Writing Lessons

“It’s Never Too Late”

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By Annette Gordon-Reed

August 25, 2014


 

I have thought of myself as a writer from the time of my childhood. So, the best advice I ever received on the subject of writing was to never give up. I needed that directive because I had abandoned my dream of writing professionally, opting for what seemed a more practical career as a lawyer. “Lawyers write,” I told myself as a consolation. I could still experience the power of expressing myself on the page, and it could be for good causes. But very often the words lawyers write express the feelings and desires of others, things they themselves may not believe. The prospect of doing that forever was deeply unsatisfying. Writing was, for me, about telling the truth—or as near to the truth as could be found.

One evening in Manhattan, wrestling with these feelings, I went to see James Baldwin give a talk. Baldwin was the idol of my youth, the consummate truth-teller about the United States. I read his work obsessively, captivated by his marvelous style and lightning intelligence. It was thrilling to be in the same room with him. After he finished his talk, I stood in line to have him sign a copy of one of his books. I approached nervously, handed him my book and proceeded to tell him—much too rapidly, trying to fit everything into our brief encounter—how much his work meant to me. I ended, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it’s too late.” He paused, looked up, and smiled. “It’s never too late,” he said. That was all I needed.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is the author of  The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

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