Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life
June 18, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Shiv Dutta
For years, like Steve Jobs, I looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I still want to do what I am about to do today?” And when the answer was ‘No’ for far too many days, I knew I had to change something. So, in 2013, I asked myself the same questions that had held me back from pursuing a full-time literary life since my adolescence: Am I financially solvent enough to support myself for the rest of my life? Yes. Does anyone depend on me financially? No. Would a full-time literary life keep me sufficiently engaged? Yes. Would I enjoy such a life? Yes. Armed with these reassuring answers, in January of that year, I bade farewell to a life of physics, computers and corporate world that had sustained me and my family for so many years.
At the time I parted with my job, I was close to retirement. That I was setting a new goal rather late in life was of no concern to me. All my life I held the belief that one was never too old to have a new beginning. I took to heart George Eliot’s advice: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” More importantly, I didn’t want to find myself in a situation years later when I’d suddenly realize I didn’t have much time left to do the things I wanted to do and feel sorry for myself.
I had a vague idea about what it was that I wanted to write about. I remembered what Flannery O’Connor had famously said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And I believed it. I could write on myriad of topics—essays based on the sciences, commentaries on current events, short stories etc—but I really wanted to write about my journey at a very young age, almost penniless, from an obscure small town in India to an alien culture in the late sixties for a PhD in nuclear physics. I wanted to write about my subsequent decision to settle in a foreign land as a new immigrant, far from the folks I grew up with, and what impact it had on me, and on the family I left behind.
While I wrote and published a few stories and poems during my high school years and some political commentaries during my college days, I never really had a serious training in the literary arts. But I read voraciously: Maugham, Hemingway, Lawrence, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Wodehouse, and any other writer I could find a book by in the local library.
My literary training began in earnest five years before I quit my job. I devoured books on literary crafts like a glutton. I attended many writing classes, workshops, and writers’ conferences where I had the privilege of meeting and making friends with many writers. We discussed and debated the tips, tricks and techniques of good writing. From them I learned their first hand experiences of what a writing life was like.
Above my writing desk up against the wall, I posted two quotes to keep me grounded: “Perfectionism is the enemy of creation. – John Updike” and “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett.” With these two quotes as my guide posts as well as talisman, I started writing personal essays and submitted them to literary magazines. The rejections started coming. I didn’t give a damn. I wasn’t discouraged because I was in it for the long haul. I persisted, and the persistence paid off. Soon, along with the deluge of rejections, acceptances started coming in dribs and drabs, some of them from magazines and journals of some repute. I felt inspired and encouraged and continued writing.
It has been exciting since I turned to full-time writing. I am currently working on my memoirs which will contain many of my published personal essays. I wrote these essays because I wasn’t willing to agonize over untold stories tearing me apart inside. I didn’t want these stories to be forgotten and lost either. Many of these stories are family stories, and I wrote them because, as Lee Martin says, silence wasn’t an option. I didn’t know any other way to get them out of me. They are my stories. I owned them, and I alone could write about them. There have been moments during the writing of some of these stories when I felt they saved me. I wrote many of them when I couldn’t speak. By writing them, I wanted to live my life once more. I wanted to find out who I was growing up, who I am now, and who I want to be going forward. Does anybody care about these stories? Who cares? Paraphrasing Abigail Thomas I say, “I care!”
Should my memoirs remain unfinished for any reason, I can still say it has been a fascinating ride, this literary life. I made so many writer friends and earned their love and encouragement. They accepted me as a member of the community of my tribes. My mentors, echoing Albert Schweitzer, I gratefully say, “At times when my own light went out, it was rekindled by a spark from them.” With my published essays, I’m already leaving something behind for posterity to remember me by. I wouldn’t just be dead, gone and forgotten.
Shiv Dutta’s publications have appeared in several magazines including Tampa Review, Under the Sun, Tin House, Hippocampus Magazine, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage, Connotation Press, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Eclectica Magazine. He has also produced 45 technical papers and co-authored two technical books. Two of his personal essays were nominated for Pushcart Prize. He is currently writing his memoirs. When not engaged in literary pursuits, Shiv spends way too much time on CNN and Facebook.
Shiv, congratulations on following your dream and then starting out all over again. Your story closely parallels my own. I had a career in academia and high tech, and toward the end of it I started publishing stories, memoirs and articles. I retired in 2015 and never looked back. Soon I was writing a novel that came out in 2018, and a year ago set to work on a sequel I’m now polishing. I’ve placed some articles and stories but never received enough money from writing to call it “income.” No matter; as you seem to, I value praise for my prose more than any royalty.
What a treat to wake up to this! Thank you, Shiv, for this wonderful piece!
I loved reading this this morning, Shiv–takes me back to our Kenyon classroom a few summers ago with Allison and Dinty! You are an inspiration!
I agree with Ann Klotz, you are an inspiration! I, too, became a writer later in life, receiving my MFA at 49, and leaving the corporate world at 51 to pursue other dreams.
Shiv, this is inspiring, and the tonic needed to a gray, rainy day. Thank you!
Bravo! I admire your courage and concentration for the road ahead. I retired almost two years ago and am now happily immersed in my second act as a full-time writer. Hard work that is a real pleasure. Keep on it! You’re an inspiration to us all, Shiv.
I love this, Shiv! Can’t wait to read your memoir!
Very inspiring and well written!
I loved the part wherein you mentioned, rejections of your articles started coming in, but those rejections didn’t change your mindset.
Lovely inspirational motivational.
Look forward to many of your Read.
Getting published is a rare treat for me, and so in six or more years of pitching prose I’ve learned to expect rejection. It cushions falls and makes for a moment of ecstasy when I receive the odd acceptance. I think it helps to cast hope aside, but maybe that’s just me.
You being realistic…. that is good better than not keeping any false hopes
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Thank you for this, Shiv. It is just what I needed! I am 56, and although I can’t afford to quit my day job, I must remember that I don’t know how much time I have left. If not now, when?
Best wishes for your memoir. I look forward to seeing it on the shelf one day!
Thank you, Shiv for a very encouraging and resourceful piece. This article gives me that additional motivation I needed to jump back to writing again. I started writing and published a few poems and short stories during my high school and engineering school days in India, that continued sporadically up to my Graduate Study days at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and for few more years thereafter. My writing motivation gradually faded away, replaced by photography and sketching. Your article encouraged me to revisit the writing path.
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