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11 Writers Who Started Late

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Forget “under 30” or even “under 40” lists. Some of the world's most celebrated writers didn’t hit their literary stride until their mid-forties or later.

1. James A. Michener

The youngest person on the list, Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a book a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.

2. Sherwood Anderson

Anderson held a handful of jobs—including newsboy and racetrack helper—during his youth in Clyde, Ohio before moving to Chicago to try and make it as a copywriter. He flailed and returned to a nearby town in his home state where he worked as a manager at a paint factory until 1912, when he decided to leave his job and family to pursue a career in writing. While the act and the way he did it (disappearing for four days and then reappearing in an untidy and troubled state) are hardly admirable, the gamble did pay off. He returned to advertising and was publishing novels by 1916. His best known work, Winesburg, Ohio came out when Anderson was 43-years-old, garnering the success and acclaim the aspiring writer so boldly sought. 

3. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Inspired by her daughter, Wilder began writing in her 40s, but she didn’t find great success until some 20 years later, when Little House in the Big Woods was published. The Little House books drew from Wilder’s life experiences, so maybe waiting gave her some extra time to gather material.

4. Raymond Chandler

Only Raymond Chandler would have coped with losing a job as an oil company executive three years into the Great Depression by deciding to write detective fiction. It’s a good thing he happened to be among the best the world has ever seen. His first short story was published a year later, in 1933, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, came out in 1939, when he was 44 years old. He would publish six more novels before his death in 1959, along with many more short stories and screenplays.

Despite his illustrious writing career, Chandler was never quite at ease in the publishing world. In 1949, he wrote to publisher Hamish Hamilton: “There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.”

5. Helen DeWitt

Like Chandler, DeWitt was 44 years old when she published her debut novel, 2000's The Last Samurai. After years spent juggling odd jobs and working simultaneously on many writing projects, she decided: “I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS.” Sounds like she was channeling her subject.

6. Marquis de Sade

The famous libertine, philosopher, politician and aristocrat had a lot going on, so it makes sense that he didn’t get around to a writing career until age 47. Even then, he only had time to write because he was in prison at the Bastille for crimes related to sexual deviancy (though he was imprisoned under a lettre de cachet obtained by his mother-in-law). That’s one way to eliminate distractions. It was there that he wrote his first novel, Justine, which wasn’t published until four years later, when de Sade was 51.

7. Wallace Stevens

Stevens worked for most of his life as a lawyer and later vice president of an insurance company. He was first published at age 35 in Poetry Magazine, though the majority of the work he is known for today was written after the age of 50. Stevens passed away in 1955, just a few months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems at the age of 75.

8. Anna Sewell

Sewell’s only published work is the classic Black Beauty. She began writing it at age 51 while in declining health and dictated much of the novel to her mother.  At 57, she sold the book. Sewell died of hepatitis in 1878, just five months after the novel was published.

9. Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt's story attracted worldwide attention when Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996, especially when the memoir—which recounted his impoverished childhood in Ireland and an adulthood teaching in New York—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was published when McCourt was 66 years old.

10. Harriet Doerr

Doerr spent the first four decades of her life in California before moving to Mexico, where her husband Albert was working to restore a family-owned copper mine. The years spent there ultimately helped inspire the works she penned after Albert’s death. Doerr returned to California when she was in her 60s, finished her education, and began writing. Stones of Ibarra, Doerr’s first novel, was published when the author was 74 years old. It went on to win a National Book Award. 

11. Millard Kaufman

A co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Kaufman began screenwriting in his early 30s, but his first novel (Bowl of Cherries) was published when he was 90 years old—a testament that it’s never too late to try something new.

Note: This article originally stated that Joseph Heller was 52 when Catch-22 was published. He was 38. 

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11 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of famous lines, from musings on failure in Tender is the Night to “so we beat on, boats against the current” from The Great Gatsby. Yet even with a seemingly never-ending well of words and beautiful quotations, many popular idioms and phrases are wrongly attributed to the famous Jazz Age author. Here are 11 popular phrases that are often misattributed to Fitzgerald. (You may need to update your Pinterest boards.)

1. “WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER.”

This quote is often attributed to either Fitzgerald or his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961. There is no evidence in the collected works of either writer to support that attribution; the idea was first associated with Fitzgerald in a 1996 Associated Press story, and later in Stephen Fry’s memoir More Fool Me. In actuality, humorist Peter De Vries coined an early version of the phrase in a 1964 novel titled Reuben, Reuben.

2. “FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE OR, IN MY CASE, TOO EARLY TO BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE.”

It’s easy to see where the mistake could be made regarding this quote: Fitzgerald wrote the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 for Collier's Magazine, and it was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 2008. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, in which that quotation appears.

3. “OUR LIVES ARE DEFINED BY OPPORTUNITIES, EVEN THE ONES WE MISS.”

This is a similar case to the previous quotation; this quote is attributed to Benjamin Button’s character in the film adaptation. It’s found in the script, but not in the original short story.

4. “YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY STORMS ARE NAMED AFTER PEOPLE.”

There is no evidence that Fitzgerald penned this line in any of his known works. In this Pinterest pin, it is attributed to his novel The Beautiful and Damned. However, nothing like that appears in the book; additionally, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association, although there were a few storms named after saints, and an Australian meteorologist was giving storms names in the 19th century, the practice didn’t become widespread until after 1941. Fitzgerald died in 1940.

5. “A SENTIMENTAL PERSON THINKS THINGS WILL LAST. A ROMANTIC PERSON HAS A DESPERATE CONFIDENCE THAT THEY WON’T.”

This exact quote does not appear in Fitzgerald’s work—though a version of it does, in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” The incorrect version is widely circulated and requoted.

6. “IT’S A FUNNY THING ABOUT COMING HOME. NOTHING CHANGES. EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME, FEELS THE SAME, EVEN SMELLS THE SAME. YOU REALIZE WHAT’S CHANGED IS YOU.”

This quote also appears in the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button script, but not in the original short story.

7. “GREAT BOOKS WRITE THEMSELVES; ONLY BAD BOOKS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN.”

There is no evidence of this quote in any of Fitzgerald’s writings; it mostly seems to circulate on websites like qotd.org, quotefancy.com and azquotes.com with no clarification as to where it originated.

8. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, BUT NOT LIKE THOSE GIRLS IN THE MAGAZINES. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE WAY SHE THOUGHT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE SPARKLE IN HER EYES WHEN SHE TALKED ABOUT SOMETHING SHE LOVED. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR HER ABILITY TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE SMILE, EVEN IF SHE WAS SAD. NO, SHE WASN’T BEAUTIFUL FOR SOMETHING AS TEMPORARY AS HER LOOKS. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, DEEP DOWN TO HER SOUL.”

This quote may have originated in a memoir/advice book published in 2011 by Natalie Newman titled Butterflies and Bullshit, where it appears in its entirety. It was attributed to Fitzgerald in a January 2015 Thought Catalog article, and was quoted as written by an unknown source in Hello, Beauty Full: Seeing Yourself as God Sees You by Elisa Morgan, published in September 2015. However, there’s no evidence that Fitzgerald said or wrote anything like it.

9. “AND IN THE END, WE WERE ALL JUST HUMANS, DRUNK ON THE IDEA THAT LOVE, ONLY LOVE, COULD HEAL OUR BROKENNESS.”

Christopher Poindexter, the successful Instagram poet, wrote this as part of a cycle of poems called “the blooming of madness” in 2013. After a Twitter account called @SirJayGatsby tweeted the phrase with no attribution, it went viral as being attributed to Fitzgerald. Poindexter has addressed its origin on several occasions.

10. “YOU NEED CHAOS IN YOUR SOUL TO GIVE BIRTH TO A DANCING STAR.”

This poetic phrase is actually derived from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, just four years after Fitzgerald was born in 1896. In his book Thus Spake ZarathustraNietzsche wrote the phrase, “One must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star.” Over time, it’s been truncated and modernized into the currently popular version, which was included in the 2009 book You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career by Katharine Brooks.

11. “FOR THE GIRLS WITH MESSY HAIR AND THIRSTY HEARTS.”

This quote is the dedication in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s book Tiger Lily, a reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. While it is often attributed to Anderson, many Tumblr pages and online posts cite Fitzgerald as its author.

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New PEN Archive Offers 1500 Hours of Audio/Video of Your Favorite Authors Online
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PEN America has a new digital archive, and it will give you access to hundreds of hours of interviews, panels, and debates with your favorite authors. The literary and human rights organization just posted approximately 1500 hours of audio and video from events online.

The conferences, readings, and other events date back to 1966. Among the collection's highlights are Haruki Murakami’s first-ever public speaking event, audio from Pablo Neruda’s first visit to the U.S. in 1966 (as part of an event with the iconic, dome-obsessed architect Buckminster Fuller, among others), audio from a 1986 reading with Mario Vargas Llosa and Salman Rushdie, and video interviews with Toni Morrison.

For example, here’s a video from a 1982 event on banned books that featured Morrison, Grace Paley, John Irving, Gay Talese, and more.

It’s the first time PEN America has been able to make its entire audio and video archive available to the public. Digitizing the recordings will also help the organization preserve its history, since many of the analog recordings were in danger of deteriorating over time.

"With the release of the PEN America Digital Archive, these essential voices have been brought back to life, brimming with personality, passion, opinion, and sometimes bombast,” PEN America’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel, said in a press release. “Hearing directly from these greats will offer information and inspiration to writers, scholars, and free expression advocates for generations to come."

You can search the archive by keywords or author names, or check out the curated featured collections, which right now include programming with Toni Morrison from the past 30 years and multimedia from PEN’s 1986 annual congress, headed by Norman Mailer.

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