing Player Piano at 30. Though by then he’d fought in World War II, been captured during the Battle of the Bulge, interned at Dresden, married, and adopted his sister’s three sons after her death.

And so it goes, with so many of these great writers.

Kurt

Kurt, Ursula, Kazuo, and the rest, the majority of the time they knew their destiny, and so their lives were structured around this purpose, from the student newspaper onwards (my school didn’t have a newspaper as such, though it did have an underground storage room in the gym converted to a bong-smoking & sex-mat area by some of the rougher students).

These born-to-writers have been in the industry, in one incarnation or another, for their whole lives. Everything else is incidental. Every other job is just a curio to include in their author’s bio to make them appear to have worldly, eclectic, unusual lives (I’ve noticed a faint air of desperation around some of these author bios – I’m interesting! I’m special! LOVE ME!).

So sure, I can’t help it, I’m always drawn to that little data point: when did they start?

For me, it was close to forty. Not that I’m old. Not yet. Not quite. More a question, though, of how little room for error remains.

The late-starter can’t afford to make many mistakes. A few: sure, you have to. But a thousand-page opus that takes fifteen years to write and turns out to be unpublishable gibberish? Probably can’t make that one. Not that you shouldn’t attempt the thousand page opus, if that’s your heart’s desire. But maybe publish a couple of short stories or a novella first, hone those skills, just a little. Like a Replicant, you have a shortened life span, authorially speaking. You need to burn twice as bright in half as long.

I’ve also heard it argued that publishers prefer their debut authors to look young. But I’m not going to dwell on that because fuck me if this industry isn’t hard enough already and I don’t want yet another reason to punch the sternum of the next publisher I meet. Enough of a concern, though, that a group of writers started Bloom, to support debut novelists over the age of forty.

Anyway, that’s the downside, the fear, the envy, the limited room for error. Yet, if you’re in this boat, I give you the consolation of four areas where the older writer may have an edge.

The first is: The well.

The ‘well’ of my inspiration is unlikely to ever run dry. More than a decade, in southeast Asia, in my first calling as an aid worker. Finding inspiration for stories is relatively easy, and I don’t fret about this mystical well running dry, as many other authors seem to do.

So blank-page writer’s block is not something I suffer from. I doubt there’d be many professional aid workers who made the switch to science fiction writer; the things I witnessed before this strange turn were and are indelible, and will provide fertile ground for years to come.

Second, starting older provides the new author with emotional cushioning, of the type the Replicant Rachel was given in Blade Runner in order to deal with the world more maturely and rationally. So, in general, writers who bloom late have the accreted shield of life experiences to protect them against the inevitable slings of and arrows of rejection. If you’ve been around for a while – a civil servant, a small business owner, a soldier – it is highly likely you’d get that failure and disappointment are the way of the world.

Any excuse for a young George pic

Third, the base question of financial security is nonetheless an important one. At thirty-eight, when I started writing, I was relatively financially secure. My wife worked, which of course was essential (as was my becoming a stay-at-home father), but we could handle the change.

It’s a sad cliché, but a true one, that you take a vow of poverty when you decide to become an author. No one makes money in this business anymore, and less and less every year. Especially in genre fiction, especially in Australia. So the room and time to write takes a certain about of financial security, which I certainly did not have when I was younger.

One final thing, for those of you worried about starting late, is this: it is entirely possible for writers to peak older. A small number of professions lend themselves better performance at an older age, two of which are writers and judges. They peak late because while most memory functions tend to fade with time, memory of words – language and meaning, tends to increase. So sure you may start forgetting faces, places, former lovers, current lovers, and where are my fucking keys?, but words remain.

So not all fear and envy, by my reckoning, but good lord you better get cracking.

Debut novels of old farts

Hasn’t changed a bit

Charles Bukowski – Post Office (51)

William S Burroughs – Junkie (40)

Raymond Chandler –  The Big Sleep (51)

Richard Adams  – Watership Down (52)

Annie Proulx – Postcards (57)

Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer (44)

Anthony Burgess – first novel at 39, Clockwork Orange at 45.

George Eliot – first at 40, Middlemarch at 52.

Bram Stoker –  first at 43, Dracula at 50

Categories: Fiction, Uncategorized

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  1. […] great article by one of my favorite short form writers T.R. […]

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