But sometimes the most important, acclaimed, and successful work can emerge late in the game. Consider the following late-bloomers — whether you're a fugitive filmmaker, a cab-driving composer, or a writer on a sixty-year losing streak, it's amazing what a little perspective can do.
Katherine Anne Porter
After a long and distinguished career as a short story writer, essayist and journalist, Porter finally published her first novel, Ship of Fools, at age 70. Though not as well-reviewed as her stories, the novel rewarded her with the financial security that had eluded her her entire life. Porter spent 20 years writing the novel, and she felt she understood why: “It has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me," she told the Paris Review. "Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences.”
Bernstein published a few short stories as a young man, then spent a fruitless six decades trying to get a novel published. His wife Ruby died when he was 92, and Harry began chronicling his childhood as a means of escape. “In order to forget the terrible loss I had suffered, I turned back to my writing and began my memoir, The Invisible Wall. When it was published, it was an instant literary success." Bernstein completed another acclaimed memoir, The Dream, before his death in 2011 at age 101.
McCourt, a New York City high school teacher, began writing his unforgettable memoir Angela’s Ashes in his mid-60s. On the Harper Collins Australia website, he credits the perspective of age for his ability to recount his impoverished childhood with a humorous tone: “I might be in the midst of some misery, and I’d say to myself, ‘Well, someday you’ll think it’s funny.’ And the other part of my head will say: ‘No, you won’t — you’ll never think this is funny. This is the most miserable experience you’ve ever had.’ But later on you look back and you say, ‘That was funny, that was absurd.’”
This titan of modern music was still driving a cab in his 40s. He created his own success by spearheading a performance group and retaining control of his music’s publishing, and he hasn’t looked back. “I stopped applying for grants 35 years ago because I never got anything,” he told the Fader. “And it was fine. I just made a living a different way. You know, I’m independent. Take it away from me. Try. You’re not going to do it. I’m too old a dog to get a chain around at this point. “
After 20 years of critical acclaim, record label hassles, substance abuse problems, rehab and romantic entanglements, blues/R&B/folk/pop singer Raitt finally achieved a major commercial breakthrough with her albums Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw. In a 1991 Q interview, she credits her honesty and her knack for confronting the problems of aging. "I think it's our job to write about what we're going through at the moment," she explains, "and being 41 I'm not going to write about the same things I wrote about at 20 … you can get tepid and sugary with your writing, or you can come to grips with things like relationships, as opposed to being single; how to keep a marriage vital; how to be dangerous even though you're straight, have quit drinking and can't stay up all night.”
An organist and schoolteacher by trade, this Czech composer’s first piece, Exaudi, was published when he was 22. But it wasn’t until the Prague premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1916 that Janáček, then 62, began to establish his reputation as a significant composer. Family tragedy played a role here: “The more sick [daughter] Oluška became, the more obsessed she became with her father’s new opera," said Janáček's maid Mařa Stejskalová. "And sensitive as he was, he put his pain over Oluška into his work, the suffering of his daughter into Jenůfa’s suffering.”
Polanski directed Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, among many others, but he refrained from dealing with his traumatic childhood — e.g. surviving the Holocaust — till he was in his mid-60s. The Pianist, his adaptation of Władysław Szpilman’s autobiography, reflected his own experiences. In an interview with Marilyn Cole Lownes, Polanski discusses the reasons for the delay. “scripting it ... was much harder for me [than filming] because it unearthed so many feelings that I had forced myself to bury a long time ago… With the passage of time and having children of my own, I see everything so differently. I see things through their eyes.”
This British-born screenwriter worked for years on smaller projects before becoming the oldest Best Original Screenplay Oscar-winner at 74 for The King’s Speech. Seidler delayed the film for years out of respect for the Queen Mother, who had asked him to spare her unpleasant memories. But Seidler isn’t complaining. Thanks to his Oscar, “I have a 1,000% better chance than a few years ago of getting work,” he told the JournalLive. “If I’d walked into a studio five years ago and said, ‘I want to make this film about a dead Brit king who stutters' I’d have been out the door in 60 seconds. Now they’re very interested in what I have to say.”