Category Archives: Creative Writing

Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

I am so excited, I think I might spontaneously combust. My first novel – The Secret Son – is hitting Irish bookshelves this month. Yet this time two months ago, I hadn’t the smallest inclination of what was about to happen. On 4th July, Martin King of TV3’s The Morning Show burst into my office where I work with the Commission for Energy Regulation and announced that I was the winner of TV3’s “Write a Bestseller” competition. Life since then has been a whirlwind – of the best kind. I had spotted the competition, which was run in conjunction with Poolbeg Press, when I was happily procrastinating from writing my third novel. Clicking around Writing.ie I stumbled across it and my mind flew to the dusty old copy of The Secret Son sitting in my drawer.

lawI’ll go back a few years. In 2008-2009, I was training to be a solicitor. While studying Wills & Probate law I was genuinely amazed at the amount of cases that came before the courts involving families having fallen out with each other over the contents of a dead relative’s will. An idea began to form. What if I could write a story about a will that went one step further than the cases I had been studying. Instead of just dividing up the family fortune in an unexpected way, the will could reveal a dark secret that threatened the very stability of the family. And so the character of Andrew Shaw began to form in my head. A sick young man in need of a kidney transplant who is horrified to discover that a recently dead stranger is in fact his biological father. Unsure how to even begin constructing a full novel on this scrap of an idea, I attended Juliet Bressan’s one day ‘How to write a novel’ course in the Irish Writer’s Centre.

Meeting other aspiring writers was itself inspirational. I learnt the basics of creating a story arc, marking plot points and developing characters, all which enabled me to structure the novel in my mind. Though the story ultimately changed and matured over the months, I had a plan to work from and I finally got down to the serious business of writing a novel. I wrote whenever I could. I got up early before work, scribbled down sentences in the evenings and stole some hours at the weekends. Eventually, the words added uPictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.p and I had my book done. Sort of. It was mostly finished, but I knew it was lacking. I just couldn’t put my finger on the exact problem. So I returned to the Irish Writer’s Centre and took Conor Kostick’s Finish your Novel course over ten weeks. He gave me the tools to shape and polish the book – being true to your voice, how to write dialogue authentically and creating villians; writing love scenes, being certain of your theme and book endings. I left the course with the skills I needed to hone and perfect my story.

It took many edits, more reading around (I particularly recommend Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages), and ultimately taking time off work, but I eventually finished. A year later, I came across TV3’s competition and sent The Secret Son off to Poolbeg. I had no conception at the time how it would change my life. In the past two months, I got to see a whole new side of writing – the process of turning a manuscript into a book for sale. Normally this process takes months, but we had weeks, if we were to capitalise on the publicity I have been so fortunate to receive from TV3. The editing process was the best part. I was nervous – you hear horror stories of editors cutting characters and decimating storylines. But that wasn’t the case at all. All of the edits suggested were spot on and mostly centred around making the book readable and consistent. It was the final polish and ultimately professionalised the novel. Aside from editing the actual book, there has been plenty of other fun stuff to do – acknowledgments, dedication, front cover consultation, photo shoot, marketing and PR. I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t all a dream. It’s just unbelieveable that all this has been made possible in such a short period of time. Right now, I’m busy organising the launch of The Secret Son and I have my minions (ie. my very dedicated family and friends) spreading the word to their friends, colleagues and book clubs. I hope The Secret Son does well and that I get the opportunity to keep writing. For the moment, I’m enjoying the crazy, crazy reality that I’m actually being published. To anyone who is mulling over a spark of an idea, I say go for it. Just look at what can happen!

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Competitions, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, novels

The Winning Story: Exile by Phil Young

waverly3‘This is to be your bed, Charlie.’ Nurse Gillane led him to the narrow bed with its iron frame. One of about ten in a long room. The room was painted a shiny green. It was very cold.

‘You can put your things into the locker,’  she  said, ‘and leave your boots beneath the bed.’

Charlie’s things consisted of his pyjamas, some clothes and a photograph of his mother and a man who was his father. Well, Mama said he was his father. Charlie didn’t remember him. He was wearing a soldier’s uniform, and looked  just like so many of the men in Charlie’s town. Mama said that he was killed in the war. He was a hero.

‘You can be a hero too Charlie! You be a brave boy now,  and when the war is over we’ll be together.  Just the two of us. There, how grown up you look in your new boots.’

She had just bought him new winter boots. Heavy black leather, laced beyond his ankles, and with studs on the soles, which he  could make spark when he struck them off the pavement. They were too big for him, but she said he would grow into them.

‘By the time you come back home, they’ll be just right size for you. But mind you don’t scuff the toes now. You have to look after them, so that they’ll last until you come home.’

She had kissed him then, and he had got on to the train with the other children. They were the most important thing, his boots. While he kept his boots safe, he was linked with his mother and his home.

Charlie remembered little of his journey. Noise, confusion, darkness. The whistle of the train, the rocking motion which soon put him to sleep. The long boat journey during which he was sick. The panic as he tried to clean the vomit from the front of his boots. And then being brought to this long grey building, with lots of other children and  lots of nurses with red crosses on their fronts.

Over the next few weeks, Charlie did as he was told, said as little as possible, and tried not to be homesick for his mother. He did all the jobs he was told  to do, he paid attention in the classes which were set up in one of the rooms of the building, and he ate the food which was put in front of him. Each  morning, as soon as the bell to wake the boys rang out, Charlie jumped out of bed to check if his boots were still there. As soon as he put on the boots, the cold, raw feeling which had been with him all night seeped away, and he felt a measure of security. While his boots were safe, he knew his mother would come for him.

The months went by, and gradually the number of children in the building grew less. ‘We’re finding foster homes for them,’ Nurse Gillane explained. Charlie hoped they would not find one for him. What if Mama came searching for him and found him gone? And then, one morning, Charlie was called to the superintendent’s office. The superintendent had a letter in front of him.

‘Well Charlie. How have you been getting on here?’

‘Fine sir.’

‘And you’ve been happy enough?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good, good.’ The man looked awkward and ill at ease. Charlie knew there was more to come.

‘You see this letter?’

Charlie glanced quickly at the letter. Black typing. Heavy paper. Official looking.

‘The thing is, Charlie. You have to be  brave. Very brave ….’

Charlie knew then. He knew it from the flutter in his stomach. From the trembling that shook his knees.

‘You see, she knew,  Charlie. She knew that she had only months to live. That’s why she wanted you to be here … in safe hands. She knew we’d take good care of you Charlie. And  we will. We will.’

scratch boot  Charlie looked down at his boots. She had made him a promise. The boots were still shiny and barely scuffed. He took such care of them. He would not let anyone touch them. He never let them out of his sight. But now, she was not coming for him. He would never be going back. Who else was there to go back to? There had only been him and Mama. And she had promised. The shaking that had started in his knees now took over his body, his hands, his teeth. He couldn’t stop shaking. The superintendent rose, and coming around to his side of the desk, put his arm across Charlie’s shoulder.

‘There, there,  boy. Don’t cry now. Be brave. We must all be brave at times like this. Nurse Gillane will look after you for the moment. You like Nurse Gillane, don’t you?’

Charlie nodded.

‘Yes. Well, she’ll take care of you. Until we decide what’s to happen. I’ll call her now Charlie. You wait there. There’s a brave lad. She’ll know what to do.’

  *  *  *

 The train journey seemed to go on for ever, but Charlie didn’t want it to end. He sat on a lumpy seat by the window, a window so caked in dirt that it was like looking at everything through a fog. Across the carriage from him was a brightly coloured picture, beneath which it said ‘The Lakes of Killarney’. A man and a woman sat  in the seat opposite him. The man smoked a pipe which sent out waves of strong smelling smoke. The woman was knitting, and every now and then she would put the knitting on her lap, lean over towards Charlie and ask  ‘Are you alright son? You’re not feeling sick?’ Then, without waiting for an answer, she would continue her knitting. Charlie hunched into his seat and closed his eyes. He wondered where he was going to, but didn’t really care. Fostered. That was what happened to the other boys who had disappeared. Some were excited, most were crying. But none of them had ever returned to the grey building.

‘A lovely couple in the West.’ Nurse Gillane had cleared out his locker, and helped him to pack his things back into his little brown suitcase.

‘They’ve no children of their own, and want a little boy to help them on the farm. You’re so lucky Charlie! Do you understand how lucky you are Charlie?’ She gave his boots a little wipe with his handkerchief, and slicked down his blond hair.

‘What I wouldn’t give to get out of the city and have all that fresh air!’

Charlie knew nothing of the country or fresh air. He and his mother. Up three flights of stairs to their home. One room that overlooked a city grey with industry. Tall chimneys belching smoke. Cars, buses, trams…noise that was comforting in its ever presence. People everywhere, hurrying, busy, purposeful.

He opened his eyes now. He didn’t want to think of his mother. Of their life before all this happened. It was raining over the countryside. Mountains loomed out of their misty shrouds. Sometimes a burst of sunshine filtered through, to light up the vivid greenness of the fields. A rainbow hung like a child’s drawing, touching down behind a cluster of tiny houses.

‘Are you being met son?’ The knitting woman and her husband got up, gathering together their many bags and boxes.

‘Yes, thank you. I’m going to the west. To be fostered.’ Charlie heard his voice, as if it came from someone else.

‘You poor mite.’ The woman shook her head, and mouthed something at her husband, who nodded, and said to Charlie, ‘Isn’t that fine for you. That’ll put a bit of brawn on you.’

The woman pressed a coin into Charlie hand.

‘That’s for luck son,’  she whispered. Then they got out at a one building station, and once more the train hissed on its journey.

There was nobody in the carriage now, and Charlie stretched out, putting his feet on  the seat opposite.   He closed his eyes.

*    *      *

‘Here you are lad! Out you get.  There’ll be someone to meet you here.’  The guard shook Charlie by the shoulder. Guiltily, Charlie removed his feet from the seat.

‘Are we in the West?’

‘As west as you can go,  boy…unless you want to jump in the Atlantic.’

The guard handed him down his case, and Charlie stood on what seemed to be a deserted platform, wondering what would happen next.  A cold, grey, drizzle seeped from a leaden sky and found its way down the collar of his coat and into the top of his boots. This west was the emptiest looking place he had ever seen. Maybe nobody would meet him. Maybe he was just being abandoned here. But he had been told to wait, and Charlie had always done what he was told, so he waited.

* * *

 ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing.’ Pat shook his head .

‘There’s no going back now.’ Nora turned away from him. It was  what he had always wanted,  wasn’t it? All those years. All that hoping and longing. But the years went on, and nothing  had happened. And the hope had turned to sourness. He never said…Pat wasn’t like that. He was a quiet man. But she had failed him. How can a man work a farm without a son? And what was the point of it? Well, now he would have someone. It would take the burden off her. It would not take away the ache, but  it would be someone for Pat.

Pat clicked on the reins, urging the pony to move on. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Weren’t they alright as they were? He had long ago come to terms with the fact that there would be no children. That was the way it was, and what was the use of wishing your life away? Of course it was different for women. He knew that. He knew how she had lived from month to month, in those early years. But hadn’t they been happy enough together? And now this! Fostering a strange, foreign boy. Was there ever such a daft notion in all the world? Pat let the pony slow down to his customary shuffling gait.

Charlie watched the man approach. As there was nobody else on the platform, this had to be the man who was to meet him, and Charlie looked at him in a detached way. He saw a small man, not much taller than himself, wearing a long grey overcoat, wellington boots, and a cap.

‘You’re Charlie? The man’s blue eyes slid away from Charlie shyly. He took Charlie’s case, and motioned him to follow him out to where the pony was tethered. Charlie  climbed on to the wooden cart, and sat on a bundle of sacks behind the man. The sacks were wet, rain glistened on the pony’s rump, and the ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The man spoke in bursts, shooting out long rambling monologues which made no sense to Charlie. He wondered was this Gaelic? Or some other foreign language? It certainly didn’t sound like the English he had listened to in the  grey building outside Dublin,  much less the English he had been taught in school. He listened hard at first, then switched off. He clung to the edge of the cart and stared straight ahead. Eventually the man stopped talking. Darkness was creeping across the grey  landscape by the time the pony trotted into the yard in front of the farmhouse. The pony shook himself in relief, and Charlie got down , every bone in his body aching. A woman stood at the farmhouse door.

‘You found him alright?’ she said to her husband. She nodded at Charlie.

‘You can call me Nora, and himself Pat, and you’d better come inside, for you look half dead.’

Charlie felt half dead, what with cold and tiredness. At least he could understand this Nora better than the man, and he followed her into the kitchen, where the heat from the fire soon sent clouds of steam rising from his clothes. Nora took his case and his coat, but when she made to remove his boots, he shook his head.

‘You want to do them yourself? Suit yourself. Now sit up there by the fire and have a bite to eat, and then you can go way to bed. Things will look better in the morning.’

In spite of herself, Nora felt sorry for the lad. He was much smaller and younger looking than she had been expecting. And so white and scared. He wouldn’t be much help to Pat anyway. Scrawny little thing, sure he’d never be up to farm work. Still, a couple of weeks they were told, and then they could decide whether or not they wanted to keep him.

Later on, when the boy had eaten and gone up to the attic, where he was to sleep, Nora asked Pat what he thought.

‘He’s a strange class of a lad, to be sure. Never opened his mouth all the way home, and looked like he was going to cry every time I spoke to him.’ Pat shook his head. ‘I don’t know why we’re doing this at all, Nora. We’re too old for this business. And I’d say that boy was born and bred in a city. He knows nothing about farming.’

‘Can’t you be teaching him? He can surely take some of the load off you, can’t he?’

‘We’ll see, we’ll see. ‘

The months passed. Winter yielded to spring, and the greyness of the west peeled back to show its undercoat of greens and purples and blues. Charlie fell into the routine of the farm, rising early to help Pat with the work. Cleaning out stalls, shifting dung, milking cows, harnessing the pony to take the churns to the creamery. All the daylight hours were spent working, so that when darkness came he could go to his attic bedroom and sleep. The two weeks’  trial period had passed. Pat and Nora were happy with him, and he was to start attending the village school after Easter. Charlie fell in with whatever they wanted him to do, and obeyed without question.

‘I never saw the likes of him!’ Nora whispered to Pat as they drank tea by the fire one evening. ‘It’s not natural for a child to be so good.’

‘Maybe when he goes to school he’ll unwind a bit.’ Pat answered.

‘I don’t know … I don’t know. But then, hasn’t he been through the mill? Away from his own country, no family, no home, nothing. Isn’t that enough to touch any young fellow, when you think about it?’

‘Hasn’t he got us now?’

Nora warmed to the statement. She could see that Pat had really taken to Charlie. He didn’t think that she noticed, but she had seen how he watched the boy. How he protected him from the heavier work, how  patient he was when Charlie made mistakes, how he encouraged him to eat  and to rest more. And in turn, she herself now took more pleasure in cooking meals for her ‘men’. If Nora could win a rare smile from Charlie she felt that  all the extra trouble was well worthwhile.

‘Have you seen how he’s filled out? He’s bursting through that jacket of his, and his coat will barely tie on him now.’

‘I know … it’s your grand food Nora. And all the fresh air. Sure what fresh air would they have in them foreign cities? By the end of the summer we won’t know him!’

‘If we still have him at the end of the summer.’ The thought of losing Charlie was suddenly a bleak one.

‘Have you noticed those black boots of his?’ Nora asked.

‘Why wouldn’t I. Isn’t he forever cleaning and scraping the mud off them?’

‘Well, I’m of a mind that they’re squeezing his toes – he’s grown that much. They’ll give him blisters if they’re too small for him. I thought maybe I’d bring him in to Connolly’s shoe shop on Saturday and buy him a new pair. What do you think?’

‘You do that Nora. He’s earned it, God knows’.

Nora sat back pleased, and sighed in anticipation. She and her foster son, shopping in the town together. Charlie’s eyes lighting up. Tommy Connelly bringing out his best, his most expensive leather boots. That’s a fine young fellow you have there Mrs. Ryan. He’s a credit to the both of you!

*  *  *

   ‘No thank you.’ His voice was polite, but quite firm.

‘But they must be pinching you, Charlie.’

‘They’re not pinching me. They’re fine.’

‘Now, don’t be silly. You know you need a new pair. And don’t be worrying about the cost…we want to give you a present.  Take those off, and we’ll see the size. Sure they must be falling to bits at this stage.’

Nora reached out towards Charlie’s feet. His reaction was instant.

‘No! No! Leave them alone. There’s nothing wrong with my boots! They’re fine. Just leave me alone!’ He sprang up and dashed out of the kitchen, taking the attic stairs two at a time, and banging his bedroom door. He didn’t come down for dinner that evening, and when Nora went to the top of the stairs to call him, she could hear his sobs. She quietly entered the room. He was lying face down on his bed. He continued to cry as she touched his face and stroked his head and murmured  endearments to him. ‘Hush, hush. There, there. It’s alright , lad, it’s alright’. He continued to cry on and off throughout the night. Nora stayed with him until he cried himself out and fell into a deep sleep.   She pulled the blankets up on him, and tucked them in beneath his blotched  face. It was as she was closing his door on her way downstairs that she noticed the strange animal like shape of the boots beneath the covers. She did not remove them.

It was the week before Easter. In two weeks’ time he would be starting in the local school. Charlie sat by the river, his head full of plans. Nora  had got him all the books he needed, and Pat had bought him a bicycle, so that he could get into town each morning. He loved cycling. The freedom of whizzing along empty roads, of feeling the wind whistle past his ears. At home he had rarely cycled. ‘It is much too dangerous,’ his mother had said. ‘Maybe when you are older…but the city is not a good place for children on bicycles.’ She had worried about him all the time. She would hold his hand tightly when they went out on the streets together. He remembered her white face, and the coldness of her hands on that day when she had brought him to join those other refugees on their way to Ireland. She knew then that she was going to die. Maybe she knew that he would never be coming back. Charlie closed his eyes, and let himself think about his mother. All those images which he had stifled for so long. He let them in, and examined them.   Her long black hair, which she braided into a plait each morning. The way she chewed the end of her pencil as she worked out her budget – always trying to make her money stretch. The smell of her when she kissed him good night. Soap and lavender water. Mama would like it here. She would love the openness, and the colour of the mountains, and the softness of the boggy grass. She would laugh at the curious way the cows stared over the wall, and at the pony’s antics when he was let out of the harness. She would be like a child gathering armfuls of wild flowers from the small wood behind the farm, and pressing them to her face saying ‘Oh, Charlie, smell them! Feel their silkiness!’

Charlie sat up. The sun was hot now,  much too hot for the week before Easter. He unlaced his boots, and released his feet, red and sore from their tightness. He spread his toes, and watched as slivers of grass sprang up between them. He felt the tickle of a small insect venturing up the  mound of his arch, and down the other side. Faintly, in the distance, he could hear Nora calling to Pat that dinner was ready. He knew he should be getting back to the farm. Nora got cross when they did not eat her food while it was hot.  Anyway, it was bacon and cabbage today. He loved bacon and cabbage.

Phil 2Charlie jumped up. Grabbing his boots by the laces, he swung them over his head, round and round, and flung  them into the fast flowing river. He listened for the splash as they hit the water and sank. Then he ran home, barefoot.

Phil Young is a native of Dunmanway in West Cork, and now lives in Dublin. She is the winner of the inauguarl Doolin Short Story Competition. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with an MPhil in Anglo-Irish literature, and has had a number of short stories and articles published in various magazines. She has also been featured several times on the RTÉ Radio programme Sunday Miscellany and is the author of the first ever biography of children’s writer, Patricia Lynch. This biography was launched in Cork as part of the Cork European City of Culture celebrations in 2005. Her first novel entitled IN A PLACE APART was published in  September 2009, and she is currently working on her second novel.

 

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Filed under competition winner, Creative Writing, Doolin Short Story Competition, Doolin Writers' Weekend

Meet our intern!

kelly

Born and raised in Galesburg, IL., Kelly Ricketts graduated from Knox College with a degree in Secondary Education and English Literature in 2012. She is now a high school, English teacher in Knoxville, IL and is spending the summer working and studying in Dublin with the Gaelic Girl Program.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been working here at the Irish Writers’ Centre as a part of the Gaelic Girl Experience My job responsibilities have ranged from compiling databases of different literary magazine contacts to contacting past winners of the Novel Fair and updating the website with information. Though I’ve been told the summer can be quieter than autumn for the centre, I have thoroughly enjoyed my work so far.It has been a pleasure getting to see first-hand what it takes to be an actual, real, published writer. (Though, the writers might argue that I don’t actually know the extent of the sleepless nights and painstaking hours they put into their work!) Back home in small town Illinois, I was never around the writer/agent/publisher process and talk that I’ve had the chance to familiarise myself with this summer. I now know the difference between being longlisted and shortlisted, what a ghost writer actually does, and the possible frustrations of an editor/proof-reader. Besides all of the practical information, tools and viewpoints I’m gaining, it’s been a pleasure getting to know and work with the employees here at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Their kind and inviting demeanours have made my experience, and I’m sure the many experiences of writers who come into the centre, most gratifying.

Coming to Ireland a James Joyce fan, I was extremely excited to delve into whatever hauntings of Joyce and other Irish writers Dublin had to offer; so many hauntings, I have found. The first time I realised what living, working and studying in Dublin for eight weeks would do for my literary fanatic side, I was standing in the Oscar Wilde House. Here, during a class with American College Dublin, I was lead through a summary of the Wilde family lives and told the story of Joyce meeting the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, just outside the building I was standing in. Being a bit of a literary “geek”, my enthusiasm soars sitting in a room in the middle of America reading about these literary masterminds. Seeing where and how they lived their lives makes their life stories and works that much more magical for me.

The thing that is so incredible about Irish literature is that, for the country’s size, it has produced so many great writers. From Joyce to Wilde, Yeats to Beckett, Swift to Shaw, the island is certainly not lacking in talent or worldwide respect. While I did recognise this before coming to Ireland, one thing I didn’t appreciate enough was that the people of Ireland’s capacity to produce quality literature didn’t stop in the twentieth century. Writers such as Colum McCann and Emma Donoghue have recently earned international attention. (I read Emma Donoghue for the first time while here this summer. Room is an extremely captivating and unique novel.) And seeing the work that is done here in the Irish Writers Centre every day instils me with a confidence that Irish literary success is nowhere near an end.

Though the end of today will mark the halfway point in my work here at the centre, I’m sure there is much more to experience and learn before my time is up.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Fiction, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, Irish Writers' Centre intern, James Joyce, Ulysses

Spotty memories seen in reverse

Greg

Writer & poet Greg Kirkorian, member of the Irish Writers’ Centre

At the lonely start, I wobbled into the Irish Writers’ Centre in search of heat, feeling like the run off of a stream and hoping someone had some answers for me. The answers remained elusive, but a cup of tea was welcome and I remember thinking the tall girl who welcomed me had a cut of wit hidden behind her kindness. I decided to stay a while and paid my pittance for a seat in the warmth and the chance to pester the centre’s beleaguered staff.I had no idea I would spend my whole time in Dublin there: haunting the rooms and insinuating myself in conversations, meeting my best friends, glowering at fellow Americans. I was the worst kind of houseguest. Reeking of fish for eight months, I still had a place to warm my cockles and scandalise the locals. I played the boor every chance given, berating Irish ears with unwelcome words of late night scandals and dreams of Arcadia.

I spent the first month living in a hostel leaning over the Liffey. The environment was dizzying with a high paced flow of guests, so I leaned on the front house staff for a bit of stability. Typical of Dublin, I had no problem finding the comfort of a friendly ear.

Also typical of Dublin, I had no problem finding junkies. Downing vending machine brews and too many bags of Tayto salt and vinegar chips, I enjoyed many dawns walking along the brown of the river in a half-drunk cloud taking it all in. It seemed surreal that you could buy a ticket on a whim and find yourself in a different life. Eventually some weekend hooligan high as a kite off an MDMA/cocaine cocktail would wake me with a shriek, shake my bunk like a gorilla in heat, and accidentally kick me in the stomach while clambering up to the bed above me. I figured it was time to leave.

thebeardnardshaw_gallery2The rest of the time I spent in a swirl: boozing at the Bernard Shaw, Ear Inn and by the canal; bantering through half hour drives to eight-hour gay hikes; hobnobbing with the judiciary at a judge’s soiree; biking with my best friend to Howth for the day. Working a job at Ulster Bank call centre, listening to the cancer, the rancor, the madness and mindless jabber until my insides curdled. Watching so many open mics and so many concerts, which featured overwhelming highs and disastrous lows.

Fondness washes against my insides when I think back. My friends feel too far away and I miss the warped curve around Trinity. I miss Dame street, her clusters of teens, tourists and addicts mixing under the Central Bank, and Georges’ Street, salacious as it was perpendicularly fused to Dame at the crotch. I miss days in Stephen’s Green playing young again with delirium dreams of poetic grandeur floating freely with the pollen. I even miss Grafton Street’s fire spinner guy… complaining about how ridiculous and terrible he was made me feel like a true Irishman.

Wandering back through my memory, I land again and again in the Irish Writers’ Centre. There my experience started and there’s where I made those friends. There when the sun was up (never) or when things were gloomy (always). There where my most potent memory of Dublin resides with muted light filtering through windows overlooking the Garden of Remembrance, where the people turn into geese and fly.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Irish Writers Centre, Membership of Irish Writers' Centre, writing, writing groups

Telmetale Bloomnibus, the e-book, streaming live around the world!`

ulyssesTo celebrate Bloomsday we asked 18 writers to bring Ulysses into the 21st Century. As Joyce once took inspiration from the texts of Homer, the writers have taken the 18 episodes or chapters from Ulysses and transported them to modern Dublin. They have each written a story inspired by a title from Ulysses and will perform them in the Irish Writers’ Centre on the 14th of June. Stories will be told through prose, poetry and song. The only rule we gave the writers is that the stories cannot mention Ulysses, The Odyssey or Joyce (though inspiration from the texts is allowed).  The stories are all original pieces of work set in contemporary Dublin. Guided by love, lust, alcohol, drugs and ever present moons, our heros and heroines battle scangie-gangies in Adidas, hooded drug pushers, administrators, chauvinist school principles, tourists, junkies, priests, giant cannibals and catholic computers. Pissheads riding the storm. We wake up handcuffed to beds, sanitary towels on the kitchen table; we encounter a Dublin where stealing laptops is the new stealing bread. A Telmetale Bloomnibus embraces both the beautiful and the obscene.

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Click on pic to buy the book!

When Joyce first started writing Ulysses 99 years ago the landscape of the city was very different from today. Globalisation, technology, independence, women’s rights, church scandals, Starbucks, Ryanair, Google and other such things have, in many ways, created a new city. But with all of these changes one thing has remained constant, high quality writers are constantly emerging. Writers that burst boundaries, challenge our perception. A Telmetale Bloomnibus celebrates Joyce by showcasing some of these writers and captures the modern landscape.

A Dublin of: HIV, Hep C, KFC, Twitter, Facebook, The Late Late, Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, the Pantibar, the millennium spire, Madigans, The Gathering and Viking Splash Tours.

You can buy the e-book by clicking on the pic, and you can watch the event streamed ‘live’ thanks to our partners at Breac via this link from 7pm tonight.

Line-up in order of appearance:

Pat Boran, Colm Keegan, Jane Clarke, Niamh Boyce, June Caldwell, Steven Clifford, Christodoulos Makris, Jude Shiels, Jack Harte, Maire T Robinson, Emer Martin, Niamh Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Graham Tugwell, Alan Jude Moore, Oran Ryan, Doodle Kennelly, Nuala Ní Chonchuir.

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Filed under Benefit Reading, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, James Joyce, literature, Ulysses

Niamh Boyce’s Blog Tour, all aboard!

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Photograph: Alan Betson © The Irish Times

Three months after the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 Niamh Boyce signed with Penguin and was on the speckled road to becoming a novelist in realtime. Today, as the book hits the shop shelves the author and the story are ‘trending’ on Twitter. The genesis dates back to May 1942 (though the story is set a few years earlier), a report in a local paper of a ‘coloured man’ arrested for serious offences against girls. Irish Times journalist Sineád Gleeson, who interviewed Niamh for the paper earlier this week, says the book is loosely based on a real court case and is all the more intriguing because it’s a work of fiction based on one small abandoned fact.

‘It concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour,’ writes Gleeson. ‘Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.

The novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. The story is set in 1939, and examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.

“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce in her Irish Times interview. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers. Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”

Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. And while we can’t give away too many of the book’s Gordian knots, we can say that it is a magical tale with an ability to capture Ireland at a certain point in time without any caricature or causticity.

What began as a ‘few sentences’ penned in a creative writing workshop with John MacKenna, finished up as a 2,000 word a day bid-to-combat until the story was done. “My children were young and I didn’t have much time to write,” she explains, “But I found the time, often into the early hours of the morning and soon enough I had a first draft completed. When I heard about The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the Fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful!”

The Sunday Times has called it ’an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives’ and Dermot Bolger has commented that the book is ’richly layered and finely realised … compelling’, while reviews elsewhere (Image magazine, RTE Guide and elsewhere) are glowing.

Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now…

The herbalistWhat we can say is that we are ridiculously proud of Niamh’s acheivement and are delighted to take part in her Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of this unique and beautifully written book. Here are three questions we put to Niamh about sustaining the writing life, living with your characters and ways to stay sane in the process:

Which character in the book consumed you more than others? In the beginning it felt like I was taking dictation from a quarrelling Greek chorus. I wasn’t sure which of the women was speaking or who exactly they were, let alone if they were telling the truth! So it immediately felt like there was mystery to solve, threads to unravel and I liked that.  But as I worked on, Emily’s voice became strong and she became the central storyteller, so if there was any consuming she did it!

Did you ever have any premonitions about being/becoming a writer? Never! I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.  I still do! I loved reading, and read constantly but it never occurred to me that I could or would write a book myself. I don’t know why. I started ‘writing’ in 2008, when I fell in love with short stories, but saying that my old notebooks are full of poems and half poems going back to when I was a teenager. I just didn’t consider them as poems back then, not in a real sense.  So no premonition!

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? The ability to retain perspective is important, so that you don’t fall into the very real temptation to use writing as form of a semi permanent escape. There’s a life to be lived, people to be loved, worlds to be seen. (And you’ll need the material!)
It also helps if you love the process, if you love the very act of writing and the way stories reveal themselves; the way characters surprise you, and the very simple and wonderful fact that something exists that didn’t exist before.

Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Fiction, Novel Fair, The Herbalist

Angela’s Cash is…

pocket-homo-sapiens…back in Ireland. Well, some of it, anyway. A few weeks before my trip to Dublin, I received word that I was slated to receive a grant from the German Science Foundation to study the impact of Homo sapiens on the decline of the Neanderthals in Spain’s Basque Country.

I have to say, disbursement of public German funds to an American for this type of work seemed quite illogical, given the sorry financial condition of so many European countries. Recent advances in DNA testing have proved that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred far more than we civilised humans might care to acknowledge, but lavish government spending on this type of useless research is precisely the kind of waste Germany seems intent on rooting out elsewhere in Europe. Why on earth would they pay me for this? I’ve cohabitated with a Basque Neanderthal man for 25 years and I would have been happy to tell Angie everything she wanted to know. For free.

neanderthalFirst off, if there’s anywhere Home Sapiens were hula hooping with the Neanderthals late in the game, it’s the Basque Country. Just look at the Basques: They lift boulders for sport. They brag about their direct lineage to Cro-Magnon man. And on our first date, my husband grabbed me by the hair and dragged me behind a stone wall. Our interspecies relationship has been a challenge over the years, but we at least had the benefit of marriage counseling. Way back when, disputes were resolved with a clubbing to the head. Which pretty much sums up why the mixed relationships, and hence, the Neanderthals, were doomed.

Alas, German disbursement was too efficient and once that cash was in my pocket—even if it did arrive via our small rental flat in Spain via a German archeology PhD student—I decided it had to be redistributed back to the country most in need. It was a close call among the various contenders, but according to the New York Times: Ireland is still grappling with high unemployment. Domestic consumer spending has been slow to pick up. And the government remains burdened with the staggering debt that it took on to recapitalize the country’s banks.

So, my friends, that is why Angela’s cash is coming back to Ireland.

Here’s a little breakdown of where her eiremarks went. I think she would be pleased.

A lovely housing estate in Sligo. I bought it sight-unseen at a fabulous price and boy, are my friends in America going to be jealous when I tell them I have an officially haunted Irish mansion. Although I’m not sure why there are no windows. Or doors. Or walls. I’m assuming that the construction equipment is there to finish it up. Like the developer promised me.

Twenty gorgeous photographs from an industrious flea market photographer who assured me that he would report the cash and the income to the government so as to not receive any more dodgy unemployment benefits, and, to contribute his share of the tax levy. Now, just as soon as I get those walls up in my estate, I’ll have something to hang on them.

A gluten-free, dairy-free, horsemeat-free dinner for a couple with infant twins. Making babies in Ireland, as evidenced by the country’s historically low birth rate, is obviously very hard work. So why not support the endeavors of these lovely people who had managed to make two, all in one go, without any help from the state. As I said, Angie would be pleased. See how very hard working the Irish have become? No wonder she was so eager to help Ireland exit the bailout. (Nota bene to the Irish: the Germans took 92 years to pay off their global debt so please, stop fretting about your 30 year term. Your mistake wasn’t nearly as bad as theirs).

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The Irish Jewish museum. Surprise! My family is invited to The Gathering. July, 2013. I doubt we’d be tracing our direct DNA here but hey—guess what: You really can be Jewish and Irish. In fact, over the years I’ve noticed the Irish and the Jews actually have a few things in common, and I’m not just talking about the monopoly on guilt or the occasionally near-debilitating inferiority and persecution complexes. Both groups also lay claim to having invented the phrase “beyond the pale” and to one Mr. J.C. from Nazareth, since the records show he lived at home with his mother until he was 30.  Near where I live is a deli/pub called The Star and the Shamrock—and go on—I dare you to come up with a better way to celebrate these two besieged cultures than with Jewish food and Irish drink. German reparations officially ended in 2010, but I couldn’t resist feeding a wee bit more German cash into this institution. It really is a lovely little place; evocative black and white immigration photos, a beautifully preserved 19th century synagogue on the top floor, and, my favorite, favorite newspaper headline ever:

Nazi group quits Ireland as it’s not quite fascist enough!

Unlike the rest of this post, that’s the only thing I’m not embellishing.

Honestly, how can you not admire a country that simply can’t be arsed to be viciously mean?

airport busOnce, when I was waiting for the airport bus—despite the fact that it had stopped at this very spot every other morning­—the monitor indicated no airport buses were arriving in the next 45 minutes. And I had a flight to catch. When I asked the driver of another line if he knew where the #16 bus might be, he told me to hop on so he could run me into town so I could grab another bus. We then had the obligatory where are you from where have you been here’s where I’ve been in the States conversation, all while he greeted each embarking and disembarking passenger with a remarkable display of good cheer and familiarity. All in the frigid 6:30 morning darkness.

I could go on in a cheesy way about the infectious kindness of people here, the friendliness of the Irish, the willingness to step out to help a stranger, but you all know all of that. That goodwill is generally valued over efficiency. That a one hour meet will stretch out into seven if the situation calls for it. That people here focus more on enriching souls than their own pocketbooks, in a multitude of ways.

So Angie don’t you weep, you’ll have your balanced balance sheet.

Ireland may never be the economic powerhouse that Germany is, but the good people of Ireland are working.

Just not the way the Germans do.

And for that, we can be grateful.

Diana FriedmanHUGE THANKS to Diana Friedman who took the time to write four fantastic blogs for us in recent weeks after landing at the Centre last summer! It was a delight to meet and get to know her. We’re also delighted to learn that she has just been selected as Artist-in Residence for the Spring Catoctin Mountain Artist-in-Residence program and will be giving a free writing workshop at the Urbana Library in Frederick, MD as part a fabulous afternoon  of art making if you’re in the US of A neighbourhood! Diana’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013.  www.dianafriedmanwriter.com and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can *like* her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter

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Filed under Creative Writing, Feature Writing, Guest Blogger, Irish Writers Centre, new writing, writing

Playwriting at the Irish Writers’ Centre: a review

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When the Irish Writers’ Centre asked me to pen a review of the playwriting course with Jimmy Murphy, I was delighted to oblige them. As someone who has wrestled with a career in freelance journalism for more time than I care to recall (well, it’s only been a few years but the black lines under my eyes tell a different story), the chance to write a first-person review was too good an opportunity to ignore. I didn’t ask them to put a profile picture beside my by-line, with me looking out a window posing; wearing glasses that I don’t have a prescription for and chewing on the neck of a pen with one hand while stroking my chin with the other. I didn’t ask them to do that, but I have dropped several subtle hints. Unfortunately, I now regret that I agreed to write it.

playwriteIt has been a few weeks since I said my goodbyes to my fellow classmates and shared a firm handshake with Jimmy Murphy thanking him for the two-day course. When I got home I started rewriting a one-act I have been jousting with for two years – you’ll notice a common theme of combat when I discuss my relationship with writing. I have not left its side since: forsaking sleep, food, drink and other things. Regrettably my obligation to the IWC has dragged me away from my brilliant script and for that I thank them. Really though, I’m very glad to have the chance to recommend such a course to people who might otherwise not have considered it.

Firstly, the Centre is one of the most beautiful, intimate places I have visited in Dublin City for some time. From the moment you walk through the door to the sad but inevitable moment when you leave it, you cannot help but feel inspired. I arrived on Saturday morning with all my many anxieties about playwriting and left them all behind me on Sunday evening. The class consisted of people who wanted to write something but needed to relieve themselves of the inhibitions which led them to do the workshop. In the morning we gathered in the reception area and had a chance to meet and greet over tea and coffee. I found that iwcdoorI wasn’t the only participant in the workshop who suffers from what I call ‘Manhattan syndrome’. The opening scene from Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy/drama features a writer struggling with the opening lines of his novel, which he rewrites a couple of dozen times. Some people have trouble finishing their novel, but a more common problem is starting it.

It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. You stand up and say: “My name’s Mark and I cannot finish a play!” And then someone else gets up and, patting you on the back, tells you they have the same problem. And then the tutor, in this case Jimmy Murphy, tells you what you need to hear. Jimmy, in the first half hour of the course, illustrated the importance of finishing work before getting all perfectionist with it. You can’t, after all, fix a car unless you have a car to fix. When you start a play – and this is the part that holds many people back – you need to finish it. Jimmy put us into groups to work on a play together. This allowed the chance to share ideas with one another and see how we all deal with the writing process. A good gender and age balance in the group gave the class the insight to get different perspectives on characters from colloquialisms to mannerisms.

“How do you deal with this character’s feelings towards that character?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I like your idea.”

This is a great way of learning the fundamental skills of playwriting.

Gathering around a table and listening to someone who has been writing plays for over two decades was an invaluable experience.  Jimmy spoke candidly about problems which have arisen in his writing and exhibited the techniques he used to correct them. Using his own play, the engaging Hen Night Epiphany, he went through the entire writing process from early drafts to the final published piece. He detailed how he first envisaged the story; how some characters were nearly removed from the final draft, down to vital scenes from the script so that all of us could apply his techniques to our own work. Nothing instils a young writer with greater confidence than hearing a published author discuss the transition from original idea to published work. Jimmy said he simply had the idea for the play and got to work writing it.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy's play 'Hen Night Epiphany'.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy’s play ‘Hen Night Epiphany’ © Irish Theatre Magazine

Jimmy introduced techniques he used when certain characters were giving him trouble. He showed us a scene from his play done two ways: as a conversation between characters and as a monologue. Both told the story but it was obvious which did so more effectively. This served to show how there are so many ways to advance your characters and, indeed, get a better insight into their relationship with the other characters. He encouraged us to take characters that proved troublesome out, put them by themselves and write out what they want to say. Then bring what they have to say back into the play, turning monologue into dialogue. This practice advances the characters; who and what they are and exactly how they are feeling about the situation they find themselves in.

When we broke for coffee I found that other classmates were gaining confidence and had a better understanding of the writing process. We all agreed that if the class was to end prematurely we could at least take comfort from being able to get home and work on our respective plays. A weekend course might sound like very little time to learn anything of significance but the pace of the course, the constant, confident nature of its structure proved enlightening. It reignited excitement, an enthusiasm which informs the greatest creative thinking and leads to better creative writing. It’s all constructed in such a way that you go home with the confidence to say, “Wow, I know what I’m doing now. It makes sense.”  In my case I realised what was getting in my way was myself and my own anxieties. Others realised that they were on the right track. Some brought in work to be read out aloud as the class acted as an audience. When you hear other people react to your work it helps you see where you might be going wrong.

If you do take a course in the IWC try to show up early for class as the collection of books in the reception might take your attention as does the art scattered around the building, it’s well worth a good look around. I will be making a point of dropping in for a cup of tea and a goo at the shelves more often. I texted a friend when I left the centre that Sunday. He had recommended the course to me and I had to sum up my thoughts to fit a text: “Just home after what was an excellent weekend. Very enjoyable, informative and most beneficial. Thanks a million.”

MARK FOR BLOGIf only all reviews could be so brief.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m going back to my baby and I might not be out until summer.

**Mark works in communications and PR. He is involved in local dramatics, is a keen theatre-goer and blogger of unpopular, serially-contrarian opinion. He also likes to read and write and basically do anything that doesn’t involve lifting heavy things.

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Filed under courses, Creative Writing, Irish Writers, Playwriting

One writer’s metaphorical graveyard

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By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail

I’ve been dabbling in this writing lark for a while. And I do mean dabbling: short stories, bits of ideas, notebooks (piles of them) and a Documents folder on my computer that looks like the detritus of a bookshop caught in the London Riots. And honestly? I’ve never actually made it further than a short story.

fabregeI’m probably not that unusual among writers just starting out. A short story is an obvious thing on which to cut your teeth. You get a feel for your own writing, learn about tension and pace, and building characters, shaping plots, and all within a time-frame that seems reasonable. You’re not signing away years of your life in the process. Almost from the very start, you can see the end of the endeavor looming before you. Minimal emotional investment, maximum output. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about learning how to write. Obviously writing a perfect short story is about as easy as fashioning a Fabergé Egg.)

But what happens when your ideas and ambition seem to outgrow the form? Short stories may seem doable but  novels, on the other hand, are like some long, slow slog with the devil. A long, marathon across a huge expanse of wasteland, the end so far away it seems unattainable. It seems like writing with Sisyphus on one shoulder, and Tantalus on the other (or so I imagine at least.) And where, if some sudden madness compelled me, would I start anyway?

It turns out, not really at the beginning.

I was lucky enough to attend a two-day course with Keith Ridgway at the Writers’ Centre on a bleak and sleeting weekend at the end of February. The title of the course was simply, “Starting a Novel”.

There were ten of us on the course, all from different parts of the country, with very different ideas for our prospective novels. Prior to the class Keith had asked us to bring a book with us, a book that had engaged us and that we loved, and the type of book we would wish to write ourselves. The range that appeared was as wide as the possibilities, everything from literary fiction to children’s books and plenty of genres in between.

But back to this thing with beginning…It seems like the most obvious thing in the world (and I am blushing slightly with embarrassment that I had never thought about it before) but books are not written the way they are read. If there was one thing Keith tried to hammer into us over the weekend it was this: very few novels start out life in the same place the readers will eventually encounter them.

We looked at a number of examples. Very different novels, but all with beginnings that seemed almost arbitrary out of context. Starting points that the author had probably chosen long after they had begun writing. If you’re a bit like me and you obsess over the tiniest of details, of getting each sentence right before moving onto the next, this can actually feel quite revelatory to hear.

I don’t have to have every single scene plotted out. I don’t even have to know exactly how it’ll begin. Keith’s advice was simply to figure out the general shape of your novel, you might not even have a specific plot or even characters, but find the shape and let the rest take care of itself as you write.

There were plenty of other things to be gleaned from the course too. We looked at ways of generating ideas, of using other people’s writing to spark ideas of our own and spoke about the importance of feeling emotionally involved in what you’re writing, despite how teeth-chatteringly terrifying it is. We got to hammer Keith with as many questions as we could think of, and he answered them all with thoughtfulness and honesty.

But maybe my favourite piece of advice from the weekend was what Keith called ‘Writing as Performance.’ Never mind “Know Thyself,” try “Fool Thyself.” Do whatever it takes to write, even if it means convincing yourself that you’re not.

If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

Slavoj Žižek claims to loathe writing so much that he actually pretends to never do it. He writes down ‘ideas’ and then he ‘edits’ them, until eventually it begins to look like a coherent piece of writing. Keith echoed this idea. If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

I wouldn’t claim that I walked away from the weekend with an idea that writing a novel will be easy. It’s not. It couldn’t be, or else all our inner books would’ve been let out by now. But I still want to do it, even more than before, and at least now I have some practical ideas for how to get through the most trying bits.

Also, I think I’m going to print out the contents of that Documents folder. I’ll scatter the rubble across the floor of my house, my metaphorical graveyard littered with the bodies of false-starts, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and look at the size of it and feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. I might even find an idea there, hidden and nearly lost. You have to start somewhere, anywhere.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, How to Write A Novel, setting in fiction, writing

Pride and Petulance

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By Diana Friedman

A petulant writer confession: I almost didn’t make it to Dublin this trip. Many years ago, a good friend asked me: when is the last time you really let yourself feel desire for something you want? We weren’t talking designer shoes or beachfront holiday property but deep soul-wrenching desire, the kind that makes your heart swell and expand into your cavity when you finally give yourself permission to chase that long-elusive dream.

I answered that question by diving into my novel. With two young children and a demanding job, it was no small feat researching and writing a story partially set in another country. Never mind facing down all the fears that had kept me from attempting it up until then.

During the time spent writing the book, I’ve learned that the heart is a sensitive little creature. One of the consequences of reaching inside so you can hold this lovely little pulsating, squirming core of self in your hands is that when you hit a road block, as I did a few weeks ago, it truly can disintegrate, leaving you vulnerable to falling to pieces.

Back in October 2012 I submitted the first four chapters of my novel to the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre. I knew it was a long shot—the first year of the competition, the Centre had over 500 entries. In general, odds are never good in contests like these.

lepglassesI wasn’t planning to submit, but a number of friends encouraged me to apply, as I’d already invested so much time researching the book and doing due diligence to make sure I captured Dublin as is, not just as a city rich in its past and pubs or, as portrayed through the typical Americanist-leprechauny-four-leaf-cloverly-Guiness-tinted glasses.

And, I was no longer a neophyte. I’d been at the book for six years, was working with a professional editor, and had just placed an excerpt for publication. Three pieces of my work had recently been shortlisted in competitions in the States.

So, what was to lose? For 40 euros—a lot of money for one contest, yes, but as a donation to a Writer’s Centre, particularly to the Irish Writers’ Centre and all it offers, not very much at all—authors were to submit the first 10,000 words of a novel, and two judges would pick the top ten entries. Those ten authors would then receive the privilege of one full day of pitching directly to agents and editors from Ireland and the UK. For the non-writers among us, this is the equivalent of being handed an all-you-can-eat card at ten five-star restaurants in France.

As the date approached, I grew more excited about the prospect of being selected. A year earlier, I had attended the Algonkian Pitch Conference in New York City. If I could survive pitching to New York editors, Dublin, I imagined, would be a breeze.

The format for the New York pitch conference was completely different than Dublin. After submitting a synopsis to the conference organizers, applicants were either accepted or denied. If accepted, for the price of trip to Europe, plus some, attendees registered to spend a day and a half learning how to hone their 30 second pitch, and were then given two and a half days to pitch directly to four editors from the New York City publishing world.

It was hard to delineate where the adrenaline bled into the anxiety at the New York conference, except to say that by day four, the hallways smelled like a slaughterhouse just before the cows went under the blade. I have relatives in New York, so I got off easy, financially speaking, but most attendees had spent thousands of dollars to get to and stay in the city. Furthering the tension, we were meeting at the Horace Greely studios in Midtown Manhattan, home to dance and theatre audition spaces. The two groups were easy to distinguish—the dancers cavorted in hot colored spandex with beautiful erect posture, while the writers slouched around in baggy pants, hunched over their manuscripts and laptops. The entire atmosphere was choose me, choose me, choose me, a cramped and antiquated New York City building jammed with dozens of people sharing the same fantasy—that all their years of hard work would finally be met with reward.

We were divided into four sections of 15 writers each, and lucky for me, I wound up with a remarkable group of supportive and encouraging women. We didn’t start menstruating together, but it was the kind of group that had we been there longer, I’m sure we would have. Under the guidance of our very able workshop leader, we were primed, edited, and then instructed in the basics—be polite, articulate, look the editor in the eye, keep the responses brief and focused. And dress nicely. It was a bit like finishing school for writers. By the end of the first day, excitement was running high.

And then the editors arrived.

The first one was from Penguin. She listened to our pitches, asked questions, told us what she liked and what she didn’t, and gave us suggestions for improvement. Over lunch she talked with our workshop leader and gave her the list of books she wanted to see. She selected three.

But as the editors made their selections, and people realized they might not get chosen, the mood shifted. The conference organisers had clearly stated that if your book was not getting selected, it probably meant your pitch was too unfocused, which in turn, was a reflection on the state of your book. This was, not surprisingly, very hard for people to hear. In the hallways, people insisted they’d been put in the wrong group and hence were pitching to the wrong editor, or, blamed the editors for being too narrow-minded. The environment truly was a bit like Survivor for Writers—there were only so many people who were going to be selected—but our group supported and cheered one another on so that by the end most of us felt that the impromptu community we formed was probably the most valuable part of the conference.

Before the New York Pitch conference, my novel had received interest from a prominent agent, who later rejected it after I completed significant rewrites, suggesting I work with a different kind of agent to bring it to publication. I suspected that this meant that the book was good, but not quite good enough for the big leagues. And I knew that selling a book at this conference—despite what the web site promised—was going to be next to impossible, so I entered with somewhat low expectations, which made the landing somewhat easier for me. I wanted to test the market potential of my idea, learn how to pitch the book, and then, if I was lucky, get the manuscript into the hands of an editor who could tell me what precisely the book needed. I was very lucky; I managed all three. The editor who read my novel gave me very concrete feedback on what the novel needed to come to full strength. She offered to look at it following rewrites and point me to some agents. It was a rejection, but as far as rejections go, it was as good as they get.

The Dublin Novel Fair was completely different. The price was right, but only ten lucky writers were going to be selected. It was pretty clear that anyone who made that cut would have a very good chance of getting their book into the hands of agents and editors, since the vetting had already been done.

anxI waited, waited, waited, my mind spiraling with anticipation and anxiety. And layered below my excitement percolated a question that I really wanted answered: had any of the passion I experienced in writing the book come through in the story telling in a way that would resonate on the other side of the pond (this side, that is)? In November, a very kind relative bought me a plane ticket as a birthday present, under the assumption that I would go to Dublin either way, as I was once again tackling significant rewrites. I made a hotel reservation and I was all set.

When I learned I was not selected, though, all I could manage was to reach for the phone, from very deep underneath the covers, to turn in my ticket. For days, I could not bear the thought of being in Dublin knowing that there would be ten lucky bastards eating fillet while I would be sucking up crumbs across town.

And, so, such is the nature of desire; when we heed its call, it takes us to amazing new heights, but how much harder the fall when we don’t reach the destination.

And yet, forcing myself to take my book to completion has taught me a few things about surviving this business. In particular, I’ve had to learn that staying the course sometimes means surrendering to the immaturity of my artist self.  It is a child-like and vulnerable being. It has to be. How else to open myself up and get under and inside the skin of the characters and scenarios I’m creating?

But when it comes time to face the world—the rejections and cruelties and dismissals, that artist self needs quite a bit of help. Because it is also petulant. And irritable. It becomes a delicate balancing act, allowing the artist-self some tantrum time, and then knowing when it’s time for the adult self to step in—first with compassion, and then a gentle shove back into the world, the same way a parent helps a child along with a skinned knee or a failed exam. And, most importantly, making sure that no matter how bad things feel, that the adult self is the one who faces the world in those hard times—with professionalism and decorum.

Somehow, this time I missed that part about the adult self. It wasn’t until after watching me drown my head in my seventh batch of chocolate chip cookies, that my very same good friend poked me in the ribs and asked: what exactly would be the downside to going? 

And this is why she is such a good friend. Because once I put away the chocolate I knew she was right. In fact, I realized, all the contest had done was paralyse me. I had two directions to take the rewrites of the book, one focused for an Irish audience, and one for the American women’s fiction market. In the three months while waiting for the response, unable to decide which one I was going forward with, I worked on precisely neither of them.

So I stuffed my suitcase with rain gear and then, for reinforcement, made a quick pit stop at my neighborhood hippie haven. Hillary, local Goddess extraordinaire, smudged me with sage and cedar for creative inspiration and good luck. Holly, a massage therapist of zero balancing expertise, passed along visions of me grounded inside a huge pyramid while on the plane. It was an image, I have to confess, I had never considered, but rather liked. It made take-off and landing a bit less traumatic.

By the time I arrived to Dublin, I had mostly forgotten about the Novel Fair. June Caldwell welcomed me warmly and has been an enormous help with my project, as have so many others around the Centre, including random writers popping in and out to talk with me, and the Ink Splinters, a writer’s group that so kindly opened their circle to me one night.

As the Novel Fair date approached and I watched the staff move chairs and tables around the Centre in preparation, I admit to some curiosity, but it was more fly-on-the-wall type.

Happily clicking away on my laptop on this blog and my book, what I mostly felt was relief that I wasn’t going through it again. Eventually I will be pushing the novel at US conferences when it’s ready, but for now, how much more fun it was to be in Dublin,  and, rather than suffer the anguish of selling, bask in the pleasure of writing.

The publishing industry may be fickle and arbitrary, but such is the nature of art;  no voice will ever speak to everyone. Expecting any work of art to resonate across the board is simply setting yourself up for disappointment. As artists, when we become dependent on others to validate our voices, it’s easy to freeze and lose ourselves.

I’ll close out with another confession: Halfway through writing this blog I still have no idea what it means to be an American writer in Dublin, as June dubbed me, but it’s a label I’ve happily worn and enjoyed. Because while the blog format will most likely never attain the same status as the short story or essay, it’s a powerful tool for a writer—pure voice, unadulterated and luminous and radiant as voice comes.

windowIndeed, gazing out from the Centre’s top floor classroom window over the rooftops and chimneys and historic buildings of Dublin, my heart once again thumping safely and softly, the words and stories erupting non-stop in an almost mystical energetic flow, I re-discovered one critically important thing: losing one’s voice may be misery-inducing, indeed, but in the whole entire world, for this writer anyway, there is absolutely and truly nothing better than getting it back.

 

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diana

Diana Friedman’s work has received several awards, including being selected as a finalist for the Howard Frank Mosher Fiction Prize, a top 25 pick for Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Contest, third place in Bethesda Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, and as a finalist in Sport Literate’s essay contest. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Sport Literate, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Whole Earth Review, the Baltimore Sun, Newsweek, Bethesda Magazine, Stone Highway Review and the Legendary, among others. An excerpt of her novel will be published in a forthcoming anthology of Washington, D.C. writers, Defying Gravity, available from Paycock Press in 2013.  www.dianafriedmanwriter.com  and to keep up with her newest writings or hang out with her in cyberspace, you can “like” her on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/DianaFriedmanwriter or follow her on Twitter @Dfriedmanwriter

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