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First person

The truth about creativity: Success is rarely an accident

By October 17, 2020No Comments

Emily Hourican has written five novels in five years. Here, she writes about what it really takes to have a career as a writer (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t involve sitting around waiting for inspiration to hit)…


Obviously this is not so much THE truth as A truth – my truth. One I feel strongly about. ‘How do you do it?’ people sometimes ask me. They mean (I think…) how have I managed to publish five novels in five years, as well as raise three children (not single-handedly, I hasten to add), do a day job that also involves writing, have cancer, be treated for cancer, and sometimes manage to get my hair done in time for the odd TV appearance, thereby fostering the illusion that I also look semi-respectable while doing all this.

I mostly assume the people who say this are being polite, and so my response is usually a variation on a) dissembling: ‘oh sure I don’t really do anything…’ or b) humour: ‘it’s not so much how, as why…’ I might say. Neither of those things is remotely true. I do actually work very hard, and with clear objectives in mind, but for some reason I feel compelled to adopt the persona of somehow who has sort of done whatever I’ve done by accident.

Partly, it’s because, like all decent Irish people, I am deeply uncomfortable talking about myself in any capacity other than the self-deprecating. And partly because, as a woman, I am profoundly socialised not to take myself seriously, or at least not to seem to take myself seriously.

The thing is though, that if I, and others like me, carry on with this comedy routine, we end up perpetuating lots of different stupid myths. One is that women don’t have exactly the same kind of targeted, strategic ambition as men. The other is that there is something haphazard and amateur about the creative life. This is the one whereby The Muse is everything, Inspiration is the fuel and ‘creating’ is basically a matter of being in the right place at the right time for when it strikes. And when it doesn’t strike? Sit and wait and stare out windows and listen to music and generally drift, until it makes its leisurely way back to you.

In this version, The Muse is a kind of feckless crush who can’t be relied upon to show up, but must be deferred to all the same. As if She (why always She?) has sent in her rider in advance, so that you can create the conditions that might coax her forth: silence, pretty views, well-sharpened pencils, green M&Ms, endless amounts of time. At which stage she may – or may not – show up, and then may – or may not – stick around long enough for you to get something out of her.

And that, of course, is all nonsense. Basically, we all know this, but somehow the myth lives on.

I cannot tell you how many days I spend writing crap. Hour after hour of it. Nose to grindstone. Knowing it is crap, and that I will end up binning most of it, but also knowing that if I don’t wade through all the crap, I’m not going to get to anything good. All the hours of frustration, writing and rewriting, trying to say one thing. All the hours when I would much rather be in bed, outside, with friends, even washing the dishes, than sitting at my desk piling up words. That’s what creating means to me.

It also means ploughing on in conditions of extreme self-doubt, when you have the sickening feeling that what you are doing is all useless, that your ideas are terrible and everyone will hate what you’ve done. That feeling is definitely going to arise, and somehow, within that, you have to find a small kernel of self-belief, or at least of ‘oh fuck it’, that will allow you to continue. And it means taking what you do seriously enough to make time for it – rather than being the person who waits for two clear months before they start anything – and being ruthless in ring-fencing that time.

In fact, I’m not sure I actually believe in The Muse. For me, it’s far more like a small internal goad. A small, sharp stick somewhere inside that prods at me until I do something. It’s not so much that I like writing, as that I hate not writing. 

Emily Hourican’s latest novel, The Glorious Guinness Girls, published by Hachette, is available now, see this week’s issue for an extract.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash