Portrait of an Atheist Monk at Prayer, Oran Ryan’s first collection, reflects on the nature of existence in a world of conflicting ideologies and belief systems, an age seeking certainty in a post truth state, an era of rising new empires and changing values and faiths, an era of absolutist thinking that hides a deep uncertainty about once seemingly timeless values. It’s also about sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and robots.
“With poems that draw their inspiration from space travel, music, art, pop culture, science and philosophy, this book is the perfect read for anyone with an interest in questions of belief and unbelief…This is writing that will play on your mind and your emotions long after you have turned the last page”Eileen Sheehan
“Like a Fly Agaric gospel from outer space, these poems are a hallucinogenic Book of Revelations.” John W. Sexton
“In poems of sometimes cosmic irony, comedy and tragedy dance together in a way that is often sublime.” Kevin Higgins
“The questing gnostic voice, rising from the tumult of discordant collision at the interface of popular culture and organised religion, speaks to both seeker and saved.” Eamon Carr see also Horslips
Oran Ryan is a writer living in Ireland. He has written novels: The Death of Finn (Seven Towers, 2006) Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger (Seven Towers 2007), and One Inch Punch (Seven Towers, 2012). He has written plays: Don Quixote has Been Promoted (2009, Ranelagh Arts Festival) for the stage and radio: Preliminary Design for a Universe Circling Spacecraft (KRPN, San Francisco, California 2010). He has written and published short stories, poetry and literary critical articles.
Kevin Higgins, whose best-selling first collection, The Boy With No Face published by Salmon Poetry, was short-listed for the 2006 Strong Award for Best First Collection by an Irish poet. Kevin’s second collection of poems, Time Gentlemen, Please was published in 2008 by Salmon Poetry and his poetry is discussed in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry. His third collection Frightening New Furniture was published in 2010 by Salmon and his work also appears in the generation defining anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Ed. Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010). A collection of Kevin’s essays and book reviews, Mentioning The War, was published in 2012 by Salmon Poetry. His next collection of poetry, The Ghost in The Lobby, was published in 2014, by Salmon. Press.
Around 2009 I was unwell. I didn’t know it, but I was not ok. I had began to feel tired. Looking back now this comes as no surprise. For the previous six years I had been working on a novel called One Inch Punch.
I had stopped taking care of myself: mentally, emotionally, physically. I was insomniac, drinking too much, sleeping odd hours, not exercising. I was obsessed with the novel. I lived the book, day and night. I dreamed the text. I woke up in the morning with dialogue in my head. I had images of the various characters fluttering like butterflies around my conscious and subconscious. One Inch Punch had become a monster, and how I loved my monster. It slept beneath my bed and gazed at me as I ate and worked at my desk. How I loved my characters. In a sense they had become more real to me than my friends, my family, indeed the world itself. Life had become something of a distraction. All I wanted to do was go on writing. I wanted to trace the life of a failed genius, this guy, this fictional Gordon Brock. I named him after my obsession with the band Hawkwind, whose lead singer’s surname was Brock. before I started writing pers se, I was noting things down, for a long time. I started from the beginning, from Gordy’s experience of being bullied as a kid to his life as a philandering psychotherapist who wrote garbage self help books that kept him rich and idle, to the end of his marriage, to his meeting in middle age with his nemesis, Ed Frasier one freezing winter day when both of them were Christmas shopping. Now lets be clear on this, my Gordon was not a nice guy, not what you might call an attractive character, not filled with the milk of human kindness. Gordon Brock was an asshole. As Senator David Norris said so hilariously at the launch of the novel “He was a bit of a bollox.” (scan forward in the video to 2.38 min) Absolutely true, but it didn’t matter. I loved him. I loved Gordon Brock, iq 174, his wife Martha Reynolds Brock, his Mom and dad who loved him so, his worst enemy Dr. Ed Fraser (we always need a nemesis to struggle against, I guess), his school teachers, his son Joshua. I was world building, and it was fun. This book was my life for six whole years. I had wanted to write about the impact of childhood bullying and torment for a very long time before, and here, when I found my Gordon in my dreams, there came my chance. I didn’t give a shit about publishing this book. I wanted to keep going forever. Writing was my life my religion, my prayer, my meaning, as Depeche Modewould have itMy own Personal Jesus. It was the most fulfilling thing I could ever do. Naturally I didn’t tell people this. Ones life partner might somehow take umbrage on hearing such madness. Anyway I went on. Sarah went to work. I cooked, cleaned, walked the dogs, and took a shower now and then, went to literary events with great reluctance, and joyfully returned to my desk to return to my own personal virtual reality. And then it all ended and the lights went out and they stayed out. I got sick. I crashed and burned. Everything fell apart, and then things got worse…
Literary style is what you see before you when you open the first page of a book, particularly a literary work. Literary style (or ‘writing style’ or ‘literary voice’ or the ‘writer’s voice’) is the way a writer uses words in sentences.
2. Why do writers employ a literary style?
Style is the fundamental way any writer expresses themselves. In order to express oneself, one has to choose ones words. in choosing certain words over other words one is employing a style. One’s style makes one unique. Style is a literary fingerprint, a verbal DNA. Stlye describes a writer’s individual use of sentences, what words they choose and how they choose to use them. A writer’s style is how their particular choice of words flows in their sentences. It’s pretty easy to see the differing styles in different writers. Choose your favourite writer and look and see whether or not their sentences are on average short or long, whether they use a lot of allusions or metaphors or external historical or scientific data or not, whether they use a lot of local colour, whether their work is filled with precise emotional or external factual data or not, whether their language is complex or not, whether they use a lot of irony or wit or not. Writers make these many word choices in order to tell their individual stories to best effect, to most powerfully depict their characters, to drive their plots on, to inform, challenge, educate, entertain, mystify and impress their readers. Writers strive towards developing their own unique style for several reasons. The most obvious reason might be their desire not to sound like other writers, but the main one is to properly express their own unique voice, what exactly is happening and how exactly it is happening in the lives and minds and hearts of the people in the worlds they are describing and in the stories they are telling. All the other aspects of writing: character, plot, sense of place, time, pacing – all these form the threads that make up the unique fabric of a writer’s style.
3. How important is literary style?
From what we have been talking about it’s clear that style is not some superficial aspect to writing. Style is substance when it comes to writing. It is the most immediate, most accessible part of any book, article, poem, play, or script. It’s what greets you when you start to read. It is that aspect of the writer’s art that takes you through a book of 100 thousand words or an article of 500 words. Thus it’s critically important to develop your style. You cannot write without style. You develop your plot through using literary devices delivered through your style. You describe your characters through style. You hold the reader’s attention by showing that here is a writer like no other, and your individual voice is a voice that the reader wants to listen to as they tell a story in a way that holds their attention through good or bad, through triumph or disaster, through suffering or joy. All of the above is achieved by the use of style.
4. How do I develop my style?
You develop your literary voice by practising and listening to your own inner voice. You also develop your voice, and by this I am speaking of your writing style, by being clear on what you have to say, by developing the story you want to tell, by carefully researching your subject, by making careful notes, by working out plot, characterization, pacing, by making a plan that works and sticking to it. It takes time and it takes patience.
5. Okay, but is there a method for developing style?
Other than a willingness to work at it, and seek to continually to improve your work, working towards perfecting the various aspects of story, plot, finding the right word in the right place and building from there, reading and learning, there is no known methodology for creating one’s own unique style. It can be said that one’s style finds you, rather than the reverse. The only way this can happen is by writing, and, as has been said before, writing is largely rewriting.
Writing is difficult, but its also something so basic to who we are as intelligent beings, that despite its difficulty, its something literally anyone and everyone can grasp. Art happens when the writer expresses something unique that emerges from the self and says something more than the contents and the tropes and methods learned from the craft. A craft on the other hand is a series of techniques to efficiently and easily perform a task, in this case the ancient art of writing. This being said, it is imperative that any aspiring writer learn the craft of writing. Just as potential martial artist must learn their craft in a dojo, or a potential musician study their instrument of choice and learn from mistresses and masters of the art, so too a potential writer needs to learn about how to write in order to write well. This tiny primer will help one take the first steps.
What is Creative Writing?
Creative Writing has its origins in our ancient practise of storytelling and poetry recitation. Creative Writing communicates what it means to live in the world in all varieties and forms. Creative writing helps us understand the world and it helps us describe our own and others experiences of living in the world. Its useful and life enhancing and good for us all.
2. Writing is for everyone.
Writing and storytelling is an art and a craft that has been practised for millennia. It can be practised by anyone who wants to be a writer. Writing is both an art and a craft. In other words, if you are interested in getting to know the world of writing a little better and try it out, there are certain skills one can learn and develop that will help one to express oneself more clearly and easily. Developing these skills takes time and practise, like any craft. From the craft of writing we can then work at developing our artistic gifts.
3. Find your space.
Have some place where you can write in peace and quiet. It’s difficult to work in a place with lots of distractions. Once you find your space, work out a schedule you can live with, and stick to it.
4. Schedule time.
Writing takes time and effort. Writing is often re-writing. Because it takes time and patience to grow your art, it’s important to schedule quality time outside our busy lives to make time for ourselves to be creative.
5. Get a Notebook.
Bring your notebook everywhere. What we write is a record of our lives, our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams, and starting with a notebook we can build these stories. A notebook is the indispensable tool for every writer. Write down thoughts, impressions, dreams, useful facts, memories, ideas for stories, poems, screenplays, theatre pieces. Remember that your notebook is your own and keep it private.
6. Go to open-mics, gigs, and writing groups.
Meet and associate with other writers and artists. Don’t isolate. You learn quickly from the example of others, also there are many courses and regular readings out there to test your work and see how it is received by an audience. Take your time and go to a few, and when you feel ready go up and read a poem or a short piece of fiction in front of a group.
Every great writer is a great reader. Use your local library. Read often and for long periods. Familiarize yourself with as many writers, thinkers, muses, as you can. This experience will deepen your knowledge not only of the world (which is important for your writing) but will show you how other writers approached various subjects, and help you avoid pitfalls.
8. Keep a healthy work life-balance.
If you take to writing, it can be a fascinating, fulfilling, and a demanding occupation. Remember to keep a good balance between your social and private life. Stay healthy, sleep lots, eat well, and avoid unhealthy lifestyles.
9. Write a certain amount you have already decided upon each day, and then stop.
It’s best to stop each day at a high point. Make a note of where you stopped, date it and continue from that point the next day, or when you decide to.
10. Take regular breaks from your writing.
It’s healthy and good for your work to take a break. Then, after the break, go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, and, most importantly, a refreshed brain and body.
11. Take Writing Courses.
It’s a good idea to do writing courses; many are excellent and helpful. The important thing to always remember is to develop your own style. The only way to develop your own style is to write, and keep writing, and not give up.
12. Have fun.
Writing is probably one of the most
fulfilling, delightful, mysterious, fascinating, and educational of
occupations. Never stop enjoying it.
When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’
They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.
I don’t buy this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.
Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.
Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.
So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the
question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:
Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.
By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. Imagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.
My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.
Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’. It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language or smoking weed out the back garden. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse. This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. Depression has certainly a marked chemical or genetic component, but it also has a societal aspect, a marked societal aspect. Our pain is framed by our world. If this pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.
So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.
So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.
But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.
Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.
“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”
(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.
I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
Ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Ones Own I knew I wanted nothing more than a quiet room of my own, a stipend or wage of sorts, and enough time and space to write, or more properly to think. All that seems a little crazy on paper, but it was where I was at back then. Decades later it hasn’t changed. In fact, having seen what fame and money has done to writers and artists of various stripes and persuasions, success in that sense is a fate I fear as equally as my ego and insecurities desperately long for it. So today, with these concerns buzzing away in my mind, I went over to University of Limerick to do an interview for a month long course in CELTA or the certificate for English language teaching (I am not really sure what the ‘A’ stands for) but its a qualification enabling me to teach English in pretty much any country in the world. There is naturally a downside to doing this expensive course, that is, if I pass the interview. Its is more than full time. I was warned by my interviewers that I will spend hours each night doing course work, along with the regular nine to five schedule, along with Saturdays and early morning meetings. This means I have to forego this book I am working on, which is a big worry. Will I lose the ‘gist’ or thread of ideas I am drawing from while I am engaged in working for this qualification? Will I write differently after all this linguistic analysis? I often think of what Ozzy Osbourne said when asked why he never learned to read or write music. He said that after a while he took the advice of friends never to learn, as the music he was involved in making might actually be ruined by learning the formal rules and procedures of music writing. It sounds rather counter intuitive. But now I know what he means. Time till tell.