A few weeks ago a friend of mine who has been writing and doing it masterfully all her life undertook her first mystery novel. She is incredibly creative and has far greater skill in the mechanics of writing — where to put a semicolon, for example — than I could ever hope to have. I remember specifically her catching my phrase about a “dense population,” when I actually meant “densely populated.” She is only a few years behind me chronologically, which means she’s not exactly standing in line for a Justin Bieber concert, but she thinks about the idea of starting a mystery writing career at this time in her life and wonders, as any of us might, whether it is too late.
I started a bit late in life myself. While I had written to support myself most of my life, I was 44 before I submitted my first book to a publisher and 46 when it was published. That was in 1990. And it was, in fact, a late start. After briefly communicating with my friend about the subject of age and writing, I googled “writers with a late start.” There was a list of very well known writers who started late, according to the list maker’s criteria. His idea of “late” meant writers in their upper thirties to mid-forties. That seemed harsh. It was later than I thought. Any others? I couldn’t’ find any. I did find Frank McCourt, who didn’t begin until he was 62. But, overall, there was little to support the Grandma Moses concept in the writing field.
A few weeks ago, I looked through the October issue of Vanity Fair. The subject of the month’s Proust Questionnaire interview was Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote, among other great works, The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War and War, Youngblood Hawk as well as War and Remembrance. He is 97. His new novel, The Lawgiver, is due out this year. And in the mystery genre, there is P.D. James. She is 92. Death Comes to Pemberley was published last year to raves. Agatha Christie was writing well into her eighties. So, if you are sixty now, you might only have 20 or 30 years to make a name for yourself. There were many other writers who wrote late into their lives. But, again, few who started after they received their AARP membership request letters.
Even so, I would tell anyone considering that first novel at midlife or beyond to ignore history. And I would offer these thoughts instead: The first is, of course: if you want to and have the passion to carry it through, do it. The second is if you have spent your whole life dealing in words, communicating as an art or craft or discipline, you cannot really say you are just beginning when you decide to write a book. You have years of practical experience that lends itself to what you only consider to be a new calling. Third: There is something else that is vital here. An artist friend of mine said many years ago that creative people have to fill up their bucket before they can put brush to canvas or, I contend, pen to paper. This means you need to have experienced or actively observed life before you have anything to say. What do you know? What have you seen? How have you dealt with all the challenges that simply living a life give you? Living more years is actually an advantage, not a disadvantage — unless you want to be a ballet dancer or a short stop.
When one ages, there may be some loss of mental agility and certainly energy levels may diminish. But we have lived long enough to work smarter, observe better and draw from a wider range of experience. Painters, writers and musicians have that slight advantage over football players. If it takes us a little longer to construct a sentence than it did when we were 18, at least we won’t get head butted and thrown on the ground.
Now would I advise a 60-year-old to quit his or her job to write that first novel? No. I would echo the advice given to EVERY new writer, young or old. Unless you’ve written your fourth or fifth Harry Potter, don’t quit your day job. Of course, I foolishly ignored that advice several times. But if you can take the time, however you steal it from every day you can, and have the passion to write that first novel, do it. Do it now — before you forget.