The only thing I wanted to know when I began to write was simple: was I any good? That’s the only thing anyone wants to know when they’re starting out, even though – as far as I can tell from Q&As and visits to colleges – lots of young writers think they need to know about agents and working practices and treatments and software programmes. (They don’t. They just need to write, a lot.) I needed to know if I was any good so that I could learn how to understand rejection, because if you take rejection at face value, you give up: after the third or fourth time someone has told you that they’re not interested in your script or your fiction (and I was writing both), you take the hint. The ambition of the task you have set yourself is so absurd, so childish, even, that part of you wants a grown-up to take control and put an end to it. “You want to make a living out of sitting at home, eating biscuits and making stuff up? Dream on.”
But of course you know that some people do exactly that. You read about them writing in their pyjamas, writing in the bath, writing in huts at the end of the garden, writing five hundred words in the hour before breakfast and knocking off for a day. And sometimes you catch yourself thinking that you are more talented than some of these people. (You’re probably not more talented than Graham Greene, the man who wrote five hundred words before breakfast.) The agonising truth is that you are. Walk into a bookshop and you will find books by people who can’t really write, but are making a perfectly comfortable living anyway. It’s confusing. I wanted to know if I was any good, but there are only two possible answers, and I now know that neither of them would have helped me.
In my very early days, before I had earned a single penny from writing, I was turned down by a woman at the BBC after she had shown brief flicker of interest in the piece of work I had submitted. The rejection was crushing. Nearly quarter of a century and several books later, the same woman rejected me again. She was still doing the same job, more or less, and I was still writing in a version of the same voice, a voice that she clearly didn’t like very much. Obviously the rejection was easier to handle the second time around, but it made me reflect on the first encounter: finding the person who wants to hear what you have to say and the way you say it is both crucial and completely random. So maybe my younger self should rephrase his question. How about: will I be published? Yet the answer to that one doesn’t help either, very much, because the vast majority of writers will find that the day after they have been published, very little has changed. The problem of both earning a living and filling up the days of a career have not been solved.
The truth is, I’m glad my questions remained unanswered. I needed the ten years I spent finding out what I was good at, and bad at, and what was a waste of time. I needed to learn how difficult it all was, and I had to seek out the people who believed that I had something to offer. Certitude would have killed me; the fear, confusion and constant dents to confidence were necessary. If that sounds horrible, you should stop. If you can’t stop, you’re a writer.
Nick Hornby is the author of bestselling works of fiction and non-fiction including High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch. He has written Oscar-nominated screenplays for An Educationand Brooklyn. The film of his novel Juliet, Naked is in cinemas now.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.