Starting Late

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“You came into writing rather late, didn’t you?” a local university don enquired of me recently, after I had just spoken to his class of creative writing aspirants.

“Yes, and no,” was my reply to him.

Yes, I published my first book rather late in life. At the time, I was 64. Old enough to qualify as a member of the Pioneer Generation, even though the term would not be introduced into the Singaporean lexicon until months later.

No. because I had always been writing. Since I was a kid. I just hadn’t published. Not in book form. Not until November 2013.

Why not? Because I was in school. Because I was holding down a job. Then other jobs, with increasing responsibilities. And got myself ensnared by the threadmill of work and career. Even if I had wanted to write – which I regularly felt the urge to – I couldn’t find the time nor energy to. I had no talents for balls-juggling nor any volition for moonlighting. All I could do was single-mindedly focus on whatever was bringing home the bacon. Plus it didn’t hurt that I was enjoying whatever paying work I was then engaged in.

The other day, at a reading event, I heard a younger local writer mention that every time he felt the urge to start writing a new book, he would quit his current job. He has 5 books to his name, so guess how many jobs he has quit. I wish I have had the guts to do what he did. Or more to the point, the luxury. A number of people I knew intimately would have gone hungry had I gone down that route. Trying to be a young published author just wasn’t a viable option for me.

The halls of literary fame are adorned with the names of many young debutants.  Here are just a few examples :

    • Gore Vidal was only 19 when he published Williwaw, his first book.
    • F Scott FitzGerald was only 23 when he debuted with This Side of Paradise. The Great Gatsby would follow 6 years later, when he was 29.
    • Anton Chekov published his first and only novel, The Shooting Party, when he was 24.
    • Other Voices, Other Rooms was Truman Capote’s first book, published when he was 24. Breakfast At Tiffany’s would follow 10 years later, and In Cold Blood, another 8.
    • White Teeth was introduced to the publishing world in 1997, before it was even completed. Zadie Smith completed it during her final year at Cambridge University. She was 24 when it was published in 2000.
    • At age 27, Ernest Hemingway was still a struggling writer until he broke out with The Sun Also Rises.

On the other hand, history has also been kind to older debutants:

  • Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, Toni Morrison, didn’t publish her first book, The Bluest Eye, until she was 39.
  • William S Burroughs was also 39 when he published Junky. Naked Lunch came later when he was 44.
  • Before Middlemarch there was Adam Bede, published 12 years earlier, when George Elliot aka Mary Ann Evans was 40.
  • Black Beauty was introduced to the world by Anna Sewell during the last months of her life, when she was 57.
  • Frank McCourt was 66 when Angela’s Ashes were strewn.
  • Millard Kaufman (a co-creator of Mr Magoo) published his first novel, Bowl of Cherries when he was 90. He started working on it when he was 86. His second novel, Misadventure was released posthumously in 2010. He died in 2009.

So what’s my point exactly? That it’s never too old to publish? In part, yes. But what truly matters, I think, is not the age at which one publishes, but that one does publish.

Youth does have its advantages over age of course. For one, youth has a much longer time horizon to build up a whole body of work. Age has to tend with the impending onset of infirmity, senility and ultimately, death. Putting publishing till it is more convenient does bear the risk of one’s manuscript being buried with oneself – unpublished, unread, and ultimately, unrated. The last may be a blessing for all, but who knows? It might have turned out to be the literary breakout that the recently departed writer wannabe had only dared dream of.

Cynthia Ozick, writing recently for the New York Times in a piece entitled “Writers Old and Young: Staring AcrossThe Moat” opined that serious old writers belong body and soul, irony and metaphor, to word and thought, and also to aspiration, that metaphysical yearning for the literary sublime. “Aspiration is not the same as ambition” she wrote. “Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds.”

So if you are an aspiring writer, especially an older one, what are you waiting for?