about 

writing

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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

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

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.

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.

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

 
Writing What You Know or Writing What Yo

Writing What You Know or

Writing What You Feel

Lara C. Wüster

 

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

Anna Bierwirth

When thinking about authors and poets in general, I used to imagine them as unapproachable and very much set on the meaning of their writing. I would have expected for them to have a very clear interpretation assigned to every piece of their writing, not leaving any room for different opinions from their readers. Don’t ask me why I used to think of authors as being a little bit narrow-minded; however, my mind was forever changed anyway. After I got the chance of speaking to some of the greatest contemporary Irish authors, Tim McGabhann, Claire-Louise Bennett, Wendy Erskine and Paula Meehan, I realised that authors actually are interested in peoples’ opinions on their texts and how they read and experience them.

When talking to the fantastic Paula Meehan, I learned that she had many ways of describing her poetry and what it means to her. One quote by her was particularly magical to me and it was when she mentioned: “To me, every poem is a mirror. It is yourself you read, your own deeper self, the mirror of the self.”. Although this also shows a very interesting approach to writing poetry, I feel like for me it also brought a different understanding of her poetry from a reader’s perspective. I felt like her texts can somehow be a mirror for everybody who looks at them, just how a mirror doesn’t choose whose reflection it will project. To me, it showed Paula Meehan’s awareness that everybody might see something different when they look at her writing, even though it originated from her personal reflection and experience.

Wendy Erskine told us about her take on open endings but she was also very interested in our thoughts on her short stories endings and how we thought the narrative would proceed. When discussing this, she pointed at the freedom both the writer and the reader have: “It is just as much of a right to think of an ending for both the writer and the reader”. At first, I was a little struck by this, as for open endings, I sometimes had hoped for a kind of model solution to answer all of my questions and solve all of my problems. I had to ponder this a bit longer to realize how much power what she said gives you as a reader. She even took this further when she said: “I think the reader can give a whole new facet to the story; the writer has their own thoughts but there are new additions through the reader.” The way this makes it possible to bring something to the table that not even the author has thought about before is a little bit unreal, but it gives a lot of power and room for interpretation to the reader.

I started feeling more confident as a reader after these conversations as I realised there is neither a right nor a wrong way of perceiving a text. I was able to take away that it is fine to not think what everyone else is thinking and that what the author writes is merely their own reflection and thought process behind a certain topic. Their thoughts can be guidelines, they can be inspiring and helpful for understanding one facet of the meaning conveyed. Knowing that not even the author expects you to see and think everything they saw and thought when writing this text is reassuring and comforting. When an author publishes a text for the world to see, they are very much aware that so many new facets and meanings will be added by their readers. 

“Every poem is an experiment, a dance of what we remember and our imagination to put it into pictures.” These words by Paula Meehan, to me, is again not only valid for the author of a specific poem, but also for the reader and it might be adapted to every genre of writing. The reader is able to reimagine a poem or text, give it a new meaning and maybe even reinvent the whole thing in their head. From the many things I was able to take away from talking to these authors, the most important one was that everyone experiences texts differently, that a piece of writing always has different meanings for different people. Your way of experiencing a text is just as valid as any other person’s way of perception – no matter if you are ‘just’ the reader. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a completely new reflection of yourself within lines and pages.

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Writing with Wendy Erskine

Sonja Klinger

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The Addict

I was intrigued by the potion of oblivion.

I was desperate to gain a lot more experience.

For a while, my troubles seemed distant and trivial.

 

But when I spat out the venom 

the truth hit me again.

Yet, I gulped down the potion of oblivion.

 

At least, I was feeling less invisible.

This powerful drink made my troubles

become distant and trivial.

 

Sometimes, it made me charming and invincible

but it wasn’t as sweet as you would expect.

I was betrayed by the potion of oblivion.

 

And while life became more and more miserable, 

my own reflection was warning me how 

my troubles wouldn’t be distant and trivial

 

if I didn’t stop indulging the poison now.

When I was heading towards my own burial,

I knew I was hooked on the potion of oblivion.

Now death seemed everything BUT distant and trivial.

The short story as a form seems to attract a lot of people claiming strict rules for it, but Wendy Erskine argues that a short story doesn’t need rules: you go with whatever works. We had the pleasure to talk to her and pick her brain about her writing. Her kind and down-to-earth personality as well as her humble and pragmatic approach to being an author were both impressive and instructive to me.

Given that we were discussing her work in a literature class at university, I was surprised to hear that Wendy does not fully consider herself a professional writer. Her relationship to writing is that she always wrote things for her own merit, even when she was at school, because she “can’t not write” - this is what makes her a writer, more so than having published her stories. Even though her career started when she took part in a writing workshop and ended up getting the short story “To All Their Dues” published, she stressed that that was not her intention when she signed up for the workshop; instead, she simply wanted to improve her writing skills. It felt especially encouraging to hear her talk about the pressure to publish in order to be taken seriously and how she believes that writing has a validity even if you have no audience. I agree with her: To me, writing is an important creative outlet much like drawing or other artistic hobbies are to other people, but I am not at the point where I have a finished story and I really dislike worrying about that because it is not why I write. Yet many would claim

that you are not a writer unless you have a completed product to show for it. I disagree; I feel that the practice and act of writing is worthwhile in and of itself and it felt wonderful to have Wendy validate this experience.

As to how she goes about writing her short stories, she shared her pragmatic approach and advice: If you get a niggling feeling about a passage or a story, it isn’t working; if something doesn’t work, scrap it and write something else! Writing is not an intellectual exercise but rather a craft and an act, a practice you learn by doing. It does not necessarily require flashes of genius but rather continuous effort. Wendy described her life as being filled with normalcy, a job and a family, which does not allow for her to spend most of her writing time waiting to be inspired: She usually only starts writing at 8 or 9 o’clock at night and maybe has an afternoon or two during the week. Talking about this with her felt very relevant and helpful to people like
myself, who often brood over an idea for a long while before making a choice and then have no time left to actually write, or to those who are feeling uninspired, waiting for the muse’s kiss. Her advice: Just start writing. “You only have a short period of time, you have to get on with it regardless.” Wendy admitted that even when that which she was writing did not feel terribly good to her, she had to just do it and then work on it again the next day. One of her concrete methods when something is not working is to change the tense, change a character’s name or change the first person to third person: make small changes and see if that sounds better. Oftentimes as a result, her stories go through many permutations before they are finished.

Getting to know her approach to forming characters was equally encouraging and inspiring. She stated that she has a strong connection to her characters and sometimes when a story does not work, she even feels like she let the characters down. The inspiration for her characters can

come from people she encounters to books she has read and paintings she has seen, which is something I can relate to very strongly, but every character in her stories has aspects that she has experienced herself. Indeed she claimed that in a sense, they are all her. One thing I love about her characters is that though she writes about mundane settings and characters, every one of them has their own particular strangeness to them, which is an aspect Wendy has noticed in society around her. She sees that people are a lot stranger and contain more bizarre things within themselves than they show publically. This was truly apparent and fascinating about the people in her short stories of ​Sweet Home​. Wendy also stressed that a character could not be invented in one evening. Instead she has to “live with the characters a bit” and get to know them - this process takes time. After a while, the people of her stories take on a life of their own. In this context, Wendy referred to a wonderful statement by author Lisa McInerney, that “characters are excavated instead of created” - they already exist and it is the author’s goal to find them. I loved this image of character development.

Wendy Erskine was incredibly supportive of us in listening to our projects and questions and it became clear to me that she truly values and emphasizes the process that is writing. In addition to learning about some of the intricacies of her writing methods, I came away from our session feeling encouraged to continue writing for my own sake.

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Paula Meehan and

Dealing with Fear, Loss and Love

Lana Kordic

Right around the time that we were supposed to meet Paula Meehan, my best friend Ivana’s mother, Branka, was battling cancer. I kept telling my best friend I would pray for her, but I only did so sparingly, and perhaps I would have prayed much more if I had truly believed I could make any difference. Most of the time I spent simply thinking about her and my best friend suffering, and fearing the power of an illness, that, despite all the love in the world, all the hopes and prayers, can still take away someone you would give your own life for.

When I read Paula’s poetry in preparation for the seminar, I was in that state of fear. In the midst of the Corona pandemic taking away so many lives, and with illness and death creeping up to my close circle of family and friends, I was confused and distressed, and not really excited about anything anymore. Even so, I opened up Paula’s collection of poetry called As If By Magic. And, as if by magic, I was given what I needed the most at the time – consolation and comfort in the face of tragedy.

What first struck me was a kind of connectedness and awareness of nature. The acceptance of the flow of life and the inevitable death, but death that seems not the end of life, but simply part of it, as all things in life and nature are simply circling forever. The energy that cannot be destroyed, only transformed. This is palpable in a poem such as Ashes (1): 

„The tide comes in; the tide goes out again

Washing the beach clear of what the storm

dumped. Where there were rocks, today there is sand;

Where sand yesterday, now uncovered rocks.
So I think on where her mortal remains
might reach landfall in their transmuted forms
A year now since I cast them from my hand
- wanting to stop the inexorable clock.“

Although the lyrical subject affirms that they could not save the woman who committed suicide , “could not even try”,– the poem still appears hopeful to me. By going back to nature and incorporating imagery from it into the poem, Paula manages to show death as the end, but also a new beginning. 

There is a plethora of things that inspired Paula to write her beautiful poems, some of them she discussed with us during our seminar. After she and many other young people got disheartened by the hypocrisy of institutionalized Catholicism in Ireland (something beautifully laid out in the poem The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks (2)), she opened herself up to different way of thinking and different religions - Buddhism being a key one, which is, I believe, most visible in these poems using imagery from nature. Death is not something to run away from – life is a state „between breath and no breath“ as she so wonderfully described in Dharmakaya (3). The goal is to become aware of that fundamental aspect of our physical being, our breath, and control it, so as to „become a still pool in the anarchic flow“. This can be achieved by meditating, which is a notion that’s becoming quite popular in Western culture, and rightfully so – meditation is a wonderful way of finding our way back to stillness and calm in our very hectic world. Paula even taught us some basics of meditation, after I had asked her how to deal with all the trouble surrounding us. Instead of letting it all overwhelm us, we need to find our way back to our core, to ourselves, the only ones we can control.

Paula’s poems are strong enough to openly mention and deal with the terrible disease that is cancer – in poems such as Cora, Auntie (4) , where Cora, whose name is derived from Greek and denotes „blossom, summer, the scent of thyme“ is described as „Staring Death down“, or „laughing at Death“, and „grinning back at the rictus of Death“ even when she eventually succumbs to it. The way she died to me seems a testimony of how she lived: bold and unafraid. Following that one is a poem dedicated to one Uncle Peter (5), who had also battled cancer, and it touches upon his legacy. The uncle who made his mark because he endowed the lyrical subject with knowledge: „look this is how you change a fuse/ Who in those days would teach a girl such a thing?“. The uncle who „never gave up on her“, even when everyone else was doubtful of the poet. These poems may be grieving the departure of loved ones, but they are not only about grief. Rather, they are a celebration of life – remembering the departed ones for who they were, and learning to treasure memories:

„With odd beads and single earrings,
a broken charm bracelet, a glittering pin,

I gathered them into a tin box

Which I open now in memory –

The coinage, the sudden glamour
Of an emigrant soul.“

My best friend’s mother, just like Aunt Cora or Uncle Peter, is an emigrant soul, who did not win her fight. Given the state of the world right now, I couldn’t even travel to Bosnia to attend her funeral or console my best friend in the saddest moments she has ever gone through. I felt devastated and disheartened. There is nothing I can do to make all illness in the world go away or grant eternal life to my loved ones. The only thing I can do is to cherish the love 

around me and keep the people who I have lost alive in my memory. So, I will remember Branka – I will remember how I was eight and she made me go back home and put on a warmer jacket when I came to pick up Ivana from school, a piece of advice my own mother gave me before leaving the house, but advice I stubbornly wouldn’t listen to. I will remember how I would go back home at night from Ivana’s place countless times, and Branka would always walk back with me, so I felt safe. How she always praised me for any accomplishments in school. She was a cook - and cooked for me while my mom was away. And I will know that she was a kind, empathic soul, who lived a truly honorable life.

Poetry cannot save lives, but it can reflect our own emotions in a beautiful way, make us feel understood, and remind us that we aren’t alone in our struggle. Sometimes it gives answers, sometimes it raises even more questions. Paula’s poetry and empathy for the human experience that is contained in it has at least helped my soul heal a little – and I am sure it can do the same for others.

References

(1) Meehan, Paula. As If By Magic. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2020, p. 180.

(2) Ibid, p. 43.

(3) Ibid, p. 123.

(4) Ibid, p. 192.

(5) Ibid, p. 195.

Limeup

Linemup.png

Kislay Aditya Kashyap

 

On an uncannily bright October evening in 2020, we found ourselves looking at the poetic virtuoso that is Paula Meehan. She sat in front of her desk with a poetry book in hand and an alien smile on her face that exuded an aura of unassuming omniscience and bewitching generosity. I barely noticed the computer screens separating us. 

As the conversation flowed along, it carved a  rapturous trail in its wake. Before the enchantment could wear off, I had already shot a question: How do you decide the line-breaks in your poems? Paula’s eyes lit for a second, and then wandered off, as she began recounting the things she considered when determining line-breaks. It was quick, too quick to write down. She was finished before I could lift my hand. But her words had congealed into my head. Once the meeting was over, I set out to research and outline the recipe for lining up words in an enthralling array of captivating connotations.

First and foremost, lineation is an editing tool. It can only add dimensions to a poem. Sole reliance on lineation without a provocative text is like blackmailing a potato for good fries. You must put in the work. For a budding poet though, the line-break is the most important thing differentiating a poem from prose. It is the interplay of words and the accompanying white space that evokes the feeling of epiphany in readers.

 

When I look about

curated contours like these,

imagination triggers and bestows 

hidden meanings to its content.

 

Most likely, your eyes stopped meandering through this thicket of words when you saw the shape of what might be a poem. What was the trigger? The shape, perhaps. The shape is primarily determined by the lineation of the poem. Consequently, it might be the most important tool in a poet’s arsenal to direct the reader’s gaze through a body of text—just as a film director guides you through a movie. How do we determine where to break the line? Let us start with an example:

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly ostentatious parades in the shivering air, they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry. Seething blooms and budding leaves belie my rage—turned green and filled with despair—when I sit upright and bid my tears fly. Storms aligned with the full buck moon try to guide Cicadas to their graves but pare. They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry. Flaming leaves glare at him squatting in the sky while shrivelled clouds with anguish stare when I sit upright and bid my tears fly. Frosty dawn embalms my lungs, gentle as a flesh fly. But hopes burst forth and as they flare, they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry. The year bore a man but what of the boy who still lingers. Are parts of him still there? When I sit upright and bid my tears fly, they'll breathe, breathe till the heart runs dry.

 

This would be a simple exercise for the poetically astute, but for the rest of us, it might as well be the ramblings of a demented mind. What could give it away though? Feel free to go through it once again and come up with some clues. 

Once we are ready, we come up with the first idea — separating thoughts to form a semantically coherent whole. You might have noticed the paragraph break. 

Was it necessary? I broke the paragraph specifically to give you time to go through the text again.

 

Again,

Was it necessary? 

Maybe not, 

but I tried to guide you all the same. Poems also follow the general principle. Pithy Prose and prose poems by continuation also utilise the same principles: with differing levels of granularity. Rewriting the text produced above according to semantically coherent chunks guided by hard breaks like ‘the period’—sentences—would yield the following:

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly ostentatious parades in the shivering air, they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

Seething blooms and budding leaves belie my rage — turned green and filled with despair — when I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

Storms aligned with the full buck moon try to guide Cicadas to their graves but pare. 

They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

Flaming leaves glare at him squatting in the sky while shrivelled clouds with anguish stare when I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

Frosty dawn embalms my lungs, gentle as a flesh fly.

But hopes burst forth and as they flare, they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

The year bore a man but what of the boy who still lingers.

Are parts of him still there?

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly, they'll breathe, breathe till the heart runs dry.

 

The text looks like a poem but reads like a pedantic incantation. What might be missing? How about including soft breaks like ‘commas’ as well.

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly ostentatious parades in the shivering air, 

they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

Seething blooms and budding leaves belie my rage—

turned green and filled with despair—

when I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

Storms aligned with the full buck moon try to guide Cicadas to their graves but pare. 

They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

Flaming leaves glare at him squatting in the sky while shrivelled clouds with anguish stare when I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

Frosty dawn embalms my lungs, 

gentle as a flesh fly.

But hopes burst forth and as they flare,

they breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

The year bore a man but what of the boy who still lingers.

Are parts of him still there?

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly, 

they'll breathe, breathe till the heart runs dry.

 

The extract could be considered a poem: maybe a bad one, granted, but a poem, nonetheless. Semantic considerations based on punctuation can only get us so far, though. The lines do look like the lines in a poem, but the chunks feel claustrophobic— they do not breathe. Some words stare at the reader like deer caught in the headlights. It is now the poet’s job to place them according to their inherent or intended meaning. This is where intent comes into focus: what feelings do you want to evoke? Which words should the reader focus on? One of the ways of coming up with line-breaks is based on the ‘primacy’ and ‘recency’ effects: readers pay the most attention to the first and the last word in a line. Therefore, it would behove us to put words that either compare/contrast the ones prior—for example, in the previous line—or subvert/ augment the projected train of thought, in these positions. Verbs fit the bill perfectly; so do nouns and adjectives, though less often. The words at the end of a line undergo visual amplification. They must be loaded with meaning to undergo intense scrutiny. How would we organise our text to reflect that? 

 

They breathe, breathe till the heart runs dry

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly
Ostentatious parades in the shivering air,
They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

Seething blooms and budding leaves belie

My rage—turned green and filled with despair—

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

 

Storms aligned with the full buck moon try

To guide Cicadas to their graves but pare.

They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

 

Flaming leaves glare at him squatting in the sky

While shrivelled clouds with anguish stare

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly.

 

Frosty dawn embalms my lungs, gentle as a flesh fly.

But hopes burst forth and as they flare,

They breathe, breathe, till the heart runs dry.

 

The year bore a man but what of the boy

Who still lingers. Are parts of him still there?

When I sit upright and bid my tears fly, 

They'll breathe, breathe till the heart runs dry.

 

I must admit, I have cheated with the above-mentioned example. It is a lyrical poem, a Villanelle, with a well-defined form. Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas might be the most famous example. Knowing that makes our decision easy, or does it? Does the poem simply submit to the authority of tradition? Alternatively, does the poem wear it like a translucent veil: acknowledging tradition as a guide but with a hidden meaning? The poem could also qualify tradition to be a cage: something to rail against and break free from, either partially or completely. The decision to put the words where they are should not only conform to the style in which the poem is written, but also attempts to raise and augment, or subvert the themes mentioned therein. 

 

Some might consider classical forms like the Sonnet to be unnaturally constricting, resulting in a poem that resembles Frankenstein’s monster rather than Wordsworth’s oft-misquoted “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” To others, however, the form also acts as a crutch where they do not have to think too hard about lineation at all. What, then, if we let go of these crutches? Let us look at another example:

My days devolved into a thousand bright suns, my nights to a single star who asks to be unnamed—so be it; time-machines in search of lost time. I look at my shadows every day, every night—looking at them with all my eyes to find solace in my own shadows.

This poem was intended to be a free verse poem, and therefore barely has any form guidelines to assist in justifying the line-breaks. We are now in a situation where the author’s judgement decides where the lines should end, if at all. You are free to interpret the lines and put line-breaks as you go on.

Again,

Take your time.

Just keep in mind the themes that might be hidden in the words. My arrangement is as follows:

{}

 My days devolved into a thousand bright suns, 1

My nights to a single star 2

Who asks to be unnamed— 3

So be it; time-machines in search of lost time. 4

I look at my shadows every day, 5

Every night— 6

Looking at them with all my eyes 7

To find solace in my own shadows. 8

 

Here, I tried using the ideas mentioned in this article to arrange the poem as I would want to read it. The first line provides a good example of a semantically sound unit and opens the theme, in this case, the passage of time. The second line contrasts the first and introduces the conflict. The third line augments the theme by providing additional (and thought-provoking) information: the allure of anonymity. The fourth line breaks the introduction and conveys the persona’s and/or the star’s (you can decide whose) resignation to their fate. Another thread conjoins with the former to make sense of the situation. The increased length of the line is intended to verbally remind the reader of the time lost in contemplation. You can notice this if you read the lines aloud. Lines five and six expose the persona’s/ star’s inaction and their inability to move on. Nothing makes sense anymore. Line seven picks up and reiterates the idea of watching, which till now seemed to be a way of wasting time. Are these the times gone by under the watchful gaze of the star, or the futile efforts of the persona, or both? Both convey an uncanny sense of loss. But something is different. There must be a reason behind this mayhem, right? The last line describes the hidden motive (or does it?). Does it answer the questions raised in the poem? Maybe. Maybe not. But it closes the line of thought introduced in the first line.  Without lineation, it would be exceedingly difficult to present the information as the poet intended. The only other tool to implement this is punctuation, but overly punctuated narratives begin to sound stale, with the poet’s overbearing personality taking the centre stage. Punctuations are also inept when the poet wants the reader to linger on a particular word or phrase in the middle of a sentence. Lineation provides an ample tool to overcome this impediment.

 

You might notice that I have refrained from giving a background to the poems or even discussing the motifs. This was intended.  A poem is never complete without the reader. The poems mentioned here are intended to convey a feeling. They serve to provide an undercurrent for the rudderless reader when navigating an experience. In this last example, though, I have selected parts of an unfinished poem with the themes of alienation and infatuation. You come across the lines as I imagined them and are free to modify them at will. Try recreating the parts to make a whole that conveys those feelings of alienation and infatuation to you. Yes, it is littered with gerunds. You can improve that. But words in general, if modified to your liking, can line up

and <intended line break>

Hold.

the city sleeps as it lumbers along

tenuous veins strumming

clarion windows with misty silhouettes singing

a peaceful tune of madness

with uneven green eyes

that scare when looked upon

since when was I (was) scared of failing

failing to fall

short of complete destruction

falling like froth yet foaming

at the mouth

of meandering bitterness

Journalism to Fiction_Narrating Criminal
 

A Bildungsroman of Criminality:

Tim MacGabhann on Fiction

Sally Wright

Tim MacGabhann, the author of the Telegraph Thriller of the Year, Call Him Mine, and its sequel, How to be Nowhere, is an Irish reporter who lives and works in Mexico City. In an interview, he opened up about his reasons for turning from journalism to fiction.

MacGabhann admits that he chose writing fiction in an effort to bring more attention to the daily horrors taking place in Mexico - to make the events more personal. He had run up to the “limits of the journalistic form,” which he believes only ever scrape the surface of true events. The regulations and requirements of news writing do the thinking for you, he tells me, there is no room to interrogate the events, one can only narrate them. Having read the articles on the murderers of some fellow journalists, not two blocks away, the events taking place around MacGabhann suddenly felt more personal. An image of a faceless corpse was “burned into [his] mind”, and he wanted to “give him his face back”. Attending and documenting protests seemed to change nothing. Narration without interrogation was no longer enough.

Fiction had always held a special appeal to MacGabhann. As a kid reading and writing were the only things that he had never got into trouble for.It isn’t any surprise that he followed this passion when he went to Trinity Collegeto study English Literature and French, followed by a Master degree in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. MacGabhann’s best advice to aspiring writers is to “write about what upsets you”, a rule he himself clearly follows, which is perhaps why his books are so detailed and honest. It is important to be aware of the horrors that take place around the world, and as the news in Mexico have not really made it beyond the borders for the past few years, MacGabhann hoped that the form of fiction might break through that barrier to bring awareness to the rest of the world. 

MacGabhann’s protagonist, Andrew, stands in for any average guy. The name ‘Andrew’ is derived from the greek word ‘Andros’; the horrors in this story could happen to anyone in a similar situation in modern-day Mexico. The writer wants the reader to understand that this could easily be her/him. Throughout Call Him Mine, and its sequel How To Be Nowhere, MacGabhann interrogates the toxic masculinity which lies at the heart of much of the Mexican culture. By forcing the reader to place her/himself at the centre of the narrative, the story feels much more real than an article in a newspaper. 

Moreover, there is something incredibly temporary about the news. Read today, forgotten tomorrow. It is commercial, and not personal enough. It is easier to read a broad article about events that are happening to people you don’t know on the other side of the globe, than it is to read a personal account of them from someone who has experienced them firsthand. Although by its very nature, fiction is not real, the very ‘made-up’ quality allows the writer a degree of honesty, which life-writing does not. The reader can no longer pretend that the issues are faceless and far away, MacGabhann makes the story personal, and in so doing, he calls out directly to every person around the world.

“As if by magic” – How Paula Meehan enco
 

“As if by magic” –

How Paula Meehan encouraged me to incorporate the Theme of Spirituality

into My Poetry 

Lilly Weiß

Finding Silence 

 

It’s a far away fairy tale 

Which was about to fail 

And to lose its shine 

At the edge of time 

 

The blurred mind was not at ease 

It was hard to breathe 

Desperately in need of something to relief the chest 

But it just wanted to have some rest 

 

Now, the red shoes start walking 

It’s about time to transform 

Silence should not keep you from talking 

About the burden that was worn 

 

Smacking lips 

Meaning floats out of the heart 

Finally, a story that fits 

And nothing to tear it apart 

I used to write poems occasionally. As if by magic, I am now writing them regularly. Well, to be honest, it is not entirely as if by magic. Rather, Paula Meehan made it happen magically. Paula has the spark and I feel like she helped me on the way to uncover mine. Especially the poem “Dharmakaya”1 out of her selected poems collection As If By Magic inspired me to dive deeper into writing.  

After the death of Dublin street artist Thom McGinty – who inter alia used to go around the city as slowly as possible – Paula devoted this poem to him. Thom McGinty a.k.a. the Diceman whom the Irish Times titled as “gay icon, national treasure and obstacle on the way to work”, is remembered by Brendan Kennelly as “mesmeris[ing] his audience” by “lur[ing] them out of their busy selves and tak[ing] them away into that land of perfect stillness where marvellous dreams are as normal as Bewley’s sticky buns” (White, Remembering The Diceman). What adds nicely to Kennelly’s quote is the following line of “Dharmakaya”:  
“remember the first step on the street – the footfall and the shadow of its fall – into silence. Breathe slow-ly out before the foot finds solid earth again” (Meehan, As If By Magic, 123). Here, the connection between silence or stillness and the breath which outcrops the spiritual dimension is what struck me most. Except from his fancy outfits McGinty did not need anything else. Slowly taking one step after the other or even complete standstill characterised him – not words. From my point of view this resembles a great stillness and Paula’s addition of breath to it is just beautiful. As with breath control or breath awareness (in Buddhism called prana-yāma2) stillness and silence come and vice versa. The influence of Buddhist spirituality on this poem inspired me because I never before thought of implementing the theme of spirituality into my poetry even though it is one of the most important topics on my mind. This in turn might be the reason why I did not write poems on a regular basis before – because I did not write about the topic closest to my heart and closest to what I see as the essence of a happy and fulfilled life. Aligning myself with my body and nature helps me to understand and find a way of coping with death, and on the other hand to help me value my present.  

Spirituality takes up a great part in my life as I practice Kundalini or Vinyasa Yoga almost every day and regularly read literature about Yoga or Buddhism in general like for example Sogyal Rinpoche’s “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”. Regarding my yoga practice, the prana-yāma in combination with different mudras (arrangements of the fingers and hands) and the recitation of mantras feels like the most important and effective part. Breath work has specific effects on one’s physiology and spirituality (Stoeber, 3HO Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma, 353) as well as it helps to get prana in the body flowing which “allows toxins to be released and removed” (Sengupta, Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama). By exercising my breath, I did not only learn to calm myself down or lift me up, but I learned that whatever life throws at me I can breathe through it and let go of it. Equally, writing poetry has the same effect on me. As soon as I write down my ideas or experience Wordsworth’s well known “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and manifest it on paper I feel a focus that puts me more in line with myself and just like breathing through it can let go of the words, ideas, thoughts and emotions that might have felt like a burden. Paula said that reading poetry is like breathing and writing it, alignment with the soul - this is what now connects me with her and my writing. Pure magic.

 

 

Sources

Meehan, Paula. As If By Magic: Selected Poems. The Dedalus Press: Dublin, 2020. 

 

Harrison, Paul. “Is the Dharma-kāya the Real “Phantom Body” of the Buddha?” The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15, no.1 (1992): 1-151.  

 

Sengupta, Pallav. “Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review.” International Journal of Preventive Medicine 3, no. 7 (July 2012): 444-458. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3415184/. 

 

Stoeber, Michael. “3HO Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma.” Sikh Formations 8, no. 3 (December 2012): 351-368. 

 

White, Trevor. “Remembering The Diceman: gay icon, national treasure and obstacle on the way to work.” Irish Times. Last modified February 15, 2020. Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/remembering-the-diceman-gay-icon-national-treasure-and-obstacle-on-the-way-to-work-1.4162626. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write about what upsets you.png
 

Writing about What Upsets Me?

Sabrina Laue

“Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream.’’ (Pond, p. 112)

 

I see the suitcase lying in front of me, empty and waiting to be filled. I put in the usual things: some trousers, more shirts than I can possibly wear, a towel. Tons of socks, my favourite jumper – and then books, of course: a tattered copy of Kafka’s collected stories, some other novel lying on top of one of the book piles on my desk. And then my black book, my diary, wherein I try to capture my inner life. 

And isn’t this, what writing is? A thought, an image, a feeling that wants to be articulated, expressed, re-thought, re-felt by some one else or another you. It is not only a way to communicate with the world. Writing in itself is a way of being in this world.

Still, we often wonder if we really have anything to say. So many people are writing; how can the (publishing) world care about me? What can I say about life, how can anything I write be relevant? Should I even write if I have the feeling that all I can say has already been said or is not important enough to be read? In short: Is there anything worth writing about?

These are questions I often struggle with. There are so many gifted authors out there and reading their work always inspires but at the same time intimidates me. You  see their names on the book cover, you read their words and wonder if you will ever write something worth publishing. I forget that these authors are real people and that they live here in this world. They often have come a long way and have faced the same problems any writer has. Meeting Paula Meehan, Tim MacGabhann, Claire-Louise Bennett and Wendy Erskine changed my perspective and encouraged me to ask myself what I really want to write about – and to actually write it. 

When Tim was packing his suitcase, leaving Ireland for Mexico, he probably couldn’t imagine how the things he’d experience there would influence him and his writing. And that he'd end up writing a thriller series about the difficult situation in Mexico caused by drug trade. 

I don’t usually read thrillers, but How to be Nowhere is more than suspenseful entertainment. Tim incorporated experiences he has had as a journalist living and working in the country. His first novel Call Him Mine was triggered by a real incident: the murder of five activists that happened only two blocks away from his apartment in Navarte. The frustration and despair he felt in the face of the corruption and political violence happening in Mexico inspired him to write the novel – to draw attention to the crimes being committed linked to drug trade there every day. Hearing him tell us how this personal experience triggered his writing was moving and somehow confirmed the advice he gave us: “Write about what really upsets you.’’ The situation in Mexico and the terrible murders upset him, so he wrote about it. 

“Write about what upsets you.’’ 

 

It almost seemed like a mantra and after the seminar I had to repeat this sentence to myself several times to let it unfold. Somehow, Tim’s words felt like a call and changed my perspective. I had often asked myself what I should or could write about, but always with the intention of creating something new. But should I not, instead of asking myself what others have not yet written, ask myself what I want to say?

“Write about what upsets you.’’

 

Many things upset me. Climate change used to make me cry, many political and social issues make me angry. Still, I don’t feel like being the person having a right to write about them. Partially because I haven’t experienced most of these problems myself, partially because I feel like I don’t know enough about them. Can I at 23 write about the emotions of an 80-year-old man I have never met? Grown up in a rich and democratic country, can I write about the despair of a refugee leaving his home country because of war? 

Call it privilege and egocentric (and I am conscious of the fact that it is), but most of the things that upset me are things that have direct impact on me and my situation in life. If I stop writing, stop thinking, hold on for a second to ask myself what upsets me in exactly this moment, it would mostly be one kind of thing: relations(ships). The connections I have or do not have with myself, the people around me, my environment. They provoke, trigger something in me – emotions, conflicts, ideas. They are close to me what makes it easy to feel upset about them – yet, I feel like they are only a starting point. There are so many other things I’d like to write about, but which at the moment feel out of my range. I am young and privileged. In a way I am confined by my experiences, my environment. I want to write about things I don’t feel to know enough about. I am interested, and I know that if I knew more about them they would upset me more. Maybe we have to be brave; trust ourselves that we can approach subjects we don’t know everything about, but that we feel are important to be written about. Even though other people write about it much better than I do, I add one more voice, offer one more perspective of the world. 

“Write about what upsets you.’’

 

But what if the things that upset me are not as loud, important and world-changing as I'd like? I think this is another moment where we have to be brave: brave to write about things that for others are trivial and irrelevant, but to you mean more than words can express. That’s the brilliance of Tim’s advice – you can write about anything, as long as it moves you, means something to you. You have to care, and sometimes we have to dare to care. For expressing these feelings, language is our instrument. Our words carry meaning. But what about the words themselves? Language itself? 

 

“I haven’t yet discovered what my first language […].’’ (Pond, p. 44)

 

A bunch of words and phrases, scribbled on pieces of paper. They’re captured images and feelings, fleeting thoughts and random syllables – all stuffed in an old suitcase. This suitcase is where Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond, collects notes for her writing. These notes are fragments, but as she says, sometimes the pieces are there but just need time to find each other.

Sometimes we know what to write about right from the beginning. Often we don’t – we write, produce language and find out in the process of writing what we actually want to say. The message we intend to convey is only one perspective of our text. Every reading adds another layer of meaning – even if it's ourselves re-reading our words half an hour later. We can never control language fully, just as language can never fully express what we want to say. Claire-Louise takes up this issue in Pond. The narrator in the stories is aware of the discrepancy between the language she is ‘equipped with’ and the meaning she wants to convey. 

 

„[R]egrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.“ (44)

 

The collection of shorter and longer pieces revolve around the inner life of a woman living alone. All the parts, though somehow isolated, belong together. They were all bits and pieces, notes scribbled on pieces of paper. Many of them were stored in her suitcase for a while, until they finally found together. The stories in Pond are, as Claire-Louise says, “layered in a certain way’’. Each piece, each moment and scene is put in relation to each other through the way they are arranged. The structure shifts the focus away from the plot, as in terms of plot there is nothing much, at least not in its conventional meaning. 

When Claire-Louise started writing, she didn’t know what would come out of it. It was a process of collecting, experimenting, trying out, arranging and re-arranging. She wants to guide the reader’s imagination by creating atmospheres and evoking pictures through her words. And this is what we experience when reading Pond. We witness the narrator building up a relationship to her environment, which is not predominantly shaped by her social contacts but by the physical objects surrounding her. 

We as readers respond to what we read and in the case of Pond I dived into the stream of soliloquies Claire-Louise skilfully painted. Although we don’t really get to know anything about the protagonist of the stories, we can identify with her and seem to look inside a mirror. We learn as much about ourselves as about the narrator. Suddenly the fact that oranges are “very nice to eat […] when you’ve been having sex for ages’’ (25) can be upsetting, just because it gives us an idea of how the narrator feels, having a relationship with someone who comes over to have sex but who doesn't offer room for her to fully open up. Sometimes the most upsetting things happen in detail.

To write is to learn more about yourself. Asking yourself what really drives you, what evokes feelings – positive or negative – is an essential part of it. If something has meaning for us, it’s worth being written about. 

All of the sessions were incredibly inspiring and motivating. Each of the four writers encouraged me in their own different way to do the same thing: to keep writing, to keep trying out and not to be afraid Writing is a process. Knowing what to write about is only one step on a journey, we need to write and re-write, arrange and re-arrange to get somewhere in the end, for the spark to ignite and catch fire. 

“Write about what upsets you.’’ Everything can be upsetting, and you can write about everything. It just has to upset you, in one way or another and not the instant you think about it. You can collect ideas, think about what upsets you and what doesn’t, but makes you feel something. Just put it in a suitcase, and wait till it’s ready to be (re)arranged.  

Sources

 

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond, London 2015.

 
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“Collections turning into Books”:

Finding similarity in difference

Gwendolin Sasser

This semester we had the opportunity to take part in a workshop that offered us to meet four Irish authors in zoom sessions. I am thankful for this opportunity, because not only were we able to read four hugely different, amazing books, but we learned more about the ideas behind each of the stories.

When I first found out that we would be reading a crime novel in our literature seminar, I was curious, because not only have I not enjoyed reading Crime fiction in the past, but also because I usually cannot sleep after reading or watching anything that chases up my pulse. 

The biggest surprise was that I genuinely enjoyed reading Tim MacGabhann’s first crime novel Call him Mine and could not wait to read the next book for our special project. Although I was not able to sleep whenever I had his book(s) in my hands, I could not stop reading either and cannot wait for the final sequence of his three-part series. How to be Nowhere is the follow-up of Andrew’s story, a reporter from Ireland, who tries to detect the hidden business of police and drug dealers in Mexico. His story is tragic, and Andrew is always close to death, either by the different smells of death (MacGabhann, on our list) that become part of his job and somehow turn into his daily business or by putting himself in life-threatening situations whilst trying to find out more about the secret machinations of the cartel.

Meeting Tim MacGabahann was a pleasure. Not only does he slightly look like the man on the cover of his own novel (only without the cowboy hat and shotgun), but he is down-to-earth, maybe partly because of his yoga and meditation sessions in the (incredibly early) morning. He loves the magic of words, which to him are so much more than just pieces on paper and he manages to use his words in a way that turn little and banal things into voices of horror. His language is extremely visual, which makes him manage to balance with words and techniques of storytelling. Tim’s goal is to reach towards the page turner as if they are for our entertainment so that the reader feels addicted to the story. 

Most impressive to me is how Tim structures his process of writing, because as a reader we usually do not know much about how the stories and ideas turn into a book. He spends weeks with each of his characters, interviews them, and even dreams about them or imagines them in his life before writing their story so to him they turn into real people, his friends. Before he starts his typing process, he writes either two or three drafts from scratch (by hand) without reading the other ones and later types them down. Afterwards, he reads them out loud and plans for the next two drafts, but also what he wants to change. Before writing everything down, he makes sure that each of the scenes prepares for the next with a rising action. He then prints his draft and uses seven (!) infamous highlighters to mark and correct step by step. Although his second book is much angrier than the first one, his methods remained the same, however, How to be Nowhere took him only six weeks to write. 

Tim thought of it as a hard book to sell as he got 115 rejections at the beginning, but it sold out quickly – which is not surprising if you ask me.

The second author we talked about in more detail and had the chance to meet was Claire-Louise Bennett, who showed us her collection of different pieces she has written and stored in an old suitcase (when the connection broke down) and has the most open and contagious way of laughing I have ever heard, which made her even more likeable.  

Her Collection of short stories Pond is a genius mix of short and very short stories about the little things of our daily life. Even though some of her stories are about the most banal things in life, such as a banana, as a reader you cannot stop but imagine and think more about the deeper meanings. Claire-Louise’s stories are told in a humorous and sharp way and makes you want to read the whole collection in just one setting. Her book made me laugh, but at the same time made me think differently about my surroundings and the seemingly banal things of our daily life. 

Claire-Louise collects her ideas over years before finishing a book and combines the many pieces from her suitcase with her most recent inspirations which turn her stories into a unique journey through different times. Although she spends a lot of time with her stories and ideas, her goal is to only guide her readers, but leave the interpretations and images open – which certainly went without a hitch, if you ask me. 

Most inspiring for me is Claire-Louise’s attitude and her way of bringing across that she always remains true to herself. In her opinion literature should be about saying what you really think and not what people want to hear, which also led her to sticking to her ideas about Pond that she might have changed for publishers if she would have written the book in her twenties.

 

Last, but not least, we were honoured to meet Wendy Erskine and ask questions about her first short story collection, Sweet Home. Wendy is not only a truly kind and interesting person, but she is famous for her legendary playlists on Spotify. 

Sweet Home and the ten short stories are all a little ironic considering the title. Each of them tells a story about an individual character living in Northern Ireland who must handle the struggles of life. The stories are often dark and desperate, but they are written in a compassionate way, but Wendy manages to create them in a natural and totally relatable style for the reader. Each of the stories carries an individual message which remind us that difficulties and concerns in life are just as important as the good times.

Before starting her writing process, Wendy collects ideas for her characters and imagines them in different scenarios. She wrote monthly stories for over a year prior to Sweet Home and included them in her collection. Instead of following specific guidelines, she goes with the flow and feels more comfortable with writing what works for her. Even though the characters are not based on real people, they are built upon different types of people, which can be seen on the example of Kim Cassels in the third story “Observation”, who is a mother of a teenage girl, but rather lives a teenage life herself.

 

Although the three authors I was able to meet and ask questions could not seemingly be more different, it is quite interesting to observe some similarities in their writing process. Each of them spends time with their characters, collects essays and ideas over a longer period and only then starts putting the whole story together. Each of the books is written in a unique way and features different varieties of topics, but we were taught again, that becoming an author is about writing what you enjoy and feel comfortable with, rather than doing what someone else tells you to write about. 

I am unbelievably thankful for this experience and the chance to take part in this seminar. Not only did I learn more about the story behind of the books, but each of the authors was welcoming and open to talk to us in an encouraging and warm-hearted way which made me want to be friends with each of them. All of this would not have been possible without Georgina Nugent-Folan, who organised and scheduled each of the meetings and prepared us in the best way. THANK YOU!

The Books 

 
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More about the authors

and their books:

About Paula Meehan:

Biography on the Website of The Ireland Chair of Poetry

About Tim MacGabhann:

Irish Times: Article about"Call Me By Your Name" 

About Wendy Erskine:

The Gloss: Article

 

About Claire-Louise Bennett:

The Guardian: Review

Irish Times: Article