While on the bus on the way to a gathering of local writers, I was somewhat ruefully contemplating the fact that many of my colleagues, although decades younger than me, have reached a level of popular and commercial success that I am still striving for. And as I mentally perused literary history, I was reminded that many of the top literary figures of the past achieved recognition when they were young and maintained it throughout their lifetimes. I don’t crave personal publicity, but I’d like my works to be widely read, and I’d like to have a much more comfortable amount of income.
There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy between my income and popularity and that of others currently producing literature, but I would say, admittedly biased, that the main one does not concern talent but circumstance. I started out full of gusto and energy as a young writer in my early twenties. I even cut loose from my home town and set out on the road for experiences that would make me a better writer, as I relate in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search. Many things happened while out there on the road, though, and in my late twenties I stopped writing completely for a decade and a half. I only began again when I was in my early forties. During much of that time my ex-wife and I began our family, which eventually grew to five wonderful sons. However, those years of the late twenties to early forties are when most writers with sufficient talent break out into the literary mainstream and often write some of their best work.
I missed those years. There is that huge gap in my growth as a writer. Sure, in a sense writing is like bicycle riding. I didn’t have to start from scratch but could pick up where I left off in terms of what I had learned. Nevertheless, I have had to undergo a crucial formative stage of growth fifteen years later than those who plowed straight through without a break.
Additionally, the publishing world has changed. If I had continued to write instead of stopping in the late 1970s, I would have had to overcome a different set of obstacles on the road to success, a set of obstacles I might have been better prepared to face. Who knows? Hindsight is an illusion – one might even say a delusion. Once decisions are made, consequences follow: that’s the way it works.
Anyway, while ruminating on the bus, it occurred to me that for many famous writers, early success did not lead to an easy later life. On the contrary, many writers who created early masterpieces faced difficult struggles later on. For instance, Ernest Hemingway wrote his three greatest novels: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls in his late twenties to early forties – although admittedly he revived himself enough to produce the novella The Old Man and the Sea in his early fifties; afterwards, his work and his personal life deteriorated until he committed suicide just short of his sixty-second birthday. He killed himself at a younger age than I am now. Jack London burst into fame with the publication of The Call of the Wild when he was in his late twenties. He continued with a prolific surge of well-received novels, short stories, and memoirs, but weariness and various illnesses took their toll and he died at the age of forty. Philip K. Dick began to publish science fiction stories in his early twenties. He became famous, at least in the science fiction world, with the publication of his novel The Man in the High Castle in his early thirties. However, his mental and physical health deteriorated and he died of a stroke when he was only fifty-three years old.
Every writer is different, and there are so many diverse writers throughout history that it’s possible to come up with examples to illustrate almost any generality; nevertheless, contemplating these examples improved my outlook, so why not? I’m a late bloomer. I’m only now, in my fifties and sixties, producing the novels, short stories, and memoirs on which my reputation, whatever it ends up to be, will be based. There’s no way I can mend the past and get back those fifteen or more missing years. All I can do is make the best of whatever time I have left. And I intend to.