Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I've written most my life, but it's not until my retirement from a career in banking that I've started really putting in the time. I'm hopeful about my progress but I get easily discouraged because of my age. Is it just too late for me?

No, it's not too late. Annie Proulx was in her fifties when she published her first story collection, Heart Songs. Frank McCourt published his memoir Angela's Ashes in his mid-sixties after a career teaching in New York schools. Deborah Eisenberg's collection of short stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, was published when she was forty-one. When Raymond Chandler was forty-four he lost his job as an oil company executive. Seven years later he published his most famous book, The Big Sleep. Donald Ray Pollock published his story collection at age fifty-five and published a novel, The Devil All the Time, three years later. His publications came after more than thirty years working at a paper mill. If you don't recognize these author's names, it might be useful to know that they hold high honors. In this short list of authors, you will find awards like the Guggenheim Fellowship, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. Some authors have had their work adapted to film. They published late in life, but their work has garnered critical and popular acclaim.

In the documentary Bad Writing (yes, there's a documentary on this topic), author Steve Almond calls the infatuation with talent and youth an American myth: “It's like somehow writers are Olympic gymnasts, where you've got to be a fourteen year old and have the talent and that's such nonsense." Almond published his first book in his late thirties.

Every writer has a different experience with the writing life. Focus on where you are now and don't waste a lot of time dreaming of “what if?" scenarios and your writing career. Spend time with the page. Be thoughtful about what you need to develop as a writer and move forward by finding ways to meet those needs. At workshops or writing conferences, you may find yourself surrounded by youthful faces, but you're more likely to see significant diversity. You're not the only one coming to writing after rich and significant life experience elsewhere. Use your knowledge and the insights you've gained through life experience to inform your fiction and your process, and to navigate a terrain that is always changing.

I'll return to Steve Almond as a sign off. At the end of an article in which he details his insecurities over The New Yorker's "20 Writers Under 40" list, he acknowledges the realities of the writing process and ends with this: “Put down the magazine, soldier. Forget about the other guy. Remember who you are." This is good advice for all of us.