Reading a book of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction last month, I came across the fact I’d come across before—that Joseph Conrad didn’t begin writing until he was 45 years old. Westlake joined this well-known case with Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, who also made his publishing debut at the age of 45.* As a lazy man of letters nearing that age, I was compelled as I often am around my birthday (which coincides with summer and which means, for me, more time) to return to the idea of a daily writing practice. This time it might even stick.
Back to the primal scene of this particular inspiration. Inspired anew every year at my birthday, I pledge again to start a daily writing practice. Just an hour a day, I vowed, as I wrote the first draft of this as a free verse poem over coffee, bread with honey. To sit for an hour a day and grind it out—to make something out of pure work. “To find my own mind and soul” I wrote. Then I wrote “Maybe even leave a mark for my life.”
Think of Westlake himself; a working writer since a teenager, running a squad of pseudonyms publishing a short shelf of novels every year.By the time he was my age, he had half a career behind him. But is that what I am after?
I’ve tried what I bracketed as “[the writing life]” before: dreck novels in a month; an abandoned screenplay; spurts of daily poems. What about my dissertation, or a handful of academic articles (stuff I really don’t care about). The truth is, writing is hard and what I write tends to be bad.
But maybe at 45 years of age I start to understand my real reasons—not to get into libraries and living rooms like Conrad and Stout, but to make some shape and meaning for myself and this world. And so I make another birthday pledge (belatedly, I needed some revision time): one hour of writing, every day, in any form. I started this as a poem because it said “ah me! hear my foibles! sing my weakness!” but it broke loose to discursive prose. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find a poem, or pitch for a comic book. I’ll get back to that academic prose too, and try to make it less bullshitty.
My practice will be simply to write, in any format so long as I record it in my notebook. It can be first drafts or revision if so fitting. I’ll be back here on the blog on a weekly basis, for any writing that is appropriate for this particular forum.
*(A little Internet research suggest that Westlake got his facts wrong) Rex Stout I knew little about, and it seems Westlake is being deceptive. Stout wrote for the pulps as a youth, retired to business, and published his first book at 43. The larger point is that he made his mark with 33 books published from his 40s to his 80s. There are other deceptive cases of later bloomers like Raymond Chandler (44) and Davenport.