International Record Store Day – Twelve Writers Go On Record

The Irish Writer's Centre celebrates International Record Store Day 2013

The Irish Writer’s Centre celebrates International Record Store Day 2013

Like book shops, Record stores have never had it so tough – it’s a reality not lost on anyone reading this blog. However, today being International Record Store Day, let’s take a break from mourning for a moment and instead celebrate just a little. Celebrate the experiences these places afford us. Nothing beats rifling through the racks, pouring over the artwork, peering over the shoulder of the customer in front of you just to see if what’s in their hand matches your perception of the them – you judge them, yes you do. I’m romanticizing sure, but how could you not. Think about the hours you lost in the record shops  defining and refining your identity. Take a moment to consider what it is that we lose when another one closes its doors.

And now back to celebrating…To mark International Record Store Day this year, I contacted twelve of the finest writers, poets and journalists around, and asked them to share with me an album that has in one way or another inspired, seduced or fascinated them. What became apparent was that most writers have private, intense, and sometimes perverse relationships with particular records as much as they do with other books. Does what they listen to influence how they write? Keep reading to find out.

Oh, and more importantly, What do their musical choices say about each them as people?

Yep, it’s judgement time!

For your listening pleasure, here are twelve “masterpieces” as chosen by Kevin Barry, Siobhán Mannion, Paul Lynch, Janet Cameron, Peter Murphy, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Gavin Corbett, Sarah Clancy, Jim Carroll, Dimitra Xidous, Ferdia MacAnna and Oran Ryan.

Kevin Barry

Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Don’t Stand Me Down  

Don’t Stand Me Down by Dexy’s Midnight Runners came out in the early summer of 1985 and it was considered outlandish and a touch bizarre and in commercial and critical terms it was a total disaster – but it is of course a masterpiece. There are lots of odd spoken-word bits, and there are tunes that take an age to get inside your brain, and it is resolutely and unfashionably passionate … I have no doubts that it’s one of the greatest records ever made. This Is What She’s Like is the stand-out track, probably. An interesting side-note: there are lots of Irish references – one of the many things the record is, is it’s a Brummie’s homage to his Irish roots. Kevin Rowland was then and remains now a God-like genius. We are not worthy.

Track: This Is What She’s Like

Kevin is the author of two collections of short stories, There are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island. His Novel City of Bohane is shortlisted for the 2013 IMPAC Award.

 

Siobhán Mannion

Throwing Muses – The Real Ramona

Back in the early nineties, one of my best friends was a great mix-tape maker, bringing the likes of Cocteau Twins, Cowboy Junkies and Mary Margaret O’Hara into my world. Throwing Muses featured frequently in these compilations, and on Side B of one particularly beloved cassette, I had their 1991 album ‘The Real Ramona’. ‘Counting Backwards’ – the first track – sets the tone, with its catchy rhythm and jangly guitars disguising something much darker in the undertow. Today, all I need is the opening beats and the intervening decades dissolve.

Track: Counting Backwards

In 2011, Siobhan won the Hennessy Award, and in 2012 her play The Big Picture took the World Bronze Medal for Best Writing at the New York Festivals International Radio Awards.

 

Paul Lynch

Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil (1965)

Large parts of Red Sky in Morning were written listening to Wayne Shorter’s classic 1965 album Speak No Evil. I find that jazz loosens up the deep place of my mind, lets me find my own strange rhythms. The music here bridges the period when post-bop began to slide towards the avant-garde. Shorter’s powerhouse five-piece cook up something exotic and sinuous — an inviting yet eerily elegant mood-piece. Even the titles seem mythic — Witch Hunt; Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum; Dance Cadaverous — and their imagery crept unconsciously into the book. A dark-glistening gem.

Track: Witch Hunt  

Paul Lynch is the author of Red Sky Morning (Quercus UK; Little, Brown, USA)

 

Janet E. Cameron

Kate Bush – Hounds of Love (1985) ‘If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places…’ Want to know what it’s like to be an unhappy hormonal teenage girl? Listen to Hounds of Love. No other album does it better. Big drums! Big drama! Shrieking and howling! Everything’s here: fear of sex (‘Hounds of Love’), longing for romance (‘Running Up that Hill’), mother guilt (‘Mother Stands for Comfort’), father worship (‘Cloudbusting’), and strange tortured impulses towards self-annihilation (pretty much everything on Side Two). In the penultimate song Kate even blows up the entire world (‘Hello Earth’). The dancing and kissy-faces in the video for ‘Running Up that Hill’ look a bit silly to me today, but I remember something very different. It’s after school, there’s a thundering rain storm outside, I’m in my room huddled next to the speakers, and this album is on the stereo, loud. Very loud. Perhaps my mother tells me to turn it down and I think, ‘After this song,’ or ‘You don’t understand me!’ Ah, youth. How does anyone survive it?

Track: Hounds of Love

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World (Hachette) is Janet’s first novel.

 

Peter Murphy

Robert Johnson – King of the Delta blues Singers  

Most great artists have an air of the abducted alien about them. Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers sounds like the work of a man who landed on this planet by mistake and can’t wait to get off. Songs like ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ and ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ are Gnostic lamentations set to music. This may be the scariest record ever made.  

Track: Hellhound On My Trail

Peter’s journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Irish Times, the Sunday Business Post, and Hot Press magazine. His second novel Shall we Gather at the River (Faber & Faber) was published in 2012. 

 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Rufus Wainwright – Want One

From the resigned exuberance of ‘Oh What a World’ to the heartbreak of ‘Dinner At Eight’, Rufus’s lullaby-lament for his relationship with his father, every song on Want One is worth singling out. This is the album I discovered Rufus on. Not the first CD of his I owned, but the one that made me fully appreciate his poetry, his emotion, his genius. I choose ‘14th Street’ as my stand-out track. It reminds me of New York. And I have seen Rufus close so many shows with this song that it always conjures his brilliant live performances. Also I adore the banjo solo, performed on the CD by Rufus’s late, great mother Kate McGarrigle. Here’s a note I made when the album was new to me: “14th Street’ makes me shout-sing and thump the air. While driving. The words ‘Vaguely missing link’ – and the way he sings them – purely brilliant!” Says it all, really.

Track: 14th Street

An author and Poet, Nuala’s latest collection of short stories is Mother America (Little Island).

 

Gavin Corbett

Flipper – Generic  Life is hard, and it’s too exhausting to be sad about it the whole time. That’s why, for me, the cynical and distasteful Generic by Flipper is the ultimate escapist album. The best track on it is ‘Sex Bomb’, which I genuinely think is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created. It sounds like John Coltrane and R2D2 having a competition to make the most noise; ‘John Coltrane’ wins, although I suspect he’s not playing the saxophone at all but merely letting the air out of a balloon. If I were a professional snooker player, ‘Sex Bomb’ would be my entrance song.

Track: Sex Bomb

This is the Way (Fourth Estate) is Gavin’s second novel.

 

Sarah Clancy

Paul Simon  – One Trick Pony

One of Paul Simon’s least well-known albums is a movie sound track called One Trick Pony and I love it. It was released in 1980 but it was around 1985 or 86 before I came across it. I would have been about 12 or 13 or so then and I was in secondary school in Galway. Bear in mind that this was the 80′s the era of Stock Aiken and Waterman, of Bros and Wet Wet Wet and even Wham.

The school I was in though, was pretty grungy artsy and left field, people in the years ahead of us were all into The Smiths and The Cure. Musically I wasn’t in either camp; not the cool brigade nor the pop fans, I was in some weird little subset of my own that only I inhabited and I often sat in the corner with my yellow Christmas present Sony Walkman on listening to a strange mix of country music and folk; people like Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers, I was a mad Buddy Holly fan and I also would have listened to Makem and Clancy though I wouldn’t have confessed that to anyone. I had one Bob Dylan album- ‘The times they are a changing’ but I only really listened to one song from that album and I played it over and over again – (that was Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather) Dylan lead me down a path to discovering or rather re-discovering other music like Donavan, like Guy Clarke and a few other greats, but I was fickle and the bitter sweetness of Simon and Garfunkel when I came across them, immediately captivated me. … songs like for Emily, Wherever I may find her, Homeward Bound and I am a Rock became my constant sound track until, running out of new (to me) material of theirs to listen to I started on Pauls Simon’s solo albums.

Oddly enough this was just before he landed back into popularity with the big huge hullaballoo that was Graceland, and so in some strange way the fact that I had seriously old-hippie taste in music had suddenly placed me ahead of the posse in terms of having cutting edge music interests. I found this very confusing, also at that time I was totally confused about other things; there was another Paul Simon fan in my class and we had become friends in that intense and sudden way that only teenage girls seem to do.  I was very, very innocent at that age and though it seems odd now in the light of all the information that floats around these days, I had never even heard of the existence of lesbians or gay people, anyway my new pal and I swapped mix tapes of Paul Simon songs (she had older brothers who had LPs of some of his earlier albums) and on my birthday she made me a tape of the album ‘One Trick Pony’ which we listened to sitting on the wall outside her house. The album is a mix of world weary melancholy and band on the road type story songs. It’s an album full to the brim of restlessness, thwarted love and longing, and so when later that week my friend embarked upon her first relationship with a young lad who played guitar or at least carried a guitar case around with him and left me to my own devices it formed the perfect soundtrack for a summer I spent moping around not knowing what it was that I was so, so sad about. If you want to join in a little of my teenage world-weariness then I recommend the track…

Track: How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns  

Thanks for Nothing, Hippies (Salmon Poetry) is Sarah’s latest collection of poetry.

 

Jim Carroll

Marvin Gaye’s – What’s Going On

From day to day and week to week, the musical homies by the stereo shift and change. Your mood changes so your musical moods change too. There are days when only a piece of superbly pitched pop fluff will do the trick, the musical equivalent of a bar of dairy milk chocolate. Other times, it takes one of those dusty grooves which once captivated you on some euphoric dance-floor to break through the noise. With increasingly regularity, new tunes pop up to take their place in the firmament.

The problem in a time of plenty is that competition for your ears and attention is fierce. Your ranking and filtering system are shot to bits because the width and depth of what you’re gauging changes size and direction and scope and shape with such regularity. If your ears are truly open as opposed to you thinking that they’re open, the music which seeps through to your cranium should always be changing – new styles and tones, new takes on old music, old takes on older musics. You need to have the head-space for 360 degrees and not have your head spin trying to keep up with all those spans of longitude and latitude.

And then you should also be fierce enough to stick to your guns. Years ago, I remember drawing up a list of my favourite albums. There was a berth near the sharp end for Miles Davis’ “Sketches Of Spain”, an album which still sends me on a bus journey around the hills of Almeria. There was room for DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing”, a sampledelic jamboree which changed how I listen to and hear music. There was space in the single digits for Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis”, an album of blue-eyed soul which threw light into the shadows. There was a spot reserved for Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, an album which turned a young Tipperary lad’s head westwards towards the prairies and deserts and badlands of America.

But the album at the top of the list then is the album which is still at the top of the list now. I listened to it yet again the other day. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve listened to it at this stage. I have it on CD and vinyl and ripped onto the hard-drive for good measure too. You can never have too much of a good thing.

I know Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as well as I know my own skin. It’s a peerless, magnificent, earth-moving affair, an album full of awesome music which I’m so in awe of because I have no idea how they did it. Sure, you can read all the stories and books you like but unless you were there, you really don’t know.

Last year, I found myself in Detroit for a week, that once grand, proud city now up to its neck with abandoned buildings, social strife, crime and a serious lack of municipal funds to do anything about the above. I walked to the Hitsville USA building over on West Grand Boulevard, paid my dollars for the tour and found myself in the studio. Weirdly, there was no music playing. As the rest of the tour party went through to the souvenir shop, I sneaked on my headphones, closed my eyes and pressed play on “Inner City Blues”. The shivers ran up and down my spine. The best music sends you somewhere else and “What’s Going On” does that every damn time.

Track: Inner City Blues

Jim is a music journalist, blogger and editor for The Irish Times He runs a blog titled On the Record for the newspaper. 

 

Dimitra Xidous

Pearl Jam – No Code – Those Three Words That Define Joy For Me

Pearl Jam was my youth – and, even though I left them for a bit when No Code came out (I couldn’t understand the shift), I made my way back to them – have stuck with them well into my thirties. Say what you will about Eddie Vedder, I like him. I like the way he commits his face when he sings. It’s raw and it’s visceral and it’s all there. And even though it was the album that made me leave them for a while, I love No Code. I love Hail Hail, and Lukin, and one of the greatest little lines in any song for me is ‘circumstance, clapping hands’ from Who You Are. Those three words define joy for me, as a feeling and a complete state of being. The album also holds a memory of a good-bye, of having to say good-bye to one of my dearest friends in Edinburgh some years ago. I cannot listen to Smile without thinking of her, of our good-bye at the airport, and of the friendship that continued on, even though we no longer spent every day together. I am a romantic with all things and so it is that No Code lives and breathes for me, for the way in which it feeds my memory; that even when something is done and gone and off in the past, a song – or two, or even a truckload – can bring it all back, and you can cry, or you can laugh at it all, and how it all amounts to a life lived well. Between my two hands, as I type this, there is great joy in knowing that.

Track: Who You Are

Dimitra is a Greek-Canadian writer and poet whose work has appeared in  Bare Hands Anthology (2012), and Words and Wonders: A Guelph-area Anthology (2001). In 2011 she was long-listed for the Montreal International Poetry Prize.

 

Ferdia Mac Anna

The Allman Brothers – Live at the Fillmore

When I was 16, my Dad returned from directing plays in the USA and brought me a new LP – The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore. Wide-angle, rollicking, rambunctious, gritty, soaring, often achingly beautiful rhythm and blues music played by six long-haired chaps from Georgia. They had two lead guitarists and two drummers. I loved it so much it’s still my favourite record, over forty years later. There is one tune – ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’, written by guitarist Dickey Betts, that I listen to at least once a week. Shortly before my dad passed away, I asked him how he knew to buy me this treasure. I figured he must have known his eldest son very well well. He told me that he had walked into a record store at the airport on his way home and asked the guy behind the counter what music 16 years listening to this year. The guy recommended the Allmans. Somehow, that only made the gift more precious.

Track: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

Novelist and screenwriter Ferdia has written three novels, including The Last of the High Kings which was made into a successful Hollywood movie. It was recently republished by New Island Books as part of the Modern Irish Classics series.

 

Oran Ryan

Hawkwind – Hall of the Mountain Grill

It’s hard to quantify the effect the Hawkwind album ‘Hall of the Mountain Grill’ (1974) had on me when I heard it first. I was fourteen years old. I saw the cover of the album while browsing in Caroline records on Richmond Street. It was a painting of a half-sunk spaceship, mired in a misty lagoon. I remember buying it, bringing it home and putting it on. Holding it in my hands, imagining I was there in that lagoon looking at this ship, hearing the music, the slow rhythmic build of a music that mesmerised me. I was sitting in my father’s rooms, all alone, listening to Hawkwind playing Psychedelic Warlord’s Disappear in Smoke, and I was transported. Then came the howling haunting Wind of Change, then, D Rider. Before the album was half over, I had become a lifelong fan of this band. The album title is a nod to Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King and a restaurant the band used frequent, the Mountain Grill. I named the main character in my novel One Inch Punch, Gordon Brock, after Dave Brock, the lead vocalist of Hawkwind at the time  What a wonderful album!

Track: You’d Better Believe it.

One Inch Punch (Seven Towers) is Oran’s third novel.

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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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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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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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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, new writing, Novel Fair, novels, publishing, writing groups

Stayin’ Alive in Durty Dublin

look left

On my third day in Dublin, I almost went home early—on the freight deck of a jumbo jet in a body bag. Regarding mechanical competencies, I’m pretty well-endowed. I can fit more suitcases into a car trunk than most people would ever dare try. When my children need help with their car and catapult models, it’s me they come to, not their father.  I’ve driven 14-foot trucks up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco and across the U.S.  I even have an internal GPS that works so well people have threatened to steal it when I’m asleep. You would think that mastering this “other” side of the street traffic flow thing wouldn’t be so difficult.

lookleftagainThink again.

First, let me give a shout out to the Dublin City Council and Road Maintenance Services for the fact that I am not dead. Those “look left” and “look right” on-pavement directions have saved my life repeatedly. And I am getting better about looking the correct way first now, although some part of my brain refuses to acknowledge that I am safe with only one look, so if you see a short woman turning her head 6-8 times like a lateral cuckoo clock as she’s crossing the street, that’d be me.

The odd thing about this problem is that it’s only the street crossing. I have driven successfully in Ireland. In the west. On a manual car. I stayed out of the ditch (common landing spot for right side roadsters). I have sped along the narrow roads from Kerry to Clare, and nary a scratch on the car. I was even fingered politely (a la Des Bishop) in Clare in appreciation for my skilled driving.

jayalkerDublin is another matter altogether. Because it’s not only the traffic, it’s the jaywalking. Being from New  York City, I am a consummate jaywalker. As pedestrians, we have no use for red lights. We have no time for them either. I’ve tried to curb this habit while in Dublin, but being a social creature, it’s quite difficult, as it’s very lonely to be standing alone when everyone else has gone on ahead.

In my own defense, I would like to point out that when I’m here, I’m always working. I don’t mean that I’m sitting at a desk typing, but that my brain opens up like a sieve, sucking up all the music and accents and colors, igniting new story ideas and characters. It gets very busy in what is already a small space and my brain has its outer limits.

The night in question, the one that almost found me sprawled beneath a monster yellow bus, was rainy and very dark. My head was under an umbrella and swarming with writerly thoughts. And the driver didn’t use his turn signal. Heading out of town on Aungierwexfordcamden Street, I stepped off the curb at a very small, un-traffic lighted and un-zebra-crossed street, only to find a bus nano-seconds from swallowing me whole. I’m a bit ancient but not quite so old that I didn’t manage to jump back on the curb just as the bus careened down the street.

Shaken, I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong. I’d looked to the right to make sure there was no traffic coming up behind me and turning left, as I often miss that one. Not until I’d settled my shakes a few minutes later did I realize what had happened. The bus, heading into town, had made an ungodly fast left turn, and of course, because the street was so narrow, banked left to the far side. The same side I had stepped off of.

Jesus F. Christ. Now I have to worry about fecking bus-banking angles?

I managed to sleep it off, but the next morning, when I saw I had put on my underwear inside out, I quickly switched it around. Remember your mum’s advice? I could just hear the emergency medical technicians as they sliced off my pants to treat my broken leg: wasn’t just the head the American girl had on backwards, it was her fecking knickers too.

Unfortunately, inner jaywalkers do not go gently into the night. Exiting the Tara  Street station I saw a group getting ready to cross against the light. Safety in numbers, right? I followed behind, and next thing I knew, they were up on the curb about two feet in front of me while a very angry taxi was ready to take out my left hip. A friend later pointed out that probably they were tourists themselves, not the best group to attach myself to if I wanted to avoid becoming Dublin road kill.

The following day, near O’Connell Street, amidst traffic so heavy, no one dared jaywalk, a disheveled bearded guy stepped out into the middle of the stream and unbelievably, one by one, the cars stopped for him. They didn’t honk. Not a single driver shook a finger or fist at him. I was stunned. I was sure it was going to be a bloodbath. In fact, some people already had their phones out to snap a photo of the impending carnage.

But no. The cars parted as if he were Moses with his staff at the Red Sea. Later, it occurred to me that maybe I was onto something there, and in fact, this guy was the messiah. Perhaps Jesus had returned and he was here. In Dublin. Sorting out the traffic mess. After all, he’s going to have to start somewhere when he returns.

oconnellsttraffic

Alas, further efforts to find the fellow were fruitless, and I was back to my Mad Mary head-shaking routine, until finally, one evening, more by accident than intent, I hit on a strategy that seems to be keeping me alive. I was crossing Georges  Street just behind a pack of big men, and suddenly found myself inside the huddle, which turned out to be a cozy place indeed. So now I simply seek out those groups of big men, preferably local, and preferably sober, and insert myself as if I’m part of the crowd. It’s a fair assumption, I think, that any bus or car will get them first, and, based on their size, also a good bet they’ll take out a bus before it takes them down. It’s my own form of pedestrian insulation. Most of the time they don’t even notice I’m in there. And if they brush up against me, instead of giving me a dirty look, this being Ireland, they turn around and say, oh, sorry, sorry love, sorry there, very sorry, really sorry.

It’s a bit heartless, I know, almost English-like, to be sacrificing Irish lads to save myself, but then again, it’s not as if I TOLD them to jaywalk.

Last Christmas, my family and I were visiting relatives in New York City when my son received an invitation to spend New Year’s with a pal in New Jersey. Seemed like a fine plan; the house was only an hour or two out of the way on our route home to Washington D.C. Except that the forecast was for the frozen wet stuff, and to put it mildly, our groovy, ultra light, low emission, gas efficient, aerodynamic PC little Honda absolutely sucks in the snow.

Not wanting to spoil my son’s New Year’s, we headed out anyway, convincing ourselves that the forecast was probably nothing more than hype from a bunch of weather forecasters trying to bring up the ratings. About an hour into the New Jersey hills, we were slipping and sliding all over the place, but we’d passed the halfway mark and it was too late to turn back. Hunched over the steering wheel like the little old lady I will someday become, I mentally willed the car to stay in the track and not skid in front of some massive 18-wheeler—because this does happen more than you would think on the roads in America. And as much I enjoy singing along with Bruce about suicide machines, I most certainly did not want to be driving one. The whole way home, my knuckles bone-white around the steering wheel, all I could think was: I did not come this far in life to die on the goddamned New Jersey Interstate.

Hell. I’m from New York. I’m not even supposed to frigging BE in New Jersey.

And so, back to road risks of DDiana Friedmanublin: while I do feel like a bit of an idiot having to use escorts to cross the street, I recognise that part of growing up is accepting one’s limitations.

So there you will find me, jaywalking with the big Dublin locals.

Because, same as that day in New Jersey, I did not come this far in life to die under a Dublin City Bus.

Although, God almighty, think about the crapload of  books I’d sell if I did …

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Diana Friedman visited the Irish Writers’ Centre in August 2012 and visited again in February 2013 where she became an honorary member for a week in return for writing some insightful blogs! She was born and raised in New York City, and corrupted at college in California and upstate New York, where she got a few degrees, none of them in writing. After doing the east coast-west coast leap a few times, she landed outside of Washington D.C. in 1996 and has been there ever since. To keep bread (and butter) on the table, Diana works as a science editor/writer, but her true passion is creative writing, particularly fiction. About seven years ago, she passed through Ireland on her way back to the States, and, finding herself compelled to write a novel partially set in Dublin, discovers herself here quite a bit.  She’s lost track of whether she now visits to work on the book or to holiday, but as these two activities are equally fun, she no longer bothers with that distinction. Except for the taxman.

Her 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 Dublin Event, writing

On Never Having Been Struck By Lightning

coloured lightning

I have been waiting almost 50 years now to be struck by lightning. It hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t expect it will anytime soon. So in the meantime I have simply been reading and writing. Waiting. For? Something. The tap on the shoulder. That moment of self-recognition. The moment when I become a true writer: someone inspired.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the signs, missing the signals. Writers are inspired, of course – all the time. They are kissed by the gods. Beloved by their muses. Seduced by characters. Overwhelmed by plots. Overcome with ideas. To be honest, I’ve not had an idea since … I don’t know when. And the closest I’ve come to inspiration is a slight physical discomfort.

So, in the absence of all else, I have had to rely on my own resources – a little common-sense, some self-discipline, a few books. I have also sought out the example of other writers who seem as utterly uninspired as me. I have turned often, for example, to the work of the Oulipo group of writers – Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, the truly inspiration-deficient. (Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, the ‘Workshop for potential literature’.) ‘The goal of potential literature’, according to the Oulipo writers, ‘is to furnish future writers with new techniques which can dismiss inspiration from their affectivity.’ To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this means. But it makes sense.

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iansansomIan Sansom will be teaching a Writing Fiction workshop on 23rd & 24th March: Sat & Sun 10.30am-4.30pm. €150/135 members. The course will seek to debunk some common myths about creative writing and will provide some simple methods and techniques that can be used by writers at any stage of their writing careers. Using class exercises, examples and reading, the course will explore some of the different ways in which writers appropriate, recycle and steal ideas. There will be no discussion of inspiration or story arcs, nor any profound insights into the meaning of life or the human condition.

Ian is a novelist, journalist and broadcaster who currently teaches creative writing at Warwick University. He has been a columnist for The Guardian and has written also for The Irish Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous international magazines and journals, including The New York Times. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. Books include The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002), Ring Road (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2004), and the Mobile Library series of novels including The Case of the Missing Books (2007), Mr. Dixon Disappears (2007), The Delegates’ Choice (2008) The Book Stops Here (2008), The Bad Book Affair (2010). A cultural history of paper, Paper: An Elegy (4th Estate/Harper Collins), is due for publication in October 2012. The first in a new series of novels, The County Guides: Norfolk (4th Estate/Harper Collins) is due for publication in June 2013.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, literature, new writing, novels

This Must be the Place

Diana FriedmanThe first time I set foot in Dublin, this city bit me in the ass. It’s sweaty and full of speed, it’s dirty and alive, it’s loud with the thumping of punk, thrash, metal, car horns, endless voices, and the heartbeats of artists everywhere. On that visit—a brief stopover on my way home to the U.S. from Spain—Dublin sliced a vein and I made no effort to stitch it up. Instead, I let it bleed into a novel.

I can think of no cliché more potent for an American than the notion that Ireland feels like home. This petite country of five million has spawned 40 million offspring in America alone and based on the constant crowds at JFK’s Terminal Four gearing up for homeland tours, the chains of buses choking the roads of County Clare, it appears that most of Ireland’s children want to come home at one time or another. If Ireland held a full-on gathering, not this miniature DIY, community-based, one family-at-a-time thing, and opened its doors to all of its diaspora children simultaneously, the country would capsize and sink into the sea.

My family would fall into the “friend” category at that gathering. With the exception of one small band of Lithuanian Jews who, as the story goes, disembarked in Cork when they thought they heard the captain call out New York, it’s a good bet none of my tribe, close or distant, ever stepped off the boat here.

My friends keep asking: What’s up with her and Ireland?

Answer: I have no idea.

All I do know is that seven years after my first visit, nowhere else does my brain catch fire like Dublin, spewing creative output at a pace that baffles even me. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, writes that the work of an artist is not so much to make things up, as to get them down. When in Dublin, that’s what I do. I open my ears to the stories and I get them down.

hallIn August, 2012, I visited the Irish Writers’ Centre for the first time. I was on my way to the Dublin Writer’s Museum, but I’d been there before, and while the guardians of Irish culture might rip my landing card to shreds and toss me back on the plane for asking this, I’ll venture forth anyway: exactly how much Joyce, Beckett and Yeats does any one person actually need in one lifetime? Especially when Dublin has such a current bustle, vibrancy, art of merry making and merriness of art-making. You can’t spit in this city without it hitting a poet, painter or playwright, all of those faculties sometimes rolled into one.

I know that things are not what they used to be. That the price of economic growth has been a vast migration of the old artistic core from Dublin’s city centre to the fringes. That the government is broke. Drug lords have faster cars than the police and lead them on lengthy car chases for sport and spite. Austerity is a convenient synonym for further disenfranchising the already disenfranchised. That more and more people are in the streets. The list goes on.

But so it does everywhere else as well. Ireland may have been an island for all of its existence up until now, but, as John Donne might assert, were he here today, no island is an island. The world is too interconnected now.

I’m also acutely aware that as a visitor, I’m exempt from the country’s underside. I don’t have to suffer the daily frustrations of bureaucratic malfunctions and intransigence. When abroad, like any traveller, I am other. But here’s the thing: for a writer, transformation to other is the best tool in the toolkit. Not succumbing to the daily grind and gloom. Stepping outside yourself to access a set of fresh eyes and ears. To arrive at that far-reaching and mystical place where you thoroughly grasp that no one in the world can tell the exact same story as you.

eggMy novel is about an American woman, who, among other concerns, has a somewhat unhealthy infatuation with Bono. She crosses paths with the owner of a small record shop in Dublin, who, needless to say, has differing opinions about Bone-oh and his tribe of twats. After a number of humorous e-mail exchanges, the relationship takes a different turn when they discover a shared affinity for the written word.

road recordsKnowing nothing about the nature of running a Dublin record shop, I searched for someone in town who would let me learn, and wound up hanging out in the now (sadly) defunct Road Records on Fade Street. Road, for those who never had the privilege to visit, was a unique little shop that focused on selling Irish indie music long before indie went mainstream, before Damien Rice sold out huge American venues, and before Bell X1 ever played their first note in the states. The shop carried everything from mainstream to unsigned to undersigned artists and it was not uncommon to find Meatloaf, the Boredoms and Miles Davis overlapping in the display window. Because of its focus on Irish indie music, it was a hub of the indie music scene in Dublin for many years.

Road’s owners, Dave Kennedy and Julie Collins, two amazing people, as everyone who knows them knows—were not only kind enough to let me loiter incessantly at the shop to conduct my requisite snooping and eavesdropping, they were also more than gracious about answering every stupid question I have been throwing at them these many years, all so that I could indulge in the pleasure of writing my book. And lucky me: another fabulous by-product from hanging out at Road was all the indie Irish music I was exposed to, such as Dinah Brand, The Villagers and Rory Grubb, to name just a few of the dozens of amazing artists I never would have found otherwise.

So, as I was saying about Ireland’s old greats versus its new ones:

Why paddle around the past when you can dive straight into the present?

Or, as our friends to the very far east like to say: Be Here Now.

It was in that vein that I turned away from the Dublin Writer’s Museum and climbed the steps two doors over at the Irish Writers’ Center, a decision that later handed me an unexpected gift, the kind I have paradoxically come to expect every time I visit Dublin. June Caldwell, in charge of international relations & membership at the Centre, deciding that I wasn’t lost or looking for a place to piddle, or seeking to pillage the donation jar, invited me in and plied me with tea and biscuits, information on writing courses, and the upcoming Novel Fair, to which I eventually submitted my opening chapters. In the middle of our chew and chat, we darted across the room to a computer to watch Katie Taylor smash her Russian opponent to bits to take the gold. It was more than a good moment to be in Dublin.

And, as it turns out, the Centre was more than a good place to stumble into for other reasons. After all, my book is about two aspiring writers, one of them from Dublin, so why not hang in the hub where aspiring Dublin writers gather? Over the years, the novel has received interest from agents and editors, but no publisher has bitten yet. There is, I understand, from the powers that be, more work to do, even if I often don’t understand what it is I’m doing until after I’ve actually done it. It may seem disingenuous, but one of the joys of writing this novel has been discovering everything I don’t know and then pushing forward on blind faith that I will learn what I need to learn as I go.

On that first visit to the Centre, I knew what had to hit the cutting room floor and what had to change thematically. But I had no idea how to fill in the huge gaps I was creating. As usual, though, the minute I stopped thinking about it—I believe it was somewhere over Prince Edward Island this time—the answer arrived: it was the Irish Writers’ Centre that needed a small scene in my book. Or, better stated, my book needed the Irish Writers’ Centre.

And so I’m back, squirreling myself away on the top floor of the Centre, working on a set of rewrites. This time, I warned June I was coming, and when I arrived, she had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: in exchange for giving me space to work at the Centre for a few days, would I blog about my experiences as an American Writer in Dublin?

Would I?

Yes, I would!

And so I am.

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Diana Friedman was born and raised in New York City, and corrupted at college in California and upstate New York, where she got a few degrees, none of them in writing. After doing the east coast-west coast leap a few times, she landed outside of Washington D.C. in 1996 and has been there ever since. To keep bread (and butter) on the table, Diana works as a science editor/writer, but her true passion is creative writing, particularly fiction. About seven years ago, she passed through Ireland on her way back to the States, and, finding herself compelled to write a novel partially set in Dublin, discovers herself here quite a bit.  She’s lost track of whether she now visits to work on the book or to holiday, but as these two activities are equally fun, she no longer bothers with that distinction. Except for the taxman.

Her 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. On her most recent visit to Dublin, Diana was asked to guest blog for the Irish Writers’ Centre as an “American Writer in Dublin.” She has no idea what that title means but she agreed happily in the hopes she might find out. If you’ve enjoyed her writing you can find more of her work at: www.dianafriedmanwriter.com

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 https://twitter.com/Dfriedmanwriter

 

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Selina Guinness: the ordinary, everyday compromises of self and other…

crocodile_v2Selina Guinness is reading this week at our Lunchtime Readings series. She was born, and grew up, in Dublin and currently lectures in English literature in the Department of Humanities at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), Dun Laoghaire. In 2002, she moved to Tibradden, her uncle’s house in the Dublin Mountains where she continues to live with her husband, children and a flock of sheep. Her memoir The Crocodile by the Door, her first novel novel, recounts the trials and tribulations of farming valuable land on the edge of Dublin at the height of the property boom. Published in 2012 by Penguin it has since received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for both the 2012 Costa biography award and the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year. Selina has also edited an anthology of Irish poetry published by Bloodaxe, The New Irish Poets. She lectures in Irish literature at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

Did you have any plans to write about Tibradden when you first moved back there with your family, or did that come later? I always thought I would write a book about Tibradden. By my late twenties, I’d sketched out a treatment for a book that was essentially a family saga contained in that handy, though quintessentially unstable vessel, the Irish Big House. The trouble was that structurally it resembled so many other books written in the genre. It was only after we’d been through our first season lambing that I realised the urgent narrative I had to tell was of the present, not the past, as property, with all its solid promises of home, inheritance, class and family, became something chimerical, something phantasmal. The ethical dilemmas I faced were ones that people assumed should fade away with prosperity.  I wanted to explore what happens when they don’t.

How long did the The Crocodile by the Door take to write? All in all, about three years but interspersed with other things. I started writing it in October 2007. I corrected the proofs in June 2012. There was a gap of eighteen months in the middle necessitated by the arrival of my second son, Ivor, and other periods when I had to finish off a scholarly edition of Yeats’s manuscripts for Cornell University Press.
How did you manage to juggle the numerous demands of family life, lecturing at IADT, working on Tibradden and writing The Crocodile by the Door? I married the right man. Without Colin’s active support and hard work there would be no farm, no book, and not much domestic order. There are many other debts of gratitude I hope the book records. More prosaically, I took a year’s unpaid career break from lecturing at IADT and also used the latter part of my maternity leave to resume writing Crocodile again. The Tyrone Guthrie Centre provided short spells of perfect productivity. For the last chapter and epilogue I checked myself into an airport hotel for four days. Otherwise you just get on with things: every parent I know has a busy life.
Where you surprised at the positive recognition (from award nominations and readers alike) that the book received? Yes, and immensely gratified.
Do you have plans for a follow-up book about Tibradden? There are many family stories and archives appropriate for the book I first envisaged as a family saga. I’m not sure that I’ve discovered their urgency yet. So perhaps this is a project for later in life, or just one that should be told another way. “…the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap… we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are” Susan Cheever.
How far would you agree with this opinion? Any genre that hopes to supplant the novel is making far too large a claim for itself. That said, Karl Ove Knaussgaard’s A Death in the Family (vol. 1 of My Struggle) extends the memoir to its limits – it’s a real exhaustion of what intimacy means in the ordinary, everyday compromises of self and other  – while retaining a fragile reserve at the heart of its narrative.  I think it is a genre that comes alive in its shameful proximity to chat, rumour, gossip, all shades of unofficial talk, and yet above all, it takes reticence to write.
selinaguinness_1355061196Which writers have most influenced you? When teaching literature provides your bread and butter, day in day out, it’s quite difficult to pick texts that might be considered influential. Yeats’s poetry and Fergus Allen’s, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Sandor Marai Embers, Magda Szabo’s The Door: all these were texts I considered closely while writing the book.  I avoided, as best I could, Elizabeth Bowen, (I have yet to read Bowenscourt) although I teach The Last September every year.  The rhapsody of John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun probably left a mark. I’m interested in how the stories in Dubliners are just the impressions left by plots written and abandoned elsewhere. Yeats said the truest self was the concave of the mask.  I’m interested in that.
Any advice for emerging writers? Try to care less about housework.
What’s next for Tibradden? We’re just finishing off the restoration and extension of the gate lodge. The whole area around the drive has been re-landscaped and will be planted up over the next few years under the eye of Oliver Schurmann at Mount Venus Nursery.  Currently, we’re surrounded by mounds of bare earth. I’m typing this in a costume resembling Forty Coats. I think relining the chimneys so we can light fires again and perhaps putting up curtains in our bedroom, might be next.  I’d love not to be cold.  All the time.
What are you writing next? Apart from cheques (see above), I think it’ll be a novel. More of which anon.

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Nelipot Poets: Vote Now

nelipot

 

Earlier in the week we got poets to submit poems made up out of five of ten words we plucked from our heads and our dictionaries.  The results were ridiculous, wonderful, and in a few cases, deranged. It makes the choice really hard. But now we are shifting the responsibility onto you.

Please vote for your favourite by replying to this thread (please include your name – votes from anon will not be accepted). We will also accept votes via twitter which are posted to @irishwritersctr and end with the hashtag #Nelipots

We have left the poets names off to poems and would ask the writers not to post which poems belong to them publicly. Keep it fun and fair! Voting ends on Thursday at 6pm.

 

Entry One:

The Nelipot’s last cut

 

After drinking turmeric from the chipped

spout of a pink teapot, waves of collywobbles

caused her to retch a string of bile-coated grawlix,

startling giraffes necking amongst mimosa leaves

on the adjacent page. They all became trapped

in the first issue’s title story when the comic folded.

 

An unpublished second edition starred a surgeon

spilling six pounds of spawn and fourteen frogs

from her opened stomach, onto the theatre’s floor

while chanting batrachophagous to the nurse.

Then dancing across the room, wearing a look

of relish as jellied pearls oozed between his toes.

 

Today, giraffes chew on acacia leaves and our dog

licks my husband’s feet as I stare into the pond.

 

 

Entry Two:

Imprints

 

The war starts; we go nelipot, the gang of us,

walking in a field of falling sun,

dodging cattle, tracking muck.

 

The pond is full of them, and there’s a dare –

I’m white-mailed into trying batrachophagous,

put my foot down. Two slots, two bruises; just a lick.

 

Then we play doctors; one’s a surgeon, plucking hairs.

I kick the collywobbles, surviving jibes,

think pink fairy buns, the teapot waiting.

 

When I hold them back, the tears,

they know I’ve won.

 

 

Entry Three

The Bad-tempered Anti-subculture Giraffe

 

“Get some shoes buddy!”

 

The giraffe sneers at the grazing nelipot,

bothering no one on principle

(except some trees not know for their tactility).

 

Giraffe licks turmeric from a teapot and heaves,

(he thought it was Horlicks, his favourite tipple),

growling grawlix. Beeps.

 

The surgeon will have to be called

to extricate the collywobbles

from his large intestines.

 

(Not much he can do about giraffe’s bad-temper.)

 

“Shower of wasters! The batrachophagous French

only eat the legs!”

Pink with rage he beeps, beeps, plops.

“Grawlix, grawlix Hippies.”

He has some neck.

 

 

Entry Four

Nelipots – A Life Explained.

 

What on earth, you may ask, is a Nelipot?

I Google searched, for this task, here’s what I got:

 

It’s one who goes, for many days, on the trot,

With nothing on their feet, No not a jot.

No lacing shoes, or heavy boots, in a knot

Feet stay pink and bare, in cold weather, and in hot

No fear of sloshing hot water in teapots.

No worries of rocks, dog poop, or foul rot.

Only a hardy soul would give this life a shot.

No collywobbles, he’s as Brave as a Scot.

Licks his wounds, carries on, curses a lot.

 

 

Entry Five

The Oxpecker*

 

I was the Oxpecker to your Giraffe

used my licks to swallow your ticks

For ten years long, we lived on pink gins

a cacophony of sweets and sins.

 

Used my licks to swallow your ticks

my belly grew big and bold till

your cacophony of sweets and sins

made the acacia leaves lose their hold

 

My belly grew big and bold

with turmeric, you wanted me exotic, more erotic

but the acacia leaves lost their hold

The teapot turned cold

 

With turmeric you wanted me exotic, more erotic

Put me out off my misery, I said

The butterflies inside have grown old.

Return me to my song in the wild.

 

Put me out off my misery I said

Return me to my song of the wild

I was the Oxpecker to your Giraffe.

 

*Oxpecker is a bird that cleans parasites from large mammals i.e. the giraffe

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Susan Lanigan at the 2013 Novel Fair: all my heart and love

NovelIdeaIn 2009 I made the first rough notes for the novel I would spend the next three years writing. All I knew was the theme: the white feather: I had the barest of character outlines, no plot and had no idea I was going to be writing a novel. I thought it was a short story. I was trying, and failing, to write a novel about something else. Sometime in October 2010 I made a stark, bare outline – so stark I wrote it in Notepad, no word processing software for me! – and then got going. I joined an online group and the feedback they gave me, so early in the process, encouraged me to keep going as I pasted wodges of first-drafty material on the site and probably sorely tried their patience.
As the story began to flesh out and characters come to life (some quite rudely walking in and demanding to be noticed) the Irish Writers Centre were also coming up with the idea of their Novel Fair, which inaugurated in 2011. I had managed an unspeakable first draft and was part of the way through the second, so I sent in what I thought would be a good beginning, an in medias res effort. I remember just finishing printing it, glancing over the pages and my inner Reader remarking, a propos of nothing, “Don’t like it.”
“What do you mean, you don’t like it! The writing is good; it’s not dull or staying in the same place too long.”
“Dunno.” The Reader can be laconic beyond the point of frustration. “I just don’t like it, that’s all.”
I sent it in and sure enough it got nowhere. Then again given that the staff of the Irish Writers’ Centre were presented with several sacks and a total of 600 manuscripts – well, unemployment was high, what to do? – anything that was not coruscatingly good was not going to cut the mustard. And looking back on it, I was better off beginning at the beginning and not being a smart you-know-what about it. So I licked my wounds and kept on writing. And writing. And then next year came around.
I had a new character join the assembly, Lucia, an opera singer from Jamaica who had travelled over to England during the war. On her shoulders rested the prologue, and therefore the rest of the book. A night or two before the novel fair, I realised the prologue had to be rewritten. It was down to her. She pulled a blinder. And so I got the phone call and learned I – we – had made it through.
novel fairSo on Saturday 16 Feb, from 10.30 to 4, I went to the Irish Writers’ Centre with nine other novelists and pitched my novel almost non-stop to 14 publishers and agents in the industry. It was wonderful, exciting, overwhelming. When I got home that evening I went straight to bed and slept for several hours. (The three glasses of Prosecco I had afterwards courtesy of the IWC probably helped in that regard!)
It was an amazing privilege to speak about a dream that in Yeats’s words, “had all my heart and love” to luminaries in the Irish and English publishing industry. Each one of us novelists sat at a table and waited for the next publisher or agent to come around and when they did I would hand them my bio and, if they wanted to hear it, do the elevator pitch. If it happened that my particular elevator travelled five floors rather than one, I don’t think they held it against me they were all really nice  And also it was good to hear from the publishers about their own plans and what they wished to envision, as well as what interested the agents.
The people who spoke to us that day publishers: Penguin Ireland (Patricia Deevy); New Island (Eoin Purcell); O’Brien Press (Michael O’Brien); Hachette Ireland (Ciara Doorley); Liberties Press (Clara Phelan); Lilliput Press (Sarah Goff); Transworld Ireland (Eoin McHugh/Brian Langan); Picador (Paul Baggaley) agents: Ger Nichol from The Book Bureau; Faith O’Grady from Lisa Richards; Marianne Gunn O’Connor; Jonathan Williams; Sheila Crowley from Curtis Brown.
The previous Saturday, we had a talk in the IWC about what to expect. This was facilitated by Anthony Glavin, crime novelist Arlene Hunt and Niamh Boyce, who secured a publishing deal as a result of taking part in last year’s Fair. Anthony, one of last year’s judges, told us what worked in a novel and what he would have been looking for. Niamh explained what it entailed, advising full printing of partials for all and she was absolutely spot-on in her advice as partials went flying out. (In my bio a separate page with picture and writing CV I also added a public dropbox link in case people preferred the electronic option) Arlene was wonderful she made us all pitch on the spot and provided invaluable advice on how to structure the pitches. I took everything she said on board.
The Irish Writers Centre, ably staffed by June Caldwell and Clodagh Moynan as well as Gareth, covered the day very ably and efficiently. The all-important bell when the fifteen-minutes for each session was up made it very structured and well-organised. Food was on hand when needed, and at the end of the day, drink too!
I had an interesting conundrum in that two of the people I was due to meet had initially rejected my partial when I started tentatively subbing late last year. I decided I would tell them straightaway and offer them the option of having coffee and cake rather than hear me pitch. In a way these sessions were the best because I did not feel going in that I had to pitch and telling them they’d turned me down already broke the ice. As it happened, in both cases, they were happy to have another look so I pitched anyway!
By the end of it my head was in ribbons, but I also realised what a unique opportunity this is. I don’t know of anything like this anywhere else. And I realise how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to take part on a day like this and meet people you would normally as a writer never meet face to face. I would recommend 100 per cent that anyone seriously working on a novel enter this competition and I’m very grateful to the Irish Writers’ Centre and the publishers and agents for making it possible. No matter what happens, it was so beneficial to be there; the experience itself was an enormous boost to my self-confidence even if I was wracked with nerves beforehand!
But the fourth draft in full must still be honed. There is work still to be done. As a friend of mine said to me on the phone yesterday was a victory,Susan today is a day of rest. And tomorrow back to work on the MS!
Susan graduated from a Masters in Writing in NUI Galway with first class honours in 2003. Since then, she’s had short stories published nationwide in a variety of good quality magazines and publications, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She’s been twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, and won highly commended awards for short stories and poetry elsewhere. Currently (as well as being a Novel Fair winner) she has one story published and another forthcoming in Nature Magazine’s Science Fiction section and is also featured in a special sci-fi/fantasy anthology Music For Another World. Her work has also featured in the fundraising anthology 50 Stories For Pakistan. Susan was shortlisted 30 out of 1,900 entrants to the Fish Short Story Competition 2011, where I have been longlisted in previous years. She’s  also a professional programmer/developer.

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