Howya and other Gems

lgc with Dermot BolgerListening to author Dermot Bolger talking-the-talk at a hundred miles an hour and in Dublin-speak – what’s there not to like about that for an otherwise dull and rainy Saturday?

I attended Dermot Bolger’s ‘Finding a Voice’ writing workshop at the Museum of Country Life in Castlebar yesterday (July 23rd 2016).  Eleven of us (all female) spent the morning listening to tips and anecdotes from an entertaining man who certainly knows his stuff.

He started with stories of his first mentor Sheila Fitzgerald from back in the 1970s,  and continued with plenty of snippets about stars of the current Irish literary world. Dermot Bolger rubs shoulders with the literati (heck, he IS the literati!) and he has tales to tell about them all.

He revealed his own preference for writing that has texture and quality, and he highlighted the necessity for dramatic opening paragraphs that make you want to read on.  He also reminded us that you need to make time to write – and be as adamant about keeping to that special time as his late wife was about keeping silence in the house while she watched Coronation Street!

His general advice to would-be novelists was to get the first draft down with ‘passion in your heart’ and then start editing the second draft with ‘ice in your veins’. He also insisted that while it’s great to be able to disappear (as he has done) to a lighthouse to do your writing, it’s not absolutely necessary. Wherever and whenever seems to be the key – in other words: just get on with it!

We did some writing prompted by photographs he brought along – and then he went around the table critiquing us, along with the original piece of writing we’d submitted in order to get a place on the workshop.

He gave everyone positive and encouraging feedback, which was nice.  Interestingly, he thought my story could have been  more specific location-wise (I’d been deliberately vague about naming a battlefield site) but I didn’t own up that (thankfully) a few other editors haven’t taken the same view. That particular 600-word story has so far won me the Hanna Greally Award and €200, it’s been published in two anthologies, and it is about to go into a third. Which just goes to show how subjective views on writing can be.

The afternoon session was to a bigger audience when Dermot talked and answered questions about his long and successful career writing poems, plays, novels, short stories and journalism. His inspiration takes different forms – he can knockout a story whenever he gets a call say, from the BBC!

I took away a few gems from both the morning and afternoon sessions – it is lovely that a writer of Dermot Bolger’s calibre can be so enthusiastic and encouraging towards new writers and that he is so willing to give advice and insider tips and information.

And his rapid-fire, heavily accented delivery made for a hugely entertaining day.

But in all the excitement I forgot to thank him for choosing my piece as one of the winners in the I am Dublin Competition earlier this year. Mind you, he might have been peeved to hear that he awarded a blow-in the prize, and one who can’t do the Dub accent unless she’s a (Christmas) drink taken. Which may be a story for another day.

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Hello Tully!

DSCF1289If you’ve ever wondered what a cat-lover’s dog looks like, here she is. Meet Tully, my lovely dog (now who would have thought I’d put those five words together in a sentence?).

She’s a bit of a mixed breed – I think her mum got around a bit. Several vets have asked if she has some Corgi in her. Well. Royal connections? Hmm…

Tully has taught me that not all dogs bite (I once nearly lost a leg to an Alsatian with big teeth), and that some dogs can be cute. Plus, they’re awful handy to have in the kitchen when you’re cooking dinner. There’s no sweeping up of crumbs or binning leftovers when there’s a dog around (you won’t catch a cat eating scraps off the floor in a vegetarian kitchen). In this picture Tully is getting stuck into a corn-on-the-cob.

The best bit is that Tully takes me for a walk even when I’m not really in the mood. Me: It looks like rain. Tully: You have a waterproof jacket, let’s go! And I invariably feel better after a walk, even on rainy days.

The second best bit of being a dog owner appeals to the mad cat woman in me – in our house, Top Dog is feline. Three moggies lord it over one medium sized dog, who could easily eat them for breakfast (lunch and dinner too, there are three of them). And she never seems to mind.

Rescued dog Tully has inspired a good few poems over the years, and she’s very patient when I have to stop mid-amble to jot down a flash of inspiration.  The only time her patience expires seems to be when I pick up a camera. There are dozens of photos of her just disappearing out of shot.

And just for the record, I still have the leg that the Alsatian got at. He seized my calf as I ran away after finding him still on guard duty in the pub I worked in as a student. The landlord had forgotten to lock him up at the start of my shift and only remembered when he heard my shrieks.

Rather oddly perhaps, I still quite like Alsatians. I admire their loyalty, intelligence and physique.

And all those big teeth.

Strawberry Yields Forever

wild strawberriesWhenever I forget to take a pen and paper for a walk (not the dog, I usually remember her…), that’s when I can be sure the cleverest, most ingenious, potentially life-changing revelations will come to me.

But it’s a bit like waking up in the night with a flash of inspiration, if I don’t write it down it has gone, drifting off into the ether for someone else to find. And for some reason, recording on the phone won’t do – I find that just sucks every scrap of creativity from an idea, so I don’t bother.

It happened today, all because I was a bit distracted by wild strawberries and bilberries. My head was full of the most intriguing, brilliantly compiled words which would become fabulous poems the minute I got home to write them down. But the words were gone in an instant when I spotted the little strawberries.

We grow cultivated strawberries in our polytunnels, but no matter how delicious they are (and they can be sometimes), they can’t beat wild ones. The rough little red berries half hidden on the grassy banks below the blackthorn and ash are tiny, sparse and sharp – but delicious. And they always call to mind childhood foraging trips to collect edibles from the hedgerow.

Where I used to live in England we were able to collect lots of food for free, including wild mushrooms, hazelnuts and damsons, and I certainly miss them. But now I live in rural Ireland where the pickings are thinner and brambles reign supreme. We’re usually up for a good harvest of blackberries though.

One of my first trips to this part of the world was in early autumn in 1995 and I couldn’t understand why the locals left the blackberries to rot.  It was explained to me that only poor people had to forage for food and it was a sign of affluence to buy your jam from the supermarket!

Needless to say, I ended up making blackberry jam while I was on holiday (we were self-catering) because I couldn’t bear to see all that luscious fruit going to waste. I still don’t get much competition from other pickers at blackberry harvest time, and I still make my own preserves.

And for whatever reason, this looks like being a good year for elderflowerselderberries. I make a winter cure-all from elderberries, a purple concoction which staves off coughs and colds. We’ve already had a good harvest of elderflowers (for cordial – delicious!) but we’ve been careful to make sure there’s plenty left to grow into berries.

Meanwhile, you might have noticed mention of bilberries? They’re probably called something else around here, I’m not sure what. They’re like tiny wild blueberries, only not quite as nice. I’ve been walking past the same bush all week waiting for the wildlife to eat the berries (same goes for the strawberries, I only take a few). But it seems there’s nothing after them and they look like they might get left to rot. So I picked a handful and ate them fresh as I walked, marvelling at how the plant has survived after that particular hedgerow was raped and pillaged by a mechanical digger and men with chain saws and barbed wire.

I’m sure there’s a poem in there, regardless of whether I’m walking past, pen and paperless.

Ugly Lovely Inspiration

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Over the last few days, I have been soaking up the writerly atmosphere of Swansea, that ‘ugly lovely town’ (which became a city in 1969).

I’m a regular now that my daughter lives here – she’s just getting to the end of her Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Swansea University – and I love it.

A country girl like me enjoying city life?  Well, yes, but only in short bursts. I wouldn’t want to live here myself (or any other built-up area come to that), but for the moment, the rush andSelfie in Swansea Bay -literally tear, the traffic, the crowds, the endless opportunities for retail therapy?  Bring it on!

There’s plenty of inspiration here – it is the seaside, after all. And there are loads of wonderful parks (dog mess underfoot notwithstanding). My favourite has to be Singleton Park – acres of grass, woodlands, a stream, ornamental and botanical gardens, squirrels and jays – even a handkerchief tree in full bloom. Plenty of quiet places to sit in the sunshineHandkerchief tree with a notebook and pen, too.

I’ve also discovered one of Dylan Thomas’s old haunts, Cwmdonkin Park, which is on the side of a hill overlooking the city with spectacular views of Swansea Bay. And it’s just around the corner from Dylan Thomas’s birthplace (also on a hill!), which in turn, is just around the corner from where my daughter lives in Uplands.

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It is difficult to go anywhere in Swansea and not be reminded that the great writer passed through here once, although he lived many other places once he was famous, and he died while on tour in America back in 1953.  It was the 100th anniversary of his birth last year; I’m not sure he’d recognise modern Swansea as the same place he played as a child; the trees would be smaller, the houses and shops different (and fewer of them), although the roads would be mostly in the same place…

I wonder what he’d make of modern-day Swansea – and if he’d find it as inspiring as he did back then? It’s certainly got my creative juices flowing 🙂

Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?

squirrelI have been spending a lot of time recently wondering why on earth I write. Of course, it’s rejections that bring on that ‘what’s it all for?’ mood.

I seem to have had a good few negatives explode in my in-box recently, like badly placed mines ready to tear off my writing limbs. They are somehow counterbalanced by an unequal number of positives of course, which is what keeps me going.

I carry on because, as I’ve said before, ‘Sex is good but have you ever been shortlisted in a writing competition?’ (I need to get a fridge magnet made). That thrill of knowing my story or poem stood out as proficient and entertaining, that someone besides family and friends thought my work was good – well that’s what it’s all about.

Ultimately of course I write for myself, for my own amusement and to escape into a world where I have total control, where I can be anyone, anything I want to be. It’s almost a compulsion, my need to write (I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to hold a pen). But it still matters to me that other people enjoy my writing too.

Yet writing is like many aspects of the human experience – one size does NOT fit all. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, garden design, fashion, politics, food, drink – life would be very dull if we all liked the same things.

True, some things are generally well liked and popular – think Elvis and the Beatles, think JK Rowling and Stephen King, think Monet and Picasso, think Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith, think Coco Chanel and Stella McCartney, think chocolate and colcanon.

OK, such a list could go on for ever, but you get the idea? And culture in all its guises is subjective, so I shouldn’t get hung up about someone not liking my writing. My work should appeal to someone, but not necessarily everyone. Should I mind? Probably not, but I do…

So in order to prove to myself and other people that I CAN write, I put myself through the competition mangle time and time again. Last year I’d planned to get to one hundred submissions (which included competition entries, bursary applications, magazine contributions et al). I ran out of steam after no 74, although by then I’d garnered a few wins, with some published stories to add to my portfolio. Plus, the coffers were not unduly strained (I more than broke even, although I’m not booking the round-the-world cruise just yet).

I hit the ground running in January 2016 and promised myself again to try for a century. We’re not quite half way through the year and I’ve just fired my 51st submission off, ever hopeful of a ‘congratulations’ reply.

Meanwhile, one thing that has perked me up no end was looking through my records and discovering that some of my successes had been failures in a previous incarnation. Each one got dusted off and rewritten, then sent out again, including one story that was rejected by a very good writer (the lovely one I met in a bookshop in Cork last week!), which went on to get published in an anthology with a highly commended tag.  Which just goes to show…

And the picture? Er, squirrels?  Yes, well first off, I really miss them here in Ireland. They don’t live anywhere near me (nor do hedgehogs or rabbits, although we do have foxes, hares, badgers and polecats). This one lives in Swansea (Dylan Thomas country – see, there is a writing connection here). And this fella likes stale Cheerios, although some of his fellow tree rats don’t…

QED, eh?

 

Writers on Other Planets

book haulHere’s a nice story: Once upon a time there was this wannabe short story writer who was wandering around Waterstones in Cork when she found herself introduced to the lovely author of the book of short stories she was about to buy…

Yes, that was me in Cork.

I know, it’s a long (very long) way from County Roscommon, but I have to say, I LOVE Cork and wasn’t going to miss the chance of a visit when I was invited to the launch of the anthology of stories from the From the Well Short Story Competition.

So, up with the lark and many miles later I got to meet the writer who judged the competition, Billy O’Callaghan, whose stories I have much admired from afar. He did not disappoint and was kind enough to chat to me for a few minutes with some helpful tips on entering writing competitions. He is very encouraging to new writers and is now in place as Cork’s Writer in Residence.

I was thrilled to have my story in the anthology ‘Bunker and Other Short Stories’,  published by Cork County Library and Arts Service, particularly since it got a special mention in Billy’s introduction to the book.

Fast forward 24 hours and I’m still in Cork, soaking up the buzz of the city.

I mean, tuneful buskers, street artists, vegetarian cafes, bookshops, sunshine, friendly people with that fabulous (almost Welsh) accent, what is there not to like?

I still had some of my book token winnings to spend from the Irish Writers Centre Competition I won a few months ago, so I wandered into Waterstones. I intended buying Billy O’Callaghan’s book of stories ‘The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind’ which I’ve already read from the library, but I wanted my own copy. Same with Sara Baume’s stunning novel ‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’.

Then I spotted Danielle McGlaughlin’s ‘Dinosaurs On Other Planets’ which I snatched up too. I have enjoyed many of Danielle’s short stories and have been looking forward to getting my hands on her new collection. All three authors are local to Cork.

So imagine my delight when the Waterstones man pointed out a blonde customer quietly browsing the books a few feet away and called her over to meet me.

Danielle McGlaughlin kindly signed my copy of her book and stayed to chat about writing groups and competitions and such, telling me what a vibrant literary scene there is in the city.  Well, I think that’s what we talked about. I was totally star struck – she probably wondered how such a jibbering eejit could put any words together to make sense, but she was very kind and went away promising to look out for my story in the From The Well anthology. And it turns out she’s had past success in that competition, too.

This week, I was still high on the news that I was one of the final ten in the Exeter Short Story Competition, but I crashed back down to earth with three separate rejections on the same day just before I headed for Cork.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this competitive creative writing, but I understand that being shortlisted and winning competitions offers some sort of third party validation as to my writing ability…

But what a pity I live such a long way from Cork!

Yep, she’s a big yoke alright!

big yoke 1.JPGI had this fantastic idea for a story – a long-running serial, even – about a Sligo undertaker who wants to move an old airliner half way up the country to join the double decker buses and rail carriages in his new glamping (glamorous camping) campsite.

Nah, too improbable, no one would believe that could ever happen…

But, proving fact can be stranger than fiction, this week Easkey undertaker David McGowan has been in the news as he takes his ‘big yoke’ Boeing 767 from Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland up to Enniscrone in County Sligo, via the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, it was too big to move by road, and being decommissioned it wasn’t able to fly (not that it could have landed anywhere near its intended destination!), so began an ambitious plan to take the wings off and load the plane by crane onto a barge and put to sea.

Now that’s something you don’t see every day, a big aeroplane on the back of a flat barge being towed behind a little tugboat in the middle of the ocean.  So off we went to take a look (along with thousands of others).

We watched as the plane came into Killala Bay and just had to marvel at the wonderful improbability of it all – and what a spectacle!

We’ve been following the on-off, will-they-won’t-they project as red tape, the laws of physics, and the weather hindered plans. But listening to David McGowan’s hilarious commentaries on the radio and following his Tweets and Facebook updates has been very entertaining.

I think what he is doing is a major publicity push for the Wild Atlantic Way and even if people don’t want to do the glamorous camping thing, they’ll head for Enniscrone to take a look at an airliner at home in  a field there, won’t they?

For the record, the plane is an Irish-registered American-built Boeing 767 – 216, which had its first flight on May 16th 1986 (Happy 30th Birthday next week, Big Yoke!). It has flown all around the world after being originally registered in Chile, then America before getting its Irish registration EI-CZD when it was leased to Russian airline Transaero.

And how do I know this stuff? I’m married to an aviation expert, that’s how!

 

Reading, writing and other stuff from Louise G Cole