Finding the write stuff at any time
The late novelist Anita Brookner was proof that age is irrelevant if you want to be an author
A writer never retires. That is one of the beauties of the job. You run your own show. But in truth it is not retirements that the public focus on with authors, so much as debuts. These, tradition has it, should be fiery, fantastic, and preferably complete by the age of 21. In the literary world, being precocious matters.
Anita Brookner, the Booker-winner who died on Monday at the age of 87, was one of several women writers who gave the lie to such nonsense. She enjoyed a successful first career as a senior lecturer at the Courtauld, and was the first woman to occupy the Slade Chair of Fine Art at Cambridge.
But her debut novel was not published until she was 53 - after which she continued to write a novel a year for much of the rest of her life.
I used to see her out and about in the streets of London. She lived not far from me. I recognised her from the photograph on her book jackets and was intrigued by this elderly, small, neat-haired, tidily-dressed woman, one of our greatest living novelists, waiting at bus stops, a modest shopping bag on her arm. She looked self-contained rather than lonely.
I envied her. I wondered if she might be indulging in a writers's favourite pastime, avoiding the tyranny of the blank, unwritten page. I now realise she was simply living, gathering copy.
Brookner was one of a famous handful of women novelists who shifted direction at a later age, at a time when others might have assumed that academia (Brookner), teaching (Penelope Fitzgerald, a Booker prize-winner in her 60s), and publishing (Diana Athill) had been not enough of a career for one life. I understand something about changing gear at what seems like a late time in life to be deciding to accelerate.
I wrote my own first book at exactly the same age as Anita Brookner was when she published her first novel. I had enjoyed a long professional life in publishing but the idea of joining the creative side of that industry had never occurred to me.
Several of my close relations had made writing a central part of their lives: two grandparents, a father, an uncle, a cousin, and a brother. They all did it well, and I was not in the game of competing with my relations. But mostly I was not sure I had anything to say.
And yet age, I now begin to realise, although it may outwardly involve some withering, cannot stale the accumulation of a long life's experience of layering, acquiring, struggling, loving and surviving. For me, the moment to accelerate came after my children had left home and I was living alone, wondering if I had the courage to write about what that feels like. I had great luck in a brother who encouraged me, manufactured deadlines, made me feel that I had something interesting enough to write down.
My advice to anyone thinking of writing is to find yourself a brother, lover, friend, spouse: anyone who makes you feel you are worth listening to on the page. That person becomes your readership. You only need one to make it feel worthwhile.
And if, like Anita Brookner, you discover with advancing age that you have the gift of being able to distil, consider, analyse, pass on your wisdom in such a way that your readership accumulates, then it is never too late to start.