By Don Wallace
When I was 21 my Dad took me aside and said, “Truman Capote had a bestseller at 21. Don’t you want to be a lawyer?”
When I was 25 my Dad took me aside and said, “Science says our brain cells begin to decay at 18 and it’s irreversible. If you’re not a success at 25, you probably won’t be. Don’t you want to be a lawyer?”
When I was 26 my wife decided to be a lawyer and my Dad took me aside and said, “She’s going to make a lot more money than you and men who make less than their wives are unhappy. Don’t you want to be a lawyer, too?”
When I was 28 I published a short story in a junior college literary magazine and a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford told me I’d made a fatal career move. At least he didn’t say I should be a lawyer.
At 28 my father also asked us to join him in visiting the owner of a small newspaper in a tiny mountain town. If we could swing a deal, he’d see about buying The Town Crier for us. I could edit the paper and my wife could do small-mountain-town law. But the owner was greedy and he negotiated using the farting-dog-under-the-sofa gambit. We fled, choking.
When I was 29 I said, “To hell with California, we’re moving to New York. No lawyers there, I hear.”
I heard wrong. But by then we were in The Big Apple, reading slush short stories for Redbook at 35-cents a pop and living on pizza and seltzer.
I hadn’t published anything of a fictional nature for 5 years when a friend decided to start his own press and solicited a story. The story I sent was based on an incident in my father’s life, relating to how frustrated he’d been at trying to communicate with his father. When the anthology came out, my father bought 100 copies and gave them away to all his country club friends.
At 32 I made a vow that I would publish a novel by age 40. I based this on Joseph Conrad not publishing a novel until he was 42.
I published Hot Water when I was 39. I thought it would get easier after that.
Last year I worked on a documentary about a songwriter in rural Hawaii who wrote hundreds of songs and only had one ever performed and recorded during his lifetime. His songs were saved because one man kept going back and interviewing and talking to him and collecting scraps of paper with lyrics on them. Last night at a hotel in Waikiki one of Sam Li’a’s songs, “Hi’ilawe,” was the highlight of a three-hour set by some of the best local musicians. Two different versions are played on “The Descendants” film soundtrack . . .
Keep writing. Because you’re never too old, even after you’re dead.