Writing a writing blog

Writing nothing for a month in my writing blog might seem a tad worrying.  But like most things in life, having a writing career is all about finding the balance.  The balance, that is, between work and passion, even if work is the thing we are passionate about.

For years I dreamed of being a writer without really knowing what it meant.  I had images of swinging on a hammock drinking Mojitos in the romantic light of an early evening sun, typing late into the night very Hemmingway-esque, having spent the day talking to terribly interesting people.

Sadly this is not the reality, for me anyway.  I have three small children and a dog and I write at the kitchen table.  The reality for most writers – as shown very recently by Donal Ryan going public with the fact he has to go back to work full-time in the civil service to make ends meet, despite being a best-selling, award-winning author – is that we multi-task multi-jobs to hold down the roof of the house.

Finding the balance is hard – money versus creative freedom.  Jobs versus passion. For me anyway, it has taken a long time to allow myself to write my novel without feeling guilty. It is not commissioned like my previous book and might end up in someone’s slush pile but still I must write it. But I don’t have the luxury of writing it methodically.  All my paid writing work has to be done before I can write the might-never-make-any-money stuff.   It gets done squeezed in between deadlines and invoicing, and between children’s homework and dirty dishes.

That’s not to say that my ‘day job’ isn’t great.  I get to write for a living, even if it’s not paying for hammock swinging in Havana.  (It is paying for tango dancing in Buenos Aeries next month though, so I can’t really complain, can I?  More on this to come.)

I have a day job as a fundraising copywriter, working with a number of charities on their donor communications.  This can involve touring cancer research labs to interviewing people with motor neurone disease, from writing about child abuse to irrigation systems in Africa. In that sense, I talk to incredibly interesting people every day and I love it.

I also work as a freelance journalist and for my sins seem to have two completely different specialist topics – sex and death.   The sex is mostly about middle age, and I somehow have ended up as a Dating Doctor (yes, you read that right) for a weekly column on middle age dating for the Daily Mail.  I absolutely love it.  I love meeting all these people in their 40’s to their 80’s still willing to give love a go. I also write about feminism and women and all things related and  hope soon to start writing another  book on this generation of women redefining middle age.

As for death, well my own experiences caring for my mum after her stroke which led to my first book means I write regularly about parent-care, and the right to die and the many issues relating to death and dying.  This month alone I have appeared on several radio shows talking about the issues, and written several articles.

So, I have a rather schizophrenic writing life – today alone I wrote about middle age sex, child grooming on the internet, cancer research, and I set up two blind dates for people in their 60’s and wrote an advice column on not setting an age cap on love.

I took the weekend off which means this week I have to work my ass off.  Instead I spent the weekend writing my passion – 5000 words of a novel that no-one has commissioned but which I have to write.

My writing life is full of words (thankfully), interesting people and even, in fairness a hammock.  I hung one up in my garden last summer and while I rarely swing and sip Mojitos in the early evening sun Hemmingway-esque, I do occasionally lie lazily dreaimg_5129ming about the writers life and being rather glad I have one.

#WritersWise for Great Writing Tips! — Writing.ie

#WritersWise is THE place on twitter for discussing everything writing-wise. Founded by Dr Liam Farrell and Sharon Thompson, #WritersWise provides a forum for writers and aspiring writers to exchange ideas and share experiences; it’s a welcoming and supportive environment. The fortnightly tweet-chat lasts for an hour (8-9pm GMT) using the hashtag #WritersWise; the transcripts of…

via #WritersWise for Great Writing Tips! — Writing.ie

What a year

sandwich-years-tpb-102016 is being hailed as a brutal year for so many reasons, and for me personally it was also very mixed.   My first book was published making a life-long dream come true. But sadly my lovely mum died on the publication day of the book about her. Daughter, Mother, Me: a memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes follows my story of being caught in as tsunami of care, after my mum had a stroke just four days after my third baby was born, and became a bestseller.

The year ends however, with the excitement of the paperback coming out on January 5th.  Dressed with a new name – The Sandwich Years – and a new cover, it also contains an additional Afterward, which brings the story to conclusion.   I am so thrilled to be doing lots publicity over the next few weeks, and really delighted to be appearing on BBC’s magnificent Women’s Hour, being interviewed by the fabulous Jenny Murray (can you tell I’m a huge fan of her and the show!).  All being well with my red-eye flight in the morning, I’ll be sitting in the London studio feeling like a freaky fan.  I listen to Women’s Hour podcasts when I go running so how fun to be able to listen to myself next time I am struggling up the hill!

The year has been filled with lots of magical writing experiences. From the thrill of having a book published, to the fear of starting again with a blank page: to retreating to wonderful havens for creative concentrate  in Casa Ana in Spain, and Tyrone Guthrie in Monaghan, to meeting some wonderful writers; to giving talks on writing at the Dalkey Creates festival to learning from the best at a Niall William’s workshop and hearing Emma Donoghue speak; from playing with an idea like a rubix cube until all the pieces slot into place to finding the voice that has set my fingers tapping; from writing lots of new avenues to reading lots of amazing books (post to follow on my best reads of 2016) it has been a wicked writing year.

And as we all know, when the world gets crazy and frightening, there is nothing more comforting than the whisper of pages turning. Happy reading and happy writing.


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.

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

The gift that keeps on giving

What a year! In February, my first book, Daughter, Mother, Me; a memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes, was published.  That in itself was such a dream, that I still can feel the thrill in my belly when I walked into the shop for the first time and saw it sitting on the shelf.  Growing up, many of my friends dreamt of their names in lights, but I only ever dreamt of my name on the front cover of a book.  It sort of happened by accident. I had submitted a novel to publisher and they loved my writing but noticed a blog I had been writing for years about my sandwich years, trapped in a  tsunami of care looking after my mum and my children.

I was offered a book deal, and four frantic months of writing followed where I learned more about myself and writing than I ever thought possible.  I often wonder if I hadn’t run a marathon the year before, would I have known that if you just keep going, even when you’re in pain, and crying and hate everything and eat three tonnes of chocolate that you’ll get there eventually and the pain will all be worth it? I’ve written before about the pleasure of working with editors and the thrill of watching a draft turn into a manuscript, but watching my words become a book was incredible.

Amid publicity, writing for newspapers, interviews on TV and radio, the book went onto the best seller list and my little girl self beamed in happiness as my little girl daughters ran into every book shop we passed and pointed out my book (and on more than one occasion moved it to the front shelf. Sorry Easons.)

img_7478It has now been translated into Czech and is being launched there shortly. The paperback version of my book is coming out in January – with a new title The Sandwich Years, with an added chapter.  My lovely mum died on the publication date of the book that was about her, and so I have added an Afterward to bring the story up to date and bring my sandwich years to a final close. 

So it was doubly thrilling when two packages arrived the other day with my new books, new version of the old, but the same thrill.

It has been such an adventure, and it keeps going. In the meantime, I have bought another three tons of chocolate as I work on another, and there are tears and pain, but so many thrills.   

Creative collaterol

Can creativity be taught?  I don’t know.  But can it seep under your skin and and filter into your mind by sheer osmosis?  I think so. Certainly at Tyrone Guthrie it can.  The immensity of creative collateral in the air, the sweet sweat of accomplishment the bricks have absorbed, must recirculate into the ever revolving door of creative spirits that step over the threshold. (There is an actual spirit that haunts the rooms, and even sends tweets telling you when it’s your turn to be haunted but that’s another story for another day).

I had the privilege to spend a week here recently, the majestic old house groaning with art, style, and glorious ceramics and sculptures, the air filled with the sensual scent of ink on paper, books in every wall, nooks and crannies a plenty to read them in.

It has been called many things – magical, home from home, and breathtaking but most often it is simply referred to as Annaghmakerrig.

Tyrone Guthrie, in County Monaghan was bequeathed to the State to be used as a retreat for artists of all disciplines, by it’s owner of the same name.  He was a theatre director who died in 1971, and since it opened in the early eighties, it has hosted thousands of Irish artists, and others from around the world. During my visit, accents criss crossed from Belfast, Netherlands, Cork, Mayo, England, Achill Island and a native Alaskan.   Applications are made, and once accepted you can return as much as you like, provided there is space. I am reliably informed it is already fully booked next summer.

It is like a sweat shop for the soul – soaking up the sweat of others, drinking up other’s toil. There is so much damn creativity in one space, it would take someone wearing thick sheeted armour to deflect the barrage of brilliance that dances and composes and scribbles, and tinkles on piano keys in every room, every week.

The days are long and your own. There is food available in the kitchen but no communal event to mark out the hours. Only you and your own determination and discipline. But like the relief of rain after a humid day, doors fly open at 7pm and authors and artists and musicians and play writes and poets and composers spill down the stairs like ants on a mission, filing into the turf tanged kitchen where food better than your mothers, is served steaming and satisfying at a long table. The conversation is thick with excitement, projects progressing, ideas fermenting, all amidst a hum of satisfaction as warm food heats hearts like chicken soup for the soul.  The meals at Anneghmakerrig are legendary.  Your waist gains as much as your manuscript.

img_7133But for me it was about emersion. I literally emerged myself in it’s freezing waters, but also in the atmosphere.  I came away refreshed from both.

The idea of a retreat is not new. But it is special. At Anneghmakerrig, the surroundings just add to it… the glory of autumn played out twice as the lake reflects back the golden and amber trees on its far shore. Woodland walks, and lakeland seats prime locations for uninterrupted thought. But it is the time that the place gives you. The luxury of dedication.  The silence of absorption. The space for thought. And the intensity of imaginosity that permeates every room. 

There is also the love. It was my first time, and from the moment I arrived I knew it was not my last.  Most of the people I met there that week were repeat attenders, like homing pigeons returning again and again, homing their craft.  The love of the place, the love for the place, and dare I say, even the love at the place, is special.   


This has also been published on the fabulous writing resource www.writing.ie

Writing like a motherf*****r

img_7099It seems bad to swear when I’m in such a beautiful and tranquil place… at the artist residency Tyrone Guthrie by the stunning Annaghmakerrig lake.  But when I had the chance to spend the week here to write, I came armed with the advice from Dear Sugar, the anonymous agony aunt of The Rumpus who turned out to be Cheryl Strayed.  I had it written on a piece of paper and set it on my beautiful desk overlooking the lake, that was to become my writing womb for the next 6 days.

This is the desk. I have written there of course, but there are so many other interesting places to write here that, in fear of missing out on an inspiring view, or a creative hotspot, I have carried my laptop to many a placimg_7097e, inside and out, like a literary hobo.  A week to write!  What a luxury. It felt like an indulgence.  My day job is writing as a copywriter for the non-profit sector.  My second job is writing as a freelance journalist for various newspapers and magazines. My third job is as a non-fiction author, so my hobby is to write fiction. And it felt so insane to wake up in the first morning with no kids, no food to think about, shop for, beat into edible shape, no dog to walk, no washing to hang out, no deadlines to die for, no TV to watch, no ‘work’ to do….. just long, long days to write.  I was so jittery the first day with the fear of having to unleash that creativity with no clock to let me off the hook, that I went running in the glorious autumnal forest, drank tea with other writers, with composers, with artists until I settled down and began to feel the magic of this place.

And then I began to write like a motherfucker. To retrain myself to not tighten words and keep word count as meaningful and short as possible (which is necessary for fundraising campaigns and feature articles) but to loosen and expand, the develop every thought, to describe and deliberate, to run away with my thoughts and my words, to let the story lead me, instead of me always leading the story.

It’s my last day, and I feel the pressure of using every last minute, and sitting in every unused seat but actually I think – like all the amazingly creative and inspiring people I have met here – that I will be bringing a little of the Annaghmakerrig magic home with me.  What has been unleashed cannot easily be put back in restraints.

This week I have drunk wine and eaten glorious food with established writers who have shared their experiences, play writes who shared their stories, musicians who shared their inspirations, poets, film makers, documentary makers, who all showed me that to succeed, to really live the creative life, you have to get up every day and and write in whatever way that brings you joy.