1. Toni Morrison published her first novel at age 40 as a single mom.
Morrison completed her first novel, The Bluest Eye, while she taught at Howard University and raised two children after a divorce. The novel tanked in sales and garnered mix reviews. It was only in her mid-forties that Sula and Song of Solomon set her on the track of becoming the only recent American author to win a Nobel Prize.
2. Wayne Coyne was a fry cook through his twenties before The Flaming Lips hit their stride.
For 11 years after high school, Coyne worked as a fry cook at Long John Silvers. The Flaming Lips played small shows for eight years before Warner signed them, and Coyne waited 10 years working at the restaurant before “She Don’t Use Jelly” became the band’s first charted hit.
3. Ang Lee screened his first big movie at age 38.
For six years after graduate film school, Lee was a stay-at-home dad, sometimes working odd jobs for film crews. His molecular biologist wife encouraged him not to give up. His first movie screened in Taiwan when he was 38, and he was pushing 40 when The Wedding Banquet made him a surprise international hit.
4. Dorothy Allison was 42 when Bastard Out of Carolina came out.
She worked as a mop racker, waitress, nanny, feminist bookstore founder, maid, salad girl, Social Security clerk, rape crisis center phone counselor, and substitute teacher. She basically lived 12 lifetimes before she wrote a National Book Award-nominated novel.
5. Morgan Freeman was an off-Broadway actor for most of his early life.
An acclaimed one at that. But he became an international star only after 52, when he played his first major Hollywood role in Glory (1989).
6. Junot Díaz spent his entire thirties writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
He published the critically adored Drown at the very young age of 29, but let’s just appreciate the fact that his follow-up book took 10 years to write.
He told the Asian American Writer’s Workshop that he spent eight fruitless years writing Oscar Wao before “forgiving it for sucking” and rewriting it.
“Before that, I approached it with all my weapons. I approached it with my training. I approached it with my reading. I approached it with my intellect. I approached it with competence. I approached it with confidence. And every weapon failed. And then about eight years down the road, I was like, ‘It’s OK. So you suck. Let’s begin.’”
7. Louise Bourgeois reached her greatest artistic success in her seventies and eighties.
Her art was celebrated by the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem De Kooning, but it wasn’t until her late seventies that she created “Maman,” the sculptural tributes to motherhood that made Bourgeois a household name.
8. George Saunders was an environmental engineer before he became a best-selling author.
Though now hailed as one of the world’s finest short story writers, he came to literature slantwise, after studying geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, then working as an oil surveyor in Sumatra, a doorman at Beverly Hills, a roofer in Chicago, and a knuckle-puller at a slaughterhouse.
His first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was published when he was 37.
9. George Eliot published her first novel at 40.
Sure, she spent her twenties hanging out with luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herbert Spencer, but her first novel, Adam Bede, didn’t come out until she was 40.
10. James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) released his first album when he was 35.
On playing music in the twentysomething-dominated indie scene, Murphy says: “You’re part of a machine that’s set up to really whip your teenage ego into a frenzy. On the one hand, that’s awesome, because you’re kind of immune to it. But on the other hand … it’s like being an adult at an amusement park designed for kids. I’m like, ‘I can’t fit on any of these rides.’”
11. Peaches taught music to preschool children for a decade before becoming Peaches.
She taught at a Jewish preschool before moving to Berlin and becoming one of the most sexually outspoken indie musicians. The first Peaches album came out when she was 34. If you think it’s too late to spit beer, wear dildo dresses, and rock out after your twenties, get on her level.
12. Bettye LaVette was a 16-year-old R&B sensation. It took her another 43 years to rediscover that level of success.
She even wrote a song about the long journey between her successes as a singer.
13. Vincent Van Gogh had his first exhibition at age 32.
In his twenties, Van Gogh worked stints as an art dealer, a teacher, and an ineffectual missionary. It was only at age 27 that he was persuaded to go to an art school. His most famous works, like “Starry Night,” were done in his mid-thirties.
14. Thelonious Monk struggled to sell records in his thirties.
Unlike Miles Davis and other young jazz prodigies, Thelonious Monk suffered from shoddy sales and mixed reviews. For most of his thirties, he struggled to find a record label that would keep him.
15. Janet Fitch knew she’d be a writer since age 21. Her first book came out 18 years later.
You may know her for White Oleander, a novel feted by Oprah’s Book Club and adapted for film in 2002. Janet Fitch said she woke up on her 21st birthday knowing that she wanted to write fiction. Her first novel came out when she was 39.
16. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 49.
The American Civil War (presumably) meant everyone had more urgent things to do than neurotically compare one another’s life progress, but no one really knew he wrote at all until he was 30. Mostly, Twain wrote short humor and travel pieces until he published Tom Sawyer at age 41.
17. The Hurt Locker came out when Kathryn Bigelow was 57.
Bigelow directed mildly successful action movies from the ’80s to the early ’00s, taking long breaks in between, but it wasn’t until The Hurt Locker that she catapulted to the order of some of America’s most recognizable directors. (No lie, though, Point Break is a pretty sweet wave to ride.)
18. The National languished in alt-country obscurity till Matt Berninger was 34.
Berninger quit a steady advertising job in his thirties to start what was then dismissed as a deeply unfashionable alt-country band. He told The Telegraph: “I was doing well [in advertising]. But, once I entertained the thought that maybe I wouldn’t ever have to go and sit in conference rooms with Mastercard to discuss web ads again, I couldn’t shake it.”
19. Millard Kaufman wrote his first novel at age 90.
He fought in WWII and co-created “Mr. Magoo,” the cartoon character. Charlie Chaplin once told him that he didn’t feel like he deserved dinner until he finished writing every day. Kaufman followed that advice.
Contrary to what the cult of prodigies led you to believe, a great deal of artists had their breakthroughs after their mid-thirties: Don DeLillo, Paul Cezanne, Cheryl Strayed, Sapphire, Phil Hartman, Lucille Ball, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Kelsey Moore, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maya Angelou, Joseph Conrad, Paul Gaugin, Leonard Cohen, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices), and others.
As author Sam Lipsyte says, “It’s not a race. It’s a contest.”