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a dance with the dead

and the living

Writing is a craft, no matter if poetry or prose. Learning how to do it, according to Irish Poet Paula Meehan, is “dancing with dead poets and your own contemporary poets”. Paula considers a poem the emblematic linguistic expression of the mark made by one’s own breath on a window, or, even better, on a mirror. Writing is about leaving a mark somewhere, and what this mark looks like could not differ more from individual to individual. The four writers we talked to in the course of October 2020 are all wonderful human beings, yet their approaches to writing could not differ more.

The Authors

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Paula Meehan

Irish poet and playwright

For Paula Meehan, writing poetry is not an intellectual practice, but a bodily one. For her, every word a writer decides to use comes with a ghost, and one should better know what’s haunting it. Yet, while the etymological origin of the word might be important, it is with breath and meaning that she is breaking the lines. 

Paula Meehan

Irish poet and playwright

For Paula Meehan, writing poetry is not an intellectual practice, but a bodily one. For her, every word a writer decides to use comes with a ghost, and one should better know what’s haunting it. Yet, while the etymological origin of the word might be important, it is with breath and meaning that she is breaking the lines.

Paula Meehan

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Tim MacGabhann

Irish journalist and author

Tim MacGabhann writes violence and politics into fiction to give people in the newspaper more than only a headline. Through the mechanics of short sentences and chapters he pulls the reader into the place of the words: somewhere between abject horror and sublime control of the terrible. 

Tim MacGabhann

Irish journalist and author

Tim MacGabhann writes violence and politics into fiction to give people in the newspaper more than only a headline. Through the mechanics of short sentences and chapters he pulls the reader into the place of the words: somewhere between abject horror and sublime control of the terrible.

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Wendy Erskine

Irish author 

Wendy Erskine is the kind of writer we are fascinated by since she does not wake up and waits for the muse to kiss her. She gets up, goes to work at a local school in Northern Ireland and writes on weekends and in quiet minutes, where neither family nor work need her full attention. Still, her short stories offer a very sensitive insight into people’s (a)political lives.  

Wendy Erskine

Irish author

Wendy Erskine is the kind of writer we are fascinated by since she does not wake up and waits for the muse to kiss her. She gets up, goes to work at a local school in Northern Ireland and writes on weekends and in quiet minutes, where neither family nor work need her full attention. Still, her short stories offer a very sensitive insight into people’s (a)political lives.

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Claire-Louise Bennett

Irish author 

Claire-Louise Bennett follows Inger Christensen in saying that while writing, she pretends that words are directly connected to the thing they are describing. She wants her reader to feel language, just like the emotions that drive the story: her novels don’t follow any pre-given plot structure, they are an emotional journey towards an open end. 

Claire-Louise Bennett

Irish author

Claire-Louise Bennett follows Inger Christensen in saying that while writing, she pretends that words are directly connected to the thing they are describing. She wants her reader to feel language, just like the emotions that drive the story: her novels don’t follow any pre-given plot structure, they are an emotional journey towards an open end.

The following collection of essays shows what we have taken away from a series of virtual workshops on writing, living and breathing and what we found out about ourselves in the process. As Paula Meehan said:

“The poem is a mirror and it is yourself you read –

in literature, in art – what you are reading

is your own deepest self.”

The beautiful and inspiring illustrations accompanying the essays were created by Lische van de Merwe – thank you so much! 

Thank you Georgina Nugent-Folan for organizing these workshops and bringing us close to Irish Literature, even though the Covid 19 pandemic did not permit us to fly to your home country. Thank you Tim, Claire-Louise, Wendy and Paula for your time, your words and your advice, I am sure that every single one of us has taken away something for their own personal development as a budding poet, prose author, literary agent or simply: human being.

The Essays

Knowledge & Writing (Lara)
Writing What You Know or Writing What Yo

Writing What You Know or

Writing What You Feel

Lara C. Wüster

The Kiss of the Muse (Elena)

So, the other day I was talking to Wendy Erskine about her short story collection “Sweet Home”. And I asked her how she writes from so many different perspectives, classes, genders without feeling like she might be appropriating or misrepresenting. Why she didn’t stick to the stigma quite common in the contemporary (and past) writing world: write what you know. She said her life wasn’t that exciting. She asked me if my own experiences are really the only thing that I know. Or if the movies I have seen, the books I have read, the people I have met and the places I have only been to in dreams don’t count. She told me, that my heart knows things too. Even though I did not experience them firsthand.

And yes, there is a responsibility to engage with the person or topic you are writing about, especially if it is not your own experience. But in the end, you’re also writing what you want to know.

 

But what do we actually know?

What is knowledge? Let’s take some wise philosopher’s definition of knowledge here. The Greek word ‘episteme’ means knowledge but can also mean ‘understanding’ or ‘acquaintance’. But in English, as in many other languages e.g. the verb ‘to know’ has several meanings. Just because you know facts about someone, does not mean you know them as an individual. Gilbert Rye argued there is a difference between knowing how and knowing that (cf. Steup and Neta 2020).  Writing might be "how to know a person even though you only know facts about them". Let me elaborate further: if I write from the perspective of a man like Van Gogh, there are several facts I should know about him. I don’t know a Vincent Van Gogh. Yet through writing a novel from his perspective, I can get to know him (or at least fictional version of him). I create a how: through putting myself into his skin, adding images to facts. That's  also why we feel like knowing people after having read their biographies.

 

 

What do we actually feel?

How does empathy work? Any kind of relationship would not go beyond small talk if we would not have the capacity to empathize with the other. Yes, it helps having been through the same shit. But no, I do not necessarily have to have been through the exact same kind of heartbreak my friend suffers from in order to help them. I know things about heartbreaks, not necessarily because I have been through a lot of them, but also because I have seen it happening to people around me before, I watched a thousand romantic movies and listened to songs about this topic. So, let’s pretend I have never had a heartbreak: still, I know how it works and how to get through it, because everyone is talking about it everywhere all the time. Going through it with my friend is different, of course, but even more than the books I have read or movies I have watched I afterwards might be more able to grasp what it feels like. Does this now enable me to write about heartbreaks, even though I have never had one?

Hell, yes.

But what about more delicate topics such as writing from a transgenders’ perspective? Or from a homeless’? I suppose there are different ways of dealing with this. Wendy Erskine, for example, deals with the Troubles in her short stories through normal people making coffee. She focuses on mundane details to indicate something much larger. It saves her the effort to explain historical background while potentially missing out on two or three crucial facts (and here I don’t want to imply that she would). Before starting to write, she gets to know her characters for a month, only making notes here and there. So, if the goal is to write from the perspective of or about a homeless person, one might consider getting to know an actual one. And then start out to meet the one you want to create on paper. What is important about writing what we do not know from first-hand experience: engage with it, talk to people who have had that experience, be aware of your responsibility choosing such a topic and/or perspective. Know the facts, but also: don’t forget that your heart also knows things.

As Claire-Louise Bennett said: even our own self is not a coherent personality, “we contain multitudes”. Why not discover this inner variety of selves?

 

How to speak what we feel

Paula Meehan talks mainly about poetry and I agree, with poetry it is easy to grasp that somehow sound and rhythm are connected to breath. But maybe it is not only poetry but writing in general. We don’t need an Indian guru, a grey-bearded philosopher or a doctor to tell us that emotions are physical. But that language can be, too? Apparently, we need someone like Paula to tell us. But if we think about it from another perspective: if there is something on our mind, something we really want to talk about, these words are physically dragging us down. Until we are ready to say them.

 

Why is it, that people write these stories? It’s seems unimportant, this random story of a guy going in and out of town, in and out of love.

It might not be important. But maybe the writer had constipation because he needed to write this story. Maybe not even because it happened to him. But because of the person it happened to or the feeling he had when he saw inklings of this story on the TV screen or on the page of a book. Words are physical, they would not exist without a mouth, lips, a larynx, a hand.

 

So, don’t only write what you know, write what you feel. And don’t second guess yourself constantly. Maybe just “turn the voices down sometimes” (Claire-Louise Bennett) and go for it.

 

Sources

Steup, Matthias and Ram Neta. 2020. "Epistemology". Edward N. Zalta (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/epistemology/ (accessed: 20.12.2020).

Waiting for the Kiss

of the Muse

Elena Natroshvili

It’s Thursday, 15 October 2020, 7 p.m. and I log into Zoom to join our meeting for the Irish Writers Project. As always, familiar, friendly faces of fellow students and our lecturer appear on the small screen of my notebook. However, this time an additional face pops up. Wendy Erskine, author of Sweet Home – a collection of eleven brilliant short stories – attends our meeting from Belfast.

Throughout October four accomplished authors from Ireland share their individual journey into the world of writing and authorship with us. However, I’m especially captivated by Wendy, the Northern Irish writer, who answers our outpour of questions about her short stories, the characters they involve and her impressive career path, with a calm, warm voice. When we ask about her journey of becoming a professional author, Wendy replies that in the beginning, she started to write for her own amusement. However, after joining a six-month voluntary writing course, she ended up getting her first short story published by The Stinging Fly Press, a leading Irish literary magazine. Declan Meade, the founder of the magazine, was so impressed with her work that he asked her to create more stories for the publishing house. 

During the workshop, Wendy also reveals that she dedicates about a month to each short story, which is the reason why she finished her book in a year and a half. The final result is even more impressive, given the fact that she manages to integrate both her daytime job as a teacher as well as her writing career into her everyday life. Concerning the latter, Wendy commented that she “can’t afford to say the muse hasn’t kissed [her] today”, since her schedule only allows her to record her thoughts in the evenings. Therefore, in her article for The Guardian, Lara Pawson accurately observes that Wendy’s short stories generate authentic “portraits of love, loneliness and everyday ennui in Belfast.” (1)

 As many of you might relate to, “writing is one of those things – like public speaking […] – that tends to call up unnecessary panic.” (2) However, Wendy’s answers reinforced my own experience: “writing is a skill, [that] can only be learned by doing. Insofar as writing is “inspired,” it may pour out of you obsessively, feverishly, without your seeming to have to make an effort or without your seeming to have any responsibility for it. When that happens, it feels wonderful, as any writer will tell you. Yet over and over again, writers attest to the fact that the inspiration only comes with, and as a result of, the doing.” (3) Like with any other craft we will only be able to improve our “style” if we practice regularly and if we are willing to work on it. 

After her inspiring plaidoyer, Wendy explains how she generally captures what she feels by looking for a human connection with her characters. Subsequently, she revises her first draft several times, until she establishes what exactly she is going for and from which perspective she is going to write. Similar to Claire-Louise Bennett, the author of Pond, who was rewarded with the White Review Short Story Prize in 2013, she shares the opinion that short stories are super flexible and that “rules are there to be broken.” This statement might be especially true due to the fact that in Pond, Claire-Louise gives insights into the secluded life of a female protagonist whose thoughts are reflected like a stream of consciousness. Furthermore, she suggests that it makes more sense to “stick to the emotional structure, instead of a rigid chronological narration”. After all, “you can’t dip in and out of writing” and the stories are “not about things happening in sequence, but things that happen in-between”. 

Without doubt, both authors agree that a story doesn’t have to revolve about real-life events and the things we already know. In her book Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway explains how “[w]riters learn very quickly that a written incident is not necessarily credible because it ‘really happened’, and that convincing writing is in the writing and not in the facts.” (4) Claire-Louise is convinced that the stories “have a life of its own” and that they neither have to reflect how she feels nor do they “have to correspond with her life at all.”

In the end, both authors’ hands-on approach to the craft seemed rather pragmatic and not at all intimidating. My superfluous panic of writing was lifted by Claire-Louise’s motivational words: “You shouldn’t be influenced by criticism since nobody knows better than yourself what good writing is”. Besides, it was Mark Twain who said, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

With their encouragement still flying around in my head, I sit down to write my first villanelle with hopes to share my art with the world. 

Sources

(1) Pawson, Lara. 2019. “Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine review – a gripping short–story debut”. The Guardian June 27 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/27/sweet-home-by-wendy-erskine-review> (accessed January 4, 2021)

(2) Burroway, Janet. 2014. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 4th ed. Pearson. 2.

(3) Ibid, 4. 

(4) Ibid, 2.

Ripples

Katharina Pröll

Do you consider yourself a writer but feel like you have never written anything in your life? I know I can’t be the only one.

I decided to become a writer at the age of seven, which should give me plenty of years of experience, and yet I have hardly ever finished a creative text that I would contently show to anyone. I have come across countless authors whose works reinforced my aspirations and reminded me of why I wanted to write, but they all left me with another feeling: that I could never be as good.

Year after year, I had given up more on writing. This year, I read Pond. Even before finishing it, I had written several pages, and to my surprise, I even liked them. Meeting Claire-Louise Bennett made it only better. She reassured me of something my younger self could have told me but I had nearly forgotten: Writing is not necessarily about having the critics, or really anyone, on your side. Sometimes it matters most that you yourself are happy with your writing.

These are some of the first pages I wrote inspired by Claire-Louise and Pond.

Night

Suddenly, I fear that if I fall asleep now, I might never wake up again. I open my eyes and look at the white ceiling, colourless at the moment, except I know it is indeed white and white is very much a colour no matter what some people are rambling on about white not being a colour. I imagine mandala patterns until I can see them, wheels of green and brownish yellow turning in the dark. It is soothing, even more so the accidental trochaic heptameter right there. Wheels of green and brownish yellow turning in the dark. It is a mantra.

A minute later I know I was wrong. The regularity is awful. I need to get it out of my head. I decide that I am not going to sleep at all tonight and instead read a really good book. I have the habit of collecting books that are commonly perceived to be really good that I definitely want to read some day in theory, but most annoyingly, I love to re-read books I already know.

Now that the lights are on and I am looking at my bookshelves I am rethinking my evaluation from before whether white is actually a colour in the same right as red or orange or blue. I realize, although I knew that before of course, that I have shelves for black and white books, and shelves for coloured books. So by the time of day, I must think of white as less of a colour than red or orange or blue or even brown, although I do not like brown all that much as it is just all nice colours splashed together and I do in fact only own one book I would describe as brown.

Somebody else bought a book for me recently that I had to read, and I thought it would be the really colourful edition, but then it was only one colour and I was fairly disappointed despite the fact that very colourful books are quite impossible to sort into the shelves and now that I’ve read it I must furthermore say that the unicolour edition is actually much finer and suits it much better.

I notice I feel awkwardly obligated to read a black or white book because of their abundance in proportion to the coloured books. After narrowing it down by taking out three black and three white books and then putting one after the other back, a white one remains. The first sentences are beautiful and engaging. I put the book back in its place and switch off the lights and go to sleep.

Discussions

When I cross the street to my building, I am excessively aware of the others. I remember the very first weeks of college years ago, when I walked across this same street in more or less this same crowd of people and without knowing anyone felt a strong sensation of something, although I cannot recall what it was exactly. With me still not knowing anyone now, the crossing of the street has lost nearly all its magic.

In my classes, I endure the discussions. I honestly love discussions but they make me feel very unsettled. All of them except one are quite interesting, and about nine or ten times during the day I have a contribution, and one out of those times I even practically start to raise my hand, but then I think it is kind of an obvious thought and not really worth mentioning. Later one student in the first row has the same thought. She explains it worse than it was in my head but better than I could have explained it out loud and we are all very impressed.

In the one class where the discussion is not as interesting, the student next to me is drawing on his notepad with a ballpoint pen. Despite the inadequate materials I think that he could put it in a frame and probably sell it. I envy his talent and ponder why I cannot draw as well as him, and then I think that it is probably because I never draw. When the class ends, the student next to me rips out the page with the drawing, crumples it up and throws it in the bin on the way out.

Zoo

This animal bores me and I feel guilty. Moving on. I think of Rilke. Pretentious and obvious, but I love the kind of poetry you’ve learned by heart in school. Two new polar bears and a baby chimpanzee. Giraffes have always been my second favourite, even if I was not aware. An ant trail along the outlines of spilled popcorn, strangely compelling…

Some days ago I was at the cinema and I wanted caramel popcorn but they were not sure what I had said and asked salted popcorn? and I did not want to correct them and I quietly said yes please thank you and I got the salted popcorn and felt like crying which got even worse when the saltiness hit and I imagined all the water in my body turning into a disgusting salty paste and I wanted to cry just to get rid of all the salt.

Saltiness really sounds as if it should be sweet. The playful i and then this perky suffix, it’s just so adorable. What a stupid thought that is though.

I ate some more of it nevertheless and it was not at all bad but I stopped eating after the trailers because I did not want to think about it anymore. I am sure the ants would not have appreciated the salted either. 

For whatever reason, the ants make me think of elephants. Why did we not see the elephants? Are the elephants not usually next to where the giraffes are. It was probably the giraffes anyway that in the back of my mind had me think of elephants, not the ants.

In fact, I hardly think about that incident at the cinema anymore. It is not that important after all, so I do not have to.

We find the elephants eventually. They look so sad.

I cannot make up my mind about zoos.

Mirror on the Page