Making A Show of Myself

 

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On stage with the Hermits…

It’s kind of weird, but the older I get, the more ‘look at me’ I’m game for. Where on earth did that come from? Aren’t I the shy, retiring type? Well apparently, no I’m not!

When one of my poems was shortlisted for the Boyle Arts Festival Poetry Competition back in July 2013, I was too cowardly to read it to an audience and the judge, poet Geraldine Mills, did the deed.  It was an ambitious pantoum, ‘Blackout’, which needed careful delivery. Geraldine did a wonderful job, but I was left kicking myself for not getting up there to read it myself; poets have a hard enough time finding an audience, and right there had been a large one on a plate.

Fast forward to the New Roscommon Writing Awards in November 2014 when poet Jane Clarke (bless her!) chose two of my poems for the shortlist, and I was expected to read them out loud. I remember thinking that I just had to keep reading to the end and then sit down, which is exactly what I did. No-one died and no-one jeered, and I rather liked the rousing applause which followed.

My late father was a college lecturer, well used to an audience, and in his later life he used to give talks about beekeeping, Austin 7s and other wondrous things.  He advised me to speak up and then shut up, which was sound advice for when I used to give talks myself. (Healing crystals and their uses was one of my specialities, just in case you’re wondering.)

But talking about something you know about is a million miles away from sharing something you’ve written, something personal and intimate like a poem.

So I set about curing myself of the nerves involved in reciting self-penned poetry.

I turned up to the Word Corner Café  in the Dock Arts Centre in Carrick-on-Shannon and mumbled my way through a poem about my mother, and again, no-one died or jeered.  So I did it again, and then again. Eighteen months later, I’m now one of the stalwarts, attending every second Tuesday of the month to regale whoever turns up with some of my words, and often those of other writers, too.

We get through an eclectic mix of opinion, poetry, stories and songs and I’ve found it to be wonderfully liberating.  Sometimes the gathering is quite small, but no matter. We’re there again on December 13th 2016, from 6pm until 7.30pm, when anyone interested in words can come along and listen or take part. I intend airing another poem about my mother and paying tribute to Leonard Cohen.

hermits-dec-16The Hermit Collective, a band of writers, artists and musicians who put on pop-up shows in the west of Ireland, gave me a break too. They’re well used to my poems about my mother (‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’, which is now in the latest Crannóg Magazine, got its first public airing with the Hermits).

We’re out again next week, on Thursday, December 8th at 7pm in Tricky McGarrigles, O’Connel Street, Sligo. Its free – and a great evening’s entertainment is more than likely, both for the performers and the audience.

And I might even read a poem that’s not about my mother.

 

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Of Mice and Then…

 

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And what article about mice shouldn’t have a picture of a cat…?  This is Ashley.

 

I wrote this article a good ten years ago. And now, after catching another NINE mice in our garage (not all at once I have to say), I thought it might be a good time to publish it…

If you happen to be driving through the quiet lanes of north Roscommon and you spot a mouse trying to hitch a lift, please ignore him.  Even if he’s in smart shorts and t-shirt and looks like Stuart Little, harden your heart and look the other way.  It’ll be one of ours trying to get back home after I’ve evicted him for unreasonable behaviour at four in the morning and I really don’t want him back.

When we first moved into our house, we discovered that mice had eaten their way into a sofa stored for a few months in the garage. We’re of the ‘live and let live’ persuasion (although I draw the line at fleas, nits and tapeworms), so we weren’t worried about the tell-tale evidence of rodent incontinence.

We were philosophical.  Sure, it was only a field mouse come in from the cold, who could blame him?  It was an old sofa anyway.  And what mouse couldn’t resist my son’s collection of crisp packets and sweet wrappers stuffed down the sides of the cushions? The poor little mouse would surely be gone by the time we moved into the house. Ha!

Attempts to buy a humane mouse trap (bet you didn’t know there was such a thing) were met with snorts of derision from local shopkeepers.  So we devised home-made contraptions that anyone of a certain age and Blue Peter inclination would have been proud of. They captured the creature, but they weren’t escape-proof.  Mr. Mouse would eat his bait of raisins and biscuits, sit and wash his whiskers appreciatively, then proceed to wriggle free.

I know what you’re thinking: get a cat. Actually we have three cats, but each of them was a tad too full of Felix meaty chunks to be useful here.  Worse, they saw an invitation to go house mousing as an opportunity to sleep on a comfortable bed for the night, stretched out in the lap of luxury, oblivious to nocturnal rustlings in the cupboards.

Then, just as I was considering grisly deeds involving spikes or poison, we discovered probably the only humane mouse trap in the county, and we snapped it up (to coin a phrase). A lure of peanut butter proved successful and the trap snapped shut with Mr Mouse inside, whole and un-spiked, if a little loose-bowelled. But what to do with him?  I couldn’t bring myself to throw him to the cats, what with him being such a soft target and covered in peanut butter.

So we chose to relocate him in a distant derelict cottage, at least a week’s hike away.  If the stoat or the owl had him for breakfast, well that’s part of the great scheme of things – the circle of life (yes, I’ve seen that film.  No mice in it).  But at least he’d have a sporting chance.

I’m happy to report that it took only four nocturnal car trips down the road to rid our house of mice, but mouseless we now are.  And I’d like to keep it that way, so as I said, please don’t go listening to any sob story from Mr Mouse and whatever you do, don’t offer him a lift home!

 

Poking the Bad Tooth Side of Writing – Trying to Make Money

words-irelandWhat do you call a group of writers squashed into a hot room in County Leitrim’s Ballinamore Library on a Saturday afternoon?

It’s a trick question. Everyone knows there’s no collective noun to describe a gathering of writers tripping over each others’ egos as they describe their life and times as scribes.

But a few words sprang to mind as I drove home through the beautiful Leitrim countryside (Google Maps was right – Ballinamore is exactly one hour away).

Just in case you’re wondering where this is going, let me say from the start that all the words I thought of are positive: inspiring, entertaining, interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking.

I was not sure what to expect when I signed up for the first Words Ireland Writers’ Series. If I’d have known it was going to be so interesting – and relevant – I would have rounded up a few more of my local writer friends, but as it was I flew solo, not really expecting anything of worth to happen so far away from Dublin. Wrong!

Words Ireland turns out to be ‘a group of seven national literature resource organisations who work collaboratively to provide co-ordinated professional development and services to the literature sector’ (phew!). The Irish Writer’s Centre and the Stinging Fly are in there, of course.

On Saturday October 22nd 2016, local writers Michael Harding, Brian Leyden, Gerry Boland and Monica Corish were lined up for the first of a series of question and answer sessions, this one in Leitrim. I’m familiar with their work so I was keen to hear their views on what drives them to write, how they became writers and how they find (and keep) an audience. They didn’t disappoint.

Most writers are keen to hear how others do it – and make money from their work. But the panel were at pains to point out that hardly anyone can make a living from just the writing part of writing these days. It seems you have to agree to writing commercial children’s books when you’d rather be writing poetry, or have a partner with a ‘proper’ job bringing in a regular income, or rely on sometimes meagre bursaries and grants, or run creative writing classes…

The thorny issue of self-publishing was raised, and as expected created the start of a debate for and against (I’m still on the fence on that one. For me, third party validation in the form of a mainstream publisher is my goal. That is, until such time I admit defeat and head for Lulu.)

We heard about the MA route to publication (which I’ve considered myself recently). And we scratched the surface of the need for writers’ work to be better valued (what other profession gives away so much of its hard work for free? Which is what I’m doing right now, in a way.)

Then there was mention of the intriguing Creative Frame professional development network in County Leitrim which was lauded for its encouragement of the arts not just in Leitrim, but in its neighbouring counties as well (music to my Roscommon ears).

There was an impressive number of writers in the room who clearly take themselves seriously – highlighting the need for more regional networking opportunities like this (move over Dublin!).

As a result, I’ve now booked my ticket to the Allingham Festival in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, on November 5th. I’m looking forward to an Afric McGlinchey Poetry Workshop, and Irish Fiction Laurate Anne Enright in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson.

But I’m especially looking forward to another session with Bernadette Greenan of the Irish Writer’s Centre as she brings together more writers and poets from across the north west for a talk on professional development (she was the one who held the Saturday session in Ballinamore together so admirably). Wild Atlantic Writers is a free event on November 5th as part of the Allingham Festival

Meanwhile, you can read an interesting article about Words Ireland and writing for money, published in Friday’s Irish Times  here.

Spitting Nails and other Pointless Activities

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Scary Betty.

I’ve been helping to get a new Creative Writing Group up and running in Charlestown Arts Centre, here in County Mayo. It is proving to be an interesting exercise in perseverance and determination – and of course, creativity.

We’ve a core group of hardened scribes with significant publication credits to their names, alongside biro-wielding retired ladies looking for something interesting to pass the time on a Monday morning. Plus a few others who drop in and out, who aren’t quite sure if creative writing is their thing.

Over the years, I’ve belonged to a number of different writing groups, some more enjoyable than others, but all ultimately helping to invoke the creative muse.

My favourite kind of group meeting involves some writing time with inspirational prompts, as well as chit chat and the exchange of writing news and information. An opportunity for constructive criticism  can be included, too. And to be absolutely top dollar, there has to be a cup of Earl Grey and a ginger biscuit or two to hand. Which is where we are with the Charlestown Creative Writing Group, every other Monday from 10.30 am until 12.30 pm (next meeting October 24th 2016, new members welcome!).

But it is proving to be an opportunity for me to shoot myself in the foot as I share information about competitions and submission deadlines with my fellow writers. I’ll be entering too, which means we will be competing against each other.

By now, I’ve had enough successes (and failures) to know that the whole process is so subjective that it often isn’t just about writing skill. Which means anything can happen, and often does.  Like when I’ve encouraged fellow group members to enter a competition and they’ve ended up being shortlisted and I’ve not. Which is where the nail-spitting comes in – although like most negative emotions, anger is usually a waste of energy.  And I speak as a hot-headed ginger child who grew into a (mostly) placid, (mostly) blonde adult…

One of the fun warm-up exercises we did recently was to write a verse for one of the following greetings cards:

  1. a) Sorry You’re Leaving;  b) On Your Retirement;  c) It’s A Boy!  d) Bon Voyage;  e) Congratulations!

Sounds easy, right?

Wrong!

I found it really tricky, even using a rhyming dictionary (no, it’s not cheating!). And the point of this story is that I had to take my hat off to some of the writers around the table who created tiny masterpieces in just 10 minutes. I shouldn’t be surprised (or upset) if any one of them beat me to a writing prize (or a job with Hallmark).

And now I’m thinking I should have a go at throwing my hat into the ring and write about clichés.

Or cats with big teeth.

Working Titles and The Sound of Time Passing

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Just because…

Why has no-one ever before told me about the joys of audio books?

Faced with the prospect of a boring, solo four-and-a-half-hour car journey last week, I asked around about the best way to pass the time.  Obscure local radio stations and over-used MP3 playlists notwithstanding, the consensus seemed to suggest listening to stories.

So I ventured into a dusty corner of my local library and discovered a small but significant collection of audio books.

I chose ‘The Hills of Kilimanjaro’, a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories. (Him again. I’m re-living my teenage years somehow).  Good enough, as they say around here.

But I also picked up a box of ten CDs (which represented nearly 12 hours of listening) ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ by Kate Atkinson, read by Steven Crossley (who was really good with all the accents and the male and female voices). The time then passed easily enough as I drove from one side of Ireland to the other, and then down some (Rosslare Port is a long way from where I live).

But I hadn’t expected to be at the end of my journey and so gripped by the story that I would have to transfer the CDs to my laptop and sit listening well into the small hours because I wanted to know what happened. And a laptop and earphones are way more awkward to fall asleep with than a good old paperback.

I like Kate Atkinson’s style – literary crime fiction stuffed with strong characters given to sarcastic exchanges, albeit in absurdly twisting stories of unlikely coincidences and happenstance. I’d not read this one before, not least because of the title.  It sounds like some religious self-help tome – or perhaps some frothy rom-com. Not that there’s anything wrong with either things, they were just not what I wanted to read at the time.

Which goes to show that titles can be incredibly important. To me anyway.

Before I even read the blurb on the back cover, the title has to appeal.  But then, that’s only if I’m trawling the bookshop looking for something interesting, without any particular guidance. Although I often end up reading recommended novels  that wouldn’t have otherwise caught my attention. Like ‘Burial Rights’ by Hannah Kent (I loved it), ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara (I hated it), and ‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss (I’m still reading it).  All were Book Club suggestions that wouldn’t have otherwise caught my attention because of iffy titles.

I did go through a phase of trying to avoid any books with ‘girl’ on the cover (which was quite difficult at one time recently), although I stumbled across ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ by Kate Hamer and enjoyed it. Gillian Flynn’s excellent ‘Gone Girl’ has a lot to answer for (and that was one clever title in my humble opinion).

Then there have been Rachel Joyce’s books ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ and ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,’ which weren’t in the usual style of titles (I loved them both, too).

And I read (and mostly enjoyed) ‘The World Hums in B Flat,’ by Mari Strachan which I picked up just because of the intriguing title.

Kate Atkinson’s other works all have clever titles, among them: ’A God in Ruins’, ‘Life after Life’, and ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ (what’s there not to like about using Emily Dickinson in a book title?).  So I’m probably missing something from why she chose the title: ‘When Will There Be Good News?’

No matter – I enjoyed the audio version very much.

Trouble is, I have my long journey in reverse tomorrow and only Hemingway’s stories for company. And as everyone knows, there’s rarely any Good News in those tales.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

dexter-catI quite like my own company.

No-one to comment about what I’m doing/should be doing/have done.

No-one to mind the music I’m playing or if the window is open or closed.

No-one to share the (accidentally vegan) ginger biscuits.

And no-one to interrupt when the creative juices are flowing.

But everyone know that you can have too much of a good thing. I mean, look at Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’.  He started talking to a basketball when he’d had enough of solitary confinement.

And I kind of know what that was all about. Because after a while of pleasing myself with no-one around to comment, I’ll set off looking for company.  And not just someone to talk to – someone to share my writing with. Which is why I take myself off to public poetry readings at the Dock in Carrick on Shannon, and performances with the Hermit Collective.

Third party validation was one of the topics we covered in the recent Journal Keeping course I ran in Charlestown.  It ran on from the unanswerable ‘Why Do I Write?’ question.

We’d already established that keeping a journal is a Very Good Thing for maintaining your sanity. But essentially, in order for it to work properly, it should be private and for your eyes only. Meaning you should be able to write exactly what you want about whatever (and whoever) you want, without censure.

But then we got around to discussing third party validation. Surely writers put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with the intention of other people reading their words? We seldom write just for ourselves – we want someone else to read what we’ve written.

One of the Journal Keeping participants was adamant that as a creative person she could only engage in writing that was broadcast (in the widest sense of the word) for other people to appreciate. The same with art, music, needlework, craft activities. So it turned out journaling was not for her.

But for the rest of us, we agreed that writing for ourselves and no-one else was a useful part of the creative process.

Empty your head onto paper in your journal – and then pick out the bits you want to go public with, develop them, and accept that some people may like them and some won’t.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right here, right now  🙂

And for your enjoyment, a cute cat picture.  This is Dexter who lives a charmed life with a number of aunties in Dylan Thomas’s old stomping ground in Swansea.

Exactly The Right Number Of Words

ernest hemingway (2)I had a good deal on petrol this week. My car runs on unleaded and I was given a voucher offering me 5c off every litre. So I filled up with 46 litres and totally confused the girl at the till.

For some reason her cash register wasn’t set up to deduct 5c a litre automatically, so she had to figure it out manually.

‘That’s €2.30 off the total,” says I, trying to be helpful. She consulted her well-thumbed ready-reckoner (remember them?). But clearly, she didn’t believe it (or me). Two colleagues and a calculator were consulted before she conceded, by which time a bit of a queue had built up behind me.

Back in the day, before phones had calculators and bleeping tills had everything automated, sales assistants had to use their brains to work out percentages or change.

Now I wouldn’t be the sharpest knife in the maths drawer (I was totally baffled by calculus and trigonometry), but I find some elements of mathematics very useful. I’ll even work out percentages and totals in my head, just so I have a rough idea of what to expect when I get to the checkout (that way I know if I’m being ripped off or not), and I know how to count back change accurately. (I’m sometimes wrong, but that’s not the point here).

At the petrol station, I’d worked out a 10c reduction would be €4.60 and then halved it. Simples!

But don’t get me started on the rounding up and down thing we have going on here in Ireland as we head for the abolishment of one cent coins.

Which brings me on to word counts.

There’s a little icon on the corner of my computer screen which tells me how many words I’ve written. Handy, although it takes the fun out of guessing. It should make the task of writing to a word limit easier. But I’m not sure it does.

Flash fiction competitions seem to be a moveable feast. Some of them want 250 words, others 300 or 350. Then there’s the 400 or 500 word stories. And I’ve even seen 1,000 words described as ‘flash’.

Ernest Hemingway (the man with the typewriter pictured above) famously cornered the six-word story market with: ‘For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.’  He’s a writer I’ve admired for years, although I wouldn’t have liked the man himself (all that huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’). But what a writer!

I’ve had a good few goes at the six-word story challenge myself, but my efforts tend to sound like gutter press news headlines: ‘Reduced petrol price flummoxes dumb blonde’. Yes? Nah!

Anyway, I’ve the premise for a brand new short story (nothing to do with the price of petrol) and I think I can tell it in exactly the right number of words. I’m just having trouble figuring out exactly how many that is…

 

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