A Short Essay on Writing Essays

Essays can be on any subject. They can argue any point, give information, tell a story, try to solve a problem, or convince a reader about a certain viewpoint. In fact essays sometimes do many or all of the above things at the same time. In this short essay I will try to talk about how to write an essay, but the best way to learn is from the best writers of essays.

The first thing one has to do in writing an essay is to choose one’s topic. In choosing ones topic, it is best to write about something one knows, otherwise one will have to do a lot of research before sitting down to write an essay. If you do research (it can be engrossing and fun), choose reputable sources for your data, preferably two sources for each data point. After this, the most important thing in an essay is to stick to the topic of the essay. There are an infinity of possible subjects for writing. Choose one per essay.

Once you have chosen a topic, it is best to take a spare sheet of paper out and note down quickly everything you know about the topic. This should only take a moment and will save you time as you write your essay. Once you make your notes, then try to structure your thoughts in a clear and logical manner. Now you are ready to write your essay.

Introduce your topic at the beginning of the essay, tell your reader what you intend to do in the essay and be sure to conclude your essay showing your reader(s) that you have accomplished what you set out to do. As already mentioned, the most important thing in an essay is to stick to the topic of the essay. The second most important thing is to use clear language and make sure your ideas follow smoothly and logically. Use simple direct language, avoid jargon or scientific phrasing where it’s not necessary, and develop your theme from one paragraph to the next. When you go to write an essay in an exam, for instance, it is best to have had lots of practise in the skill of essay writing beforehand. Preparation is everything.

Write your essay out twice, if you have the time. The first draft usually shows a number of problems in style, structure and sources. The second attempt usually eliminates many or all of these issues. Then read over your essay with an eye to what works in your writing and what doesn’t. Check spelling grammar and quotes. And you are done.

In conclusion essays are an entertaining, informative, and straightforward way to impart information, argue a point, convince people of certain opinions, or indeed tell a story. They structure information in an easy to follow way, reach conclusions quickly and should be written in a clear and logical manner.

Doris Lessing and the Search for Self.

I was 22 years old when I first read Doris Lessing. It was her first book, The Grass is Singing, set in Rhodesia in the 1940’s amongst hardscrabble farmers struggling against their own alienation and inexperience to make a living. Knowing something about her background even back then when it was more fashionable to read her, I read the text as more than a little autobiographical. The plot of the book was a murder mystery in reverse. Mary Turner, the wife of Dick Turner has been murdered, and a “houseboy” Moses has already confessed to the crime. What struck me was the direct compelling writing that drove the plot towards its gruesome end with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Inverting the plot so as to name the killer first focused the book on motivation- not on who did it, but why they did it. It was all down to a question of identities. Who were these people, really? It was as if Doris Lessing was saying through the book: Here is the world I came from. I know these people. I lived among them. They were poor, white, enmeshed in a kind of abhorrent officially sanctioned racism called apartheid, and, in the midst of this bleak political landscape in the supremely beautiful land of Rhodesia. The story was grim and heartbreaking, a story of the disastrous fall from grace of two white Rhodesian farmers caught in a downward spiral of failed dreams, loveless relationships, cruelty, madness, disappointment, and then murder.

The book was just so damn clever. The fact we are presented with an inverted murder mystery where the reader is left to tease out the mysteries of the human heart and the human psyche seems to focus on a theme that runs right across most if not all of the authors work: the quest for self, for our deepest drives and motivations. Why did Moses kill Mary? Where did Moses get his scar? What pushed them to such extremities? What made these people engage in this terrible dance of death and poverty and brutal race relations? It was clear these protagonists were as unable to flourish as their farm. (See https://tinyurl.com/y58wsvgo for Lessing describing colonial traditions) This was due to the social and political climate in Rhodesia, and of course, ineptitude. They seemed to be really bad farmers, in fact Dick admitted as much. Also, they had no idea who they were in Rhodesia. They did not fit into local society, nor could they make a success of their lives. As they were not themselves; as they could never be themselves, at least not in Rhodesia in the 40’s, their fates were somewhat determined by these circumstances. It was this search for identity at the core of the novel that led me to begin seriously reading Lessing.

Looking over The Grass is Singing decades later I see it still as a dreadfully sad book. I still see it as almost too autobiographical in many ways. I had read more about Lessing after I finished the novel and now I could clearly see where the plot came from and how it developed in her mind. That being the case, this masterpiece of writing hooked me on Doris Lessing as a writer to read most carefully. I began hunting for and reading her books. Like her characters I too had an inner life so very different from the outer social self I presented to the world.

Within a year or two I had devoured the Canopus in Argos novels, being a science fiction junkie since I was about twelve or so. These books, heavily influenced by Sufism, focused more on the development of societies from an alien standpoint, their structures, influences on individual freedoms, and how these societies developed and were influenced by aliens over eons. So strictly, as they didn’t focus on the hard science of the story, they could be regarded more as space fiction, something Lessing emphasized more than once. After this I read The Good Terrorist, where two differing lifestyles are struggled with: the terrible things done in acts of terrorism counterpointed with the demands of domesticity and the rhythms of everyday life. Then, after reading of Alice’s attempts to bridge bourgeois ideology with her radical terrorist leanings, soon afterwards, I bought the mind bendingly different, disturbingly compelling, Briefing for a Descent into Hell. It was a devastating book that introduced me on a deeper level to Doris Lessing the psychonaut who traverses the outer reaches of human consciousness and experience, whereby we journeyed across the inner space time landscapes of Professor Charles Watkins’ mind and soul and deeply fragmented inner self. Watkins was lost and alone within his own inescapable subjectivity that he longs to transcend and evolve beyond. Is he mentally ill or transitioning from one self to another? Who is this self he was given, or indeed we are given socially? Who are we in relation to one another? Is there more than one self? We meet so many Charlie Watkins in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, this hell which is his inner universe. The gods are depicted with many faces and selves, so why not we? Here Professor Watkins breaks down, his social self disintegrates, and we are presented with the pieces in the alternate reality of his deep subconscious. Who was Watkins? Did we meet the real Charlie Watkins in this surreal Dantesque psychic landscape? Should he be allowed to continue on this journey or should he be ‘healed’ with medication in the hospital? This was a question that bothered me as I could find no place for myself in the world.

Around this time I was in my thirties, married, lost in suburbia with a soulless corporate job in a phone company and I was confused and still in search of myself. Then, one day in a second hand bookshop, I picked up The Golden Notebook. This cubistic novel, built from different ‘notebooks’ and clippings and fragments, is about the life, memories, and writings of Anna Wulf in the 1950s. Here the theme of breakdown, healing, what reality was and is, were all examined in a riveting, compassionate, and clever way. Anna, the writer protagonist, records the differing aspects of herself on four separate notebooks, all of which she seeks to unify into one notebook, the big one, the golden notebook of the title. At the time of writing Lessing was reeling with the realization amongst so many left wing intellectuals and activists that Stalin was responsible for around forty million deaths. (See: The Day That Stalin Died: https://tinyurl.com/y5cg5yva)This news was devastating on one level, and yet on another level, she felt nothing the day he died. Soon she left the party and then, six years afterwards, The Golden Notebook came out. Again I identified with her disillusionment. With the demise of any overarching belief system from one’s life, at first the experience is a kind of blank, then slowly over time one experiences the all-encompassing consequences of discovering that one’s belief systems were founded on nothing substantial. Lessing, a former activist, divorced, personally and ideologically lost, felt the inner fragmentation of her world and sought to find a literary remedy for her pain and loss of direction. I saw my life reflected in these notebooks, these alternate tales of parallel lives that constituted Wulf’s self. I reveled in the counter point of differing styles all vying with one another as they emerged from the notebooks that were used to fuse together in the golden notebook which went to build up what constituted the novel. These notebooks were Anna’s differing selves, novels within novels building up complex and at time contrapuntal narratives like some kind of Bach work whereby voices in apparent discordance actually converge to give a higher more complex beauty. It was a kind of act of artistic salvation that seemed to me to be the only real solution to the quest for the self. It is in telling our stories, telling the truth about ourselves, the uncomfortable, dirty, at times lost, hurt, confused and vulnerable truths about ourselves that we discover who we are. It is in the telling of our story, however incoherent and fragmented that story might be that we discover our story. It is in the midst of the discord and differing lives we live that we are most truly who we are. In The Golden Notebook Lessing made a timeless artefact of our often fragmentary lives. The idea of a breakdown, in the sense of a loss of sense of self and a major depressive episode is seen as something bleak, painful, but if seen as something of a breakthrough rather than breakdown, might be ultimately redemptive. After the failed experiment with communism, her rejection of party politics, the end of her marriages, Lessing took a route that opened even more to her, the journey inwards.

Lessing discusses in the first volume of her autobiography just how it’s possible that an intelligent person like her could have believed the things she did at the time (communism, collectivism, dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), and indeed the extent and detail of her MI5 file shows how skeptical British intelligence was as to whether or not she really had given up on her support of communism. (See https://tinyurl.com/y4zele54 ) “Facts are easy,” she replies in her autobiography (P. 19) “It is the atmospheres that made them possible that are elusive.” And “I know it’s hard to understand without being immersed in the poisoned air of then.” One detects an embarrassment about what she held to be true back when she was a younger less experienced person, a common experience of anyone who recall the sometimes naïve safe belief systems one embraces, alas, all to easily in a youthful search for truth and the comforts of a kind of easy certainty.

In the end of course there are no easy certainties. Any journey to self is a complex one, filled with setbacks and disappointments and false trails, at times disaster. However, according to first volume of her autobiography (p.20), Lessing’s journey to the centre of herself was greatly assisted by psychedelics, which surprised me. She says she took mescaline once, and that when she did she was aided by two friends who monitored both her and the right amount of the drug she was taking. The journey was eventful. What she discovered was just how strong in her was what she referred to as the Hostess character. This is the person one meets when you see Lessing interviewed or giving lectures, being chatty, friendly, and warm, engaging, “a public person for public use”. And apparently she was rabbiting away to her two friends in an increasingly scatty manner while high. But deep inside she saw herself, a creature within the within she refers to as The Observer. This is the place she says “here I retreat to, take refuge, when I think that my life will be public property and there is nothing I can do about it. (P. 20)” This is her most secret place, and here, in this ultimate loneliness, this most private of inner worlds, she is safe, alone truly herself. If there was ever a time on her quest for what we loosely call the self, from the fifty or so books this most brilliant and prolific of writers wrote about from the most distant of worlds to a bitter life under Rhodesian apartheid, it appears that here, under the influence of a drug that has inspired writers and thinkers and mystics alike, she talks about finding herself: “Me, I, this feeling of me.(p.20)” This most inviolable of inner selves manifested itself to her, never to be accessed by anyone other than herself, amidst joy and intense childlike weeping and a desire to cradle this little inner child as one would an infant (P.21). Unfortunately we do not read of what effect this had on her long term, but reading what she wrote about the trip in her autobiography, this “feeling of me” seems to be her realization of a central self, her golden notebook if you will, a gratifying existential experience of coming home, something that remained with her at least until the time of her writing her autobiography (p.21). In fact, Lessing goes further than that. She describes using mescaline as an experience of “being born” a phrase she says is from the sixties, but one she deploys to express the radical nature of this experience, its gravity, it’s transcendental quality. Her first birth was a difficult one. This one was apparently not so traumatic. It was revelatory, healing and transforming, if you will, and certainly for me an entirely new aspect to this endlessly intriguing and challenging writer.

Works Mentioned:

Lessing, Doris, The Grass is Singing, Fourth Estate Ltd (17 Jan. 2013), ISBN-13: 978-0007498802

Lessing, Doris, Canopus in Argos: Archives, Vintage (December 29, 1992), ISBN-13: 978-0679741848

Lessing, Doris, The Good Terrorist, Vintage (March 25, 2008), ISBN-13: 978-0307389961

Lessing, Doris, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Vintage (July 14, 2009), ISBN-13: 978-0307390615

Lessing, Doris, The Golden Notebook, (February 3rd 1999), Harper Perennial Modern Classics

ISBN13: 978-0060931407

Lessing, Doris, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949, (September 1st 1995) by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, ISBN13: 978-0060926649

A People’s Poem for Limerick

From left Poet John W. Sexton, Mayor Michael Sheahan (Limerick) and Oran Ryan

A poem written by Limerick people and made up of words, phrases and lines submitted during the Limerick Writers’ Centre’s  recent poetry festival ‘April is Poetry Month in Limerick 2019’, was this week unveiled and presented to the mayor of Limerick Cllr. Michael Sheahan. 

The poem called ‘Limerick Is’ was unveiled at a ceremony in City Hall by John W. Sexton, an tOllamh (Poet Laureate) for Limerick during the festival, along with members of the Limerick Writers’ Centre. After the presentation of the framed poem Sexton recited it to those present. 

John W Sexton compiled the full length poem from over 10 A4 pages of submissions received during April this year. Sexton admitted that it was much harder to compile than he first imagined but was at pains to point out that every word in the poem was written by the people of Limerick.

As well as gracing the wall of the mayor’s office the poem has also been turned into a postcard, with the help of Limerick City and County Council’s tourism unit, and 5000 postcards will now be distributed to hotels and tourist spots in the region, where visitors can pick them up free of charge and use to send greetings from Limerick all over the world.  

The project is the brainchild of the Limerick Writers’ Centre, a voluntary not for profit organization, dedicated to promoting the literary and artistic heritage of Limerick.  Speaking at the unveiling Mr. Oran Ryan from the Centre, said that  there were over 1000 words, lines and phrases sent in covering every  aspect of Limerick from the  Treaty of Limerick to Ronan O’Gara and everything in between.  Some were funny, some vulgar others were just images or childhood memories. He congratulated poet John W. Sexton on his fantastic achievement of compiling the poem into a coordinated whole that is both poetic and makes sense. He went on to say that “there was something very moving about a poem written by so many people, as Limerick City is made up of so many voices with so many stories to tell, the poem reflects that diversity all within one memorable poem.”

In response Mayor Sheahan said it was “a brilliant and original idea and something he had not seen anywhere before.”  He praised the Limerick Writers’ Centre for their continuing contribution to the cultural life of the city, especially their literary activities and wished them success in securing funding for their nonstop good work in the future. 

Before reading the poem John W Sexton explained his rational and method he used to write the final poem: “Success in creating a crowd-sourced poem will always depend on the quality of the source material, but the problem for me was that there was so much material to choose from and only room for a fraction of it. Once I made my final choices, which still amounted to several pages more than I could use, I then went about finding connections between phrases so that I could order the lines into coherent verses. What resulted is, I think, a very good poem. Through the voices of Limerick’s people, the city found its own voice. The final poem, in my view, really is the city telling us who and what it is.”

Further Details: Dominic Taylor Mobile 087 2996409 limerickwriterscentre@gmail.com

Literary Style

  1. What is literary style?

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.

12 Rules For Writers

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.

  1. 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.

7. Read.

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.

Let the Good Times Roll

 

But when people say,
Did you always want to be a writer?,
I have to say no!
I always was a writer

Ursula le Guin

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

le guin
URSULA LE GUIN

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:

Ursula K Le guin rejection letter

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. left hand darknessImagine 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.

The Length of a Piece of String

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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.

 

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length of string….

 

 

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.

Interview Day and Keeping Going

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.

Popcorn and Cat Memes and the Passing of Time

Its good to begin with a joke or a parable. I don’t like gimmicks, but I got two little stories.

This is one I heard today while listening to a website called You are Listening to Deep Thought. I  heard it as I was trying and failing to move forward on the latest draft of the book I am working on. I don’t know who the speaker was, but I enjoyed the story, so I am sorry to whomever I am appropriating this fishy tale from. It’s about two fishes swimming along in the deepest part of the ocean, and, as they swim along, they pass an older, bigger fish, who says “Hi Guys, how’s the water for you today?” The two fish pass on and then after a while stop and turn to one another and ask “What the hell is water?”

I chuckled when I read that. Good stories like that come and go all the time. The ones that stay with us have something clever and funny and poignant to say. Like the idea of being surrounded by something so all pervasive, so all consuming, that you don’t even see it or sense it or count it into ones worldview. Like the catch phrase “The Matrix Has You”  But what is the matrix?

In the 1999 movie The Matrix, a hacker learns, to his world-shaking shock, the true nature of reality. He learns that everything he thought was real was actually fake.  He realizes his lifelong sense of alienation was a true gut instinct. He learns there really is something fundamentally wrong with the world. That’s interesting. Its clever and poignant. It’s also shocking. The knowledge that things you thought were true and real are really unreal stays with you and changes you perhaps forever.

Here’s another parable I like. Its a Japanese proverb that says that we have three faces. You probably heard it before. I did too. Only recently it struck home. So, anyway, we have three faces. The first ‘face’ is the socially or culturally accepted mask we wear when we are out in society. The second one is the one we wear with our family and our intimates. The third one, this is the most secret one. This third self is one inside, the secret self, the truest one, that few ever see. I like that idea too.

The idea that we have secret selves appeals to me and is shown to be true over and over, by life, if not by science. The other idea, as depicted by the fish story, I love too. These two little stories merged in my mind – (1) the idea we are surrounded by a world we don’t see but affects us all the time, and that because of (1) we are (2) wearing masks that are not our truest selves.

Of course that could be all nonsense. Except, well, its not. We have an online world now, one where we interact and use every day, sometimes for long hours. Imagine if we actually added up how many hours a day we spent online. I did, and the number shocked me. It was a world shaking realization of the amount of time I was wasting. I realized just how addictive Facebook can be. In a sense, as there are billions online, on and off Facebook, we don’t realize its an addictive practise. Its also true that who we are offline is very often nothing remotely like who we are on for instance, Facebook, or Tinder, or Twitter.

It’s interesting too, that this online self is the one subject to so much scrutiny and manipulation by security services and marketing analysis and advertising targeting by Facebook itself and companies like Cambridge Analytica. On Facebook, you and I are the product. Our Profile is sold every time we are targeted with an Ad or a political post or we join a group. Each time we make a click or a like we get a little endorphin or dopamine kick. That’s the addictive effect, the need for stroking which is satisfied with a like, or even a love.

Online there’s so much to read, see, and experience. Yet we have so little time. In the ever shortening attention span of online life, we get three minute videos, witty pics, specially edited punchy journalism, and cat videos. Its catered to us, all based on previous reads or clicks or comments. We get summaries of movie plots and animal videos and bits of news and jokes and memes and cartoons.  We are amused. We read or click or comment, and that gets analysed and calibrated. And on it goes.

The benefit the online user gets for being on Facebook is stroking, the sense of belonging, amusement, love, distraction and the ability to comment and at times debate. Online, especially, there seems to be an increasing polarization and entrenchment of views, possibly because Facebook or Twitter isn’t really an arena for dissecting and carefully discussing incredibly complex multifaceted ideas be they political, religious, scientific, philosophical, or literary. It leads more often than not to misunderstanding and polarisation.

Facebook was formed in a dorm room by a gifted hacker who wanted to compare photographs of people who were pretty and who were not. It has grown and changed and evolved and enriched him beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. Facebook is a place for people to meet. Facebook is popcorn. Its too simplistic a vehicle for self expression. This is why, I think, one is left with a mask on when one goes online and its so easy to misinterpret things. I’m relieved, despite my present state of headachy withdrawal, to have left it behind me.

On Being Who We Really Are

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Pictured in 2017 in Karpacz Poland

I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an  opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop.  Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library  and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age  blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.