The other day, a dear friend, collector, and artist shared a post that said, “I’d rather look back at my life and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that’, instead of saying, ‘I wish I’d done that.’ “
There’s a video on YouTube where one of my favorite authors, James Alfred Wight, a.k.a. James Herriot, author of a number of bestselling, semi-autobiographical books about his life as a country vet in Yorkshire, England, described the kick in the seat of the pants he received from his wife to begin writing, at the age of 50. That’s right – 50.
My mom, an excellent yet unpublished writer herself, introduced me to the books of the late author decades ago. Born and raised in Scotland, he got his first job in rural Yorkshire fresh out of veterinary school and, falling in love with the country moors, the lifestyle, the people, a certain girl, and, of course the animals, never left, and his books primarily describe the period of time when he was just entering the field, between the two world wars. That era coincided with a sea change in both veterinary knowledge (when penicillin, for instance, had just been discovered) as well as was the tail end, as it were, of the predominance of draft horses, when many vets, along with a host of others whose livelihoods had depended on treating horses, cows, sheep, etc., were, due in part to the advent of the motor carriage, forced to convert to “small animal” work – dogs and cats and the like.
I know of no better writer than James Herriot, and my paperback copies of his books are well worn – in fact, a few are jacketless at this point. His short stories are so well-woven – full of charming characters (both human and animal) and descriptions of his life and humor, sadness, hope and love – that it’s amazing that he never even picked up a pen until his fifth decade, and that it was never more than a sideline until he passed away. Despite selling multiple millions of books, he never stopped being an unpretentious small town country vet living an unassuming life with his wife. Speaking of whom, were it not for her “encouragement” at a couple of key moments, the first of which I’ll recount today, leaving the other for another time, his genius likely would never seen the light of day.
The aforementioned YouTube video “James Herriot Portrait of a Bestseller” contains the following interview exchange:
“Well, the catalyst was my wife without a doubt, you know. She told me one day, when we were sitting over lunch and I was telling her about some funny incident and I said, as I said on innumerable occasions before, ‘I’ll put that in my book one day.’ She said, ‘You’re never going to write a book’, you see. And I was aghast at this, you see (chuckles). I couldn’t understand her being so unreasonable, you know. So I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ve been telling me for twenty five years now – we had a silver wedding last week – she says, ‘You’ll never write a book.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘People who are fifty – particularly old country vets at fifty – don’t start suddenly writing books.’
I thought, ‘Well, we’ll see‘…
And I was fifty years old actually before I seized the pen and started. That would have gone on and on just a little dream, and after all, so many of us are going to write a book. Ever since I’ve started, everybody I’ve ever met are going to write a book but I actually got my kick in the pants that set me off. Ah, I feel it’s an unfortunate commentary on my personality that I must be a procrastinating type… it’s a wonder that I ever got around to it…”
Sometimes what looks, at surface level, like negativity can be positively game changing.
Even if you’re then selected for a second round, you’re not in the clear. Now you really have to develop your concept, and that doesn’t come naturally or effortlessly for me. Just ask my wife, who told me years ago I could call my business, times I’m designing from scratch, “Black Funk Designs”. I’ve come close to getting a public art commission before, just missing the prize, and it’s left me with a smidge of PTSD.
I’m not always on the receiving end, by the way. Why, just the other day, at our son Will and daughter-in-law Hannah’s wedding, I heard that one of Will’s groomsmen liked one of Hannah’s bridesmaids. I delivered a short, sharpish command to him that very day. “What are you waiting for? Luck favors the bold.” (Perhaps I was also encouraging myself, as I was about to fly out of state and stand in front of a selection committee to pitch my public art proposal.) He claims it was just the encouragement to ask her on a date the following week. They’re an item. Boom. Well done, grasshopper.
If that’s you, consider yourself kicked.
There’s more to Alf Wight’s story. Stay tuned…