Today I read this remarkable Guardian article about Toni Morrison with whom I fell in love in college. She's incredible, and the article says a great many interesting things, but the one that stopped me was this: "It is hard to believe Morrison is 81. She started late, her first novel, The Bluest Eye, written when she was 39 and a senior editor at Random House."
First off, 39 is late? Really? Maybe it's not early but late? The New Yorker's up and comers list is "40 Under 40," and that seems about right to me. Writers under 40 count as young, early, up and coming, ahead. This is not to say that writers over 40 are old or late or behind -- not at all, in fact -- but calling 39 late seems strange to me. I imagine what this writer really means is that Morrison is so talented and so decorated (i.e. she's a Nobel Laureate in addition to quite a few other remarkable honors), and we somehow expect that kind of talent to be inherent, built-in, inborn rather than earned or developed.
This brings me to what strikes me as the second remarkable, thrown-away point in those couple sentences: she was a senior editor at Random House at the time. No matter how inherently talented you are, writing good books (or, hell, bad books) takes time. Lots of it. So does being a senior editor at Random House. So does rising to be a senior editor at Random House. This is also part of why 39 seems young. Morrison went to college, then graduate school, then taught at a couple of colleges for a few years, then was a textbook editor before becoming a senior fiction editor and finishing her book. That's not late -- that's pretty much right away. She can eat off writing novels now, sure, but no one starts off that way.
Third is that innocent little "and." "...her first novel, The Bluest Eye, written when she was 39 and a senior editor at Random House." Lots of us -- most of us probably -- write our first novels with an "and." We have a job and we write. Lots of us also have kids. Morrison had two and was raising them solo and was a senior editor at Random House and was writing her first novel. Later in the article, it says she got up at 4:00 every morning to write. It strikes me that she could reasonably have gotten up at 5:00 instead or written every other morning or just on weekends, published her first book at 45 or 47 instead of 39, and still been ahead of the game.
And then there's this bit: "It is hard to believe Morrison is 81." It's not clear if that's because she seems younger or because it seems like she was so recently 39 and publishing her first book or because it seems strange in our culture to be publishing novels -- as Morrison is this summer -- at the age of 81, but I gather it's the latter. There's much in the article about her always napping after lunch, never having to feel guilty about anything anymore at 81, forgetting where her keys are and what they're for, having a clear picture of the past just not the present. It's interesting this impression that writing is for young people -- 39 is late to start, 81 is old to publish -- when it seems in so many ways like it'd be the opposite. Is it cultural? Other cultures value the wisdom and experience of their elders more than we do? It also seems to me to tie into all of the above: when your children are raised, when you don't have to work full-time at a non-writing job to support your writing, when your head isn't full of parenting and working, when you aren't so sleepless and exhausted, when you've had some education and life experiences and perspective, when your past is clearer than your present, when your past is presenter than your present...that seems to me like exactly the time to be writing novels.
About The Author
Laurie Frankel writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she's staring out her windows between words. She's originally from Maryland and makes good soup.