The title begs a question. From when exactly do you date starting out to be a writer? From the moment you know writing is all you want to do? In my case that was the hour I spoke my first sentence. And knowing you want to write is tantamount to starting out to write, since you are already lurking in the shadows, looking at people as specimens, preparing your defences against the world you fear and dislike so much you’re desperate to word it into something different. What I wished I’d known from the outset was how long it was going to take to go from wishing to doing. Had someone told me it would be decades I might have chosen another profession, or at least not tormented myself with every unproductive year that passed.
I started writing, as opposed to clearing the ground for writing, when it was either that or crawl into a corner and die. Desperation got me going. Desperation about my age, my career, my marriage, my location, and the certainty that if I didn’t do it now, with my life in a perfect writer’s mess, I never would.
I was about twenty pages in when I heard Kingsley Amis on the radio giving advice to people starting out. ‘Retype the first page of your novel when it is rejected by a publisher,’ he said, ‘so it doesn’t look too well-thumbed when you send it on to the next. And if by any miracle it is accepted for publication, don’t hang around waiting for things to change, because they won’t – just get on with the next.’
This latter advice is unashamedly worldly. It counsels adultery. Betray the novel you spent all those years in love with and find another. You have to know when a relationship is over and, as far as a book is concerned, that’s when it goes out into the world. Nothing is sadder than the spectacle of the novelist who can’t let go, who three, five, or even ten years after publication, is still peddling it at festivals, reading to ever dwindling, dry-eyed audiences the passages which in an earlier age made readers weep.
Let it go. You have already, in all likelihood, and if you are anything like me, given the best years of your life to wondering if you’re ever going to write anything. So when something does eventuate it will be musty and out-of-date – to you, at least – and you don’t want to give what’s left of your time on earth to hugging its corpse.
There will be felicities you will never equal again. First books inevitably contain the most precious treasures of your heart. But to liberate that book is to liberate yourself, and now you’re done with ideas and sentences that have been too long gestating, you’re free to find out what being a writer really means and take a leap into the exhilarating emptiness of uncertainty, without any idea what you will do, or what you can do, next.
Howard Jacobson, novelist and essayist. Born in Manchester in 1942. Studied English at Downing College, Cambridge. Author of sixteen novels and six works of non-fiction. His first novel, Coming From Behind, was published in 1983. His most recent, Live a Little, came out two montha ago. In 2010 his novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize. He has twice won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing – in 2000 for the The Mighty Walzer and in 2013 for Zoo Time.