A Young James Joyce

When it comes to writing (or almost anything that takes practice), no matter how much I want to deny it, inherent talent definitely plays a role. The question is, how big of a role does it play?

Some writers, like Stephen King, have said that if you do not have talent, it is not worth attempting to become a writer. I disagree. It can give you a leg up but it is far from the end all be all, and besides, even talent won’t get you too far.

Today’s subject is James Joyce. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was him. Between the ages of 22 and 25 he wrote all of the stories contained in DUBLINERS. His first published novel, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, is a classic, still widely read, and then there’s ULYSSES. All of this, along with a play, some poems, and the occasional essay and journalism, published before his 40th birthday. There are many other writers who don’t begin publishing quality pieces until their late 30s or early 40s; Joyce had burst on to the scene at the age of a college senior with short stories that would become canonical. If there was ever a writer with talent, it was Joyce.

But he also worked very, very hard. At age 9 he wrote a poem about the death of Irish politician Charles Parnell that his father thought was good enough to be published. Though there is little else recorded from this time in his life, it is quite likely he continued writing. He also began to read voraciously, to the point where his English teacher at school let him sit quietly and read during class as he had already gone through everything they were teaching and could answer questions about the texts with ease.

At 18 he had his first official publication, a review of a Henrik Ibsen play, and wrote a number of other articles as well as two unpublished (and now lost) plays. The next few years were quite eventful for Joyce: he travelled to Paris to try and study medicine and failed, his mother died, he met Nora Barnacle, his life partner, and his first short stories were published. He also wrote an essay dealing with aesthetics, entitled A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, which was rejected by magazines, and which he decided to revise into a novel.

He and Nora soon eloped to continental Europe, where Joyce took a bunch of jobs as a teacher, tutor, singer, and bank teller to support themselves while he continued reading and writing voluminously. His career as an author had run into some problems: none of the printers wanted to publish DUBLINERS, deeming some of the stories obscene, and Joyce refused to censor the offending passages. He finally had them brought out in book form in 1914, after approximately 8 years of attempts at publishing them. The novel he was fashioning out of his essay, STEPHEN HERO, was never published during his lifetime; he later started over from scratch and wrote A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From there, Joyce would become a celebrated figure of Modernism, one whose works still enjoy renown today. Clearly he was talented when it came to writing, but more important than that were the hours he spent reading books and authoring various texts. Publishing classics when you’re in your early/mid 20s suddenly becomes a lot more understandable when you’ve read enough to know more about literature than your teachers and write a number of articles and plays before attempting prose fiction. And even then, it still took a number of years to publish his books. Had he been talented but not determined, Joyce could easily have given up after a year or two of rejection.

So talent is obviously important, but not nearly as much as hard work and determination. So to anyone feeling depressed because of rejection, just remember, even the greats had to deal with plenty of it too. The problem is that many short biographies online gloss over these rough early periods for many famous writers.

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A Young Haruki Murakami

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

With millions of books sold across the world and numerous international literary prizes, Haruki Murakami is one of those rare writers who achieve popularity both with critics and with audiences. His characters’ apathy and the bizarre adventures have found resonance all across the globe.

He definitely has an easily identifiable style. The story of how he came to write his first extended prose piece at age 30 sounds like something straight out of his books: while watching a baseball game and drinking, a player hit a double and at that exact moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. He went back home and began it. At that time he and his wife ran a jazz bar together, so his writing had to wait until late at night. But everyday for four months he kept on it. The result was the novella HEAR THE WIND SING, which he submitted to the Gunzo literary contest and won first prize, kick starting his career (a bit of trivia: the same contest also helped establish Ryu Murakami, who won for ALMOST TRANSPARENT BLUE).

He followed up with a slew of acclaimed novels, each one earning him more readers and awards, until he became Japan’s most famous writer.

It makes for a great story—who wouldn’t want to hit it out of the park with their first novel? But this leaves out quite a bit of backstory and makes Murakami into some lucky guy born with incredible talent, instead of a disciplined hardworker.

Anyone who has picked up a Murakami novel knows he is well versed in western (particularly American) literature. Since his teenage years, he had a voracious appetite for the works of Updike, Capote, Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver, among many others. By the time he started his first novella, he probably knew more about contemporary American literature than many young American writers.

And, as he states in his introduction to Soseki’s SANSHIRO, in his 20s he made his way through THE TALE OF GENJI and the complete works of Natsume Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki. (I cannot find anything on Murakami reading Kenzaburo Oe, but given how often the older novelists works are reference in Murakami’s, he probably read a lot of Oe.)

Hardcore Murakami fans might be aware of all this, but arguably the most important part of his origin story is rarely if ever mentioned. At Waseda University, he studied drama with a focus on screenwriting. In fact, running his Japanese wiki page through Google translate, it seems being a screenwriter was his first ambition, producing numerous scripts and scenarios, none of which have ever been produced. I’ve seen posts online about how these scripts, still stuck in his drawer, number in the twenties, but at this time I cannot confirm that number. Either way, he did a lot of screenwriting before trying his hand at prose.

Murakami thus goes from being a natural prodigy who struck gold with his first piece to an ambitious, well read, prolific writer who began creating work years before any of it saw the light of day. So any would-be writers feeling down today, just remember even the best often spend lots of time slaving away in anonymity, and if their biography suggests that they didn’t, it is much more likely that that section is just missing. And for those still discouraged, perhaps try switching formats. After all, a rejected screenwriter found success as a novelist: who’s to say it couldn’t happen again.

A Young William Golding

As a wannabe writer, I find nothing as motivating as learning about famous writers when they were just starting out. What were they like before they were well known, before they knew they had made it?

Today, the focus is on William Golding, best known for LORD OF THE FLIES. The information comes from John Carey’s excellent biography, THE MAN WHO WROTE LORD OF THE FLIES. Though now viewed as something like a one trick pony, Golding wrote a number of other novels (many of them have fallen in stature since release, but in his lifetime later works such as DARKNESS VISIBLE and TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH received wide acclaim), a couple nonfiction pieces, some plays, and exactly one collection of poems.

That collection, aptly but boringly entitled POEMS, came remarkably early in his career, with the book published when he was 23 and most of the content written during his college years. His next published work, LORD OF THE FLIES, would not be released until 20 years later.

What happened in the interim?

Golding was still writing, mentioning in a letter from the late 1930’s a novel he was at work on, though it is unknown if he ever finished the draft. Short stories and poems also flowed from his pen, but few if any were picked up.

Golding began to work on larger projects after the war. The first, SEAHORSE, was a nonfiction account of sailing while also training for D-Day. While his other nonfiction works are mostly collections of essays, lectures, or travelogues, this is a straight biographical account.

His next two would be novels, though still drawing on his life experience. CIRCLE UNDER THE SEA features sailing as a prominent theme in the story of a man trying to discover treasure on an island. And, although he wrote in the evenings, Golding needed a day job, settling on being a teacher. His next novel, SHORT MEASURE, is a drama set in an English boarding school, and was considered by publishing houses before ultimately getting rejected. None of them have been published, even posthumously.

For anyone doubting themselves, just remember, Golding wrote at minimum three and a half extended prose pieces, along with a good amount of poetry and miscellaneous works before his first novel hit the market. He was 43 years old. Whatever one thinks of Golding, whether he is a one trick pony or a stain on the Nobel (I disagree with both thoughts), it is impossible to deny that he let rejection halt his dreams.