It took Don DeLillo about four years to write his first novel (Americana, 1971). And after finding his rhythm, only six more years to complete another seven, ending what would be the most productive decade of his career to date. He had quit a job in advertising in his late 20s and moved into a tiny apartment next to the busy exit of a Manhattan subway line, where he overlooked swarming crowds of workers coming in and out of the city. Isolated from society save for visits to a nearby library and the drop-ins of a few friends (and eventually, his wife), he learnt to write there, starting the book two years later. But on moving in he had no idea whether he had any real talent or not.
The author had developed a love for reading in his late teens after a casual job had started providing lengthy periods of downtime. He had read extensively in his youth but hadn’t developed a habit, and gradually found himself shifting interests. In his late 20s and early 30s he experienced a ‘golden age of reading’ and embarked on the works of literary figureheads like James Joyce and Dostoyevsky; the opening chapters of Ulysses being the trigger for his passion of word-smithery. When first reading the book, DeLillo was surprised to find himself mesmerised not by Joyce’s pyrotechnics or grandiose design, but rather the beauty with which each sentence was constructed. He simply hadn’t considered the potential of language before.
DeLillo has since written a total 15 novels—2 being Pulitzer finalists—and has won several prestigious literary accolades, including the American National Book Award. His books are dark, layered and cerebral, with a writing process involving intensely realised characterisation that leads into monolithic coverages of American culture. His observations are breathtaking. In this art-documentary the BBC produced in 1983, he talks about way-of-life changes happening with the breakdown of authority; events like the assassination of JFK that shifted an entire public consciousness into an atmosphere of fearful randomosity. Reviewing the assassination footage, DeLillo makes a sub-observation:
‘Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think the footage comes close to uncovering some secret about the nature of film itself. Film carries something, some mind stream, some myth that may be common to us all. It’s as though the experience of film has aquired a kind of independent existence in our consciousness. It’s that deeply embedded: Have to get it on film!‘
I haven’t read any of DeLillo’s books yet (this has been written after seeing several readings, interviews and documentaries), but no doubt I’ll be sending him fan mail by the end of the year. He isn’t just a master author: He’s a potent reminder of the power of making a conviction about yourself. It just so happens he was lucky enough to have a talent capable of launching him to the culture’s apex after figuring it out (he’s considered as important a writer as Thomas Pynchon).
Few to none of us have Don DeLillo’s supreme intelligence or aptitude, but I think everyone benefits from his example. His life wasn’t working out and he dropped everything to pursue a transformation he had no certainty in. It wasn’t until he had worked on a novel for a full 2 years that he realised he was a real writer.
I made a conscious decision last year to leave corporate environments to pursue writing and psychology, and being 31 it’s pretty awesome to see this kind of precedent. I’m positive with the right discipline and perseverance that anyone can become at least a good a prose writer as someone like Dan Brown: success is usually down to perspective and creativity, and I think there’s a huge chunk of us with a creative spark who don’t realise it. I don’t know for sure if I’m one of them yet (and know as objective fact I’ll never write with the virtuosity of DeLillo), but I think I’m at least close enough to try. And in a way, we all should. It’s probably too important not to.