Still not written that award-winning novel, played the Royal Albert Hall or won an Oscar? Nione Meakin talks to a host of creative people who argue that good things come in the longhaul...
At the age you were still learning to spell your own name, five-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (spell that) was nominated for a Best Actress gong.
When you were fending off dogs on your paper round, a 13-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz was fighting her way to fame in Kick Ass. And at 19, when most of us are proud just to be able to “cook” a Pot Noodle, Justin Bieber is wondering which remote global outpost to conquer next.
In our youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to feel like a failure if you hit your mid-20s (or, ahem, very late-20s) with little more to your name than a second hand sofa and an even bigger overdraft. But don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve missed the boat. Although their stories are less trumpeted than those of the freaky child prodigies, there are just as many people for whom success came a little later in the day.
Debbie Harry spent her 20s kicking about in unsuccessful bands before finding fame with Blondie aged 30, while Vivienne Westwood was a primary school teacher who only got round to designing clothes at 30, when she opened Kings Road boutique Let It Rock.
Then there’s Alan Rickman, who was 28 when he became an actor and in his 40s before he landed his first film role. Or Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, a frustrated waiter who’d nearly given up on acting when he won the role of Don Draper aged 35.
Playwright Penelope Skinner describes the anxiety to succeed young as “a weird kind of curse we put on ourselves.” Even in her 20s she worried she was already “too old” to make it: “It depressed me for years and made me feel like a failure”. She was 30 by the time her first play F**ked won critical acclaim and has gone on to write for The Royal Court, The Bush and the National Theatre.
Now 35 and finally a full-time writer, she says she’s glad she spent so many years in unsatisfying admin jobs. “No matter how easy it is to moan about the ‘pressures’ of writing or how depressing bad reviews can be, I’m still grateful every day for the opportunity to do something creative and interesting. And I always appreciate the person who makes coffee for a meeting because for years, that person was me.”
Actor Nick Asbury spent most of his 20s praying that his debit card wouldn’t be declined in shops before getting a break with the RSC aged 28. He’s since enjoyed a successful career with the company and published two books on acting. He has no idea what kept him going – “Sheer bloody-mindedness? A pathological fear of offices?” – but says it’s important that we don’t give up, or at least not easily. “If you knock on the door long enough, someone, somewhere, will open it. It may not happen the first time because you may not be ready or they may not be ready for you – try again. If it still doesn’t happen, try again. If you continue to fail consider whether your talents might be better used elsewhere. Everyone has a talent but sometimes it takes a while to find out what it is.”
Emily Gravett can vouch for that. She was 32 when her debut children’s book Wolves was published, winning her the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. Up until that point, she had been travelling the UK in an old bus with her husband Mik. Life on the road was all-consuming and she was 28 and a mother when she first decided to enroll at art college, 30 when she went to university for the first time. Like Skinner, the 41-year-old sees her late-start as “an enormous benefit”: “I wasn’t at uni because I’d drifted into it but because I’d made a conscious decision about the future I wanted for my family and myself. There were lots of times I felt like packing it in, but being older had given me the staying power I lacked in my youth.”
Still not convinced? Then take a look at Diana Athill who, after years of editing the biggest names in literature, has become a successful writer herself. Her age? 95.
For more articles and opportunities, visit our Writing & Publishing hub.