What’s With Writers and Late Blooming?

What’s With Writers and Late Blooming?

According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Humber School for Writers, the average age for authors first published in book form is 42.

According to Douglas Adams, the answer to the ultimate question of Life, The Universe, and Everything is also 42.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Science, however, might explain why so many writers start later.

According to author Daniel Coyle, it all comes down to myelin, the grayish matter that protects neurons. Myelin creates mastery in anything through a process Coyle calls “deep practice.”

In The Talent Code, Coyle explains how an “electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers” creates everything we do. And like anything electrical, insulation affects performance. For neurons, myelin is that insulation.

Deep practice involves teaching circuits to fire optimally by making mistakes and correcting them. The repeated firing causes more protective myelin to develop. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

What’s this got to do with late-blooming writers?

According to Dr. George Bartzokis, a UCLA neuropsychiatrist, people grow wiser as they grow older because

their circuits are fully insulated and instantly available to them; they can do very complicated processing on many levels, which is really what wisdom is…Complex tasks like ruling countries or writing novels—these are most often better done by people who have built the most myelin.

Whatever the reason, late bloomers definitely excel at creating new worlds through words. Here are 25 writers I’ve profiled and the age they first published:

  1. Beatrix Potter, age 35—her first Peter Rabbit book (after abandoning a career in mycology).
  2. Edith Wharton, age 35—a decorating book for the wealthy; at 58, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer for Age of Innocence.
  3. Jules Verne, 35—Five Weeks in a Balloon; he published A Journey to the Center of the Earth a year later.
  4. Edgar Rice Burroughs, 36—A Princess of Mars and Tarzan.
  5. Sharon Kay Penman, 37—The Sunne in Splendour (one of my favorite historicals).
  6. Erma Bombeck, 40—At Wit’s End.
  7. James Michener, 40—Tales of the South Pacific. He wrote more than 40 books over the next 50 years.
  8. Mary Norton, 40—Bedknobs and Broomsticks; at age 49, her first Borrowers book.
  9. Madeleine L’Engle, 42—A Wrinkle in Time.
  10. P.D. James, 42—Cover Her Face, her first Adam Dalgliesh mystery; she too wrote for another 50 years.
  11. Bram Stoker, 43—The Snake’s Path; at age 50, he published Dracula.
  12. Lee Child, 43—Killing Floor; he’s still going strong with his Jack Reacher thrillers.
  13. Janet Evanovich, 44—sold her first book to Bantam Loveswept; at age 51, she started her popular Stephanie Plum series.
  14. Ian Fleming, 44—Casino Royale, the first book in the James Bond series.
  15. Alex Haley, 44—The Autobiography of Malcolm X; at age 55, he published Roots (made into the miniseries of the same name).
  16. Sue Monk Kidd, 44—Dance of the Dissident Daughter; at age 53, she published Secret Life of Bees.
  17. Claire Cook, 45—Ready to Fall; at age 49, she published Must Love Dogs, made into the film of the same name.
  18. Kenneth Grahame, 49—The Wind in the Willows.
  19. Richard Adams, 53—Watership Down.
  20. Lilian Jackson Braun, 53—The Cat Who Could Read Backwards; she continued the series for another 40 years.
  21. Eugenia West, 56—The Ancestors Cry Out; at age 84, she published her second book, Without Warning.
  22. Dick King-Smith, 56—The Fox Busters; at age 61, he published The Sheep-Pig (which became the movie Babe).
  23. Daniel Defoe, 59—Robinson Crusoe.
  24. Penelope Fitzgerald, 61—The Golden Child; she won the Booker Prize two years later for Offshore.
  25. Frank McCourt, 66—Angela’s Ashes, made into the film of the same name.

It’s an impressive list, and I’ve collected many more. If you particularly enjoy literary fiction, a site called Bloom highlights contemporary authors in that genre. Their tagline—”Late” according to whom?

Truly, our most exciting reading and writing adventures are still ahead.

Have fun—and don’t forget your towel!

Photo Credit: Douglas Adams’ official site (press photos)

28 Responses

  1. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

    Interesting! Seems like I’ve read about studies that showed thinning myelin in autopsies of people who had Alzheimer’s disease, so this is an interesting corrollary. Or put in a non-scientific way, as we age, we accumulate life experiences, all of which feed our writing. Of course, in order for those experiences to inform our writing, we must first remember them!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      That’s why I’ve started keeping a journal, Jennette. I used to think it a bit self-indulgent, but then I realized that the journals will keep my 85-year-old self highly entertained!

  2. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,
    Life experience and working out what you want to do often does not start until around 40….you then realise you’ve either got to do it or lose it…another great story from you, thanks
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
      |

      So true, David, and you’re doing such great work in that area! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. khaula mazhar
    | Reply

    Another interesting article Debra. I hope my circuits are almost ready so I can finally get my novel published!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I’m sure they are, Khaula. There’s no “use by” date on creativity 🙂

  4. coleen patrick
    | Reply

    Love this Debra 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Colleen. The truth of the matter is that I put up stuff like this so I can refer back to it myself for inspiration!

  5. Barbara McDowell Whitt
    | Reply

    Thank you, Debra, for this informative list. When my first book is published, I will be past 70.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Barbara. Please keep me informed on your publication date!

  6. Alarna Rose Gray
    | Reply

    Wow, who knew wisdom could be scientific?! I love this 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I’m absolutely entranced by brain studies, Alarna, and I have to admit this is one of my favorites. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Kourtney Heintz
    | Reply

    Thanks for these inspiring facts. It’s very cool to learn what wisdom is at least in scientific terms! 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Yup, it’s great to know that growing older has it’s perks. Thanks for stopping by, Kourtney!

  8. Pamela Cook
    | Reply

    Great article. I think experience and developing the courage to take the plunge are definitely factors for Later Bloomers. I had my first novel published in December at the age of 50. As you older you realise you won’t live forever and you get braver about taking risks and putting yourself out there.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Pam, can’t believe I somehow missed this! Thanks for your comment and congrats on that novel!

  9. Radha
    | Reply

    Oh my goodness I am 42! I just realized that I should pursue my writing. I wrote a lot growing up but at some point I stopped. I wrote songs, poetry, short stories, every day in my journal. Like you said I had no guidance or direction. Picture this though…a ten year old who had her poem published in the school newspaper…I was so giddy. I remember that feeling and I want it back! I am a late bloomer. Thank you for this wonderful site! xo

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Radha. That 10-year-old is still alive inside you and wants to write! 42 is a lucky number, go for it. No better time than now.

  10. Susan Ozmore
    | Reply

    Inspiring, as are all your posts. Maybe I have that book in me yet. I’m still working on the “just write” every day. I just signed up to receive your emails so that I can get regular inspiration. Thanks for doing what you do to encourage people like me.

    On another note, I hope that list of my posts which appeared below doesn’t end up like so much spam on your page. Not sure how “commentluv” works. Thanks again.
    Susan

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Susan. I love your site too, and just assumed you were doing something similar to what I’m doing — an experimental blog to book project. Your material certainly lends itself to that. However, I’ve realized in the last few months you can’t go directly from a blog post to a book chapter — you do have to fill out the material and make it more “writerly.” I plan to rewrite that first book.

      CommentLuv is just a plugin directs people to a blog post of your choice.

  11. HappinessSavouredHot
    | Reply

    Fascinating and reassuring! It is not too late, after all. Thank you for writing this.

  12. Peggy
    | Reply

    Thanks I needed that!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      You’re welcome, Peggy! I do think all those “20 under 30” lists are over-rated. The more research I do, the more it becomes obvious that it often takes experience and wisdom to create great works.

  13. John Maberry
    | Reply

    Hey, most of them are youngsters! I started working on the first book at 56 and didn’t finish for five years. Still plunking away.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      That’s excellent, John. I’ve just added you to my database of people to write about in the future (really)! 😉

  14. Mira Loran
    | Reply

    I like this blog a lot even though I’m far below the target audience (17). However, the idea of not being published by the time I’m of drinking age makes me feel as though I’m some kind of failure. I’m fairly serious about my writing and have completed three novels and I’m working on a fourth but I can’t help but feel my writing isn’t worthy of being published. It’s as though I’m constantly staring at a pile of rubbish.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Mira, the fact that you’re finishing your projects speaks volumes for your perseverance and that is the first step to success. And don’t be too hard on yourself about that publishing deadline (drinking age). Writing is a journey. My writing improves every single year (look back at some of my earliest blog posts if you don’t believe me). I’m not a novel writer, so I can’t give you specific advice, but you might want to consult a good book on the novel writer’s craft and see what you can apply to your own writing. I can recommend Roz Morris of the “Nail your Novel” books: https://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/. Keep going. I’m very impressed with your dedication!

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