A series of essays reflecting on craft, process, and the pains and pleasures of writing and publishing. Contributors: Kevin Doherty, Sheila Armstrong, Kevin Curran, Donal Ryan, Jan Carson, and Sheena Patel, with an Introduction and Afterword by Series Editor, Olivia Fitzsimons.
Over the past thirteen months, lots of people have told me how much these essays have meant to them, I have had conversations about the series at book launches, in workshops, and while drinking wine in the courtyard of Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. I have listened as people expressed how the essays left them feeling seen, understood, and a little bit more hopeful. The series has travelled: Jan Carson talked about her essay on Literary Community in Australia and Kevin Curran was interviewed for TV inside his writing shed.
I don’t know where you might be reading this: perhaps on a phone at work, on the commute home, alone in your room, hiding for a few precious moments in the car outside your house, or in a hospital, waiting at the GP, while you’re making dinner. Life may be difficult right now, fraught. There might be a baby or toddler on your knee, an elderly relative to care for; your heart might be broken; there will always be someone or something else vying for your attention.
Today, as I write this, my youngest son is sick, off school again. I am working at the kitchen table, breakfast dishes piled in the sink, laundry waiting to be put out. This is my writing life—scattered, stretched out—far from anyone’s idea of perfect. Yet, I want everything to be perfect. But I am not perfect. I am uncertain. I remain afraid of failing myself, other writers, the magazine, our readers. And I wonder what is the point in writing, with all the devastation, death and horror, that engulfs the world? And then I see the community I belong to speak up, raise funds, use their voice, and I feel that writers are needed, vital, brave. And I want to better serve writers who trust me with their work because I know it matters.
I did not expect that working on these essays would affect me as much as it has. Foolishly, I tried not to admit to myself that in order to get others to be brave I might have to become a little bit braver too. Selfishly, I wanted to feel less alone. Luckily, I had the generous support and skill of Thomas Morris and The Stinging Fly, to help guide the way.
Re-reading these essays now, I find solace with Sheila Armstrong, faith with Donal Ryan, and I feel less alone with Sheena Patel. Kevin Curran entreats us all to do the work, while Jan Carson speaks to community in all its variations, and Kevin Doherty encourages steadfastness, to turn to the light and try again. In Ireland, we are blessed with a thriving literary culture that allows space for such reflection. It is soothing to see commonly held insecurities, challenges and joys reflected in the work that the writers in this series have shared. There is still more to say and more writers ready to help us find our way.
This So-Called Writing Life: Season 2 will be back in January with an essay from Emily Cooper, but for now, thank you for reading.
I don’t want to be looked at but I sing, amplified in a crowded hall. I don’t believe in admitting opinions but I agree to explain myself in essay format… This is the want and the shame of wanting.
As writers, it is so rare to have a moment of trust in our own competence. What poison that is to our brains: to constantly be the imposter, to never know if we are good at our job, to attribute any success to an elaborate conspiracy.
I ask some of my students to read chapters from the book, to cement my characters in place, elevate them. And they agree to help; over the course of a few weeks, five seventeen-year-olds stay back after school and read.
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 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.
I was a nightmare in those last three months. I had a tantrum on the floor of the publisher’s office where I cried for two hours and my poor editor hung off the window ledge for dear life waiting it out.
In the eleven months since my debut novel was published I have never felt more unsure of myself. Was I good enough? Was I ready? No. Not ever. I thought I knew who I was at forty-seven but publishing changed that. I know for certain that publishing is hard, no matter how old you are, or how secure. It can be a shadowy process, one that feels closed off to some of us; and at times it can seem impossible to navigate a way through all the unspoken rules. There is help—editors, writing friends—but it can be very lonely. Self-doubt becomes a companion who never shuts up: the bore at the party you are stuck with is yourself.
How do other writers overcome insecurity to get words onto the page, and eventually show them to someone else? The reflections in this series of essays—starting here with a wonderful contribution by Kevin Doherty—provide an insight into the pleasure, and pain, that writing undoubtedly invites. Each writer has their own ways of making work, individual processes and rituals, but some sentiments are common, some feelings universal.
As a former Catholic I hold reflection like a sibling of confession. Reflection has the potential to be shameful, whispered in dark recesses, to uncaring people happy to utilise your painful truths as a conduit to a higher power. I was bad. I was wrong. I was stupid. But, simultaneously, it can be incredibly potent when someone shares hidden knowledge. It can be divine, dazzling in its ability to connect and enlighten, cast off all the darkness, to see yourself as you truly are, reflected in other people.
I have asked writers I admire to dissect themselves, cut deep with their observations. I want to know the hows and whys of their work, examine their experiences, and this writing life they inhabit. What makes writing possible? Impossible? I’m interested in the conversations we’re having with ourselves about what we know and don’t know about our art. I hope these essays will extend that awareness, so that we might better examine our own assumptions and beliefs, interrogate the self-doubt that surrounds us, and find a way to cast it off, just long enough to do the work. I am certain these essays will resonate with many readers and provide a little illumination for our writing, our lives, in 2023.