As the youngest member of the AHRB family, I inevitably face the rite of passage that Adrian, Jon, Ben, Lucas, and James have already experienced – graduation. I am soon to graduate (with, for those curious, a rather handy degree in English and American Literature), and leave education behind. This reluctant move into the ‘real world’ has left me curious of the educational and post-graduate escapades of some of our most beloved authors. And so, for your amusement and inspiration, here lies the success (and failures) of authors at graduation age.
Dr Seuss. Dr. Seuss (or Theodor Seuss Geisel, as he was known in 1925 when he graduated from Dartmouth College) spent much of his college education drinking, writing, drawing, and joining societies. If this sounds like the way you survived higher education, then congratulations! It seems you’re in good company. Geisel was part of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and wrote for the humour magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. His work was well received, and he was eventually he was promoted to editor-in-chief. But it was not to last. While at Dartmouth, Geisel was caught drinking gin with nine friends in his room – a typical student activity, but highly illegal under the Prohibition laws in place between 1920 and 1933. The infraction led Dean Craven Laycock to demand that Geisel withdraw from all extracurricular activities, including the college humour magazine. However, in a strange twist of fate, Geisel’s newly barred status led him to write secretly, under the pen name “Seuss”. Of course, Dr. Seuss came to be one of the most adored and quotable children’s writers of all time, and a household name. It seems that Dean Laycock did the young Theodor Seuss Geisel something of a favour.
Enid Blyton. After finishing school in 1915 as head girl, 18-year-old Enid Blyton moved out of the family home following continuing conflicts with her mother. She stayed with her friend Mary Attenborough, before moving on to live with George and Emily Hunt at Seckford Hall, in Suffolk. The house was a source of inspiration for Blyton, with its allegedly haunted room and secret passageway. Fans of Five or Seven will recognise these settings captured in her stories. Blyton made a friend in Ida Hunt, a teacher at Ipswich High School, who recognised Blyton’s natural affinity with children and spirited imagination. Hunt suggested that Blyton should train as a teacher, leading her to enrol in a National Froebel Union teacher training course in September 1916. As she entered higher education, Blyton’s relationship with her family had almost ceased completely. Whilst facing rejected manuscripts and criticism, Blyton gained her teaching certificate, with distinctions in zoology and principles of education, a 1st class in botany, geography, practice and history of education, child hygiene and class teaching, and a 2nd class in literature and elementary mathematics. Blyton’s formal education and passion for writing continued in a symbiotic relationship throughout much of her life. Indeed, when Blyton cemented her reputation as a children’s writer in 1926 (in her new role as editor of Sunny Stories, a magazine re-telling legends, stories and articles for children), the same year saw her presented with her own column in Teachers’ World, entitled “From my Window”.
J.K. Rowling. Rowling has stated in interview that her teenage years were not happy. She faced difficulty at home with her mother’s multiple sclerosis, and a complicated relationship with her father. One of her English teachers described the young student as “not exceptional” but “one of a group of girls who were bright, and quite good at English”. Although apparently unremarkable, Rowling was made head girl, and successfully completed A Levels in English, French and German. She was rejected by Oxford upon application, but chose to pursue a degree in French and Classics at the University of Exeter. Rowling recounts doing little work in these years, instead preferring to listen to The Smiths, and read. After graduating in 1986, Rowling moved to London for a career in research, working as bilingual secretary for Amnesty International. However, the period to come would be deeply challenging for Rowling, as she saw the end of her marriage, and unpleasant legal battles. In a TED talk, Rowling has revealed that seven years after graduating from university, she saw herself as a failure – her marriage had disintegrated, she was jobless, and with a dependent child. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide – indeed, her illness inspired the characters known as Dementors. Rowling signed up for welfare benefits, describing her economic status as being “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” Nonetheless, she persevered in creating perhaps the most iconic children’s character of all time, and in 1995 (the year I was born!), finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on an old manual typewriter. 21 years later, J.K. Rowling, OBE FRSL, is the United Kingdom’s best-selling living author, with sales in excess of £238m. But more importantly, Rowling has inspired and delighted millions of children, and has demonstrated a true devotion to charitable causes, losing her billionaire status in 2012 after donating so much of her fortune.
Stephen King. King studied at the University of Maine, graduating in 1970 with a BA in English. During his time at university, King wrote a column for the student newspaper, The Maine Campus, titled “Steve King’s Garbage Truck”, and undertook several odd jobs to pay for his studies – including janitor, gas pump attendant, and working at an industrial laundry. After leaving the university, King earned a certificate to teach high school but (like many postgrads) found himself unable to find a teaching post. The man who would become the 20th bestselling author of all time (and in only 43 years) began writing short stories in a desperate bid for spare cash. King supplemented his labouring wage by selling short stories to men’s magazines, and sold his first ‘professional’ short story in 1967. Throughout the 1970s, King continued to sell short stories and work on ideas for novels. However, this period also saw him develop a drinking problem (and later, substance abuse) which would plague him for more than a decade. King’s addictions to alcohol and other drugs were so serious during the 1980s that, as he acknowledged in On Writing in 2000, he can barely remember writing Cujo. Shortly after the novel’s publication, King’s family and friends staged an intervention; they dumped beer cans, cigarette butts, grams of cocaine, Xanax, Valium, NyQuil, dextromethorphan (cough syrup) and marijuana on the rug in front of him. King sought help in the late 1980s, and has remained sober since. Today, King lives with his wife, Tabitha King, and has three children, and four grandchildren. He continues to horrify and bedazzle readers every year with new publications, to critical acclaim.
It is immeasurably comforting to see the success (and even difficulties) of others, and know that every year, graduates may be one of a million, or one in a million. Perhaps cheesy, perhaps naïve, but evidently true.
I’ll let Neil Gaiman see us out: