Silk’s post #25 — I wonder how many of you reading this post are over 40? I see quite a few hands going up. How about over 50? Or maybe, like me, over 60? And how many of you are writing as a ‘second career’?
Maybe it’s something you’ve dabbled in since you were a teenager. Maybe you did your best to scratch your fiction-writing itch by pursuing a tangentially related ‘first’ career, where you had to write something else (newsletters, legal briefs, manuals, speeches, advertising, academic reports, lifestyle features about patio furniture).
Maybe writing a novel is something you always dreamed of doing, but life got in the way. The need for money won out. Or the demands of a family. Or maybe every time you hunkered down alone in your writing space with a blank page in front of you, the world called you out, whether joyfully or rudely.
Or maybe you just got on that career track and didn’t get off until you reached Retirement Station.
It’s okay. It’s all good.
We are the Late Bloomers: the hardy, vibrant, colourful displayers of creativity who dare to run riot in autumn. We bring our own heat to the season, our own illumination.
I once asked an agent on a panel at the Surrey International Writers Conference whether age made any difference in his inclination to represent an unpublished writer. I’m a realist. My thinking: it’s in an agent’s interest to sign hot young writers on the ascent – early bloomers who might produce years of lucrative bestsellers.
His answer was, “No, I’m just looking for great writers.” But he took a half-step back before he figured out what to say. It told me that: a) yes, a writer’s age probably does make a difference to an agent, but b) it’s politically incorrect to say it (or maybe even think it), especially in a room full of conference attendees who have an average age north of 40, and who have just paid a bunch of money to rub elbows with you, and who are good prospects to buy your book on how to write.
Okay, call me a cynic – but you’d be wrong. I just wanted to know the truth, but it doesn’t change my passion for writing one bit.
Now, call me a romantic, an optimist, even a pollyanna, and I won’t argue.
I think late blooming writers are like vintage wine. Our ideas, feelings, perspectives, and understanding of people and the world have reached the peak of flavour and complexity. We may be new to novel-writing, but we’re not new to reading and observing and thinking and feeling and communicating. As Helga reminded us in her great post on why writers write, we have stories in us that are bursting to get out.
Some pretty smart people have contemplated the subject of creative late bloomers, and they seem to love to quote each other. I followed an interesting trail of Internet breadcrumbs on the topic, starting with a link on Nathan Bransford’s great blog, which took me to an article from 2008 in The New Yorker by writer and culture guru Malcolm Gladwell titled “Late Bloomers”.
Gladwell, himself anything but a late bloomer, examines the idea that:
“Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exhuberance and energy of youth.”
I can’t tell you how happy I am to report that this turns out to be a myth. But, of course, you already knew that and so did I. Gladwell’s essay borrows heavily from Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, a book by University of Chicago economist David Galenson that studies artists and writers who did what is acknowledged to be their best work either very early or very late in their careers. To quote Gladwell quoting Galenson:
“Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues … tend to be ‘conceptual’, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental.”
I especially love the example Galenson uses to illustrate the experimental approach of the late bloomer: Mark Twain’s trial-and-error method of fictional storytelling. Galenson quotes yet another observer, literary critic Franklin Rogers, on Twain’s methods:
“His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.”
Sounds all too familiar.
The implications of this insight may explode some of our received wisdom about late bloomers. They aren’t necessarily late starters, for instance. Some of them work most of their lives at their art in obscurity, often with the help of a patron, such as a family member (think Van Gogh), before they become ‘overnight sensations’. If they’re lucky, that happens while they’re still alive.
Some late bloomers just “don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re 50,” Galenson asserts. Another assumption he questions is that late bloomers are simply “discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts.”
Galenson’s 2011 article on the Huffington Post, “Literary Late Bloomers,” cites a veritable galaxy of literary stars, in addition to Mark Twain, whose most famous works were written in middle-age or later: John le Carré, PD James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, John Updike and J.M. Coetzee, for example.
Although I’m glossing over the more arcane and subtle points of Galenson’s arguments, and Gladwell’s comments on them, my interpretation of their conclusion about late bloomers can be summarized as follows:
Late bloomers do their best work late in life because that’s when their genius ripens.
Are you still with me, all you old boomers and late bloomers? Doesn’t it make your heart glad to hear that you may be at the peak of your creative powers right now – even if you have trouble finding your reading glasses from time to time?
Last word here to Gladwell, who has such a great way with words:
“But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after 20 years of working at your kitchen table.”
Now get back to that kitchen table, or that pillow-strewn bed, or that coffee shop, or that writing desk and bloom.