The history of literature is ripe with examples of how the author’s age is immaterial vis a vis his or her career trajectory. ⤺ Tweet This!
Raymond Chandler didn’t start seriously writing until he was 45. After decades of dedication, Charles Bukowski didn’t become a success until he was in his 50s. The popular images of William Burroughs and Henry Miller are as older, distinguished, yet youthful and vibrant playboys, hardly tired old has-beens, long past their prime.
Conversely, S.E. Hinton scored her first hit novel, The Outsiders, when she was still in high school. It was subsequently made into a major movie by Francis Coppola, along with several her later famous YA novels like Rumble Fish, all written when she was a young adult herself.
The point is, if you’re a teenage daydreamer that wants to be an author without having to wait for your education and life to catch up with your ambition, or you’re a retired senior citizen wondering if you still have something to contribute to the culture, the answer is the same: go for it.
One of the attractions of writing is the privacy of the act itself. Later you may have to do live readings and attend conventions as such as a matter of promotion, but most of your sales will be made online, via word of mouth, customer reviews, and your social media outreach. You don’t even have to leave the house. Or show your face, even in a photograph. The same applies to painters and other arts-based careers of a solitary, self-reliant nature.
As a writer, it’s possible you don’t even have to reveal your age, ever, to your audience. And they won’t care, because that’s an irrelevant factor from a reader’s point of view. All they care about is the quality of the work, not the age of the author.
I completed my first novel, Chumpy Walnut, a Runyonesque fable about a guy only a foot tall, when I was 19. I started it when I was 16, and went through several drafts. It was good enough that Paul Zindel, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and many bestselling YA novels like The Pigman, recommended it to his New Agent, Marilyn Marlow. I met Zindel when I attended the Writer’s Unit at the Actor’s Studio in Los Angeles (my father, Robert Viharo, is a retired actor and former Lee Strasberg student), where I had my first one-act play, A Wrong Turn at Albuquerque, produced in 1982 – also when I was only 19.
Naturally, since you’ve probably never heard of Chumpy Walnut unless you know me personally or you happen to be among its dozens of readers, it’s obvious the agent never sold the manuscript, despite repeated efforts. I eventually wound up publishing it myself via Lulu in 2010, complete with my own crude, Thurber-eque illustrations. I’m very proud of it.
This particular novel – still a sentimental favorite of mine – was included in Volume 3 of The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection last year, originally published by Double Life Press, then reissued by my own imprint, Thrillville Press, earlier this year after DLP sadly folded. So it was rejected by New York, eventually self-published, accepted by a small press, then self-published again. Full circle. Broken, but full.
Chumpy – which its few fans believe should’ve been a Pixar movie by now - has a long, checkered history. I’m 53 years old as of this writing. My career has never taken off the way I had hoped it would when I was young and struggling. Now I’m middle-aged and still struggling, though with a published body of work – both self and via small presses – and a movie option of one novel by Christian Slater that still hasn’t reached the screen despite many close calls.
The Point Being?
I’m still at it. I will never quit, nor “retire.” There’s no reason to, as long as my pilot light is still flickering. If I was an aspiring baseball player in a similar position of relative professional obscurity, I’d have to hang up my glove, too old to even play in the minors anymore. Similarly if was a musician, though no one really cares how old they are, just how well they can play (unlike, say, a basketball or football player).
But if you’re a guitar or drum or sax player still playing the small club/wedding circuit after years and years of hard work, with no record deal to show for it, you’re probably not going to be “a rock star.” Just like I’m probably not going to be the next Stephen King, or Charles Bukowski.
But you never know. As long as I’m alive, so is hope. Time may not be on my side anymore, but my writing still is. Dreams may age, but they don’t die unless you let them.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO
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New Orleans, LA