A reader recently asked me:
“Ed, I notice that you’re in your forties, and have only recently begun publishing fiction. Do you have any thoughts about writing later in life, vs. in your twenties (or even in your teens)?”
This is a good question. And although the reader doesn't identify his or her age, I suspect that this came from a younger person in their teens or twenties.
First of all, in regard to me: You can’t necessarily draw the complete story from my publishing dates. While I began publishing fiction in 2011, I actually wrote my first short story back in 1977—at the age of nine. Fiction—both writing as well as reading it—was an early interest of mine. Throughout my childhood and most of my adolescence, I was what they call a “voracious reader”.
I first identified my proto-adult desire to be a writer during my sophomore year in high school, when I was fifteen. (If you’re interested in more of those details, click here.)
I was reasonably methodical about it, even then. I realized then that what I needed to do first of all was read. From the age of fifteen through roughly age twenty, I read probably hundreds of books. Some of my favorite authors during this time were: Stephen King, Peter Straub, James Clavell, Bernard Malamud, and John Jakes. (I was a big fan of the North & South trilogy, which was adapted for a miniseries in 1985.) When I entered college in 1986, I initially majored in English literature, so I read my share of Dickens, Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.
I also did some writing: mostly short stories at the time, along with a few attempts at novel-length fiction.
By the time I was twenty, I possessed a vast vocabulary, and could string together a sentence or a paragraph more or less as well as I can now. But I decided, at the age of twenty, to put my writing ambitions on hold and pursue other interests for a while. (Once again, I’ll refer you to my biography.)
Why? The simple fact was that barely out of my teens, I had very few stories to tell.
Once again, I could manage the mechanics of writing competently enough. But every idea I had for a story fell into one of two categories: a.) knock-offs of books that I’d read, or b.) navel-gazing, autobiographical tales of adolescent introspection.
To put it another way, at the age of twenty I could not possibly have written the novels and stories I’ve written in recent years.
I’ve cautioned extensively in the past about the dangers of purely autobiographical fiction. Unless you’ve had a Hemingway-like life that includes journeys through war zones and adventures on the high seas, the raw material of your life probably isn’t sufficiently interesting to be presented as-is in the form of fiction.
That said, good original fiction comes from extensive real-life experience, vast reading (both fiction and nonfiction) and deep contemplation. It is not impossible—but extremely difficult—to fit all that in by age 20 or 25.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of good books written by twentysomethings. F. Scott Fitzgerald was only twenty-three when he wrote This Side of Paradise, a novel that is still covered in university-level American Lit courses. Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein when she was only 19. And Stephen Crane was in his early twenties when he published (and achieved wide acclaim for) The Red Badge of Courage.
So yes, youthful success as a writer certainly can—and does—happen.
But my observation is that most wunderkind prodigies turn into one-hit-wonders or one-trick ponies. Fitzgerald wrote brilliantly about the foibles of Jazz Age plutocrats. The problem was that he could write about little else, and he was already running out of material when he died at the age of 44 in 1940. Mary Shelley lived about ten years longer than Fitzgerald—she died at 53—but she is still best known for the book she conceived at nineteen.
On the other hand, James Michener published his first book at the age of 40, and he was still topping bestseller lists when he died at age 90. Clive Cussler was in his mid-thirties when he became serious about writing in 1965, and the 83-year-old’s books can still be found in every retail outlet that sells books.
So I don’t mean to imply, by any means, that you shouldn't write fiction when you’re young. (Remember, this is coming from a guy who started at age nine.) But you should be aware that for most writers, success (both artistic as well as commercial) comes through a combination of life experience and the development of craft. And that all takes time.
One essential element here is doing something with your life besides writing fiction. That means that an English Literature degree or an MFA might not be the best path to becoming a writer.
Everyone knows who John Grisham the bestselling author is. But John Grisham the bestselling author would not have existed without John Grisham the attorney. For more than a decade before anyone knew him as a writer, Grisham was just another attorney in Mississippi. Without that decade of legal experience (not to mention law school) it is highly unlikely that Grisham could have written The Firm, the Runaway Jury, or his other bestselling legal thrillers.
This doesn't mean that you have to follow Grisham into law school and a legal career. It does mean that you need to find something (other than writing stories) that you’re passionate about.
Back to Clive Cussler. Many of Cussler’s novels involve undersea exploration. Cussler is indeed a self-taught marine archeologist. He has discovered more than sixty shipwreck sites.
What about yours truly? In my early twenties I developed a passion for foreign language learning, foreign travel, and international business. This led in the short run to a corporate career which, frankly speaking, I didn't particularly enjoy. But my experiences in the corporate world were later recycled and retrofitted into numerous short stories and novels.
And by “recycled and retrofitted” I don't mean autobiography, but authenticity. My supernatural thrillers and crime stories often occur partly or wholly in corporate settings. I can write authentically about these settings because I know them intimately. I didn't know them intimately when I was twenty years old.
Very young writers will also have difficulty writing authentically about parenting, marriage, aging, or significant personal loss (in most cases). And if you’re young and you think you understand your childhood, think again: You’ll feel differently about your childhood and your adolescent years ten or twenty years from now.
There is another side to this coin, of course. Just as there are twentysomething writers who are overly anxious to write the Great American Novel, there are also middle-aged would-be writers who dally and dither too long.
I probably made the right decision when I decided to spend most of my twenties focused on something other than writing fiction. However, I probably also waited too long to get back into writing in a serious way.
My late twenties through my early thirties formed an anxious period, both intellectually and professionally. Unsatisfied with my corporate work, I vacillated about from one thing to another—when what I really wanted to do was get back into writing. I was thirty-four or thirty-five before I finally understood that it was time to return my attention to what I’d always wanted to do.
Finally, it is important to remember that the question of writing young or writing later in life is not a binary one. You’ll probably end up doing both.
So if you’re eighteen years old, feel free to write away. But don’t go into college with the preconceived notion that you’ll never become a real writer if you don’t major in English Literature—or, worse yet, drop out and live in a bohemian garret. Don’t be afraid to spend part of your youth in the military, or teaching, or working as an engineer for a giant corporation. (Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest American poets, was an executive at an insurance company.) At your age, you may have made a very respectful start on the craft of writing. Your deficiency probably lies in the depth and the breadth of the stories you can tell. This situation will improve with time.
On the other hand, if you’re thirty-five or forty-five years old and still procrastinating about writing, then you need the opposite pep talk.
You’ve lived for three or four or five decades now. You should have plenty of stories to tell—in terms of both depth and breadth. You need to reconnect with your craft. (And this may involve reading a few books like Donald Maass’s excellent writing manual, Writing the Breakout Novel.)
You need to get going, because that eighteen-year-old inside of you has already had ample time to experience and observe and mature.
And it’s time, at long last, to give life to whatever stories that inner eighteen-year-old has always want to tell. It’s time, in short, to get busy.