Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writers’ Career Paths, Part 2: Peaking at the Beginning, Middle, or End?

The writer Joseph Heller published his first novel Catch-22 in 1961 at the age of 38. He went on to publish six more novels, as well as plays, screenplays, and two autobiographies. I have only read some of his later books, and Good as Gold was memorable, but I don’t think many readers would dispute that his first book was his best.

Joseph Heller with his family, not long after the publication of Catch-22
I knew Joseph Heller a little bit growing up. His daughter Erica and I were classmates and friends in our early teens. Joseph Heller was as funny as his books. Tall, broad-shouldered, he towered over most people. He used to describe himself as “The World’s Tallest Midget.” But I digress.

Publishing his best book first put Joseph Heller in excellent company. There was also Charlotte Brontë, who wrote Jane Eyre at age of 31 before any of her other novels. J.D. Salinger authored many good books, but I think the consensus is that his first book, The Catcher in the Rye, is the classic of all his works.

Why would a writer create her or his best book right at the beginning of a career, before that person has the experience, maturity, and craft to polish a work to a shining finish? Sometimes that first great plot or narrator’s voice that gets a writer on the page is so good, it just can’t be outdone. Many writers who write their best book first keep trying to recreate that magic, but hey—writing one great book is nothing to sneeze at! How many have done it?

More common as a trajectory for writers is to produce the best books in mid-career. One great example of this is Virginia Woolf. She published her first book, The Voyage Out, in 1915 at the age of 33. In my opinion, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad book, but she certainly hit her stride in the middle of her career, when she published in succession Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando, (1928), and A Room of One’s Own (1929). That has to be one of the best four-year runs in the history of literature. Her subsequent novels were also good, but, in my opinion, not up to that amazing mid-career burst.

There are many other examples of writers who warm up with a few books of fair to middling quality, then write their masterpiece(s), and finish a career with works that don’t quite measure up. In his early years Leo Tolstoy wrote three autobiographical novels that are rarely read. Those were the prelude to War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which he penned in middle age, but didn’t equal again in his later years, despite his fame. 

It makes sense that peaking in mid-career is the most common path—at this stage, the writer has acquired some chops, and has begun to discover which themes are closest to the heart. Energy and originality are still relatively easy to access.

Another familiar example of this trajectory is Gustave Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary in mid-career. But the author Dorothy Bryant argues in her play Dear Master based on the correspondence of Flaubert and George Sand that all his previous work led up to the exquisite novella “A Simple Heart,” which he wrote toward the end of his life.

Dorothy Bryant
That leads us to the third type of author, one who is striving to write a certain kind of book all his or her years, and realizes that ambition after many false starts, only at the end of a career. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke authored books of poetry from his adolescence, but one could argue that his greatest period was a stretch of only a few weeks in February 1922, four years before his death, when two of his most celebrated books poured out of him, almost as if dictated: Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. At least, that is the legend that Rilke promoted, which was good business, since it gave those two later books a special status.

George Orwell wrote excellent nonfiction from the start of his career, but only his devoted fans (like me!) read his early fiction. Right at the end of his life, though, he wrote both Animal Farm and 1984, his two most famous and widely read works.


One can also see the rationale behind the career that climaxes in a best book or books. It can take a whole lifetime to get it right, to assemble the toolbox that a writer needs to build the dream house, the work that brings together the themes that eluded the author at a less mature stage, with all the craft it takes to realize that blueprint.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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