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Writer's Pep Talk #1

Looking at Famous Authors’ Literary Careers to Cheer Myself Up

By Steve B HowardPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Writer's Pep Talk #1
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

I suppose the definition of success among writers is as varied as the writers themselves.

My personal definition is to earn enough money solely from writing that I’m inspired to do to allow my family to live at least decent middle-class lifestyles.

I’ve been writing since 1997, publishing stuff since 1998, and earning money from my writing since 2000. But so far, 25 years later, I’m not even close to reaching my definition of success as a writer.

I imagine you are thinking to yourself at this point, “Uh, Steve, this sure doesn’t sound like much of a pep talk for writers!”

Well, even though I haven’t had much financial success yet as a writer I am at least in good company. Here are six very famous and financially successful writers who didn’t really hit it big until after nearly 20 years or more of writing.

Charles Bukowski

If you’ve read much of my stuff you probably already know I love old Hank. Yes, in many ways he was a terrible person who did some things that probably shouldn’t be forgiven.

The thing I admire about him most though is the fact that he wrote for over 30 years with almost nothing to show for it. To me, he is the Everyperson’s underdog super writer. He wrote short stories and poetry mainly. He would write, send his stuff off (in the mail no less), collect the rejection letters, drink, pass out, go to his horrible day jobs, come home and write some more. He did this day after day for almost 35 years.

Though, I think there was 10 year period when he got fed up and didn’t write much at all. But eventually, he tried again and was finally discovered by Black Sparrow Press.

I don’t want most of the stuff his hard life was made up of including an absolutely brutal childhood, but I’m still hoping my Black Sparrow Press will come along someday and give me a shot.

Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s first novel The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965. He was able to find a literary agent, publish it through Random House and win the William Faulkner Award for it, but like the other five novels he wrote after it, he didn’t gain widespread recognition or fame until his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses was published. He won a lot of awards for his novels and other writing between 1965 and 1992, some of which like the McArthur Fellowship for Blood Meridian in 1985 paid very well ($236,000), but there were also many times between 1965 and 1992 when he was dead broke. Unlike Bukowski, I don’t think McCarthy worked too many souless dead end jobs during that time, but he did live simply and way below the poverty line for many of those years.

Kurt Vonnegut

Like McCarthy, Vonnegut wrote a lot of stuff between 1945 and 1969 that earned him some money including novels and short stories that all won awards and received a lot of critical acclaim, but during the 24 years between 1945 and 1969 until Slaughterhouse Five hit it big, he still struggled to help support his family. And even after the success of Slaughterhouse Five and his later works, he still continued to teach creative writing for several years at Harvard and the City College of New York.

Stephen King

Technically, Stephen King hit it big after only eight years since his first short stories were published in 1965 and Carrie was published in 1973, but I think he actually started writing stories in 1957 as an elementary student, so it really took him 16 years, close enough to 20 years for me, to reach the point in which he didn’t have to teach or do any other jobs besides writing anymore. Also, he wrote I believe four novels before Carrie that were never published including one that was 150k words. Knowing that it took arguably the most successful writer in history that many years to find success is strangely inspiring and comforting to me.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison attended Howard University from 1949–1953 and this is where she wrote he first short stories, I believe including one which she later expanded into her first novel The Bluest Eyes which was published in 1970. It was her third novel though, Songs of Solomon, published in 1977 that gained her international recognition. Even with the success of this novel though as well as her fourth novel Tar Baby and the play Dreaming Emmett, she continued to teach at least until Beloved was published in 1987. So, it took Morrison over 20 years to find mainstream success with Songs of Solomon in 1977. And this from an absolutely astounding writer who would go on to win the Pulitzer in 1987 and the Nobel Prize in 1993.

John Steinbeck

I consider Steinbeck to be my biggest personal influence as a writer. Like Stephen King, Steinbeck became successful in less than 20 years, but he didn’t entirely gain financial freedom from other work besides writing his novels, memoirs, screenplays, and works he seemed to want to write until after the success of Grapes of Wrath in 1939. He started out trying to write in NYC in 1925 after dropping out of Stanford, but didn’t have any success and returned to CA in 1928. Eventually, he would publish his first novel Cup of Gold in 1929, but it wasn’t very successful. Like Stephen King, he wrote several novellas and novels, four of which were published and two of which I believe weren’t. I read that he wrote a Western during this time because they were really popular among fans of fiction, but he hated it so much that he threw it in the trash. Tortilla Flats which was published in 1935 was his first successful novella, but even after its success he still continued to work various part-time jobs and write journalism to earn extra money. And like Morrison, Steinbeck eventually went on to win both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

I’m not delusional enough to believe I’ll ever be as successful as most of these writers, but I do find great inspiration in their personal struggles and stories. All of which gives me hope that one day I will be able to at least achieve my own definition of success as a writer that being as I mentioned, to earn enough money solely from writing that I’m inspired to do to allow my family to live at least decent middle-class lifestyles.


About the Creator

Steve B Howard

Steve Howard's self-published collection of short stories Satori in the Slip Stream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and others were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019.

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