I still remember the moment when I first figured out that the books I adored didn’t magically appear out of thin air; there was a real-life person behind those stories.
I immediately took pen to paper to write a letter to the writers of my favourite novels and explain how much their work had meant to me. Devastating realisation #1: St Clare’s Boarding School didn’t exist and therefore I couldn’t enrol immediately. Devastating realisation #2: Some of my most beloved authors — Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and CS Lewis — were dead and there would be no more books left to devour once I had finished their respective back catalogues.
I often wonder what the impact on me would have been if we’d had such an author visit our school when I was a child. Would it have made a career as a writer seem more realistic, more accessible somehow? And would I have been brave enough to raise my hand to ask a question? (Friends of mine who write for younger children tell me of the hilarious questions they receive during school visits — ‘Are you a millionaire?’ is a popular one, as is ‘Do you know JK Rowling?’ and ‘Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?’)
I’m thinking about this because I spoke at a school event in Cork city recently, a rarity for me these days but something I very much enjoy.
Whenever I speak to young people about my work, I try and debunk some of the mythologising that takes place around careers in the arts. Yes, it’s a privilege to make a living doing something I enjoy, but most artists I know are very ordinary people living ordinary lives.
I explain my background to the students, telling them of my parents’ butcher shop, my sister’s job as a primary school teacher, my middle-class upbringing in a small town in west Cork.
I didn’t know anything about publishing before I wrote my first novel, there were no writers in my family, I didn’t have any contacts or inside information. The basic message is — if I can do it, then anyone can.
There is nothing special about me, nothing that is inherently different about my life than any one of the students sitting in front of me. I believe that we are all unique and that we are all worthy of love and respect, but I’m beginning to think that this idea of ‘specialness’ can only exist if we believe in a hierarchy, that some people are more deserving than others.
That feels exclusionary to me, particularly in something like the arts, where taste is so subjective. (Not forgetting that what has been deemed ‘good’ art for years was determined as such by straight, white, male critics.)
Talent is obviously important but talent cannot be sustained without a good work ethic. Before I left my job at ELLE magazine, I asked an editor there what she thought was the reason for her success.
There were certain elements of her meteoric rise that were obvious — besides being legitimately talented at what she did and well-liked, she was a thin, white woman in a society that unfairly rewards those attributes — but she told me, all things being equal, the reason why she had advanced when some of her peers had not was simply because she never gave up.
She kept working, no matter how difficult the route forward appeared. I often joke in this column about my love for Beyoncé. I find it difficult to trust people who say they don’t ‘get’ her. What’s not to get?
She’s the best performer alive today, her artistic vision, both musically and visually, is unparalleled, and she’s a hugely important cultural touchstone for women, especially black women. But it was while watching Homecoming, her Netflix documentary about the now legendary performance she gave at the Coachella music festival in 2018, that I truly understood something about Beyoncé. She isn’t the GOAT [greatest of all time] because of her voice or her dancing ability or her beauty, although all those things certainly didn’t hurt her career.
Beyoncé is the greatest of all time because of the work. In preparation for Coachella, she was back in the studio two months after giving birth to twins (while pregnant she suffered toxaemia, high blood pressure, and preeclampsia, and had to undergo an emergency C-section) rehearsing fifteen hours a day for eight months while breast-feeding the twins. Beyoncé will go down in history, not because of her god given talents, but because she works hard. That is what makes her great.
Of course, not everyone wants to be great — and that’s OK. There’s a huge difference between a job (something you do to pay the bills), a career (a profession you deem important and want to progress in), and a vocation. I would advise any young person reading this today to figure out which of these three paths they want to take once they leave school, remembering that none is more valuable than the other. Choose the path which will bring you the most contentment, not that which will impress your friends and family.
However, if you want a vocation, there are sacrifices to be made. If you want to be great, get ready to work.
READ: I’ve been making my way through the shortlist for the 2019 Women’s Prize.
I’ve already told you of my love for Anna Burns’s Milkman, but two of my other favourites on the list are My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithewaite, a darkly funny satire, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The latter, a story about a young, black couple torn apart when Roy, the husband, is wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, is moving and thought-provoking.
LISTEN: Eve Clague, a young musician from West Cork, has just released her debut EP. Titled Young Naive Me, it’s ‘urban folk’ at its finest, showcasing the Clonakilty native’s gorgeous vocals.
Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks