There is a terrific line-up of events planned for Culture Night in Carrick-on-Suir – see details below. If you’re in the area set the date, Friday, 19th September and take part in as many of these FREE events as you can. If you want to participate in my writing workshop on that day please contact me directly to book a place.
President Higgins has replied to my Open Letter and you can read his elegant response in full below.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’ So the campaign for a residential writing centre in Ireland, that is open to all, continues. If you have any thoughts on this I would love to read them in the comments box below.
Dear President Higgins,
You are about to start a historic visit to the United Kingdom and I have no doubt that the schedule planned for you and Mrs. Higgins during this trip is interesting and full.
In a recent article in The Irish Times you raised some interesting questions. “What is necessary to human flourishing? What human capabilities does Irish society encourage, genuinely enable, or block?” I suggest that you may find some answers to those questions if you include in your visit a meeting with John Moat and a visit to any of the four Arvon houses in the UK. What is The Arvon Foundation? In its own words “Arvon is a charity that works to ensure anyone can benefit from the transformative power of writing.” Don’t you find that wonderful? That anyone can benefit? John Moat, with the late John Fairfax, founded what became Arvon over 40 years ago in Devon. To date there is nothing comparable in Ireland that offers a residential experience to anyone who wishes to write, away from everyday distractions, responsibilities and habits and that also actively engages with schools and many underserved communities. Nor one with the simple apprenticeship model of Arvon, each 5 day residential course led by two experienced writers.
Instead in Ireland there is an ad hoc provision of writing courses, writing centres and writers augmenting their income through teaching. Indeed I offer some of these courses myself. Arts officers here strive to support all the creative arts within increasing budgetary constraints and a public discourse that veers between questioning the relevance of the arts and attempts to yoke the arts to an economic project. The support available to a writer too frequently depends on the area in which they live. The writers I have worked with over the past few years have shown me again and again the value of the process of writing, how the sudden discovery as the pen leaks words onto the page changes lives in a myriad of minute ways. It’s about writing but it’s always about more than writing. When I lectured in Adult Literacy Studies in the past, particularly in the area of Family Literacy, the class always came alive when I introduced them to creative writing, to story, using the method developed by Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. Pat has written that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot – it must not, for the sake of the human community – be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” I think you appreciate better than most that if appropriate conditions are put in place then creativity, and people, can flourish. For example, it is likely that there will be an increase in the numbers of writers emerging from north Dublin because of the existence there of Fighting Words and the work of Sean Love and Roddy Doyle. There will consequently also be many, many more young people in that area growing into adulthood with increased confidence in their own voice and their ability to express themselves. As Gianni Rodari said:
“Every possible use of words should be made available to every single person … not because everyone should be an artist but because no one should be a slave.”
There is quite a list of Irish writers who have taught on Arvon courses, from the late Seamus Heaney through Paul Durcan, Anne Enright, Carlo Gebler, Hugo Hamilton, Patrick McCabe, Shane Connaughton, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Thomas McCarthy, Colm Tóibín and others to Leanne O’Sullivan and Julian Gough, yet none seem to have brought back the spirit, the idea of Arvon to Ireland. I find this very puzzling. Seamus Heaney judged, with Ted Hughes, the very first Arvon poetry competition and was a patron of Arvon until he died. An essay of his is included in a book called ‘The Gist: A Celebration of the Imagination’, recently published in acknowledgment of the work of John Moat. Also included as an appendix in this book is Ted Hughes’ ‘Arvon and Education’ in which he says that “we have to acknowledge what is perhaps not much acknowledged – that far-reaching inner changes, creative revelations of our inner self, the only part of us with any value, are usually triggered in the smallest fraction of time.” If there is to be one piece of writing that I would press on you to read in relation to the importance of developing a residential writing centre here, modelled on Arvon, it is this essay by Ted Hughes.
In ‘Renewing the Republic’ you wrote that “Unlike the characters in a play, we can change the script of our lives. We can reflect on the choice of selves, societies, masks and fictions. If we lock the arts away for an occasion, for an evening, for an indulgence, we lose out on much of their potential for the future, and for their revelatory and pleasurable potential now.”
Now to return to your recent questions: “What is necessary to human flourishing? What human capabilities does Irish society encourage, genuinely enable, or block?” Establishing a residential national writing centre in Ireland would serve as the tangible symbol of a belief in the importance of writing as a vital part of the creative arts and also provide real support for developing writers of all ages. There would also be opportunities for cultural tourism. It would provide a focus for the development of a community of writers, teaching opportunities for writers, and also “ensure anyone can benefit from the transformative power of writing”. It is my belief that many people in Ireland, indeed Irish society as a whole, would benefit and flourish from such a development.
The monthly Poetry Nights in Brewery Lane Theatre, Carrick-on-Suir will resume on Friday next, 27th September at 8.15pm. This is a night for poems, poets and camaraderie. The format is very simple. Everyone who attends has the option to read two poems – they can be your own work or not. You might like to share a poem that is meaningful to you or one that you have just discovered, a poem that you have been working on but are unsure if it’s finished or one that you have had published. The theme for the night is ‘Food’ and you are free to interpret this in as broad a way as you wish.
For your diary the Poetry Night dates for the next few months are:
Friday, 1st November
Friday, 29th November – this will incorporate a tutorial with poet Mark Roper on preparing your poems for entering competitions. More details later.
Friday, 20th December
And in the New Year there will be preparations for the 2014 Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend, to be held on the 11th, 12th, 13th April. This will include writing workshops with Dave Lordan, a seminar with Shem Caulfield and a poetry competition judged by Richard Hayes of Waterford Institute of Technology.
Writers in the south-east and beyond will certainly be busy over the coming months …
I have just finished reading Pat Schneider’s latest book, ‘How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice’, on my e-reader and I immediately want to get a hard copy. Why? Because all the way through I wanted to underline, highlight, write ‘Yes!’ in the margins – I want to make that book my own in every way. Yes, I know I can make notes and highlight on my Kindle, but for this book I need to feel the pages, physically engage with it as well as engaging on an intellectual and emotional level. Pat’s views on writing and the power of writing are well known through her previous book ‘Writing Alone and With Others‘ and through her organization Amherst Writers and Artists. But in her new book she pushes out her beliefs and ideas with even greater force coupled with profound reflections on writing. She says with characteristic vigour
‘So here goes. Straight to the concrete foundation, the steel girder, the brick wall. I write my name on the wall.’
‘Daring to be seen, daring to let the truth of the human condition be made visible by our telling, whether that telling be in words or in some other form of witness, splits open the world. Cracks it. And that’s how the light gets in. To tell the truth about our lives is a political act.’
But, Pat writes, this book ‘is not a manual nor a “how-to” – it is an exploration … about the relationship between creative writing and conscious spiritual practice. [But] The first stumbling block was language. Writing requires the use of words, and words always carry, or fail to carry, particular human experience.’
Not too far from where Pat lives in Amherst, Mass., just as her new book was entering the world the great African writer Chinua Achebe was passing away in Boston. Once upon a time I did an Open University course called Literature in the Modern World
and this was where I was first introduced to the writings of Chinua Achebe and studied his most famous book ‘Things Fall Apart‘. But it wasn’t this novel which has stayed most in my mind ever since but a sentence from an essay by Achebe in the book pictured above. Achebe was writing about the dilemmas facing post-colonial writers in Africa and elsewhere about the language in which to write. Should they write in English, the ‘colonial language’ or in their own native tongue? He declared ‘… let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.’
Many people struggle to write, desire to write but are silent or silenced by race, gender, education, social class, poverty. What words, what languages do many potential writers have access to? Pat Schneider writes
‘… it is our own voices we must protect and trust. they are full of nuance, full of unconscious craft, full of character, because they are full of the voices we heard around the kitchen table … In my own original voice lies the foundation, the authority, the orientation, the perspective I need in order to use other voices. I find it nothing short of a tragedy that so many teachers of writing have not understood the primal need for young writers to use first – and be affirmed emphatically for – the power of their own voices of home. Almost all of the primary problems of beginning writers are rooted in their effort to sound like someone else … a profound acceptance of and trust in one’s own voice is the first and most important thing the writer needs.’
So, let us begin (again) to write. Here is a prompt that Pat reflects on using in her own writing and in workshops in ‘How the Light Gets In’
‘the world begins at a kitchen table …’
Take a notebook and pen, set a timer for perhaps twenty minutes. Start writing with whatever concrete image comes to mind from the phrase ‘the world begins at a kitchen table’. Trust the pen, trust in your own voice, dare to continue to write and don’t be afraid to ‘do unheard of things with it’.
This is the newest, and maybe most intimate, Writers’ Weekend in Ireland and it’s already packing quite a punch. During Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend you will have the opportunity to discover what makes a winning short story with Nuala Ní Chonchúir, celebrate the results of the poetry competition judged by Mark Roper, join Richard Hayes of Waterford Institute of Technology for his seminar, ‘Into the New: Writing and Change’, and be with lots of other writers for a weekend of words. The venue is a building that is very old, very atmospheric. It’s currently a theatre cum arts space and was originally a small brewery. There are lots of stories in those thick walls.
The deadline for the Brewery Lane Poetry Competition is Friday, 22nd March. For details and Rules for Entry see here