5 Great Writers Who Made a Penname for Themselves After Age 50
The population bubble of Baby Boomers and Baby Busters have made some dramatic changes to the structure of American society. One of the most positive of those changes is the trend called Vocational Epiphany. People over 50 are finding success in a second career, often the one they always wanted to do in the first place.
If you’ve always wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, you may have to wait out the next reincarnation, but if you’ve always wanted to be a writer, 50-year-olds are the new kids on the shelf.
Take some inspiration today from five (of the multitude) of writers who got the ballpoint rolling in their Silver Age.
James Michener – The traditional poster boy for success after AARP is Michener, though his real story is more complex. After successful careers huckstering in carnivals, and bumming around in boxcars, Michener returned to the Philly area to be a teacher. After being drafted into the Navy in WWII, he published a fictionalized account of his service, Tales of the South Pacific, which won him a Pulitzer at age 41. But his breakout success came with the novel Hawaii, published when he was 52. The majority of his popular novels came out after he hit 70 years old.
PD James — Phyllis Dorothy James remains the brains behind Inspector Dalgliesh, that emotionally cold but poetic modern-day Holmes popularized by ITV in the 1980’s. From scraping by as a hospital administrator, she worked her way up to Principle in the British Home Office, but it wasn’t really what she wanted to do with her life. She was able to retire at age 59 after Death of an Expert Witness charged up the best-seller lists in the UK.
Raymond Chandler – If you like your detectives like your eggs, hard-boiled, you’ve got Chandler to tip your fedora at. Born in Chicago, raised in the UK, he came to LA at age 15 with dreams of being a writer. He slogged his way up to Vice-President of an oil company before being fired for his drinking and affair with a secretary during the pre-Mad Men era. His first act as a writer was to list himself in the LA directory under the profession “Writer.” He joined a writer’s group The Fictioneers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, WT Ballard, and Dashiell Hammett, and he produced the quintessential Private Eye: Phillip Marlowe. Farewell, My Lovely established Chandler as one of the founders of the Noir genre at age 58.
Harriet Doerr – Debuting her first novel at age 74, Doerr lived up to her adopted name. Stones for Ibarra won the National Book Award along with the heart of America for her self-exiled protagonist Sara Everton. Doerr had abandoned college at 20 years old to marry a Mexican copper mine magnate. She spent the next 42 years, much of it in Mexico, as a housewife and mother. After her husband died, she picked up where she left off a lifetime ago, got her BA at age 67, and wrote her way to semi-famousness.
Frank McCourt — In the late 90’s, the book and film of the autobiographical Angela’s Ashes riveted the world’s attention on the blight of poverty in Ireland. The book sold 4 million copies in 27 countries and racked up a slate of awards while the film brought in millions and an Oscar nomination. The author was a retired teacher of creative writing, who said he didn’t feel ready to publish until he turned 66 years old.
So enough pep talk — time’s a-wasting. Find your bliss and your speech-to-text conversion software because nobody else is going to take dictation for you. Storytelling is what differentiates us from animals and what the world is crying out for right now is your differentiation.