Tag Archives: Creative writing

Creative Thinking?

brollies s
I’m being creative here. Just be glad I’m not ranting about the awful weather…

I’m riding a particularly delicious literary wave after winning the Hennessy Award two weeks ago – my feet have hardly touched the ground, but in a nice way.

I shouldn’t really have had any time for thinking, let alone writing, should I? What with radio interviews, trips to Dublin, and all those Facebook and Twitter messages to respond to (and I was the reluctant social media participant a while back. Ha!).

But here’s a surprise, I’ve been as busy writing as ever, scribbling away, plucking poems from the ether and wondering where such creativity comes from.

I like to think I’ve always been a creative person, someone who makes their own greetings cards (too mean to give Hallmark my business), and I’ve made some very inspired birthday cakes in my time (penguin, cat, dinosaur anyone?). And of course, I’ve written reams of journalism, poetry and short stories over the years.

But I still don’t know where creativity comes from, how a random idea suddenly becomes a poem which someone else understands and likes. I wish I could bottle this recent rush of inspiration for the times when I’m staring at a blank notebook wondering what to write.

Strokestown 20th Logo jpeg2Meanwhile, I’m still part of the organising committee of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, getting excited as May Bank Holiday gets nearer.

sliabh bawn 2s
This is what a bunch of poetry enthusiasts on a a mountain treasure hunt looks like…

We launched the festival on the side of a mountain on Easter Monday (as you do), with a poetry-themed treasure hunt. Now, we’re spreading the word about everything going on during the festival – including readings by no less than 70 poets, from well-known international names to first timers and local schoolchildren.

There will be pub poetry, and a recitation competition where visitors can read a much-loved poem, perhaps one from their schooldays. There’s a cracking line-up for the weekend, starting on May 3rd – check out the Strokestown Poetry website for more info here.

If you missed me on the radio, gabbling like a mad woman, talking to Mary Claire Grealy on Shannonside FM, and reading my poem ‘Dirty Little Dresses’, I’ll be reading it again this coming weekend (but not on the radio).

Along with other members of our creative writing group, I’ll be reading some poems at the launch of a new pop-up art exhibition by local artists in Charlestown Arts Centre (County Mayo) on Sunday next (April 8th), between 2pm and 4pm. Its free admission and everyone is welcome – call in and say ‘hello’ if you’re in the neighbourhood.

We can spend some time marveling at the wonderful creativity on display!

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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?

Hopelessly Devoted

Purrrfect writing companions, Daisy and Milo

Every writer should have a dog – and cats, lots of them. Although, as someone who used to be terrified of dogs (after being savaged by an Alsatian), that’s a pretty radical statement coming from me.

The benefit of having pets in your life is well documented, and a quick trawl of the internet will show you that cats and dogs seem to feature in the lives of many famous writers.

This story is mostly about my dog, Tully, although I’ve been the mad cat woman since I was three years old and was introduced to an energetic tabby kitten intent on running up the curtains at every opportunity. He grew into a soppy, easy-going family pet who was my confidante and playmate until the day I sat my second ‘A’ level English paper (sad story).

Selfies with this girl are almost impossible. She keeps moving!

A dog wasn’t ever going to feature in my life. Even after I grew out of being afraid, I was never keen to get to know one better. After all, cats are all you ever need, aren’t they? Wonderful writing (and life) companions, they’re drop dead gorgeous to look at, have an admirable attitude (‘worship me, be my slave, don’t expect much back in return’), and can lie around being companionable but silent for hours at a time.

Plus, cats are non-judgemental, never commenting about my grammar or punctuation, they don’t complain about what I’ve cooked for dinner, what I’m wearing, or my hair style, and they never make remarks about the size of my bum. They don’t shout when I’ve burnt the toast, and they don’t know any toe-curling swear words, nor do they notice if the kitchen floor needs mopping.

So, what’s there not to like about cats then?  Well, they can be distracting sometimes, but in a nice way. Check out Simon’s Cat for a humorous take on what it is like living with felines (you’ll need a few hours to waste, beware!).

I managed for years without knowing dogs. Then, in a moment of weakness nearly ten years ago, I caved in when my children whined in unison (a rare thing) about us giving a neglected puppy a good home. The dog needed rescuing from an unhappy, caged-in existence, and I’m a sucker for a hard-luck story.

My girl Tully

My girl Tully arrived in the Cole House, and now I can’t remember what life was like without her.

Sadly, she’s gone a bit lame recently, unable to keep up with me on our walks up the lane.

I like to walk. And walk. And walk some more. It frees my headspace, and I’ve created some of my best poetry covering the miles of countryside around our home. It also helps me to stay reasonably fit, a busy dog being the perfect walking companion so I never feel lonely.

But I started to realise that in dog years, Tully is now getting on and has overtaken me in age, so no wonder she’s slowing down a bit.  I’ve threatened to trade her in for a newer model (as if!), although I know there are a good few years left in her yet.

It’s just that lately, I’m seeing less of her in the great outdoors racing up the lane, and more of her in super-relaxed mode, draped across the armchair as I sit at the laptop pounding away at what may become a best seller (another, as if!).

I need some new poems, so I’m hoping the imminent arrival of Spring will encourage us both outside a bit more and Tully will regain her long-distance walking capabilities.

Either that, or I try training one of the cats to go walkies with me (yes, I know: as if!).

The Numbers Game

Bit of a tenuous link, but this kitty’s name was Seven…

I’ve been crunching numbers over the past few days, trying to figure (excuse the pun) if I should take up a new pastime. This writing lark has cost me a lot of money one way or another (residential poetry masterclasses don’t come cheap), and I’ve managed to crawl to my 100th submission this year.

That averages out at less than nine submissions a month, which doesn’t sound too excessive. And included in ‘submissions’ are applications for grants, pitches for freelance articles, and several other writing activities.

I enter a lot of free writing competitions (there are a lot about), and  journals and magazines are free to send to. But there are a good few competitions with a hefty entry fee which I’ve succumbed to. Like the Moth Poetry Prize – I wasn’t going to bother because it is €12 a pop, but the prize is a cool €10,000 (for ONE poem, yes you read right!). So I view it rather like buying a lottery ticket, you’ve got to be in it to win it, although the odds on me winning are slim – not because my poem is rubbish (well, I don’t think so), but because there’s so much (ahem) competition.

The kudos of winning, or being placed in competitions, is what drives most writers to enter – but the cash prizes can be significant, too. I’m writing this on a laptop I bought with the winnings from a short story competition 18 months ago.

I was helping to number the entries in the Strokestown International Poetry Competition at the beginning of December.  Poacher turned gamekeeper, I found the behind-the-scenes activities a real eye-opener. Until then, I’d never really thought much about what happens after I hit the ‘send’ button.

In the case of Strokestown, the original poems are kept on file and two copies of each are printed to be sent to the judges. Before the poems leave the office, they are made anonymous, save for a reference number. It makes for a level playing field, so it doesn’t matter who you are or who you know, it’s the poem that counts.

The sheer volume of poems –  sadly, I didn’t have time to read any of them – was mind-blowing. The competition attracts entries from all over the world, including India, Japan, Canada, USA, the UK, and of course, Ireland.

And get this, there were 1,261 poems vying for the top prize of €2,000, a writer’s retreat at Anam Cara, and publication in the Strokestown Poetry Anthology. That’s five reams of paper…

If you missed the annual Strokestown competitions (there was the Percy French competition for comic verse and an Irish language poetry competition, too), there’s another just opened to mark the Festival’s 20th anniversary. That’s in addition to the Roscommon Poet’s Prize and the School Poetry Prizes. Phew, that’s a lot of poems!

Count the petals? Or be inspired to write a poem – this is one of the prompts.

This new on-line only competition offers 20 picture prompts, and suitably inspired writers are invited to create up to 20 lines of poetry. There will be 20 prizes – a first of €100 and 19 of €20. And all 20 poems will be displayed alongside the images during Strokestown Poetry Festival, May 3rd – 7th 2018.

The judge is poet Noelle Lynskey, and details are on the website here.

Now, what’s there not to like about those numbers?

Oh, and for the day that’s in it (as they say around here): “Happy Christmas!”

Age Restrictions Apply

Back in the days when I thought I was really grown up, aged five.

Although I am the mother of two children who are now in their twenties, I don’t feel very grown up myself. They might be adults, but I’m not there yet.

OK, so I have a share in a mortgage, a bulging credit card, and bank cashiers (when I can find them) call me ‘madam’ (grrr!). I’m legally old enough for most things (except a state pension), and I’m tall enough (just) for terrifying fairground rides (as if), but I really don’t feel grown up, even though I can drive and use WhatsApp.

I seem to have spent my entire life expecting adulthood to sneak up from behind and tap me on the shoulder, but I’m still waiting – and still trying to put the sentiment into words that make sense. I’ve tasked myself with writing a series of poems about refusing to age gracefully, but so far, I’m stuck on the first one.

I still like breaking the ice on winter puddles, and wading through fallen leaves in autumn.  There are soft toys on the shelf (but no elf), I throw a tantrum if I don’t win at Scrabble, and I get excited at the prospect of birthday cake, Christmas tinsel and chocolate Easter eggs. I don’t do bins, bills or change light bulbs, and I scream blue murder and demand to be rescued if one of the cats brings home something twitching and bloody.

True, I had to step up to the mark when my minder fell off a ladder and ended up helpless and wheelchair-bound for several months, but I didn’t enjoy the experience. Thankfully, neither did he, and eventually, his bones mended enough for him to take charge again. That was four years ago, and the details are now hazy as we’ve both blanked out such an awful experience.

I am fortunate in (mostly) not looking my age, still with my own hair colour, the right number of teeth and limbs, and a vague hope that Santa Claus will turn out to be real.

And I’m guessing I’m not alone here. The Famous Five re-writes have been created with people just like me in mind: Five On Brexit Island; Five Forget Mother’s Day; Five Go Gluten Free and the rest. Bruno Vincent has taken the Enid Blyton classics and given them a twist for ‘grown ups’ – hilarious.

If you’re looking for amusing stocking fillers, there are also the Ladybird ‘how it works’ books, using original artwork but with an up to date explanation of mothers, husbands,  grandparents, cats and a long list of others – great fun.

When I picked up The Ladybird Book of Dating in a bookshop in the summer, I laughed so much I had to be escorted from the premises.

No, not very grown up. But I’m working on it.

Snow Joke

Tonight, we’re waiting for snow to fall here in the west of Ireland. It’s still a bit early for a White Christmas, but you never know – once it gets here, it might decide to stay. Snow that is, not Christmas (although the shops have been flogging all things festive since the end of the summer holidays, or so it seems).

I thought I’d get ahead of the posse with my snowman picture taken several winters ago. I couldn’t remember if we gave him a name, then discovered the photograph was labelled ‘Baldy the Snowman’.  There’s no end to my family’s creativity. I mean, we called the seventh cat to join our household … Seven. Ingenious, eh?

Is is any wonder then, that I find titles for poems and stories difficult? REALLY difficult.  I have a poem about my late father that people who have heard it like – except for the title. So far, the poor little poem has had nine (yes, really) titles. And I’m still not sure I’ve arrived at the definitive one. The poem is awaiting some judge’s decision in a competition, so I won’t say any more about that one, but I’ve heard it said that titles can make or break a piece.

In an article about writing short stories published by the Bath Short Story Award organisers, writer Tessa Hadley said, back in 2013: ‘A title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Meanwhile, I am steeling myself (and sharpening the calculator) to do the end of year sums. For each of the past three years I have tried to send out 100 submissions – that’s competition entries, magazine and publishing submissions, grants and bursary applications. It’s a lot of words posted (ah sure, doesn’t An Post need the business?) or fired off into cyberspace. I didn’t get anywhere near the century in 2015 or 2016, but so far this year I’m at 96 and counting.

The acid test is to punch numbers into the calculator and work out how much this writing lark has cost me, and if I got enough back (my Arts Council award will help bump up the figures).  This year’s statistics might just be the tipping point to make me take up knitting again. Or bird watching. Or deep-sea diving. Or moon walking. Or kitchen floor cleaning.

Heck no, what a daft idea – I’m going to have to stick with the writing!

Reinventing the Wheel (or not)

Nope, doesn’t need work- the basic design is sound…

I have kept my head down lately, trying to complete some half-finished writing projects, not least because there seems to have been an unusually high number of competitions and submission opportunities this month.

I’m still out there, trying my luck with poetry, flash fiction and stories (and wondering if I’ll ever find time to finish my ‘prize-winning’ novel!).

At the Skylight 47 launch, me and Jessamine. I am the short one.

Proof that persistence pays off has been publication this month of my poem in literary magazine Skylight 47.   I went down to Galway for the launch with my friend *Jessamine O Connor,  who was representing the Hermit Collective, featured in this edition. We both got to read our poems, with a warm reception from a good sized audience, which was a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. The magazine was launched by lovely poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.

Meanwhile,  although I’m rarely short of new ideas, I have recently  found myself recommending all writers have a go at revisiting some of their own old work from time to time –  after all, why reinvent the wheel? Now that’s not  suggesting you go off with someone else’s material, that’s plagiarism and is not what I’m on about here.

I’m talking about how a sideways look at something you wrote ages ago might just present a new opportunity. Often, old work can benefit from a refit.

Just because a story or poem has been rejected by a publisher, magazine or competition, doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something else with it. It may not have been what the publisher or judge was looking for at the time, but if you thought it was good enough once, why not again? And why should one really good idea be confined to a single form?

In my case, I’m often flirting with old flames (literary ones, of course) – I’ve even won a short story competition with a piece that started out as a poem, and I’ve recycled (upcycled?) poems into flash fiction and been subsequently competition shortlisted.

As I said, why reinvent the wheel?

*Jessamine O Connor launches her latest book of poetry ‘Pact’ on Friday, December 8th at King House, in Boyle, County Roscommon (ROI). She’s invited a few other poets to read some of their work too – and I’m one of them. A 5pm start – all welcome!