Twenty Years and Counting

Strokestown Park House

Here’s news of something close to my heart (right now, serving as a distraction for me, #HennessyLitAwards): Strokestown International Poetry Festival, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The programme has been announced and tickets are on sale (hurry, they’re going fast!), with an eclectic mix of all things poetry-related taking place over the May Bank Holiday weekend, May 3rd– 7th.

As a member of the organising committee, I have a vested interest in spreading the word about the festival, so here goes: Strokestown is one of only a handful of POETRY festivals in the country, and well worth a visit for both writers and readers, trust me!

There’s a must-see line up of international and Irish poets, with around 70 readings over the weekend, from newbies to old-hands. There’ll be the results of six competitions, readings, exhibitions, film screenings, book launches*, workshops, plus street entertainment and music – you won’t want to miss any of it!

If you don’t know, Strokestown is a quiet little Georgian town in rural County Roscommon, on the N5 Dublin to Westport road. Its main tourist attraction is the lovely Strokestown Park House (home of the harrowing but important National Famine Museum). The house is the venue for many of the Poetry Festival’s events.

Poets Moya Cannon and Harry Clifton have sifted through more than 1,200 entries to Strokestown’s International Poetry Competition, and the shortlisted poets have been invited to read their work at the festival, and their poems will be included in this year’s anthology**.

Jane Clarke

It’s unlikely you’ll get many opportunities to see poets Jane Clarke and Lemn Sissay on the same stage, but that’s what’s planned for Saturday evening, May 5th, in the Percy French Hotel, Strokestown. Jane Clarke’s award-winning first collection, ‘The River’, is full of bucolic images of rural Roscommon where she grew up; Lemn Sissay is known

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Lemn Sissay

for writing about his life as a black teenager growing up in a white foster home in northern England. Irish fiddle player Danny Diamond will be on hand to provide the evening’s music.

Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh, best known as a community activist and slam poet from Manchester, will be performing to local schools in Strokestown on Friday, May 4th. His poem, ‘This Is the Place’, captured

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Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh

the response of Mancunians after the terror attack last year in which 22 people were killed at an Ariana Grande concert. He will read at the official opening of the Festival at the Percy French Hotel on May 4th.

There’s lots more going on, most of it free of charge; doubtless I’ll mention the festival again before the day! Meanwhile, check out the website here.

*I’m launching my first poetry collection, ‘Beyond the Green Bridge’, during the festival – on Saturday, May 5th, 4.30pm, in Strokestown House.

**Yay! I also have work included in this year’s anthology…

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On the Winning Side

hennesseyCompetitive creative writing. Now, who would have thought I’d buy into such a thing?

I swear I’m not a competitive person, although I’ll have a tantrum if someone beats me at Scrabble. But creative writing competitions? What’s that all about? I don’t hold with that, do I?

Um, well, yes, I do…

I’m involved in running a little creative writing group in Charlestown, County Mayo, and I’m often to be heard urging members to submit their writing to competitions. It’s that third party validation thing that I’m always on about. Winning, or being shortlisted, in a writing competition offers proof that someone besides your granny or your best friend enjoys what you’ve written.

I tell my writers – most of whom are new at this game –  to look out for free-to-enter competitions, those with good prizes and plenty of kudos for the winners and runners up.  Also, literary magazines and journals are usually free to submit to, and the process is much like a contest.

And there’s the key – lots of writing for publication can be considered competitive; there are so many writers out there, you are bound to be pitting your efforts against theirs in an attempt to get published. And isn’t that why we write? For publication, to connect with other people because we’ve something to say? And we think we’re saying whatever it is that has to be said in the best possible way. Right?

A lot of the poems and short stories I have had published have been because I’ve won or been shortlisted in competitions. The latest is my poetry which has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award – the presentation is on Wednesday next (March 21st) when three writers will win prizes, and one will be crowned ‘Hennessy New Writer of the Year’. There’s a considerable amount of dosh involved (€1,500 each for the category winners, plus an extra €2,500 for the overall winner), but regardless of the outcome, I’m thrilled to have got this far.

When the shortlisting news arrived in an email, I was beside myself. Giddy doesn’t even come close to the feeling, especially when I discovered there were 17 poets for the judges to choose from, and here I am, in the final six.

My first nomination for a Hennessy Award was in 2015 when my first ever published short story was shortlisted in the ‘First Fiction’ category.  The story, ‘Flying Lessons’, was published in the Irish Independent, and you can still read it on-line here.

That validation started me off on an exciting creative writing journey which I feel is still only just beginning. In my head, I’m serving an apprenticeship, and the more writing I do, the more I learn, and the better I become, which makes it more likely other people will appreciate my work. So, I keep entering competitions to prove to myself, as well as to others, that I can write something people want to read.

If you missed them, my October 2017 poems in the Irish Times, ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’ and ‘Dirty Little Dresses’ are here,  plus there’s an extra poem,’Ways with Rotten Cabbage’. I hope you enjoy them 🙂

more scrabble
Who needs real Scrabble when you’ve got fridge magnets (and witty house guests)?

Now. Anyone fancy a game of Scrabble?

Angelic Ever Afters

The Corti family, when were were still three. I’m the short one.

I find it difficult to write about my childhood.  Not because of disturbing memories of an unhappy past, but rather because it passed me by in something of a blur, and was relatively uneventful.

I realize that to call myself a writer, I should have some agonizing incidents from my formative years to draw on, but the sad truth is, I had a vague, happy childhood.

The sun always shone, I played hopscotch with my pals, and on Sundays we ate Angel Delight for afters.

Well, maybe it did, maybe I did, maybe we did, the truth is, I really can’t remember.

I can recall very few scenes from my girlhood with any clarity.  We were just an ordinary family.  I wasn’t abused by my parents.  No wicked uncles or dodgy neighbours interfered with me.  The priest and the nuns kept their hands to themselves.

Pretty dull, huh?

My mother didn’t get her belly-button pierced or have a fling with the milkman.  My father wasn’t a raving alcoholic and didn’t rob banks; it was all rather tame and suburban, somewhat anodyne for a writer’s muse. The most disturbing thing to happen was losing my status as an only child when I was six-and-three-quarters; I never quite forgave my parents for the ‘gift’ that was my sister!

My mother, a voracious reader and subject of many a sad poem these days, mostly stayed home to look after the family.  She baked her own cakes and biscuits and frowned upon anything out of a packet that was described as ‘convenience food’, except for sweet desserts like Angel Delight and Instant Whip.

She taught me how to rustle up a batch of scones and fairy cakes on a Sunday afternoon, how to knit and sew – and how reading a good book beats domestic chores hands down.

And although there was no unimaginable childhood misery to act as inspiration,  if pressed, I could probably write a few sweet words about instant desserts like Angel Delight or Instant Whip…

In Pursuit of Happiness

What makes me happy? Could it be the same thing that brings a smile to your face?  It’s a trick question really because I have discovered there’s no simple answer. And the older I get, the more confused I become about the nature of happiness and its pursuit.

But I do know that this writing lark is something that brings light to my life. And third-party validation is what makes it all worthwhile. The kick from writing something that someone else gets, that moves them, or elicits their approval – well, that’s magic.

I have kept a journal for years –  I’m often to be heard banging on about how good it is for your mental health to keep a written account of your life. I keep different styles of journal at different times; the latest, a kind of bullet journal, is tracking my attempts to get fit, how many kilometres I walk every day, how many portions of fruit and veg, how many cups of green tea I’ve managed to finish (why is something so good for you so revolting?). I’m even tracking the weather, which is always interesting to look back on, books I’ve read, writing projects I’ve worked on, people I’ve seen.

But the bottom line is that my journal, and what’s in it, will always remain PRIVATE. It’s for my eyes only. I write down stuff to get it out of my head, and I have no intention of sharing it with anyone.

But all the other writing I do – articles, blogs, poems, short stories, flash fiction and now another (so far, half-finished) novel – I’m keen for people to read. I want to make a connection with other human beings, and in so doing, make myself (and hopefully others) happy.  Of course, writing is only one of the things that makes me happy – petting my cats, eating Marmite on toast, walking the dog, cooking vegetarian meals for my family, weekends away, driving too fast, music, reading, winning at Scrabble, all these things also bring me joy.

Just lately I’ve had a hell of a run of happiness, with one thing after another in my writing life resulting in ear to ear grinning and a life-affirming glow of satisfaction; I’d like to think it’s sustainable, but while I’m generally a glass half-full person, I can see that this level of good news is unlikely to continue ad nauseum. But I’m loving it while it’s here!

Here’s a glimpse of some of my happiness triggers recently. Interestingly, a lot of them are poetry-based, although as a writer, poetry isn’t all that I do: I have just spent a creative week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan; I have a book (a collection of poetry) at the proof stages, which will be launched at Strokestown Festival in May; Poet Eavan Boland has chosen one of my poems for publication in the next Poetry Ireland Review; one of my poems has been chosen for inclusion in the 2018 Strokestown Poetry Anthology; I have the opportunity to launch my collection at Boyle Arts Festival at the end of  July, with the lovely Jane Clarke doing the honours; I’ve won a contract to deliver 20 hours  of creative writing classes; and the icing on the cake, I have been nominated (for the second time) for a Hennessy Literary Award.

This is my happy face!

Yes, definitely happy, happy, happy –  that’s me!

Getting to Grips with Scrivener

My Christmas Cactus didn’t get the memo, either. It’s flowering in February…

I’m not that keen on New Year’s Resolutions – I know it’s nearly the end of February, but please don’t judge me  – they are usually a good idea, but untenable. So, I rarely put much effort into making them – or keeping them.

But when 2018 arrived, I had the nagging feeling that I should be getting to grips with certain aspects of my writing career, so I resolved to fix a few things. I tried not to call them resolutions…

Top of the list was my need to master Scrivener. But it is SO difficult! I’ve talked to people who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (or whatever the writing equivalent of that is), and I’ve talked to people who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole (whatever one of those is). And there are even more people who have probably never even heard of it. Scrivener? What?

It’s one of those all singing, all dancing word processing software thingies that will (almost) write your novel for you. Or not.

One of the reasons I gave Scrivener a try a couple of years back is because an author I respect raved about it – and it came with a free trial. And canny are the Scrivener software people because they give you a 30-day free trial – not consecutive days, but cumulative ones. In my case, it took me almost a year to get through half of my free days, then I went mad and actually paid for it (thankfully, it’s not expensive).

The software then sat on my computer for several months before I thought about using it again. I’m tuned into Microsoft Word, which is usually sufficient for most of my writerly needs.

But it’s been niggling me that I haven’t got to grips with Scrivener. Spoiler alert – I still haven’t, but I’m working on it.

There are plenty of on-line tutorials, of course. (Need to know how to boil an egg/do open heart surgery/make playdough/unblock a sink/write a best-seller? Try YouTube.)

But nothing beats getting stuck in and trying to use the software yourself. It has great templates to help you set out a novel, or a script, or short stories. And there are corkboards for notes and research where you can pin videos, pictures or other virtual bits and pieces. You can keep all your research, timelines and character sketches together, and switch effortlessly between scenes and chapters, so what is there not to like about that? You can even get it to monitor your daily output and set word-count goals.

I just can’t quite get it to write the damn book for me. Where am I going wrong?

Just kidding – I’m at about 40,000 words of a new novel (written entirely on Scrivener),  which I have high hopes of a) completing and b) getting published. Oh, and it’s going to win me at least a Booker nomination. And a Costa one. Richard and Judy will love it, so will Oprah, I’ll even get on the Late, Late with it.

Ha, ha! Ever heard of ‘famous last words’?

And you can check out Scrivener for yourself here.

My Week as a Real Writer

I am coming to the end of my writer’s retreat at Annaghmakerrig – just one more day to soak up the creative atmosphere before I have to return to the real world.

When people told me what a fantastic place this was, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Monaghan, I imagined most of what they said was hyperbole. Nowhere could be that wonderful, surely? Well, yes it can, with knobs on!

I am staying in one of the self-catering cottages, which is stylish, warm and comfortable, with every creature comfort taken care of. And I have taken at least one walk a day around the fabulous grounds, trying hard not to be distracted from the purpose of my being here – that is, to write. And I have written, boy, have I written – 26,545 words at the last count.

Having the opportunity to do nothing more than be a writer has been a wonderful experience for me, although I probably couldn’t keep up this pace for much longer. Writing about 7,000 words a day is frying my brains.

But at the moment, I’m thinking I’m writing something that’s going to get at least a Costa nomination. Of course, next week, I’ll look back through it all and cringe, thinking it’s rubbish. But at the moment, I’m flying!

Even the weather has been kind to me – sunshine and showers, snow and ice, but I’ve still managed to walk for miles hereabouts. And it is still winter, after all – I can only imagine what this place must be like in the spring with bluebells and rhododendrons.

I haven’t had the full Annaghmakerrig experience because the main house is still full of builders doing renovations. And I’ve barely seen another soul all week, so the networking opportunities I’d anticipated haven’t materialised.

But no matter. I arrived here as a writer – and I’m going to be leaving having written. What more could I ask?

Do not disturb!

Remember when you were small and you were lying awake waiting for Santa to deliver that bike, or the doll’s house, or the boxed set of Enid Blytons? You just knew the next day was going to be absolutely fabulous.

Well, that’s how I’m feeling right now ahead of my trip to (deep breath) Annaghmakerrig next week.

As someone who is always bemoaning the fact that I’ve no room of my own, no regular writing time, 101 (valid) excuses why I can’t finish my work, well I’ve been called out with the chance of a whole week’s writing retreat. Seven days and nights to do nothing but…write.

So many people have told me how wonderful the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Monaghan is, and how conducive to serious, head-down-and-get-on-with-it writing. My place was hard won, too – I had to jump through lots of hoops to get there, and I’m self-funded.

But long story short, my time is coming and I can’t wait. Will it be worth it? Who knows?

No interruptions. Check. Beautiful surroundings. Check. Exclusive writing time. Check.

No-one asking where are the car keys? Would I like a cup of tea? Come and see this funny You Tube video. What’s for dinner? Isn’t it your turn to clean up the cat sick?

A whole week of me minding myself (I’m self-catering) and no-one else.  I can please myself what I eat and when I eat it, when I go to bed and when I get up again, what music to listen to, how to fill my time. Bliss (although the prospect of such aloneness long term doesn’t appeal).

I’m allowing myself to take just three books – I’m supposed to be writing, not reading, after all. Tom Hanks’s book of short stories was a Christmas present that I still haven’t opened; Orwell’s 1984 is a Book Club choice which I’ve recently re-visited, and need to finish. And Mary Norton’s Borrowers books are my go-to if I need cheering up, or if I’m lonely – an escape back to childhood.

I’ve chosen two of my own projects to focus on, both long standing half-finished books that I hope are going to be worth me putting some effort into. One is a children’s story that I first started 20 years ago, which I keep picking up and putting down again.  I’ve decided to give it one last try because I really like the premise and think it will work, given a concentrated push.

Then there’s another novel that I really should get back into. I’m 67,000 words in, and I need to decide if it is worth finishing. And of course, I might even wax lyrical with a poem or two.  I might even get the hang of Scrivener while I’m at it.

The danger, of course, is having too many things on the go at once and becoming distracted. The gardens and countryside around Annaghmakerrig are gorgeous by all accounts, so I’m taking my camera. And my walking boots.

But I’m going to be sure to take my writing head. Wish me luck!

Reading, writing and other stuff from Louise G Cole, winner of Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry 2018