I saw this quote the other day as I was pondering why some writers are one-trick ponies --- which I would define as being known primarily for one major tale (which may involve more than one book) and one major tale only. And I found myself asking, is what Ms. Angelou said true? Think on’t, as Will would say. It’s definitely not true for all authors (thank goodness), but for quite a few, it seems to be the case. Look at three modern examples that came to me off the top of my head: Salinger. Tolkien. Rowling. Given that the latter is still with us, I may be accused of being premature in my assessment… but stop and think about it for a moment.
In Catcher in the Rye, regardless of your personal feelings about its merits or lack thereof, J.D. Salinger wrote what is arguably one of the most influential coming-of-age stories of the 20th century. And then he never wrote anything on that scale again. Sure, he wrote other stuff… but he also made a whole other career of being a recluse and shunning the limelight.
J.R.R. Tolkien is primarily known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings --- really just one tale, since LOTR is a sequel to The Hobbit and was never intended as a trilogy by its author. Oh, sure, Tolkien’s son Christopher has made it a career to continue publishing his father’s writings ever since Professor T’s death in 1973 --- which really qualifies as a vocation of some sort. (I mean, think about it: you spend your entire adult life editing and getting someone else’s works ready for publication, instead of writing works of your own? Man, that’s dedication to the cause.) But all the stuff Christopher Tolkien has published has never ignited public imagination the way LOTR did (even before filmmaker Peter Jackson came along --- and as I am fond of telling my students, Jackson’s Middle Earth and Tolkien’s Middle Earth are two very, very different places).
J.K. Rowling is synonymous with Harry Potter. One tale, seven books. Yes, there’s The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike books… but again, those have not ignited public imagination as Harry did.
So, did these writers “use up” their creativity? Not necessarily. And I need to note that I certainly don’t mean to be insulting or dismissive of any of these authors; they’re all phenomenally successful on a scale most writers can only dream of. (Although given that, it’s perhaps a tad ironic all three reacted to fame and attention --- admittedly fame on a frenzied scale --- on a continuum ranging from discomfort to outright hostility.)
I think it’s certainly possible any given person has one story in them to tell. I’ve seen a quote out there (can’t remember the author, I’m afraid) to the effect that the tale chooses the writer, not the other way ‘round, and I think that’s true. C.S. Lewis said of his writing that, “I never exactly made a book. It’s rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say” and I think that’s very true as well.
There are other reasons why authors can be known mainly for one tale: for example, their canvas is so vast, one tale can occupy a lifetime of writing. This was certainly true of Tolkien. We’re talking about an entire world, created from scratch, and constructing the mythos that goes with it.
Or, for whatever reason, it takes a very long time to write the tale. Again, true of Tolkien: he was an Oxford don, married with four children, and I can personally attest, from my own writing, that all too often, coping with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune leaves very little time or creative energy for writing. And that’s without even talking about the creatively barren periods of time we quaintly call ‘writer’s block’ that I think every single writer ever born has encountered and struggled with.
And, you know, the public, bless its dark little capricious collective heart, particularly in these later days of instant gratification, can be ferociously fickle, addicted to the next new thing, and may neither like nor appreciate it when a writer tries something new. I think there’s something to the idea of catching literary lightning in a bottle. It happens rarely and for reasons nobody fully understands. Why do some works --- which are sometimes of frankly substandard writing --- become monster hits, while others that are far more creative and better written, languish unread? I repeat, nobody knows. And it causes many writers to tear out their hair in frustration.
Are there authors out there who are not one-trick ponies? Sure. Lots… but that’s a discussion for another day.