What 20 Of the World's Most Famous Writers Were Doing in Their Twenties

We don’t often think of people like Samuel Beckett, Edith Wharton, and Toni Morrison as 20-somethings, but before they took their places in the literary hall of fame, these famous authors fought through the same chapter of insignificance and self-doubt that millennials find themselves in today. From Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann to Cheryl Strayed and Stephen King, these writers’ experiences as 20-somethings will comfort, inspire, and — if you’re an aspiring writer yourself — give you a swift motivational kick in the ass.

1. Edith Wharton

In 1885, at the age of 23, Edith Jones married Edward Wharton, thus embarking on the 30-year union that most biographical accounts of the novelist refer to as “disastrous.” Rightly so: the two lacked common interests; Edward suffered from terrible depressions; both carried on affairs. But Wharton’s first decade of adulthood wasn’t a total waste. Her celebrated fiction, which includes the novels The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, is rife with romantic anguish and domestic restlessness — sentiments that had surely been fermenting from the early days of her marriage. 

2. Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s writing career got a jump start in his early twenties when he came under the tutelage of modernism forefather (and fellow Hibernian) James Joyce. (Talk about mentors!) Beckett assisted Joyce in researching Finnegan’s Wake, and his first published work — written in 1929, at the age of 23 — was a critical analysis of Joyce, “Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce.”

3. Zadie Smith

Aspiring writers, prepare to be sent into a tailspin of self-loathing: Zadie Smith’s smash-hit debut novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000, when the British author was just 24 years old. The book had actually been auctioned to publishers as a partial manuscript three years earlier, when Smith was still at Cambridge. She received an advance of 250,000 pounds.

4. Franz Kafka

Kafka’s unhappiness during his twenties will resonate with any writer struggling to focus on their craft while supporting themselves with a full-time job. From the age of 24 on he worked a series of day jobs that included handling insurance claims and co-managing an asbestos factory. Given his commitment to his writing, and a marked aversion to social interaction, Kafka mostly resented working — though it did help him to evade the military draft in 1915. In any event he managed to squeeze a novel out of his off-hours during this time: he completed Amerika around 1912, at 29, though it was not published until after his death. It remains one of his more widely read works.

5. Stephen King

King’s writing career had a mostly inauspicious beginning. After graduating from the University of Maine in 1970, the thriller writer eked out a living working blue-collar labor jobs and selling short stories to men’s magazines. He developed a drinking problem, and actually consigned the manuscript for his first published novel to the trash, until his wife retrieved it and convinced him to submit it to publishers. That novel, Carrie, was published in 1973, when King was just 26. It earned him $400,000 in paperback rights alone and continues to be one of his most beloved works.

6. Norman Mailer

If in his studies at Harvard Norman Mailer ever came across the term “hubris,” he evidently either skimmed it or dismissed its negative connotations. The New Jersey native was a self-consciously precocious writer who published his first short story at 18 and compared himself to Theodore Dreiser. He wasn’t altogether delusional about his skill: His novel The Naked and the Dead, published when he was just 25, remains one of the most revered World War II novels of all time. But lessons in humility came soon after: His next two novels, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, published during his late twenties and early thirties, were almost universally panned.

7. Thomas Mann

German author Thomas Mann published his first novel, the epic Buddenbrooks, in 1901, when he was just 26. At over 700 pages, it describes the generational decline of a German merchant family, much of the plot drawn from the history of Mann’s own clan. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, the gay novelist had written several other works, such as The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice, for which he was arguably more famous. But, owing to the conservatism of the awards ceremony, he was only cited for this early (and relatively uncontroversial) work. 

8. Susan Sontag

By 24 Susan Sontag had already married, had a child, and established herself in the academic milieu of Cambridge, Mass. Comfortable though it was, Sontag knew that her life of professional and domestic ease was getting her no closer to her true ambition of writing fiction. So, in her mid-20s, she flew the nest to Paris, where she fell in with the writers and thinkers of the avant-garde, carried on affairs, and developed the idiosyncratic critical approach that would make her such an intellectual sensation back in the States. Her big break finally came at the age of 31, when she published her famous 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

9. John Updike

John Updike may take the cake for the coolest post-college job in recent literary history. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954, he went to work for The New Yorker on the recommendation of E. B. White, who Updike had met while taking drawing classes in England. Thankless grunt work this was not: Updike wrote features and reviews for the magazine for two years, until the birth of his son forced him to high tail it to the suburbs.

10. Don DeLillo

Those 20-somethings on the verge of putting in their two weeks’ and fleeing corporate hell forever may find a spirit-brother in Don DeLillo, the pomo mastermind behind White Noise, Underworld, and, most recently, The Angel Esmeralda. After graduating from Fordham in 1958, DeLillo went to work at the New York advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter for five years. When he quit in 1964, at the age of 28, his friends assumed he meant to devote himself to writing. But, in fact, as DeLillo told Guernica, “I quit my job so I could go to the movies on weekday afternoons.”

11. Cheryl Strayed

A string of misfortunes that included the death of her mother and an ugly, drawn-out divorce led Strayed, at 26, to set out on 1,000+ mile trek along the Pacific Coast Trail by herself. It was a crazy idea — you might even say wild — but Strayed’s experiences on the trail, and the Thoreauvian insight she gained into herself and the world, helped to fuel the wisdom that has make her one of the most earnestly listened-to voices in American letters today.

12. Ernest Hemingway

Shortly after marrying his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1921, a 23-year-old Hemingway moved to Paris, where the modernist movement was in full swing. Though he worked as a foreign correspondent to make money, his true occupation (as documented in his memoir A Moveable Feast) was developing his aesthetic and cementing his place in what would become known as the “Lost Generation.” He published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926, at the age of 27.

13. Toni Morrison

The Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved and Sula began her literary career as an academic, and most of her twenties were spent studying or teaching at universities. After graduating from Howard in 1953 she went on to get her Master’s at Cornell, where she wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She returned to Howard at the age of 26 to teach English, and it was during this time that she began developing the idea for her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The novel wouldn’t be published until 1970, though, when Morrison was 39.

14. Christopher Hitchens

The late essayist and virulent “antitheist” wasted no time in launching his career in journalism. Upon graduating from Oxford in 1971, he worked at a string of news publications including International Socialism, the Times Higher Education Supplement, and the New Statesman, where he met Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. The three remained lifelong friends.

15. James Baldwin

In 1948, wanting to escape the rampant prejudice against blacks and gays in America, a 24 year-old James Baldwin went to Paris. Though he would remain in France for most of his adult life, the distance helped him to gain perspective on his life back in New York. His published his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman set in Harlem, when he was 29.

16. George Bernard Shaw

It’s hard to imagine the Pygmalion playwright spending a period of his life doing anything less refined than wiping off his prince-nez. But Shaw, like many 20-somethings, put in his requisite years of office drudgery. At the age of 14 he left school to work at a land agent’s office, and continued to support himself through day jobs until the age of 23, when he quit his position at the Edison Telephone Company to go live with his mother in London and write. His first play, Widowers’ House, wouldn’t debut until 16 years later. We have to assume that decade and a half involved some major 19th-century Hannah Horvathary. If only we had the gbshaw.tumblr.com to prove it.

17. Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s biography reads like an especially juicy section of Who’s Who in America. His extended clan included politicians, military heroes, Broadway actresses, and the step-family of Jacqueline Onassis. The relentlessly ambitious writer proved himself worthy of their company early, publishing his first novel, Williwaw, at 21, and his next, The City and the Pillar, two years later. It’s the latter book that sealed Vidal’s fate, both as a literary superstar and an unabashed gay writer in an era — the mid-20th century — in which contempt for homosexuality remained the norm. 

18. Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle author Jeannette Walls dispels the notion that semi-sleazy journalistic work can’t pave the way for great writing. Starting at age 27, Walls headed up New York magazine’s dishy “Intelligencer” column, before becoming the voice of MSNBC’s gossip column, “Scoop.” 

19. F. Scott Fitzgerald

In his early twenties, while stationed in Alabama during the tail end of World War I, Fitzgerald fell in love with Zelda Sayre, a darling of Montgomery debutante society. In order to win her hand in marriage, though, Fitzgerald had to prove that he could support her financially. His first go at lucrative employment after the war — a stint as an ad copywriter in New York — was a miserable failure, and as a result the engagement was put on hold. But when Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, at 23, Zelda’s family finally gave their blessing.

20. Jack London

In 1897, at the age of 21, Jack London sailed with his brother-in-law to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush. The two didn’t exactly strike it rich, and London developed scurvy, which resulted in the loss of four teeth. But the experience provided inspiration for some of London’s earliest published short stories, and imbued the San-Francisco-born writer with a lifelong fascination with Alaska.

Follow @policymic