I didn’t write my first book until I was forty-six years old. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to. It was just that, for whatever reasons, I didn’t. This is how it happened.
For many years I worked in advertising. When people asked me what I did for a living, I’d say, “I’m in advertising—but I really want to write.” I never could muster the moxie to say, “I’m a writer.” How could I? I’d never published a book. I’d never published much of anything, actually. Even my unpublished output was relatively slight.
I may have walked around thinking and believing I was a writer, but where was the proof? I’m sure enough people already thought I was a fraud. If they didn’t, I began to. I’d been talking about being a writer to a select circle of friends and relatives for years and years.
After a decade or two, I imagined them like in one of those scenes in a Grade B movie where people gather in a circle, eyes darting toward the person in question, whispering about him, their lips moving in barely-disguised disdain.
“Oh, is he still saying he’s a writer?”
After all these years. It’s a shame.”
It’s a disgrace!”
“He’s really just an advertising copywriter. Why doesn’t he admit it?”
“He’s never written a book. He never will.”
“He’s never gotten married, either.”
“I know. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I have been for years."
As I say, I don’t know why I didn’t, or couldn’t, write a book. I still don’t. I took writing courses. I was in a writing group. I read inspirational books on how to unleash the inner scribe in you. I drank booze. I went to a shrink. Still, nothing came.
But for some reason I still harbored the idea, the belief, the faith, that I was a writer. I think it was because it was the only thing I could ever picture myself doing. It was the only thing that made sense to me. It was the only thing I could see devoting an entire life to. Books and art in general seemed to me something worth living for. Something to choose for the one chance you have at life. Inside me, I knew this, and I trusted that knowledge about myself, despite everything to the contrary on the outside.
Yet, on and on I went with my advertising career. Advertising! What an ideal profession for self-loathing, if you think you’re an artist. The Hucksters! The Hidden Persuaders! (Well, that attitude may have changed a bit with the TV show Mad Men, which romanticizes the hell out of advertising.) It’s really a Darth Vader kind of thing—using the force for evil instead of for good.
“Luke, come to the Dark Side. Write for Jell-O.”
“Yes, Luke, you will write an ad for Jell-O. Because you are like me, Luke. You want to sell!”
The years went on. Maybe I really wasn’t a writer, I began to doubt. Something inside me just wouldn’t accept that, though. I just couldn’t capitulate. Which is, I suppose, the point of this little essay. Never capitulate. Only you know what is true about yourself. People can say whatever they want about you and your aspirations, but it is you who know your own heart. Listen to it.
Then I fell in love with a good, strong, caring, courageous woman. It was she who helped me to write. She didn’t actually my pen to paper, but she might as well have. We went, at her urging, to live in France for a year. There, I found inspiration, and the subject, for my book. It was in the unlikely form of a vegetable garden in Provence.
Then I came home, I sat down at my desk and began to write. At the start, though, I hesitated: will my first, and perhaps my only, book be about a garden? How could that be? Shouldn’t I be writing about the equivalent of the hunt for a great white whale? Shouldn’t my theme be mighty, as Melville required? Here I am, about to write about a garden. But my heart told me this is what I wanted, needed, to write about. And my pen was dying to be let go. So, I let it go, wisely.
I wrote, without ceasing, for a year. All my love of language, of reading, of words, of drama, of character, all those pent-up, aching rivers burst forth and flowed through my little, sturdy Bic pen onto my page, day after day. It all gushed forth, and I worked like a dog to tame the current and make it graceful and pretty. It’s what I had been living for, and this was the daily proof. It was true. I hadn’t been fooling myself all these years.
Something else rather remarkable happened. I found that I could call on all the passionate reading I had done through the years. Sentences, phrases, words, metaphors, what have you, I had stored, like literary nuts, somewhere for safekeeping in the cache of my heart, all were there for me to employ in my own book. Here came Hemingway when I needed him, perhaps in a turn of phrase but more likely in the effort to make the writing as clear and strong as a diamond. Here came Thomas Hardy, with his humanistic sensuality, when I was trying to convey the rapturous experience of watering my garden at night by the moonlight. And so on.
I was lucky after that year. I finished the book, and I found an agent, and the book was published. This was in 1991. I count my stubbornness, my blind faith, as part of the reason I was lucky.
But what is luck? Isn’t it a certain persistent open-mindedness? It was pure hard-headedness, in the face of so many arid years, that kept me going. I highly recommend it.
Seventeen years later, the book is still in print, still selling. I thank the gods for that. The fact is, some people write their first book when they’re twenty-three. Some people when they’re thirty-five. Some, like me, when they’re forty-six. And some, like Harriet Doerr (the remarkable Stones for Ibarra) when they’re seventy-three.
I say, if you haven’t written your book yet, there are no rules when it comes to this. Your inspiration may come in the form a lowly vegetable garden or a cookie dipped into a cup of your aunt’s tea, or heaven knows what else. Just don’t ever give up. I’m here as a witness to tell you that it’s never, never too late.
This article originally appeared inThe Writermagazine.