I wish I had known that I would end up knowing too much.
When I started out as a writer I don’t think I read reviews, watched bestseller lists, knew how prestige was managed, or sales acquired. I knew nothing of agents or publishers, the internet did not exist, the idea of an Amazon rating was alien to me and I was indifferent to the business of public praise. There was just me and the book. I found the book in the library and in the bookshop, and by checking out other people’s shelves. This blessed state is where I try to return, each time I sit down to write – and I do actually get there, for at least half an hour at a time.
I wish I had known how distracting the idea of getting known could be. When I started out, information was hard to acquire. It took a year before you knew how a book had been received. There was no other way to work, except blind.
There is no shame in thinking strategically about the public aspects of the business – this is not an immoral, soiling, or unartistic thing to do – but this is not where the real work happens. You should spend more time writing the book than second-guessing whether people will like it, in one way or another. Apart from anything else, you can be quite wrong. My most successful work was written in despair at how bad it was, how misguided, how doomed to a small print run and the remainder bins.
There are some useful things I always knew. You might earn money, but probably won’t, so find a cheap place to live. Stay out of Dublin, London and Brooklyn, these places will fill you with the wrong kind of ambition. Novel writing is a long game. I wish I had known that, over the distance, talent is as nothing compared to tenacity. Do not marry a woman who tries to manage your career. Do not marry a man who gets jealous or insulted, not just by the luxury of your writing day, but by your creativity’s joyful indifference to all his concerns. Learn to be alone. Don’t ask friends to read your work. Your agent is not your friend (unless he is), your publisher is not your friend (unless she is), they are your business partners, even though that business is cut from the still-beating cells of your poor mangled heart.
You will not be as good as Proust, and that can be a shock to the system, it can even seem a little bit unfair, given how hard you work. But the books you write will surprise you. I wish I had known that.
Anne Enright was born and now lives and works in Dublin. She has pubished five novels, including The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007, The Forgotten Waltz and The Green Road, which won Irish Novel of the Year in 2015. She has also published two collections of short stories, collected as Yesterday’s Weather. In January 2015 she was announced as the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.