Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Bitter truth: Being a late bloomer means you’re in a fight against time.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 12•13

        Last month I met with a writer who is about my age. We were chatting about a novel she was working on and the conversation turned to aging. We fall into the over fifty category much as this shocks me to write. She is working on a novel and is involved in  a critique group with other members who are a few decades younger than her. She feels the pressure of aging slamming against the need to get published. Trouble is, the other writers in her group don’t. She almost wants to shake them, explain that time whips by so fast next thing you know another season will pass. And then another.

When you’re young, often ignorance can be salvation, especially when it’s married to hope. When you’re young there is plenty of time to get published, become famous, or just get noticed. But then there comes a gloomy day when you just need to admit that not only are your thighs and ass  getting a bit doughy with age, so is your reputation. When consolations are no longer found in visions of the future or your critique groups’ praises. Especially when you hear about the latest wunderkind landing a mega book deal. Especially when you’ve sacrificed a lot on the altar of the writing gods.

It seems like the literary world is forever fawning over hip young writers. It makes sense, of course — there’s something extra impressive about pulling off a cool literary feat when you’re twenty-four. And it’s true that agents are more prone to sign them because they can establish a partnership and make money together for the long haul.

Now, I’m not knocking young writers. Sometimes when I read books such as Like Water for Elephants I wonder how the 20-something Sarah Gruen could possibly know so much about the humiliations and loneliness of aging. Could possibly inhabit an elderly character’s sensibilities. But she did and her insights are remarkable.

Yet maturity counts. A lot. That said, if you’re over 40, don’t waste another moment. Write as if the graveyard is looming. To help makes this bitter truth go down easier discover or reread authors who made it after their 30s: Charles Bukowski, Donald Ray Pollack, Henry Miller to name a few. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was published when he was 49 and had failed at several professions. Then here are other late bloomers you might want to rub elbows with.

Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of Lady’s of the Club which was published when was 88. It took her 50 years to write—perhaps a record. I’ve talked to the publisher who discovered her–in a nursing home and his delight over this has never diminished.
Laura Engells Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie was her first novel and was published when she was 64.
         Frank McCourt’s wonderful memoir Angela’s Ashes was published when he was 66 after     retiring from teaching. He kept notebooks for years, jotting down memories, neighbor’s names and street corners. It also won the Pulitzer for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was turned into a movie in 1999. In the process, Angela’s Ashes propelled its author from obscurity to fame and fortune.

You might want to check out Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on Late Bloomers in The New Yorker. In it he says: “We’d like to think that steadfastness (has) nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.” – From the New Yorker’s “Late Bloomers” by Malcolm Gladwell.
You might also want to visit Bloom a website dedicated to the discussion of writers who published their first major work at age 40 or later.

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  1. When I was much younger I remember moaning about the years passing too quickly. What I didn’t know about was the phenomenon of older people experiencing the passage of time much more quickly than younger people — the perception that time is slipping away with increasing speed. Yes, we all have 24 hours in every day, but ten years at age 65 seem to pass so much faster than they did at age 25 or 45 — at times it’s scary. The notion that I’d have more time to complete a writing project after retirement, or the next year, or even the next month was misleading… it didn’t happen. So I’m with you when it comes to suggesting that people of any age “write as if the graveyard is looming.” I’m much more inclined to make the most of every day now than I was twenty years ago!

  2. Lisa Romeo says:

    Oh, here’s hoping that Gladwell is right !! Meanwhile, as a fellow member of the *over 50* club, I feel the sentiment in my bones — racing against the clock, years, jowls. My son once tore out a cartoon from the New Yorker and put it on my desk. It shows a gravestone and an epitaph that went something like this: “Here lies Charlie. He never got around to writing that novel.”

  3. Jennifer says:

    What to do with the kids? The bills? The obligations scratching at my front door? I know those who forgo the laundry. On my next birthday, number 46, someone give me a time machine backward.

  4. The only birthday that really bugged me was my 17th. I’d had it in mind that a true prodigy would have bloomed by 16. I thought a lot of myself then, I guess. I had all kinds of time to get over that, and didn’t start writing until I was 54. I’m not sure that if I’d been writing all along I’d have been any better.

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