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The Devilry of a Writer’s Workshop

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People sometimes ask why I still bother with writing workshops. You get the: ‘But you’ve been published in journals, you’re on all these shortlists, you seem to know what you’re doing?’ Knowing it’s all a bit excruciating, obsessional, frustrating, maddening…that dealing with loneliness is a big part of being a writer. Not being sure if any of it is any good anyway: mollycoddling your own unmoveable masochism. Yet there is something really peculiar that happens your own writing when you’re surrounded by people pushing the boundaries with theirs. It’s contagious and corrupting; reading the crushed muffle of someone else’s secrets, their desires, their strange reveries, their intuitions, their truth. How others in the room perceive those words differently on the page/screen, how the tutor feels it could or should work better. What is the writer really trying to tell us? How can they show it more effectively?

At an eight-week short story course at the Irish Writers Centre this summer, taught by Sean O’Reilly, the notion of the ‘repressed voice’ came up a few times. ‘Go change your name,’ he advised. ‘Because the person who’s writing is not YOU! It’s a different being and you have to let him/her out.’ In response to how nauseated or shocked newbie writers sometimes feel at what they’ve lobbed on the page, a story will often form a bizarre and unimagined curlicue. One that sets out with a calm, eloquent narrative, morphs into an ugly malicious pisstake; an angry rant at a family member; vengeance towards an old lover; hidden hurt at something that refused to happen despite unyielding desire. Life, essentially, and how it regularly doesn’t work out. We love to read about it. Peepers of mishap. Oglers of shame.

‘The writer’s voice is not programmed to say ‘kind things’ that will make you or others feel good for reading it,’ O’Reilly told us. ‘You don’t like this person, they terrify you. They contain everything you’re unable to say. The one who wants to write is a bad article! However, this other is the one that will write something interesting, the one that will produce art’. Hearing a base truth like go_into_youself-_mediumthis can be a real comfort when struggling to start a new story or facing into another redraft of a long abandoned novel. Embarrassment dissolves, the ‘stuff’ that’s been burdening you, that’s been stopping you writing, heads off into a grubby corner, leaving you to get the job done. It’s at this juncture that judgement wastes away and a group of writers really get to know each other, get to know the work. There’s nothing more gracious or satisfying than being part of shared trickery like this. It’s why I find myself back at workshops even though I know, essentially, that writing is something you need to grapple with alone, in the joyless hours. What is it that Rilke said? Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.

povSo what do we do with fiction at these workshops? At its most elemental writing is about keeping ‘story’ under control in a form. We learn pretty quickly through reading each other’s work and listening to feedback that we need to lure the reader in with comprehensibility, with ordinary story (but even better if it manages to be gripping). We achieve this via a network that keeps the characters together, that makes the story glide and grow. ‘Action is thought!’ is the workshop mantra. In each paragraph something must happen, the story must move forward. Who is telling that story, point of view, the role of the narrator (close or from afar) will all impact on how the reader digests it, both consciously and subconsciously. This will determine if a story works or not. The obvious is often really tricky, we are told. It’s what blocks a lot of people from writing in the first place. You have a bunch of characters but for some reason nothing happens because the writer is avoiding the obvious in an attempt to be clever. But the obvious is often necessary. It’s that little link between one character and the other, why they are connected, we need that little bit of information, we need to know the intricacies of their relationship, we need to see it on the page.

If you doubt the veracity of your own story, apply the oral test: can you tell another person the story and keep them listening to you as if you were sitting in the pub on a Friday night rattling off the plot? Is the person going to get bored hearing you tell the story in an unexciting way? Similarly on the page you have to keep the reader linked into the guts at all times. You do this with action, with movement, you do it through the protagonist’s eyes. The reader cannot fade out if they’re not following at any point, if they get lost. It’s that awful, that crude.

For example if you’re going to deal with obsession, a character is obsessed with a ‘thing’ or someone…you’re going to have to treat that as a theme in itself. Establish the obsession, show it to the reader at work without relying or giving direct statements that ‘this is an obsession’. Timeline is crucial when it comes to hanging the story off a workable architecture. Writers often make the mistake of setting a story over a very short time-span. While a short story is just a ‘sliver of something’, a delicate insight, that sliver can still be set over weeks or months. It doesn’t all have to happen at a ferocious pace over half a day. You can’t establish obsession as a back story, you have to open out the metaphor. Dramatise it so we [the readers] can see it flouncing and floundering. We need to cringe and be entertained. We need to understand how this obsession works, how it is crippling or capacitating the main character. Trying to shove too much into a tiny little bit of action and not letting the idea establish itself over time if why a story falls on its rump.

After you finish that arduous first draft, you will need to ‘go back and rub your nose in it’ even if you let it sit for a while. It won’t just sit there and change itself. O’Reilly said there’s nearly always feelings of nausea and revulsion at ‘first attempts’, but that this can be a good sign. ‘It’s a bit painful to go back and face into what you’ve exposed of yourself onto the page like it is to go confront any situation where you’ve made a fool of yourself. It’s embarrassing, a bit disgusting, a bit shameful. But in there somewhere is what you need, the material trying to get out.’ One tactic is to resist it, the other tactic is to cover it in words so you can’t find it. We are often hiding the material from ourselves that drove us to write in the first place. After the workshop finishes, you’re free to head to the pub for some sneaky pints and a packet of Tayto, press *delete* on your laptop and vow to start all over again. This malarkey is all about resilience. Without it your stories are dusty ideas that’ll never make the gloss of day.

*This was written as part of my Online Writer in Residence gig at the Irish Writers Centre this autumn. Every year the Centre will host four writers on their blog to talk about the arts and to showcase their own work. 

Author Profile: Maeve Brennan, by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Photograph of Maeve Brennan, contributor to The Long Gaze Back, published in September 2015 by New Island, with her story: ‘The Eldest Child’.

It sometimes takes an outsider’s gaze to capture the essence of a place with an authenticity that lies beyond the sight of the indigenous observer. For this reason, it should have come as no great surprise to readers of The New Yorker when the Long-Winded Lady, columnist and faithful, if eccentric, documenter of life in the eponymous city, was unmasked as Irishwoman Maeve Brennan, an immigrant who had arrived in her mid-twenties. John Updike, among others, realised that this watchful interloper ‘brought New York back to The New Yorker’. In her whimsical contributions to the exalted ‘Talk of the Town’ column, Brennan was rare in establishing a distinct persona, and unique in ensuring that this voice was a female one. Stylish, ambitious and armed with a waspish wit that conjured up recollections of Dorothy Parker, her personality contrasted violently with that of her passive, suburbanite alter-ego.

Between 1954 and 1968, Brennan documented a city in flux, a place where the wrecker’s ball swung in perpetual motion as residents embraced a post-war transience. She too drifted: a self-confessed ‘traveller in residence’, she hopped from short-lease apartment to anonymous hotel suite, or borrowed summer houses from glamorous friends like Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s models for the Divers in Tender is the Night. In her wake she left little beyond a miasma of cigarette smoke and a trace of expensive scent. As one-time editor at The New Yorker Gardner Botsford observed, Brennan could, ‘like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story … transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats – in a taxi’. In her story ‘The Last Days of New York City’, published in The New Yorker in 1955, Brennan confessed: ‘All my life, I suppose, I’ll be running out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers’.

Although rarely absent from New York State, Brennan used fiction to return to her native Ireland, which she had left while still in her teens. In The Visitor, her posthumously published novella, she explains why: ‘Home is a place in the mind,’ she writes, ‘when it is empty it frets’. Yet, her memories were never those of a misty-eyed romantic. Born within a year of the failed Easter Rising of 1916, to a staunch Republican father who was in prison at the time but was later appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington, Brennan was tangled up in political turmoil for much of her early life. The precariousness of her existence and the ever-present threat of displacement seep into stories shot through with anxiety and unease. In ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, from The New Yorker in 1953, Brennan documents how she watched wide-eyed as her family home was raided:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house, searching for my father, or for information about him.

Throughout her life, she had a horror of being pinned down and she rarely made firm arrangements.

COVER_Springs of AffectionConventional boundaries between memoir and fiction are rarely observed in Brennan’s revealing Irish stories, many of them collected posthumously in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a book compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners. Although these tales of lower-middleclass Dublin life appear superficially innocuous, they revealed an unfamiliar malevolence to second– and third-generation Irish-Americans who hankered after a mist-shrouded holy land. Her characters operate furtively, seeing out their thwarted lives in the shadow cast by a stultifying and spiritless Catholic Church.

From the safety of cosmopolitan New York, Brennan time travelled back to darkened confessionals where guilt-ridden children cowered under the gaze of a vengeful deity, and to the ante-chamber of an enclosed convent where a bereft mother strained to discern the voice of a lost daughter who sang in praise of her unearthly spouse. Teaching nuns, capricious in their accusations, note that the young Brennan was headstrong and wilful, traits that are inappropriate in Irish womanhood. Decades later, in ‘Lessons and Lessons and More Lessons’ from The New Yorker, Brennan described how, in a city where the ‘three-martini lunch’ is commonplace, she hid her glass instinctively when two nuns entered the Greenwich Village restaurant she frequented.

In New York, Brennan embraced her ‘otherness’; as one colleague observed, ‘She wasn’t one of us. She was one of her!’ To strangers, she could appear hard-edged and watchful, yet friends found her warm and generous, voluble and funny. Everyone agreed that she was beautiful. Barely five feet tall and beanpole slim, she looked younger than her years and compensated with vertiginous heels. She tottered along the robustly masculine corridors of The New Yorker offices at West Forty-Third Street, make-up immaculate, hair neatly coiffed and carefully chosen costume exquisitely cut, with a fresh flower in her lapel, generally a rose. She had the ceiling of her office painted Wedgwood blue and threw open her door while she tap-tapped away on her typewriter, a curlicue of smoke rising from the ever-present Camel clenched between her fingers. Her language was defiantly fruity, and the mischievous notes that she slipped under the doors of her male colleagues elicited great explosions of laughter: ‘To be around her was to see style being invented,’ recalled her friend and editor William Maxwell.

An ill-fated stint as fourth wife to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway – a hard-drinking, mentally frail man – took her to bohemian Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that nestled alongside the Hudson in upstate New York. Brennan recast it as ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, a rarefied enclave where privileged New Yorkers partied under the watchful gaze of their derisive Irish servants. With an insider’s familiarity, Brennan used her stories to juxtapose the prudent Catholicism of her countrywomen with the flagrant immorality of their employers. As the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a diplomat, Brennan enjoyed a status that allowed her to pass in society, yet she had rubbed shoulders with girls who would enter domestic service and must have felt a sneaking solidarity with them. As a former fashion writer with Harper’s Bazaar, it apparently amused her greatly when the trappings of Irish peasantry – shawls and tweed and tealeaves – were adopted as status symbols by wealthy American women.

At times, Brennan grasped onto the trappings of Irishness with a fervour that suggested desperation and displacement. She drank tea obsessively, and although her rented homes rarely featured a kitchen, she insisted on an open fireplace, considering a fire to be a living thing, company almost. When her marriage failed in 1959, she embraced a solitary life, borrowing houses in the Hamptons and walking the Atlantic beach with her dog, Bluebell before returning to the twin comforts of a scalding hot cup of tea and a roaring fire, which she shared with several cats, ‘small heaps of warm dreaming fur all over the furniture and the floor’. In summertime, when the Hamptons filled up, she would return to New York City or travel home to Ireland.

During her chaotic, alcohol-soaked marriage, Brennan wrote little of any worth. When one devoted reader requested more Maeve Brennan stories, she had her editor write to explain that she had shot herself when she was ‘drunk and heartsick’. However, the 1960s heralded a period of intense productivity. Several of her finest stories, set in Dublin and Wexford, feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a couple who endure a dispiriting marriage: she is furtive and priest-ridden, while he ‘wore the expression of a friend, but of a friend who is making no promises’. Carefully crafted, these stories represent a stingingly accurate documenting of the disappointments that ambush even the most virtuous at every turn. Many of the stories from this period were published in In and Out of Never-Never Land. A number of stories from this collection are set in Forty-eight Cherryfield Avenue, in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, the home she occupied as a child; William Maxwell described it as her ‘imagination’s home’.

AUTHOR_Maeve_Brennan

Photo of Maeve Brennan © Yvonne Jerrold

Brennan’s story ‘The Eldest Child’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 1968. Yet even as her writing elicited fresh acclaim, her life began to unravel and she drifted, physically and mentally, becoming unkempt, erratic and paranoid. Homeless and debt-ridden, she took to sleeping on a couch in the ladies room at The New Yorker offices, and she grew paranoid that her toothpaste had been laced with cyanide. When she was institutionalised for a time, one friend testified that she became very Irish, as if the years had fallen away, and with them the carefully crafted veneer. She was discharged once she had established a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium, but she could not be relied on to take her medication and drifted once more, losing touch with friends and colleagues. She was nervously tolerated at the offices of The New Yorker as a legacy of affection and with respect for her talent, but her behaviour grew erratic: she once nursed a sick pigeon in her office and, in a more sinister episode, wrecked the offices of a number of colleagues. Sometimes, she stood outside, handing out cash to bewildered passers-by. Inevitably, she produced little that was worthy of publication. Yet ‘The Springs of Affection’, her longest and, arguably, most powerful story, appeared in The New Yorker in March 1972. Although it is almost entirely autobiographical, Brennan twisted the facts in such a fashion that one aunt was prompted to write the words ‘greatly changed for the worse’ on a photograph of her brilliant niece.

Although Brennan continued as an occasional contributor to ‘Talk of the Town’, her offerings arrived out of the blue with no indication of where she was when she wrote them. In her final outing as the Long-Winded Lady, in January 1981, she described how, walking along Forty-Second Street, she had sidestepped a shadow that she recognised as ‘exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago’. That year, she turned up at the offices of The New Yorker, grey-haired and unkempt, and sat quietly in reception on two consecutive days, but no one appeared to recognise her. Maeve Brennan died of heart failure in a New York nursing home on 01 November 1993; she was seventy-six. By then, she had descended into an imaginary existence in which she appeared unaware of her status as a celebrated writer.

Excluded from the canon of important Irish writing for years, she has enjoyed a posthumous revival. Two collections of short fiction, The Springs of Affectionand The Rose Garden, and her revealing novella, The Visitor, are still in print, as is a collected edition of Long-Winded Lady pieces. Jonathan Cape published Angela Bourke’s biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker in 2004. Since then, several new plays and collections (such as The Long Gaze Back) have referenced or published the work of this significant Irish writer.

**This blog post was published today on the Thresholds international short story forum

 

2015 in books: Literary debuts and short fiction

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30 writers in this anthology are are: Niamh Boyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Mary Costello, June Caldwell Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Norah Hoult, Mary Lavin, Eimear MacBride, Molly McCloskey, Bernie McGill, Lisa Quackinerney, Belinda McKeon, Lia Mills, Siobhán Mannion, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O’Brien, Roisín O’Donnell, E.M. Reapy, Charlotte Riddell, Eimear Ryan, Anakana Schofield, Somerville & Ross & Susan Stairs.

I’m ethically pinching the text of an article (below) from The Irish Times as it mentions The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s fiction I’ll be published in next year, edited by the lovely Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in autumn 2015. I look forward to sharing sacred print space with some fantastic writers (living and dead) such as Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Mary Lavin, Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeonMary Costello, Lia Mills, Lucy CaldwellNuala Ní Chonchúir, Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen. In January I’m on a much-needed writing break to Salthill for a few days, in March I’ll be attending the Doolin Writers’ Weekend (invited back as a *guest* in return for helping with the first two years’ programming). I’ve been short-listed by Over The Edge to read at Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2015 (but will have to wait to see if I make the grade!). In May I’ll be in situ in the Loire Valley in France working on the novel at Cirlce of Misse – which is my reward from the 2014 Moth Short Story Prize – and on April 23rd I’ll be taking part in the Barrytown Sounds with Colm Keegan, dlr Writer in Residence and Friends at the The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, so already, even before the Auld Lang Syne sets in…an exciting and productive New Year. The very best of luck to all my writer friends spilling their dauntlessness as they do. Make 2015 a year that counts.

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from Irish Times).

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from The Irish Times).

Next year brings plenty of emerging talent to the bookshelves, both in Ireland and internationally.

theshoreFour brothers deal with a madman’s prophecy of violence in 1990s Nigeria in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman (One, February). In Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Fig Tree, January) Etta, an octogenarian, goes on a 3,000km journey to see the Canadian sea. Sara Taylor’s The Shore (William Heinemann, March) maps out the secrets of generations of women living off the coast of Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia. Sara Novic’s Girl at War (Little, Brown, May) explores the devastation wreaked by the Serbo-Croatian conflict. mcinerneyMore Saras as we move to Ireland, with the Davy Byrnes 2014 winner, Sara Baume, one to watch for her poetically titled Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press, February), which tells of an unlikely friendship between two outcasts in rural Ireland.Weightless (Bloomsbury, March), by Sara Bannan, focuses on cyberbullying with the arrival of a new girl at an Alabama high school. A murder in Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray, April) affects the lives of five misfits in postcrash Ireland. From Ireland to Illinois, Paula McGrath’s short novel Generations (John Murray, July) delivers interlinked stories of multiple characters as they seek to rebuild their lives after loss. Set in Victorian England’s theatre district, The Curtain Falls (Ward River, March), by Carole Gurnett, details the secret life of a gay writer. Henrietta McKervey’s What Becomes of Us (Hachette Ireland, April) looks at the role of Cumann na mBan in the 1916 Rising from the perspective of a journalist in 1960s Ireland. Debut authors are also well represented in the short-story form, with Andrew Fox’s Over Our Heads (Penguin, April) and Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber, August). The Stinging Fly continues its tradition of publishing new talent with Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (April) and Danielle McLaughlin’s highly anticipated collection due later in the year. Short Fiction Ireland’s love affair with the short story continues to grow, with a host of new anthologies and collections on the way. The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015, edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciarán Carty (New Island, March) is the third anthology in the series chronicling an emerging literary generation.

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

The Irish Times contributor Sinéad Gleeson is at the helm of a collection of Irish female writers, among them Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. New Island also releases the seventh instalment in its Open Door series, featuring novellas by Roddy Doyle, Catherine Dunne, Colette Caddell, Ciara Geraghty and Claudia Carroll. As Gaeilge, Micheál Ó Conghaile makes a welcome return with Diabhlaíocht Dé (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, May), his first collection in 12 years. A combination of traditional prose, poetry, monologue and music, Alf Maclochlainn’s Past Habitual (Dalkey Archive Press, March) depicts an Ireland struggling with the effects of war. Edited by Deirdre Madden, All Over Ireland (Faber, May) is a mix of emerging and established Irish writers, including Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee and Mary Costello. Under the Rose (Faber, June) is a new collection of previously published stories by Julia O’Faolain, with an afterword from the author looking back on her work. honeyIn keeping with the themes of his novels, the human cost of loneliness and displacement is at the centre of Donal Ryan’s first collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland, September). Collections from international authors to watch out for include Honeydew (John Murray, January), by the American writer Edith Pearlman, and the Impac winner Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The All Saints’ Day Lovers.