I first attended the Edinburgh Festival in 1997. I stood outside the National Gallery with other youths in matching polos. We belted out choruses and distributed Bible tracts. When enough passersby stopped to glare, a youth leader with a megaphone would share the good news: anyone attending the Fringe was eternally damned. I was conflicted. If not for our efforts, the degenerate artists of Edinburgh were indeed going to Hell. And I knew I shouldn’t be ashamed of the Gospel. Yet each time someone yelled, gave the fingers, or wiggled their bottom provocatively, I felt utterly mortified.
I was seventeen that summer. It would be a decade before I began the slow transition from fundamental Christianity to a version of doubt-riddled faith which continues to resist labelling. I was already on the slippery slope listening to dubious music (Blur and Pulp and, for some unfathomable reason, Scottish dad-rockers Del Amitri), watching 18-rated movies (which were neither spiritually edifying nor strictly legal at seventeen), and reading widely (this, the most dangerous diversion of all). The secular world had sunk its teeth in, vampire style. I could feel myself turning. I wanted to turn. I was already an artist though I couldn’t have articulated this nor the troubling suspicion that the artist’s life wouldn’t be compatible with my current one.
For those of you not brought up churchy, it’s hard to fathom how large religion loomed in my life. I spent all my time with other Christians. I attended some form of church five times a week. In the holidays there were Christian camps and mission teams. At weekends, we hung out at a Christian nightclub. Don’t be fooled by the term nightclub. There was no dancing. There was no drink. When I made the move to Uni, I stayed in Christian residential halls. I should say, my experience wasn’t unique. Until quite recently, many young people in the North were similarly sheltered from the corrupting influence of the world. For almost three decades, church was the only community I knew. Leaving this world was devastating. Nearly all my friendships fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a case of ex-communication so much as a gradual drift. I no longer had anything in common with the people I’d grown up with. At thirty I found myself born again (again), trying to work out how to be. It was the loneliest period of my life.
The Irish writing community stepped into this void, unaware of how fragile I was. In 2010 a job change left me programming literary events. One week I knew no Irish writers. The next, I was out and about attending events. I suddenly seemed to know everyone. I quickly realised writers were just ordinary people who happened to share my obsession with words. People seemed to accept me as my nerdy self, enthusing about books I loved and stories I was writing. Most writers were a bit nerdy themselves. They weren’t as intimidating close up. What I’d stumbled into felt remarkable; a heady mix of blistering talent, imagination and thoroughly decent human beings who were—mostly—not up themselves. I’m not exaggerating when I say, it almost instantly felt like home. Since then, writing’s taken me all over the world. I’ve yet to witness a literary community as creative, open and generous as the one in my own backyard here in Ireland. Church provided me with a moral compass, raison d’etre and social life. The writing community’s a much less prescriptive outfit but over the years it has been there for me consistently and generously.
I was not an open-minded person when I first began to publish books. Writers befriended and accepted me with all my fundamentalist baggage. They gave me the time and space to change. They did not judge me. Let me say this another way because it’s meant the world to me: they allowed me to be myself. They bought me pints and coffees when I was broke. They offered lifts and spare rooms. They squeezed another chair in at the table when it looked like there shouldn’t be any more space. They wrote emails and letters, left encouraging comments on social media. When my dad died suddenly, they sent so many flowers I ran out of vases. I had flowers stuffed into kettles and coffeepots.
What’s this got to do with writing? Absolutely everything. I’m a human before I’m a writer. I can’t sustain the creative part of my being if I’m living in a vacuum. I need friends. Inspiration. Conversation. A bit of distraction at the weekend. People to temper my anxiety. If the writing garret’s working for you, then who am I to judge? But I don’t think you have to isolate yourself to be serious about your work. Fellow writers, readers, booksellers, programmers, academics, editors and the various people who hold the literary sector together have helped my career in myriad tangible ways. Writer friends have offered feedback on my terrible first drafts and blurbed my—hopefully less terrible—books. They’ve recommended me for work and prizes, introduced me to my agent, one even dragged their publisher—my publisher now—to hear me read at Edinburgh Book Festival. They celebrate the shortlists with me and commiserate when I proceed no further than the shortlist. You could argue that writing’s a pyramid scheme. Or you could argue that it’s wonderful to see writers taking a lively interest in contemporary writing and the work of their peers. Either way, I suspect that if other writers didn’t buy my books, turn up for my workshops and readings, my income would be even more negligible than it currently is.
Community’s not just a sappy add-on to my writing life. I make community work for me. It’s given me the most amazing network of free resources. My own writing always opens up after a chat with Belfast-based poets Emma Must or Mícheál McCann. Their approach to form and space has given me a whole new perspective on the sentence. If I’ve got a question about Celtic myths, I go straight to children’s author, Myra Zepf. For all things rural, including how many acres you’d need to graze three dozen dairy cows, novelist, Michael Hughes’ family WhatsApp is the Armagh equivalent to Wikipedia. I’m not only looking to established writers for help and insight. I mentor through the National Mentorship Programme. The practice of editing the work of others has informed my whole approach to editing and developing an idea. Community keeps me on my creative toes. I invest in community because I hope to write until I’m incredibly old. I don’t want to putter out. I want to be a better, more curious writer at ninety than I am right now, and I need others to hold me accountable. There’s no greater incentive to write better and bolder than friends who are currently, and consistently, producing some of the most exciting literature in the world. I’ve no interest in a writing scene which’ll have its day and flicker out. I crave community in all its awkward, inclusive messiness.
Community isn’t always easy. There are some very demanding people out there. As in every industry, there are also some harmful self-serving and manipulative people. Sadly, the ability to write well doesn’t make you a decent person by default. I’ve learned it’s important to establish strong boundaries, that it’s okay for me to say a polite no to a writer asking for yet another ‘wee favour’ when you don’t have the time. I cannot possibly read all the proofs I’ll be sent or take every emerging writer out for coffee and an encouraging pep talk. I need to put my own writing first. This often means not meeting everyone’s expectations, but I think the people worth investing in are those who understand that a healthy creative community is a delicate balance between giving, taking and allowing each other space. So I give the idiots a wide berth, and I’ve learned how to differentiate between a big ego and a writer who’s just a bit odd. Artists are by nature artistic. This often equates with eccentric and/or incredibly awkward when approached.
It’s taken me some time to realise that I bring my own insecurities to the community. I imagine I’m not alone in this. If a writer’s a bit standoffish, I assume it’s because they don’t like me. If someone’s winning all the prizes, I wonder why my writing’s been overlooked. If I read a devastatingly brilliant book, I immediately compare it to my work in progress and consider binning it. Afterwards I usually hate the brilliant writer for a few days. I suspect it’s natural to feel like this. Most artists enjoy both a healthy dose of imposter syndrome and a well-developed ego. This tension fuels the drive to succeed. But it’s helpful, healing even, to be able to recognise when my own insecurity’s colouring how I see others. I’m trying, and frequently failing, to remember these hard-learnt truths:
Comparison will rob me of joy.
I can only write the way I write.
I can love the person behind the writing without loving the work itself.
I can’t expect to benefit from community if I’m not contributing generously.
I feel less like a used teabag when I don’t let jealousy get the run of me.
If I’ve nothing kind or useful to contribute, it’s probably best to hold my tongue.
This week, I’ll return to Edinburgh for the book festival. I’ll catch up with writer friends. No doubt, I’ll come home with a rake of new ones. I’ll be in conversation with other writers from wildly different backgrounds. No part of me will feel like I don’t belong there, listening, contributing, hopefully learning. Community’s taught me how to be easier with others and myself. I’m just an ordinary person who lives to write, hanging out with a bunch of other ordinary people, equally word-obsessed. Some of us have won big prizes and made lots of money. Some of us haven’t. We’re still writers nonetheless. A healthy community should always seek to include.
Looking back, I can see how desperately I needed this network of creative support. When I first left the church, I had little else. It’s been twenty five years since I tried to evangelise the Fringe. An awful lot has changed for me. I could write a book about the benefits of artistic community: the acceptance, the support, the sheer, mind-blowing generosity. Maybe, someday I will. For now, I’ll simply say how grateful I am to be unafraid. I grew up in a community which held people at a distance, which marked me as different from the rest of the world. It’s no small thing to finally belong.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on the writing life.
Previously: You gotta have faith by Donal Ryan