Fur Coat and No Knickers?

One of the best things that ever happened to me was becoming a mother.

I can’t imagine what I would have found to do with my time without children to fill my every waking minute.  They still try do it, and they’re (allegedly) adults now. Although, these days I do sometimes manage to snatch a few hours free from them demanding what’s for dinner, or where are their socks/phone chargers/car keys (delete as appropriate).

It sounds like there are dozens of them. It only feels like that sometimes – they are just two, one of each, as they say. A son and a daughter, neither of whom has properly left home yet.

My own mother, pictured here with me many years ago (before my sister arrived on the scene), is now 93 years old.  She lives in a care home and is quite frail and  forgetful, which is sad because she used to be a very busy, capable, fit woman, who taught me loads.

She wrestled with barrage balloons at the tail end of the Second World War (as a member of the WRAF), succeeding as a feisty female in a male-dominated workplace. I have her to thank for my  brand of feminism, which has never let me accept failure just because I’m a woman.  At an early age I realised there were different rules for boys and girls, which just served to make me more determined to succeed. Women have to work harder in their careers to prove themselves – I was no exception, and was often bitter about such inequality. I like to think things won’t be so hard for the next generation.

My mother also taught me how to strive to become a domestic goddess, and I can still rustle up a Victoria Sponge, or sew a fine seam when the occasion arises.

These days, I have my mother to thank as a source of some of my more popular poetry.  She’s at the heart of my attempts to blend pathos with humour.

Here you go: Fur Coat and No Knickers (just in case it’s slipped past your attention so far).

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Read All About It

Way too tidy  (and small) to be my book collection…

My kitchen floor’s a mess again.

What with books to read, poems to write, creative writing groups to facilitate and sick cats to pet, I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no time to mop the floor. Or clean the windows (you have to do that more than once a year? Really?).

That’s the trouble with household chores like cleaning. You get it  all done, and then in an instant,  it needs doing again. And time can be so much better spent reading.

I mean, good books don’t read themselves, do they?

It was probably a bit of a coincidence, but the day I heard that Helen Dunmore had died, her novel ‘Burning Bright’ fell of the shelf in front of me. I took it as a sign to re-read it, which I did (lovely lyrical writing). It happened to be among a pile of books that all needed revisiting. I had a go at Leon Garfield’s children’s novel ’Smith’ about a Victorian street urchin with a conscience (my copy bears a bookplate showing that I gave it originally to my sister for Christmas in 1973). Then I read PG Wodehouse’s ‘Heavy Weather’, which was everything a ridiculous farce about uppercrust Brits in yesteryear should be.

After that, Emma Donoghue’s short stories ‘Touchy Subjects’ kept me quiet for a while, then I read ‘The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine’, an enjoyable No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency story from Alexander McCall Smith, followed by a re-read of Anne Enright’s dark look at Irish family life, ‘The Gathering’ (which won the Man Booker in 2007).

I’ve managed to fit in a few more-recently published books, ‘One Bad Turn’, a well-written, fast-paced thriller by Sinead Crawley; ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant, a page turner with an unexpected twist at the end; and Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Magpie Murders’. This last one was a Book Club choice and I’ll hear how other members found it later this week.

For me, it felt like I was in the middle of a Cluedo game, with a whodunit within a whodunit which was surprisingly compulsive.  Even after I cheated and read the ending when I was only about a quarter way through (I’m often guilty of this), I had to go back and read the whole thing properly so as not to miss any of the clever twists and turns. It was all rather Midsomer Murders, but then, why wouldn’t it be? – the same prolific author created both. And the book is full of unashamed name-dropping and amusing digs at the publishing industry.

I’ve missed a few Book Club meetings recently, but I try to keep up with the titles under scrutiny, which is how I came to read the beautifully written but incredibly sad semi-auto biographical story about life with a profoundly disabled child, ‘The Mouse-proof Kitchen’ by Saira Shah. One of the things I like about being in a Book Club is reading and discussing titles I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to read.

You’d wonder with all this reading how I ever manage to have any kind of a life?

Well, I don’t.

Leastways, not one that includes mopping kitchen floors.

A Shed Called London

GBS called his writing shed ‘London’

I want a shed. Pretty please. Somewhere I can hide away and write my masterpiece. And wallow in self-pity, should the need arise.

Of course, a week-long writer’s retreat in Monaghan might help get me started on the masterpiece, but it appears that’s not to be – more of that later.

But what is it about wanting a room of one’s own? I’ve written before about how much I long for my own space, claiming the lack of same is what’s holding me back from becoming (ahem) a best-selling novelist/children’s author/poet/playwright (delete as appropriate).

But of course, I know it isn’t about where you write – 20 years after Harry Potter’s first appearance on the bookshelves there are all these nostalgic videos around showing JK Rowling scribbling in an Edinburgh café. It’s about what you write, like wizards and magic stuff.

Plus, there are plenty of people who have written beautiful material in bus shelters or airports, at kitchen tables and the like, while nursing babies/sick children/elderly parents/bombastic bosses/unsympathetic partners (again, delete as appropriate).

So why am I yearning for a shed of my own? Don’t I know all my papers would get damp in there? Where would we put it? Who would paint it a nice shade of green? Who’d clean the windows and put up some shelves? And I’m not that keen on spiders or earwigs…

George Bernard Shaw had a shed at the bottom of his garden in Hertfordshire. He reportedly called it ‘London’ so the maid could truthfully turn away unwanted callers with news that the boss was ‘in London’. It was a specially designed hut built on a revolving platform so it could be turned (with a quick shove) to catch the whole day’s sunshine.

That man (with a July 26th birthday and a vegetarian taste in food) was way ahead of his time! His shed had a typewriter, telephone and electric heaters – and he wrote some of his most famous work there, including ‘Pygmalion’. By the time he died in 1950 aged 94, he had written fifty-two plays and five novels, and said he always tried to produce at least five pages of writing every day.

I had wanted to write at least five pages a day on retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan – everyone I know who has been there tells me it is a wonderful creative opportunity for writers. But I can’t convince them that I’m a worthy candidate for a residency. My second direct application has now failed (another indirect one was turned down earlier this year). The upsetting bit today (June 28th) was they clearly hadn’t bothered to review my new submission – they sent me a rejection letter dated March 21st (!) although my application was sent on May 14th. And I wasn’t even asking for a handout – I would have paid my own way.

If I had a shed, I’d head off there and cry very bitter tears.

The Plot Thickens

Luri Cole
One of us might need a haircut before we get too deep into this writing lark

Did I mention I’m writing a novel – a joint effort with my criminologist daughter? It’s a kind of grip-lit character-led thriller.

Standing in the supermarket queue, that’s the sort of thing to drop into a conversation beginning with Irish weather/Brexit/refugees/the price of petrol/Leo-at-the-helm (delete as appropriate). Or is it?

Since we went public with our plans to write a novel together – we’re ‘Luri Cole’ (a mix of Louise and Rhiannon), we seem to have ground to a halt. The more people we tell, the slower moving the project, or so it seems. Not sure why.

Originally, we thought we might write the book in chapters, each one finishing on a cliff hanger. I’d write the story into a corner and Rhiannon would write it out again, and then into another problem for me to solve. Like a game of consequences. Simples. Ha!

Instead, we plotted it quite carefully and drew up a set of characters we believe in. Now we’ve the story and the first 50,000 words. But.

And then today, while Rhiannon was slaving over a hot stove (which is another story which might turn into a rant about decent job opportunities for criminologists in mid-west Ireland, so I’ll keep it to myself), I took myself off to an editing workshop for writers.

Another workshop? Well, yes.

Trust me, there’s no end to the number of tips and insights you can get from meeting working authors. And I really enjoyed this one.

Elizabeth Reapy’s workshop was in the Linenhall, Castlebar, County Mayo. I recommend her novel ‘Red Dirt’, which some might find surprising given my stance on cursing and swearing. red dirt ‘Red Dirt’ is a cracking (very sweary!) story of young Irish ones in Australia. But in the same way that Donal Ryan and Kevin Barry churn out the hair-curling vernacular, the language is pivotal to the characters’ story and it races along in a way that made me want to keep turning the pages (or swiping, I read it as an e-book).

At the workshop, Elizabeth recommended we write down what we find difficult in our writing, and later suggested we might ask one of our characters to tackle a part of the story that isn’t working.

Ah, ha! There followed a light bulb moment, and I rushed home to pick up Luri Cole’s story where we’d last left off. We’ve already changed tense, points of view, and ditched a main character, but there was something else wrong, and it has only now occurred to me what that is and how we can fix it.

Recently, I was at Listowel Writers’ Week, at another excellent workshop, this time with short story writer Danielle McLaughlin. And over several days, I got to listen to some successful new(ish) authors talking about their novels – and I found the whole thing very inspirational.

lying in wait   my nameis leon  himselfMy favourites were Liz Nugent (‘Lying in Wait’), Kit de Waal (‘My Name is Leon’) and Jess Kidd (‘Himself’). All come highly recommended by me (as well as by just about everyone else).

 

If Luri Cole’s forthcoming novel can be anywhere near as entertaining as these, I think we might be onto a winner.

Time to superglue bums to seats in front of the laptop and finish the damn thing!

 

Once Upon A Time

For the weekend that’s in it – a Bank Holiday here in Ireland – here are some short stories for you to enjoy.

I’ve been reading short stories since I was a teenager when I came across EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, which I think might have been on the O level English Literature curriculum, alongside ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ by DH Lawrence.

I haven’t stopped reading stories since, and these days I have a go at writing them, too. I’ve had ten published so far – but I’m keen to learn more about what makes them work, which is why I’m booked into a Short Fiction Workshop with writer Danielle McLaughlin at Listowel Writers’ Week (June 3rd and 4th 2017).

Here’s one of Danielle’s stories, first published in The New Yorker in September 2104, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’.

And a link to a blog post I wrote last year when I met that very author in a Cork bookshop.  She was minding her own business looking at books with her children and I was there buying her short story collection.

News was out earlier this year that Tom Hanks has turned his hand to writing and has a collection of short stories due for publication in the autumn. Here’s one he had published in The New Yorker  in October 2014: ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, do give it a go – but bear in mind that it was first published in 1909; the style is a bit wordy (at 12,000+ words it is really a novella), but the message about how humankind is on a path to self-destruction is chilling, and very pertinent to modern times.

There are plenty of other examples of good story writing available to view for free via the internet.  The New Yorker publishes some crackers, the Irish Times has the Hennessy New Irish Writing story once a month, and the Moth, The Stinging Fly, Crannóg and Banshee magazines all publish short stories and flash fiction.

Then there are the competitions – there are dozens, nay probably hundreds, out there.  Some I enter, some I don’t.  I take the view that someone has to win, so why not me? That modus operandi has worked a couple of times (thankfully) but isn’t foolproof. Reading the winning entries can be a revelation.

I haven’t won the Costa Short Story Competition, but Kit de Vaal did in 2014 with ‘The Old Man and the Suit’.

And Billy O’Callaghan’s story ‘The Boatman’ was runner-up in the Costa Competition last year.

Just because I think it’s a great read, here’s ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan from The New Yorker, February 2010 .

Raymond Carver wrote classic short stories; here’s one first published in 1989: ‘Little Things’.

And finally, here’s a link to one of my own short stories – one I’m still quite proud of, ‘Flying Lessons’.

And yes, I know, pride is a sin. Ah well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are We There Yet?

Chess, unfinished.

As a wordsmith, when do you ever know your work is done? By that I mean finished and complete with no more amendments and tweaks to be made.

It goes for most creative work – even cooking, you can keep going, adding more seasoning, stirring this way and that, changing the presentation as well as the content. Likewise with art in all its forms – another brush stroke here, an extra shave of the plane there, more this, less that. And so it goes with writing: more words, fewer, different order, wider vocabulary.

Recently, I ‘finished’ a major re-write of what I hope will eventually become a published poetry collection. I have sifted through my favourite poems and come up with about 75 that I think are now complete. That was after the Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last month (which I’ve burbled on about at length elsewhere on this blog).

I’ve now done enough workshops, classes and creative writing group sessions to think I might have finally got it (whatever ‘it’ is). Anyway, I’m starting to hawk my collection around the various poetry publishers. Shouldn’t take too long – hardly any of them accept cold calls (aka open submissions).

Then what? I shouldn’t expect failure, but I did consider trying the WB Yeats route. His sisters printed and hand-bound the early editions of his first published poetry. But there’s something in me that eschews self-publishing – I need that third-party validation thingy all the time. And anyway, I don’t have enough artistic sisters to take on the hand-crafted publication of my work.

Back to never being finished. I have just heard that I have taken third prize in the Oliver Goldsmith Festival Poetry Prize, which is another rather nice accolade, although the poem, ‘Concentric Circles’, is one of those that never seems to be finished. Every time I look at it, I change something, although clearly I thought it complete enough to enter in a competition.

I’m also trying to find a suitable title for my soon-to-be-published (!) collection. Another moveable feast – it has a different title every time I think about it, not least because it’s hard to categorise.

I heard Don Paterson, the poetry editor of Picador, talking at Poetry Ireland in  Dublin last month, and was greatly encouraged by his attitude to themed collections. Mine doesn’t have a theme – I write about life as I know it, the world around me, my family and other animals, that sort of thing.

‘Concentric Circles’ is a poem about a bachelor farmer. Living in rural Ireland that subject pops up every now and then, as do the themes of memory loss, aging parents, adult children, the cruelty of nature, life, love,  and the general desperation involved in being human.

Dead hares, jilted lovers, superstitions, refugees, hurricanes, home-made wine, care home smells, punctuation, Irish Diaspora, fossils, the River Liffey, Christmas excesses, horseflies, filial ties,  ecologically-sound fruit salad, sibling rivalry, parental approval, summer barbecues, the displaced and dispossessed, magpies, artisan baked bread, fur coats, spitting alpacas – there’s a lot of stuff mentioned in my poems.

But not really a thread running through which I could use to sew them together into a themed collection.

And then there’s the title. The title? Oh heck! Forget the finishing – where on earth do I start?

PS I give you a picture of Chess, the unfinished cat (he has no tail) for want of any better illustration

May Day, May Day? Can’t Remember…

I nearly forgot to boast about my recent win at Strokestown Poetry Festival – I took first prize in the Roscommon Poets’ Prize, a competition in which I came third the previous two years. That was certainly a good start to May!

Of course I’m delighted. The poem is about memory, a theme that keeps coming up to bite me on the bum, to remind me what to write about when I’m stuck for ideas. You can read it here.

The competition was judged by a friend of mine, Sligo poet Jessamine O’Connor, who would know my style and usual themes (my elderly mother crops up a good deal, and fanciful broken love affairs). So after almost not entering at all because it felt kind of awkward, I went ahead anyway and wrote something new and different. It was one of those poems that arrived on the paper pretty well fully formed. No idea how that works, I’m just happy to go along with it.

And of course, I had no hint that I was even in the running (although I knew I’d been shortlisted, along with six others). Jessamine, of course, was very professional about it all and although she’d judged the competition blind, didn’t know mine was her favourite until a number matched my name. She sounded just as shocked as me in the end. And I discovered the reason she’d been avoiding me since Christmas was so she didn’t give the game away. Ha!

This year my friend Catherine Ryan from Castlerea came second (she won the first year) and Laurence Henson from Strokestown came third (he won last year). Turn and turn about! All three of us are Hermit Collective poets.

Strokestown Poetry Festival is Ireland’s longest running poetry festival and last year they had their Arts Council funding withdrawn. This time around the funding was back in place, and the festival seemed to be flourishing. It is all about competitions, and I attended the prizegivings for the Percy French comic verse, and the main international poetry competitions.  Paddy Bushe and Maura Dooley adjudicated the latter, and it was fascinating to hear their comments on the ten shortlisted poems.

There was an anthology published this year. I’d recommend it – it has work from all the poets associated with the weekend, plus the shortlisted international competition entries (but  sadly, not any from the Roscommon shortlist). But worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy.

You could have picked one up from me as I manned the bookstall for an exhausting hour on the Saturday afternoon. Such a chore having to sit in the distinguished old dining room in Strokestown Park House, log fire blazing, dozens of poetry books scattered across the table, but I like to do my bit.

Of course, I’m just getting into character for some time in the future when my own collection of poetry gets put on sale there…