It is a truth universally acknowledged that it can be pretty freakin’ hard to get paid to do what you love. The job search can often be a thankless and demoralizing ordeal, and it’s easy to get discouraged, especially as a young person just starting out.
The path to success isn’t an easy one, and true Cinderella stories are few and far between. Need proof? These authors—now household names, with dozens (hundreds?) of awards between them—faced significant challenges before getting their big breaks. Some dealt with repeated rejection, while others didn’t even begin writing until they were well into middle-age.
So if you’re feeling dishearted after getting ghosted by an interviewer, or are trying to summon the strength to send your 485th cover letter, read this list. Even though it might sound cheesy, it’s really never too late to find your way.
1. Frank McCourt
Irish-American writer Frank McCourt taught in New York city public schools for nearly 30 years before penning his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Pictured: (1996). He was already in his 60s when he sat down to record his memories of his harrowing childhood in Ireland in “a modest book, modestly written.” Angela’s Ashes quickly became a best-seller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in addition to the Pulitzer, and was adapted into a feature film. McCourt followed up with ‘Tis (1999) which described his struggles upon arriving in New York, and Teacher Man (2005), an account of his experiences as a public school teacher.
2. J.K. Rowling
Most Harry Potter fans will eagerly tell you about how Harry, Hermione, and Ron sprung to life on a used napkin in an Edinburgh café. But J.K. Rowling‘s life before publishing The Sorcerer’s Stone was even more difficult than most people realize. When she was 25 years old, her mother died of multiple sclerosis. Soon after, Rowling moved to Portugal, became pregnant, and suffered a miscarriage. The next year, she gave birth to her daughter but divorced her partner after 13 months together. Returning to Edinburgh, Rowling was living on welfare and was heavily depressed—even considering suicide at times. But she kept on writing, while also taking care of her small child.
“An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless … By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
— J.K. Rowling in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech.
After receiving countless rejections, her manuscript finally got the green light in 1997. The rest is literary history, but if you care about this sort of thing: the Harry Potter books have sold over 450 million copies, been adapted into eight beloved movies, spawned two theme parks, and briefly made Rowling a billionaire.
3. Stephen King
In 1973, Stephen King was teaching English at a private school in eastern Maine. His wife, Tabby, worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. They had a baby to feed, but when King was offered a higher-paying job that wouldn’t leave him with enough time to write, his wife insisted he turn it down. It was a good thing he did—a year later, Carrie became a literary sensation.
However, getting to that point was a journey. King came home one day from school to find that Tabby had gone through the trash in their laundry-room-slash-writing-space and unfolded pages of a novel about a troubled, telekinetic young girl. She encouraged him to finish the book. He did, and it was rejected by 30 publishers. Doubleday finally bought it, but the profits were meager—although King was able to move his family to a larger apartment. Then he received the news that Signet had bought the paperback edition. Carrie sold one million copies in one year and launched King’s incredibly prolific and respected career—one that he fully credits to Tabby.
4. Madeleine L’Engle
Madeline L’Engle‘s novel A Wrinkle in Time is a beloved children’s classic (and is currently being adapted into a feature film starring Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling and directed by Ava DuVernay). But she almost didn’t write it. On her 40th birthday, she received a rejection for The Lost Innocent, her latest novel and the most recent of her manuscripts to be turned down. It was so disheartening she took it as an omen to just give up, especially as a woman who was quietly rebelling against social norms.
“This was an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write. All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother. When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered. I couldn’t make decent pie crust. . . . And with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.”
— Madeleine L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet.
Luckily, something pulled her back to her typewriter. “I had to write … If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing,” she claimed. After 26 rejections, A Wrinkle in Time was finally published, becoming an instant hit and winning the prestigious John Newbury Medal.
5. Laura Ingalls Wilder
The much-loved author of Little House on the Prairie didn’t start her writing career until her mid-40s when she became a journalist at a newspaper. She penned her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, in her 60s, but couldn’t find a publisher. She reworked the material, and the result is the Little House series we know and love today. Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s original books would eventually spawn a series of spinoffs that imagined the lives of her great grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter, as well as a hit television show in the 1970s and ’80s.
6. Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler became a writer only after being fired from his job as an oil executive at age 44. He was an alcoholic and his marriage was in shambles after fooling around with women in his office. Without that rock bottom, though, we may never have gotten The Big Sleep (published when Chandler was 50) and a host of other short stories, novels, and screenplays.
7. Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is revered as one of the great writers of our time, and the Hulu adaption of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale has recently reminded audiences how relevant and vital her literature remains. But this brilliant dystopian tale would never have been told had Atwood not struggled with a completely different novel first. This novel was so difficult for Atwood to finish that she eventually gave up completely — and soon after, in her newfound free time, The Handmaid’s Tale was crafted.
“Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud? Who told us we had to succeed at any cost?”
— Margaret Atwood
8. Toni Morrison
Last but certainly not least — the great Toni Morrison didn’t find success until her second act in life. Morrison was a 40-year-old single mother teaching English at Howard University English when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Song of Solomon (1977) was the first book by a black author since Richard Wright‘s Native Son in 1940 to be chosen as a Main Selection of the Book of the Month Club, and Beloved (1987) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And Morrison hasn’t slowed down in recent decades. She was 62 when she was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and was 81 when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.