Like many writers, I'd been writing for many years before I decided to pursue it professionally. It might sound like a cliché, but I've been creating stories for as long as I can remember. So when I decided at age 18 that I was going to start working at becoming a published author, it felt like an obvious decision.
What I didn't expect at the time, though, was that it would take 23 years to get there.
For a long time, it felt like there was a common trajectory that writers were expected to take: Go to university, publish in your school's literary magazine, hone your craft in writers' workshops, get practice reading your work at university events, graduate, publish your first novel, enjoy a long and fruitful career.
Here's what my trajectory looked like: Try one semester of college before dropping out, try starting your dream life studying poetry in San Francisco, discover you are woefully underprepared for every part of that dream life, stay in Canada and start working, move to Calgary at age 21 and get a good office job, discover the harsh realities of paying rent and bills, attempt college again with no luck, experience a long stretch of untreated depression, and suddenly you're 25.
I realize I'm oversimplifying many things in both examples above. Not every writer experiences the first example, and I know it's not always smooth sailing for them if they do. But maybe you can see why, as a young twentysomething counting my change at the Safeway till, exhausted after a full day of work, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about where I'd ended up. The fact that I read a lot of Robertson Davies at that time, with his focus on academia and All Things Establishment, probably didn't help.
In short, I felt the odds were stacked against me, and it was too late.
But then a strange thing happened. I kept writing anyway. Despite all the obstacles that seemed to be thrown between me and the writing career I'd dreamed of, I never wanted to give up. I kept at it, writing and submitting poems and short stories, and even getting a few of them accepted for publication (and yes, I did keep my first-ever cheque from my first paid-for poem, as a memento). Over the span of several years I was able to replicate some of those experiences I'd felt I'd missed out on by not going to university: I made writer friends and workshopped with them, I took creative writing classes, and I even got to work on a collection of short stories with a mentor. Most importantly, I learned to not be so hard on myself for contending with life in my earlier years - I had done the best I could, after all.
The bitterness I'd felt in my early twenties eroded, and I decided I would just let myself experiment and have fun with my writing. I discovered the strange blessing of not publishing early - nobody's watching to see what you'll do next, so you can try whatever you like.
I started writing my novel The Quiet is Loud when I was 36. It wasn't the first novel I'd written, but it was the first novel I actually wanted to see published. Because of the experimentation I mentioned earlier, I felt a strange confidence with my writing, both in subject and style. This novel poured out of me. Never in my life had I written something that I felt so in control of, that was so much fun.
The Quiet is Loud was published this year, a few days after my 41st birthday. I'm now more than twice the age I was when I first decided I would become a published author. I went through a lot of difficult things to get here, and to be honest, now I feel a bit of pressure to make up for lost time! But I'm endlessly grateful to be here, and thankful to all the people who gave me those valuable opportunities along the way. They kept me going at the lowest times, when I honestly felt like nobody would care about my story anymore.
If you're a young writer whose experience looks similar to that of my first trajectory example, I sincerely congratulate you! Your stories and experiences are valid and necessary, and I wish you a long and fruitful career. But if your story sounds anything like mine, I hope I've been able to offer you a bit of reassurance that you're very much not alone (even if, like me, you now belong to that generation unfortunately named "Geriatric Millennial.")
But why take just my word for it? Here are a few other writers who have published later in life:
- Alice Munro: First short story collection published at age 37
- Toni Morrison: First novel published at age 40
- George Eliot: First novel published at age 40
- Elizabeth Strout: First novel published at age 42
- Bram Stoker: Wrote Dracula at age 50
- Frank McCourt: Memoir published at age 66
- and many, many more!
(Oh, and not for nothing, Alice Munro did go on to win the Nobel Prize, so ... keep at it!)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Samantha Garner's short fiction and poetry have appeared in Broken Pencil, Sundog Lit, Kiss Machine, The Fiddlehead, Storychord, WhiskeyPaper and The Quarantine Review. She lives and writes in Mississauga.