Firstly, let me apologise for the cheesy title of this blog, but one of the key things I learned at my inaugural trip to Listowel Writers' Week is the importance of a snappy opening line.
... Clearly I've failed!
But in all seriousness, spending 5 days at Listowel Writers' Week last month was a serious personal challenge for me and one that I had spent a huge amount of time stressing over, as outlined in my previous blog post (if you haven't read my previous posts, I have one question: what have you been doing with your life?). I was torn with the notion of falsely identifying as a writer when I'm actually not a writer. But thankfully, I ignored my inner monologue (which can be hard - she's pretty persistent) and, armed with my wheelie suitcase, laptop bag and a LOT of chocolate, I drove down the N7 on a sunny Wednesday evening and left Sinead the social worker back in Dublin. And it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Of course the best made plans of mice and men often go astray (including an unannounced visit from the mental health commission in work, a trip back to the house to leave the garage door zapper for my other half and a pitstop in a rural Kerry petrol station when I remembered my toothbrush was sitting smugly in our en-suite in Kildare), so I ended up almost missing the opening ceremony. Thankfully the lovely Mary Cogan (my sort of in-law and hostess/tour guide/adoptive mammy for the week) kept an eye out for the tired, sweaty, hungry looking writer running down towards the Listowel Arms Hotel with about 2 minutes to spare before the doors closed. What can I say, I do love to make an entrance!
I can say that within 5 minutes of the ceremony opening I had completely forgotten my hunger and (almost) the need for a shower. Hearing Colm Tóibín speak about writers creating art "from a place of silence... from imagination" was literally spine-tinging while Paul Durkan's emphasis on the importance of the audience in writing struck a chord with me that I had never experienced before; without an audience there is no appreciation, no reaction, no existence of a piece of work.
It was a privilege to witness Eimear McBride scoop the coveted Kerry Group Novel of the year and the humility and grace with which she accepted her award was refreshing. Okay, I'm just going to be honest here (because if you can't be honest in your blog, when can you be?), I DID imagine what it would be like if I won that award some day. Yes, okay, I pictured myself graciously accepting the €19,000 cheque in a flattering evening dress, spouting a humbly inspiring speech while smiling graciously at the flashing camera.
Hey wake up Sinead, how about you write the actual book before you start accepting the awards?
You see, I told you my inner monologue is persistent.
But the point is, the pride and passion in the room was palpable; I was immersed in a completely different world, in a world that I've hidden from for so long - out of fear. Fear of what, I'm not exactly sure; rejection, change, difference, failure. Who knows? But suddenly, the morning that I had spent completing medical card forms on a psychiatric ward earlier that day seemed a million miles away. And so did the fear.
Thankfully, I showered, ate and slept before my first workshop at 9am the next morning so I was ready to mingle with my writing peers and put my writing cap firmly in place. I was nervous but excited as I walked up to the boys secondary school in Listowel on that Thursday morning. It was interesting then that one of the first things our teacher, the brilliant John MacKenna, informed us was "Don't expect to make a living out of being a writer; very few people are that lucky."
Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction.
What am I doing here? I may as well be back in work! Why am I even bothering with this book?
But he had a point. A very valid point and one that no aspiring writer should skim over - you write for you and no one else. Okay, I guess every writer would ideally like to be published, successful and respected but that's not why one writes. I don't write for anyone else, I write purely for me because I love it and I enjoy it and I can't imagine not having it in my life. I write because it helps me debrief and de-stress. But most of all, I write because I have a story that I want to tell, a story that has been in my head for 5 years and it won't go away. It wants to get out on those pages and, guess what, I am the only person who can do it. Only me. No pressure.
I feel that that small shift in my attitude had a huge impact on my presence and progress in the workshop over the following 3 days. It definitely gave me a sense of confidence and ease. My workshop peers were all in a similar position to me, which meant that it was easy for us to bond and chat over our daily tea and biscuits, as spotty faced school boys with bum fluff moustaches and far too much deodorant sniggered at us,
jostling into our huddles as we discussed character timelines and writing schedules. (By the way, you know you're getting old when a secondary school boy refers to you as "Missus"... but that's a WHOLE other blog!)
The workshop was hugely helpful; from the moment where we embodied our characters and had to answer questions from our peers (I never knew that my David was as cagey and secretive until I acted him out) to my debut reading of the first 2 pages of my novel. *gulp*
The reading was tough. I don't have children so I apologise if I offend anyone with my simplistic comparison, but this novel is my baby. I'm so protective of it because I've put (and continue to put) so much time, energy, effort, EVERYTHING into this book. So as I was reading aloud my prologue, while my peripheral vision picked up my peers' reactions to each sentence, I thought I might actually get sick. I cringed at some of my writing and faltered over sentences that obviously made sense when I typed them but not so much when I read them out loud.
Good God, did I actually write that? Stop now, just stop reading. Stop reading, put the pages in your bag and quietly leave the room. Then drive back to Kildare and burn this manuscript. Why are you here? You can't write.
But I finished reading and I noted the critiques and constructive criticism from my peers. I took out some sneaky adverbs that had somehow crawled into my first draft (I hate how they do that!), I argued the value of a prologue, I took out some detail that may have been irrelevant and I agreed to scrap the idea of a dream sequence. It was hard, it was challenging, it was unnerving and unsettling but it was brilliant. It was exactly what I needed.
I spent the mornings of Writers Week in my workshops and I tried to attend as many writer interviews as possible afterwards. In the afternoons, I did something that I haven't done in a long time - I wrote. I sat in a coffee shop in Listowel, took out my notebook and wrote. I scribbled notes, diagrams, timelines, scenarios, dialogue pieces and ideas. I scribbled so much that my tea went cold and my muffin went a bit cardboardy.
Forgive the sub-standard metaphor but I imagine my brain as a vault or safe, locked up securely with all kinds of treasure and magic safely inside with no access to it. Writers Week gave me the key, the security code and I now have access to a whole host of previously untapped possibilities. And as a writer, that is the most exciting resource that I can possess.
So I left Listowel with a different view on Sunday morning. I found my mind wandering as I drove back North, heading back to reality, back to the day job, back to the mortgage and the bills. But instead of feeling depressed, saddened and lost that the week was over, I found myself feeling inspired and looking forward to incorporating my new found passion and drive into my familiar routine and lifestyle.
Will it happen? Watch this space! :)