‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.’ Those are the words of Hemingway. I know what he means. Or sometimes I do, when I schedule an appointment with my laptop and limp towards it like a kicked dog, which isn’t very often as I’m more apt to sidle up to it unannounced and get going. Better, I’ve found, to approach writing in the same way as I approach swimming in the Irish Sea – employ the one, two, three, jump! trick that doesn’t leave time for backing out.
When lockdown happened, I missed writing in cafés. I had created an important narrative around it, a justification for needing a regular change of scene in order to get my creative juices flowing. Turns out it was nonsense, I am as likely to hit a wellspring of inspiration at my kitchen table as I am over a £3.50 latté, a grizzling baby, and a harangued mother begging her toddler not to tip the sugar bowl onto the floor, again. Mind you, both places are equally likely to present with me with a drought.
That is a little on the how and the where of writing; the why is more complicated.
I have always journaled. Not consistently, but off and on since I was a teenager and I have been pretty steady on the journals for the last ten years. In fact, for a decade I obsessively rammed words into notebooks with something akin to superstitious fervour. Superstitious of what, I am not sure. I think it was a response to a feeling that if I didn’t do it then I could not enter the day with a clear head, like how some people might not be able to leave for work in the morning without first making their bed (odd creatures). So yes, those journals were the start of it. They were an introspective exercise in making sense of the world, or – if I am to be more specific, more truthful – making sense of myself in the world.
The writing was often bland. I laboriously noted small, dreary things – that’s how I thought of them – but I collected them, nonetheless. The shape of the faded tea stain on the Turkish bedspread. The way Freda insisted on bringing me leaden slabs of home-baked brown bread wrapped in a ten times re-cycled Hovis bag because I once made the mistake of politely saying I liked it. The number of coal tits I counted in the tree each morning (I fed them the bread).
But none of that was writing. God no, I didn’t call that writing. That was taking notes. I knew writers, you see. My mother, for one. My husband, for another – an occasional poet of obscure unpublished works that were either seething with anger or exploding with love (Ken was a man of extremes). And, back in Belfast, in my journaling days, tucked away in number 16 or 34 or 192 of the most modest terrace houses in my neighbourhood, lived (in my head) the next Brian Moore, Ciaran Carson, Anna Burns. These were real writers. People who read their work at the John Hewitt Pub and in the Linenhall Library and at the EastSide Arts Centre. People who discussed Sinéad Morrissey over black pints in The Dark Horse, and people who slagged off Eureka Street in damp cafés with crying windows, and people wore two jackets at once and talked knowledgably about Padraic Fiacc and had their hair in a high fringe that looked like a child had cut it. All brilliant people. Glittering literati disguised as the breadline-broke.
No, I didn’t write. To write would be to set myself up for either total embarrassment or ritual humiliation – probably both.
Then I moved to England, York and onto Durham. The journaling picked up apace and letter writing hitched a ride. One doesn’t need to be exiled far to be an exile, and the exiled write letters, or at least I did. I thought about these letters in advance. I composed them and shaped them and curated the telling of them. In one letter I might give consideration to what she might be interested in – choosing to describe the jacket made from re-purposed saris that Penelope Wilton was wearing when I met her and how warm a person she was (she held my eye) and how she spoke at our charity event about giving women back ‘choices’ when they thought they had none. In another letter I might wonder about slowing the pace on page two and telling him about the man with the blond dreadlocks, the busker at High Petergate outside Café Rouge, who danced with a crystal ball and who was so thin that the veins on his arms bulged like the root system of a hundred year old plane tree breaking through tarmac.
There is more to see when you are exiled, everything is new, noteworthy. The mist on the Foss, the smell of chocolate in the air, the croaking of toads by the Ouse at sunset, the woman who knitted coats for rescue greyhounds in the street on warm days, the butcher skinning a rabbit as quick and clean as a banana. I would gather them up, scatterings of sequins, and find the right letter to stitch them into, the right person to tell.
But even then, I didn’t write. Until Ken died. And that’s when I started to write.
When the earth caved in beneath me and my life became groundless, then I started to write. I continued to write my journal and letters, but there was more now. I wrote about grief and bereavement and him and grief and bereavement and him. Loss had prioritised the need to work out what mattered, and what really mattered for me, I figured out, was writing. Writing became a rhythm for survival.
Within a year I had moved to Edinburgh and I stopped writing about Ken. His story was replaced by much older stories: by Ireland, by my family, by my youth. It turned out that I could see what I had left behind much more clearly now that I wasn’t there. It was more alive to me because I had left it.
This new exile, this solitary exile, involved hours of walking on my own through streets filled with strangers and unmapped corners and new-old buildings, masses of writing fodder, and yet the past came rolling down on top of me like this summer’s landslide at The Rest and be Thankful and, once again, I wrote my way out of it. Except it didn’t stop. I discovered that once I wrote whatever was in my head, then a new idea would claim squatter’s rights, roll out a camp bed and take its place until I had written it out as well.
I shared what I wrote with my family. Believe me, this was a brave act. Or a foolhardy one. But the very fact that they didn’t shoot me down and laugh at me was a measure of success. It was a boost. This makes them sound appalling, but it’s how it is in Ireland, probably in other places too; a rebuke disguised as a joke with a core message of – “don’t be losing the run of yourself”.
When Heaney accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature he spoke of where he and I both come from and he said this of it: “No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration.” And as I write this, I can hear a voice in my head saying – “Who do you think you are, quoting Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech!” And then another voice says – “Do what you want. You’re far from home. Flourish away to your heart’s content!”
It has become exciting, this writing expedition, exploration, experiment, explosion, expatriation, expurgation, extemporisation. It is fun and surprising. It is frustrating and deeply satisfying. It brings up the unexpected and it lets me time travel. It connects and bonds me to others. It is an act of faith. It is a game of trust.
I love the craft of it. I am drawn to the game of words and sentence and story. To the tilt and turn of it, and the not knowing where I am going, and the sighing and the giving up, and the eye-drying and the picking up. It nourishes me. I love how, in order to do it, I need nothing but time. I love how everything is relevant. When I feel stuck, I tell myself that the words are all in me, I just have to find them; to watch and wait and listen and pounce.
I know that it is an exercise in creation, but I also know it is an exercise in excavation. I am the mine. Within me there are neglected, dubious-looking clods and all they need is attention. And all I need is some practice and patience to chip and rub at the muck and dirt and cladding and dust, and uncover something that has been there all along, sitting with me quietly at the kitchen table.
John McGahern, who told straightforward stories of the ordinary Irish life, is one of my greatest influences and I turn to his words for seeds of advice and wisdom. I return time again to a documentary about him, made about twenty years ago, and watch the camera follow him carrying a bucket down a Leitrim laneway to check on the cattle. Every word he utters is a soft, slow, deliberate prayer. In answer to a question about what the life of a writer looks like, he leans on a gate, pauses and says, “a good boring life in which not much happens except what’s going on in your head.” The boring life he presents as a jewel, something to be cherished, leaned into. And then he says the most extraordinary thing; something that, when I think about it, dashes and builds my hopes simultaneously. “The thing about writing,” he says, “is that you never learn to do it.” It is, however – and these are my words – tremendously good fun trying to learn.
That is the long-winded answer to why I write. There is a shorter one. I write because I have always done so and discounted it. It was always there, and I paid it scant attention. Then writing salved my broken heart and saved my life, and now the least I can do by way of repayment is to stick with it.