There’s no story in the grey blocks of the wall in front of me in my office. There are no usable words lurking in the evergreen trees outside my window or in the doorway of the Kemmy building across the short swathe of grass between me and the fountains, nor is there anything to be found in the clouds or in the blue sky or the low hedge that hems this building or anywhere I can look from this seat. But this is where I mostly sit while I cast about for that ill-defined and shapeless thing, inspiration, when I try and sometimes, often, fail, to write fiction, in a small office on the north side of the campus of the University of Limerick. I love this place and am eternally grateful for it. This place, and the fact that I have the use of it, represents the faith that other people have in me, in my ability to write stories, and to impart something of value to others, and I have to remind myself of that generous faith every working day. 

I don’t know why I scan my surroundings when I’m stuck, expecting the concrete or the foliage or the sweet breeze to grant me something of their mute wisdom, to let me in on some secret contained within their particles, but it feels like the most natural of all actions when no words or ideas will come, to search for them in the expanses beyond my panicked self. It’s a literal floundering, a flailing about for some purchase, some traction, something that sparks, that makes sense, that feels worthy of the effort of being marshalled in language. It could be an unconscious expression of faith in a higher power, something unseen and unknowable that might regard me with sympathy and grant me some gift if I just make myself as amenable as possible. This thought is always followed sharply by a stinging guilt. Imagine thinking that I deserve gifts from the universe. With all the pain in the world, all the sadness and suffering, the hope, however fleeting, that a benevolent ambient energy might focus its gaze on me and my minute creative troubles even for a moment seems monstrously selfish. 

I always admired my mother’s faith in God. It took the form of a pure and unwavering belief in a force of love that commanded and powered all things. There was no binary of good and evil, and nor was there a complex, infinitely nuanced universe out there: God was simply everything and it was the duty of every human to honour Him. Shortly before she died she gave me a lecture about confidence. Not for the first time, she told me she was disappointed in me for not having enough of it. She couldn’t understand why I was the way I was. She got a bit cross with me. She was weak and in a lot of pain and she knew she was living her last days but she summoned the power to have a final go at guiding me towards the best of myself. She had confidence in me always, even when I had none in myself. Love and worry underlay her anger, and I was holding her hand while she admonished me for the last time. Her anger soon ceded to laughter and a peaceful acceptance that her work was done, or as much work as she could do in the seventy years she’d been allowed. She’d given us life and given us the best part of her own life, and she was going to meet her God without regret. 

Sometimes I tell myself that the words will come if I just sit here long enough. On a still clear day I can hear the river whispering through my open window. Maybe there’s something in the flow of water and the way its sound is carried on the air that makes the world feel more open, makes the truth of things seem more accessible. The act of sitting, poised, waiting for something to occur, is as necessary a part of the writing process as the typing of words onto a screen. Or so I tell myself. I tell myself lots of things, and some of them I sometimes believe. Like: I did it before so I can do it again. I have a responsibility to honour my creative impulse. There’s something I can say that hasn’t been said before in some other way. Counting paperclips will help me to get started. I should go to the canteen and see what’s cooking. I should start smoking again. 

There are more books out there than could be read in a hundred thousand lives. The world is filled with words and ideas and stories, thankfully, and they mostly form themselves into a part of the great bulwark of resistance to the gathering tides of absolutism, intolerant self-righteousness, and unwavering moral certitude that threaten the very essence of creativity and true freedom. As important as books and stories are to me, and all art is, if I never wrote another word the world would hardly notice. There’s nothing too important about what I do as an individual writer. 

A few years ago I spent a summer driving a lorry for a friend who’d broken his leg the day after he’d signed a haulage contract, and they were some of the most carefree and fulfilling months of my working life. I actually secretly hoped that my friend’s leg would be slow to heal. I thanked the stars for whatever confluence of inspiration and energy had pushed me into getting my C licence as a backup years ago when I worked weekends in my father’s driving school. I seriously considered switching careers. It was far easier to have faith in my ability to drive a lorry safely and well than it was to have faith in my ability to wring from between my ears and out of my soul the voices and emotions and ideas that would make made-up people feel real enough to entice real people to devote precious hours of their lives to reading about them. But my friend got back on his feet and I returned, not unhappily, but still with no great faith in myself, to the job to which I was committed, for better or worse. 

There’s no answer to the problem of faith. It can only exist in perfect form. As soon as it’s assailed by any measure of doubt it’s gone, and it can’t return until the doubt has been expunged. So I’ve given up on the idea of the possibility of obliteration of doubt and settled into a comfortable creative half-life of solitary effort and spiritual dependence. I’ve spent my life benefiting from the faith others have had in me. I’m so unbelievably lucky to have been so loved, to have a hugely supportive family and group of friends, and to have somehow blundered upon Anne Marie, who believed in me long before she had tangible reason to do so. I’m still studying the wall and the trees and grass and waiting for some magical imparting, for the universe to bestow some undeserved munificence on me, and I’m still trying and often failing to honour my mother’s loving exhortations, but I know better now than I ever did, on this rainy summer’s day, that the words will come, the story will tell itself, and that everything, somehow, will be all right. 

This essay forms part of a series of reflections on the writing life.

Previously: Doing the work by Kevin Curran.

Next: Community by Jan Carson