‘Write about what you don’t know about what you know’ (Eudora Welty)
My workshops, Writing Changes Lives, will start again on Saturday, 23rd January for 8 weeks in the tearoom in Brewery Lane Theatre, Carrick-on-Suir. I like to keep the emphasis on playfulness and discovery, the essence of creativity – it doesn’t matter if you are beginning, beginning again, or at some other stage in your writing life, I guarantee you will experience a renewal of your creative self.
If you would like to join me or to find out more please get in touch with me through the contact page. We will start at 10.30am each Saturday in the tea-room and the fee is, as usual, €150. If you know of anyone who might be interested please feel free to spread the word.
I will, as always, be basing my work on the Amherst Writers and Artists’ philosophy – that ‘the teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer’s original voice or artistic self-esteem’.
‘Writing has brought me up from underground. I’ve been my own Orpheus.’ Nuala O’Faolain
Join writers Selina Guinness and Katie Donovan for the 2016 Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend. The dates are: Friday, 1st April, Saturday, 2nd April and Sunday, 3rd April, the weekend after Easter. This is Ireland’s most intimate writers’ weekend, limited to 12 participants, where writers get the opportunity to work with some of the best writers and teachers of writing in Ireland. Participants gain insights into the practice and craft of writing through group workshops, one to one tutorials and time for writing.
Here is what Nessa O’Mahony, one of our fabulous duo of tutors at the 2015 event, has written about the impact on her of attending a workshop with Katie Donovan: ‘Katie Donovan will forever have my gratitude for being the first professional writer to tell me that I had something worth developing – my own voice.’
The early-bird fee for the weekend is €160, but this must be paid by Friday, 5th February. This fee includes all workshops and tutorials plus lunch on Friday and Saturday. For payments later than this the full fee of €175 will apply, but please note that the weekend will fill on a first come, first paid basis. If you need accommodation for the weekend the Carraig Hotel is offering a special deal to participants.
For booking and payment details please get in touch with me through the Contact page.
On Monday, 23rd March 2015 The Story House Ireland will open its doors to its first participants for a course on short fiction led by Susie Maguire and Julian Gough with guest writer Dónal Ryan. This is how it began …
It was the mid-2000s and I was searching around for a writing retreat but I couldn’t find what I wanted. And what did I want? The truth is that I didn’t know. I was not a ‘Writer’, there was little evidence of that unless you looked closely at scattered crumbs along my life path. A teacher in secondary school who read an essay of mine and said it was the best he’d ever read. Winning second prize from The Irish Times for an essay on Hubert Butler’s Escape from the Anthill when I was starting my Open University degree. The surprise and delight of that fuelled me to keep studying for six years and longer. But a writer? No, people like me didn’t do things like that – woman/mother/working-class background? No. In spite of Eavan Boland’s understanding and eloquent articulation of women’s exclusion, she omitted that bit about class. But there was an itch I couldn’t scratch. Somewhere in me I knew it had to do with words and now I appreciate the irony that I couldn’t put words on it. One Sunday morning I was in the kitchen having my breakfast, in that desultory Sunday morning way, when my ear caught something on the RTE Radio 1 programme ‘Sunday Miscellany’, it was a mention of The Arvon Foundation, an organization I hadn’t heard of before. Why my ear pricked up at that I have no idea – I wasn’t paying any particular attention to the programme, it was just a background hum. But I immediately went to my computer and googled Arvon. As soon as I found the website and started to read some details I knew that this was what I had been searching for. I knew nothing about Arvon before that moment but something in me recognized it immediately. Nowhere else had I seen it explicitly expressed that ‘anyone can benefit from the transformative power of writing.’
According to the website there were four Arvon centres and one of them, Totleigh Barton in Devon, was near a village called Sheepwash. Years earlier I had worked for the Central Statistics Office here in Ireland gathering data on households re employment, education etc. For several years I had driven around the south east of Ireland finding my way using very large scale maps – a time before SatNavs. One of my areas was the remote, beautiful Nire Valley, folded into the Comeragh Mountains in Co. Waterford. Scattered across the map of The Nire Valley were marks which indicated sheepwashes – places where in the past mountain sheep farmers had communally dipped their sheep. If I had a choice of Arvon writing centres then the one near a village called Sheepwash it had to be.
In Totleigh Barton on that first Monday evening we all strolled after dinner across the yard to an old barn made comfortable with squishy sofas and armchairs. We were invited to introduce ourselves by the tutors, John Moat and Peter Please. I heard myself say that I was afraid of what I might write. I was shocked by what I had just said. Waves of hot panic washed through my body, shame and embarrassment. What on earth did I mean by that? What was I thinking? I hadn’t a clue then and it was years before I gained some insight into the way that writing worked and what a force the subconscious is. However in that barn on that August Monday evening no-one took the slightest notice of what I had just said. I imagine in retrospect that John Moat and Peter Please nodded with infinite understanding.
Even though I had been travelling since four that morning I felt compelled to write in my journal before bed – ‘I can’t go to bed without recording on paper something of what I feel here tonight. I feel excited to be home. Yes, home. I can express it no other way. My whole being is tingling with excitement. This feels right from the inside out.’
Our week was set out for us. We would meet after breakfast each morning in the barn for some writing with John and Peter. The afternoons were our own but we could make appointments to meet with John and Peter individually. Peter told us that if he was outside carving wood that was a signal that he was available for a writing chat. John would be in the goose house.
I made an appointment to speak with John early in the week. He listened while I explained about what I hoped to write. Then he asked me to go away and write the first page of a novel. I’m sure I stopped breathing. Surely he didn’t expect me to do this. I had said I wanted to write, and here was this calm, lanky Englishman telling me to go ahead and write. But, but … my thoughts were in a whirl. Surely I couldn’t … just do it? Me? John had called my bluff. I expressed none of this inner turmoil to him, but instead took myself off to the bedroom I shared with another participant, Philippa from London, and started to write. Someone thought I could write and that was the starter I needed. I wrote in the bedroom, I wrote in the gazebo, I wrote in the barn. It seemed as though the sun shone for the entire week although it didn’t really. I wrote in the sitting room one rainy evening and a sparrow whirred up from the grass directly outside the window. A small brown sound that lifted my attention from the page.
Along with all the others I put my name on the rota for preparing dinner on one evening. I can’t remember the menu except that there were a lot of potatoes and I volunteered for potato peeling, being Irish, to the amusement of the others. The previous evening some of us had met in the sitting room to read our works in progress to each other and get comments. Carol, a jazz singer from London, had wanted to read but then decided against sharing her work.
But suddenly, this evening in the kitchen, in the middle of carrot chopping and potato peeling she decided that she would like to read it to us now and rushed off to her room to get her pages. She read to us a vivid piece about identity and the particular challenges to identity there are in a woman’s life, about her own life, about all those name changes. Who was she really? There was a palpably charged atmosphere in the kitchen. We all stood around the large wooden table with our aprons on and knives and other implements paused above pots and chopping boards, silent while she read. It was a powerful Arvon moment, an experience of listening to authentic writing, that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
All week we were encouraged to observe. Although I had no art or drawing experience I had brought a drawing pad with me, suggested in advance by John, and on the first page there is a shy drawing of a tree growing in a curve towards the right with the comment underneath ‘Tree covered with lichen in the garden at Totleigh Barton as seen from the gazebo. 9-8-07’. Technique? Zilch. Attention? 100%. I later learned that John was a gifted artist. I remember that one of the others in the group, Katy, was instructed by John to go down the fields and observe a cow pat for the entire week. She read out a richly observed and sensual piece of writing on the final evening. Peter shared with us his journals, beautiful closely hand written pages that seemed to have a texture, like something woven. On that final evening I read that much re-written first page and other bits that had emerged on to my page during the week.
I left Totleigh Barton on the Saturday morning knowing I had been changed in some fundamental way. The week was utter simplicity, time to write, a belief in writing itself. But the five days had worked on me, and it seemed on the others, in a way that could not be explained in any rational way. There was one nagging question overriding all the week’s work. Why was there no residential writing centre, such as Arvon in Ireland? One that existed to foster creativity through writing, that valued the process of writing to the individual, and that was open to anyone who wished to write. I asked John why there wasn’t one even in Northern Ireland. He couldn’t say. But he inscribed my copy of his book ‘The Founding of Arvon’ with this message: ‘For Margaret who knows Arvon’s real home is in Ireland. Love John.’ At the time I had the resources to travel to Devon but what if I hadn’t? Why, in spite of Seamus Heaney’s patronage of Arvon from its inception and the dozens of Irish writers who had taught there over the decades, was there no similar centre in Ireland? I wanted that to change.
Shortly afterwards, by a great stroke of good fortune, I discovered Pat Schneider and Amherst Writers & Artists whose work was similarly based on an understanding of the value of the process of writing to the individual. I have written about some of my experience with Pat and her work here. Do I still have a fear of writing, of what I might write? Of course, but the difference now is that I am so much better at recognising it (although it can be very devious and nasty) and that recognition when it happens takes away much of the power of fear. In the years since that encounter with John Moat and Arvon I have continued to write, although not yet a novel, and I have gained immeasurably from a writing practice that includes journalling, fiction and poetry. I confess that I don’t understand it when writing is spoken of as a lonely pursuit. To be honest the time I spend writing is the time I feel least alone. And I especially love the times when I can combine writing with teaching and the value of the process of writing is proven to me over and over.
John Moat passed away on the 16th September 2014 and he will be deeply missed by all who knew him. For anyone interested in gaining an understanding of John Moat’s philosophy of writing and an understanding of his generous legacy, I suggest reading his memoir, The Founding of Arvon and also The Gist: A Celebration of the Imagination, a compilation of essays on writing by writers associated with Arvon, including Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, published to honour John’s life and wisdom.
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 Night in Brewery Lane Theatre has been running since January 2011 and it’s about to expand. Friday, 21st March 2014 will mark the start of Poetry Plus. What’s Poetry Plus? It means that in addition to poetry if you wish to read prose, tell a story or anything else related to words feel free to do that. Just keep it reasonably short! For anyone who recites a poem from memory there will be a ‘lucky dip’ prize 😉 So you might like to start memorizing your lines!
Venue: Brewery Lane Theatre, off Castle St., Carrick-on-Suir
Fee: None, but we do appreciate a Euro or two towards refreshments, heating & lighting
The theme for the night is ‘BATH’
What else? Tea, biscuits, chat …
All is quiet here in the Suir valley on this March afternoon after all the storms and upheaval of just a couple of weeks ago.
and the greenhouse is empty and dormant, waiting, but yet …
just beside it there are stirrings of life – new season rhubarb has been nosing its way above ground. Doesn’t that single leaf above the ruby stalk have a brainy look about it?
Some overwintered garlic
and overwintered broad beans with some of the weeds that overwintered with them
and some cabbage from last year’s crop, still producing those leaves with their lovely purple veins
The slender scarlet stems of the dogwood are getting on with it and showing their new pale green Spring promise
while the spinach leaves shine bright in the afternoon sun. But I would like to know what else is eating it!
Meanwhile above it all the crow flies …
It’s time to polish up your poems – the 2014 Brewery Lane Poetry Competition is now open for entries! The closing date is Friday, 14th March and results will be announced at the Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend, which will be held in Carrick-on-Suir on the weekend of April 11th – 13th. This year’s judge is Richard Hayes, Head of the School of Humanities, Waterford Institute of Technology where he also teaches on the Institute’s English degree. In addition to the overall award there is also a category for Emerging Writers, those who haven’t previously won a prize or been published. We hope to encourage new writers through this category and also the rising generation of writers through the schools’ category, which is confined to secondary school students in Carrick-on-Suir schools.
Get in touch with me through the Contact Page here for an Entry Form and the Rules for Entry (see below) or email brewerylanepoetryATgmail.com and get ready to send in your best work!
‘… only two things can be said to be common defining characteristics of a poem: 1) the language is intensified, and 2) it gives the reader a complete experience.’ Pat Schneider
or as Emily Dickinson said, ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’
Dawn Sewell McKeever has written an interesting essay in Glimmer Train on becoming a writer, noting how often in her life she was sidetracked from writing.
Maybe you have been sidetracked from your writing just once too often. Is it time to make a definite commitment to put pen to paper? If you are living in the south-east my Saturday morning writing workshops will start on 1st February in Brewery Lane Theatre, Carrick-on-Suir. These workshops are informed and inspired by the work of Pat Schneider and are suitable for anyone beginning or beginning again to write. You can get in touch with me here.
To write, to engage in writing practice, all I need is some paper and a pen or pencil. And, coincidentally, that is all that’s needed to do some drawing! Did you know that adding other creative activities to your writing toolkit can enrich your writing? And not just your writing. When I find myself getting stale and stuck I know it’s time to shake up my creative practice. I’d like to share with you a couple of books that I find inspiring and that help me to focus more on creativity than creative writing.
The first is ‘The Creative License’ by Danny Gregory – its subtitle is ‘Giving Yourself Permission to be the Artist You Truly Are’. In this terrific book Gregory argues that drawing is first and foremost a way of adding richness to your life, not about expertise. Forget about the fact that you never took a drawing class. As I focus on something, maybe the salt cellar on the café table or the rusty bollard with its frayed green rope at the quayside, and move my pen over the page I get to really see the details, become mindful, stop the mind chatter. Drawing practice is about enjoying the process and letting go of outcomes – not unlike the process of writing! Of course this is easy to say, not always easy to do. But Danny Gregory’s book is very persuasive, he helps me to believe that, yes, even I can draw.
‘What creativity can do for you’ Danny Gregory
‘Be specific’ – great advice for writing or drawing. Did you know that the great American writer Flannery O’Connor was also a cartoonist? It helps to explain the sharply observed characters in her writing. Here is what she has to say about writing in her essay ‘Writing Short Stories’,
‘It has to become a way that you habitually look at things.’
Danny Gregory said, ‘Remember, Writing is Drawing.’ Of course!
The second book that I love to re-read and use to refresh my creative mojo is ‘What It Is’ by the magnificent Lynda Barry. The subtitle is ‘Do You Wish You Could Write?’ Like Danny Gregory’s this is a very different kind of book on writing and creativity.
‘And that feeling …’ Lynda Barry
‘Do you wish you could draw? What do you think it would be like?’
‘Do you wish you could sing? What do you imagine being able to sing would feel like?’
‘Why did you stop?’
‘Once upon a time I had a little rabbit.’ Lynda Barry
At times what most of us need, I think, is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the world and our place in it, to pause and consider, to really see. Writing does that, drawing does that. For both activities we use our hands, which, as Lynda Barry points out, were the original digital devices.
In a little over a week’s time, on September 7th, I will be sitting with a group of writers, some new, others more experienced, in Brewery Lane Theatre at the start of my Autumn Creative Writing workshop series. One quote from Lynda Barry that I love to use is, ‘Thinking up stories is hard. Getting them to come to you is easier.’ Over the 8 Saturday mornings, based on Pat Schneider’s method, I will create the conditions that will allow everyone’s stories to come to them. I can hardly wait.
‘One line led to another and a story slowly formed under my hands … It’s not hard. All you need is a paper and pen and a little bit of time.’ Lynda Barry.
If you want to ask me about a place on this course you are welcome to get in touch with me through the contact page here. (But you need to act quickly, it’s almost full.) Do let me know in the comments section below what you use to refresh your creative writing practice. What’s in your writing toolkit? I’d love to hear from you.
Read Julian Gough’s splendid new novel ‘Crash! How I lost a Hundred Billion and Found True Love’ if you
- live in Ireland / Europe / rest of the world
- would like to be introduced to a hen called ‘Enda’
- are tired of listening to ‘newspeak’
- know that economics is not that complicated
- have walked in Ballyhea
- want a novel to reduce you first to laughter then tears
- have a ghost estate in your Irish town / village
- are on an ever-lengthening waiting list for a health procedure anywhere
- your adult children are in Canada / Australia / New Zealand / Hoboken
- appreciate darned good writing
- ditto masterful satire
- can afford to spend less than €2 on same
- know that the truth is to be found in fiction
Click on the link above, download the book then go on to spread the word. (Julian Gough is also responsible for ‘The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble’)