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