Learning from the best…

Some books grab us with plot, while others seduce us with connection, littered with words that seep through our skin and into our minds where they nestle for a while. We are changed by them.

Niall William’s books are like that.  I remember reading Four Letters of Love, and when I quietly closed the back cover over it’s read pages, something was different in me. I had been moved.  More of his books did the same – As it Was in Heaven, and recently the Man Booker Prize longlist novel History of the Rain. When I finished this last book, I was so moved by the words, that I sought out the author’s email address and wrote to him. Having never done this before, I didn’t have a fan-mail formula. Instead I took his inspiring words and wrote my inspired words and before I knew it, I’d poured my literary heart out.  Graciously he replied, told me to keep writing, and mentioned a workshop he was running. It took two years and three attempts before I finally drove over the ‘mohicaned lane’ in Kiltumper in Clare (he once described an Irish road in one of his books as having a green mohican hair style running up the middle and it wasn’t until I saw his road with a central line of grass that I realised how perfectly apt it was) and into the driveway of Niall William’s house. The kitchen is warmed by a smell-drenched Aga and Christine, Niall’s author wife, her smile and her cooking as enchanting as the books that have been written at the kitchen table.

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Writing in Niall’s garden hoping his genius will rub off on me.

 glasses were clinked as a scraggy crew of writers gathered in the warmth. I know enough about intense writing retreats and workshops that despite not being able to remember anyones name that first night, we would all become close by the end of the weekend.

We had been warned that Niall liked to start on time, so when I and a wonderful American woman who had flown over especially to attend the workshop were cavorting over every imaginable hill and turn in search of the little school we were looking for, it seemed we might be late. Our AirB&B was worth the drive though… I could write a post about it alone –  but if anyone wants a glorious place to write (or party) check out The Safe House.

We got there eventually, and twelve of us crammed into a classroom, semi-circled around Niall who spoke in a voice like his books, soft and strong.

He started by telling us we were all going to write rubbish.  Sure doesn’t everyone? So anything we wrote over the next two days was not going to be the standard we knew we could write as we’d be writing under pressure and out of context so to let go of our egos and just write.   It was such a relief.

Then he began to wind his words of well-lived wisdom around themes such as character, scene, dialogue, interaction.   I have read so many books and attended many a class, but never have I been taken so deeply, yet so simply into these subjects.  To learn from someone who has agonised over words, has let an idea take root and then grow it with exquisite dedication of every action, every word nuanced to move the story and depth of connection along, has felt the pressure of perfection and written anyway, has learned from the business of books, should be a goal of every writer.

What was a really interesting technique was for us to read our pieces and then for Niall to ask the others what they learned from them, teaching us how much we write in our heads and don’t explain / reveal to the listener.  Sure I could see her perfectly in my head…. but the reader didn’t unless I actually described her. Realising how much someone gleans from reading your work, is an amazing way to understand what you need to put in.  He also, of course, taught us what to take out… how many times, and in how many ways are we saying the same thing? As the weekend progressed, it was obvious how much we all improved in just 48 hours.  As is the case with many of these things, your group of fellow writers plays a huge part of the experience. We were as disparate as we were desperate for a glass of wine after the first day.  Spanning several countries, ages and backgrounds, it’s like chicken soup for the soul (or should I say, a Dickens description for the reader) for a writer to be surrounded by other writers. It can be such a lonely business, that writing, listening, reading, and discussing how words work with others is uplifting.

Each lunchtime we congregated round Christine and the Aga again, and although only two short days had past, long literary lessons were learned that won’t be forgotten by any of those who took part.  I can honestly say, that I am a better writer as a result of this workshop, and a better reader.  Niall is a tough teacher, led with gritty determination, softened by generosity and love of language. The remote beauty of the Clare countryside and soul-nourishing meals were just a bonus.

Niall currently runs two workshops a year, and details can be found on his website www.niallwilliams.com

This article was recently published on www.writing.ie

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