Tag Archives: inspiration

Learning to Spell Annaghmakerrig

An autumn blue sky at Annaghmakerrig. I know, right?

I’m at the end of a week’s writing retreat at the lovely Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan.  Annaghmakerrig, that’s the place.

Lucky me to have such privilege, to have been here three times this year, each time with a huge creative burst which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Autumn mushrooms – magic or what?

I came to try to finish the novel I started in February, and while I’ve done a lot more than I expected, I’m  managing not to put too much emphasis on daily word counts. The story is all done now, the characters and plotting sorted, I’m just filling in gaps and editing. And I have a title: ‘Three Ways to Lie’.  I’m not sure if talking about it will jinx me or spur me on to finish? We’ll see.

But while novel-writing is going on, my poet head keeps getting in the way. I’m not sure what prompted me to bring five years’ worth of notebooks to look through, but I’m glad I did.  I found unfinished poems I’d written about my childhood relationship with Catholicism, and they are now turning into a sequence of poems about religion. Bit serious for me, but there are a few light touches. There has to be if it’s my writing.

Then there has been wildlife to distract me.

A glass act

An enormous wasp paid a visit to my room not long after I arrived. It was probably already there, lying in wait. I’m not quite as terrified of wasps as I used to be (and I’ve no idea why I should be afraid of them, I’ve never been stung) but I’d rather they didn’t get up close and personal.

When normal rules apply, I just shriek for assistance and move myself to another room while someone else deals with the invasion. This time I was on my own with no-one to call (I’ve been going it alone in the self-catering cottages).

Keeping my nerve, I found a large (empty!) Guinness glass in the kitchen and used a stray copy of some battered poetry book, ‘Beyond the Green Bridge’, to urge the wasp into captivity before releasing it outside (in the rain – ha!). I don’t kill creatures like that unless they are threatening the general well-being of me and mine, me being of the live-and-let-live persuasion (with the notable exception of certain parasites, like tape worms and fleas – and rats who try to take up residence in my house).

Spot the heron. Did I mention it is autumn?

The wasp was the first of several wildlife encounters. A little wren flew in through the open window, landed on the writing desk (not the one I was sitting at), looked at me and flew out again. Then I went for a walk and surprised a lovely big grey heron fishing for his dinner. I was slow to get the camera out so he’s just a shadowy blur on the image as he took flight, but I know he’s there.

I’ve also seen jays, lots of other birds I can’t identify, swans in flight, a flock of teal, and best of all, three red squirrels burying beech nuts. They didn’t see me at first and I was afraid to move and switch on the camera, so I’ve not much photographic evidence.

Just as well really, because I should be writing, not looking at photographs, even squirrel ones.


Rolling Stones

For the day that’s in it: Happy Halloween.

Musicians, artists, dancers, writers – there are goodly numbers of creative types who can’t get it together until they’ve a few drinks taken, or smoked something, or popped a few pills. Or at the very least, taken on  board a gallon of coffee to get the creative juices flowing.

A piece of purple amethyst is said to banish headaches and promote sleep. But it won’t write your novel for you, no matter how nicely you ask.

In my case its crystals.

There I’ve said it. I am a (sometimes frequent) user of healing crystals to enhance my creative prowess. I know, I know – Dumbo and his feather.

Actually, I’m not sure crystals do anything more than focus my mind on what’s already there – but I like to think they help with the transference of head-stuff onto paper. And at the very least, they’re attractive to look at, and nice to handle.

I rarely suffer from writer’s block – my problem is how to finish a project before I’m on to the next thing. Which is one of the reasons I like poetry and short stories so much – perfectly formed pieces of writing, complete in their brevity, and possible to finish in a limited time-frame.  I’ve come to this conclusion as I struggle to complete the novel or two I’ve been working on for way longer than is seemly. But that’s another story (ha!).

My own collection of crystals and gemstones was started back in the last millennium when I ran ‘Rock of Ages’ (way before Tom Cruise made a film of that title).

Amethyst for insomnia, jet to fend off  emotional vampires, amber for general protection, aventurine for good fortune, quartz for clear thinking, lapis lazuli for creativity, blue lace agate for communication, carnelian for grounding. Lots of different crystals, and just as many theories as to what each one has in the way of power.

No, I don’t know, either

It sounds a bit far-fetched, but apparently, when our forefathers found life too fast and furious, they took time out with clear quartz – rock crystal – finding it beneficial to clear the mind for meditation and prayer.  That was before the rhythmic pulsing of quartz was recognised and then harnessed to make quartz watches and clocks.

And who would think that a piece of purple rock could help beat insomnia? That would be amethyst, known for its relaxing qualities,  useful for soothing tension headaches.

I know scary, right?

Amber, 60 million-year-old fossilised pine tree resin, is one of the earliest materials used by man to carve sacred amulets to guard against illness and misfortune, still a favourite crystal for protection against ill health. Many asthma, rheumatism and arthritis sufferers swear by amber’s anti-inflammatory abilities. I confess that I haven’t experienced this effect of amber myself, although my late father (a card-carrying sceptic) wore a big chunk of polished amber on a cord around his neck in his battle with arthritis.

My favourite of all though is jet, another fossil, this time the 180 million-year-old remains of Jurassic monkey puzzle trees.  Jet was popularised by the Victorians, who made jewellery and artefacts from this light-weight, shiny black material, copying the Romans before them who carried jet to banish evil.  Many people nowadays have discovered how effective jet is at warding off psychic attack.  Emotional bullies and those exhausting people who can leave you drained after only a few minutes’ contact, no longer have effect if jet is carried for protection.

I’m rarely without a piece of jet on my person – most of my favourite pieces were collected on the beach near Whitby in North Yorkshire and painstakingly polished by hand.

Back in the day when polishing stones was something I did when I really should have been writing.


Say It Again, Sam

In memory of summer, since the clocks went back today and evenings are now SO long…

Some writing is best heard rather than read.  That goes for poems, too. Especially mine. Some of them work out loud, others don’t.

I’ve been fortunate this week to have had the opportunity to read my poetry to large enough audiences, first at The Word in Sligo Library (an open mic) and then in Galway at the launch of the Crannóg Magazine.

Same poem. Different audiences. Same response (a puzzled silence before the polite applause).

It’s one of those poems you need to look at on the page, perhaps savour a little. It’s yet another poem inspired by one of my parents (oh yes, they tuck you up, your Mum and Dad…). This one is called ‘Beacon’ (which was the name of our first hot air balloon many years ago, although that’s totally irrelevant here. You’re welcome). The poem concerns a stone I use as a paperweight which reminds me of my late father and wet weather holidays in Wales when I was a child.

The poem appears in Crannóg 49, which is an excellent compilation of contemporary Irish fiction and poetry with work from writers whose work I know, including Kevin Higgins, Mari Maxwell, Ruth Quinlan, Una Mannion and others, as well as some writers I’m not yet familiar with.

The poem ‘Beacon’ is one of those included in ‘Soft Touch’, my forthcoming poetry pamphlet, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy for her Laureate’s Choice series  2019.

Another poem from that pamphlet, ‘Roots’, appeared recently in an Irish poetry anthology that I’m very pleased to be included in, The Stony Thursday Book, again with a stellar cast of contributors, including Louis de Bernières, author of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.  I was particularly pleased with my inclusion in this annual anthology, since I’ve tried several times before to be included, but failed.

I’m always banging on to my writing group members how important it is to be able to take rejection with a pinch of salt. It goes with the territory. Just because your work isn’t accepted by one editor doesn’t mean it isn’t any good, just that it wasn’t right this time for that publication or competition. Try again. Re-write and try again.

For a few months I’ve been getting rejection after rejection for work I’ve submitted to competitions and literary magazines. I was particularly sour about one high profile publication I didn’t get into this summer, but I got over it. I only cried myself to sleep once, although I did stop writing for a while (I think it was a whole 24 hours) because my fragile ego could barely cope.

As if.

I’m champion of denial that one size fits all. It doesn’t, and so don’t try to make it. As I just said, try again. Re-write and try again. If you like it, someone else will too, I promise.

One of my Hennessy winning poems had done the rounds, been accepted, rejected, re-written and all, but I had enough faith in it to keep going, and thankfully persistence paid off.  That poem was ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’ which took third place in the 2016 Strokestown Roscommon Poets’ Competition, and was published in Crannóg Magazine 43, before I read it out at a Tŷ Newydd Poetry Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last year. I came home and re-wrote it (again), re-submitted – and look what happened.

You can see what here  and here

and (some might say) the best bit? Here 🙂

Fake Muse

Kittens are inspiring, aren’t they? But I said ‘Muse’ not ‘Mews’…

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told I shouldn’t wait for inspiration to strike before I sit down to write. Successful writers just get on with it, regardless of how inspired they feel.

Being precious about having the right pen, desk, light, music et al is all very well, but sometimes, good ideas can be genuinely hard to come by. And that has nothing to do with the so-called ‘Writers’ Block’.

Which is why I’m often to be found in writers’ groups and workshops.

As well as knowing I’m likely to come away with a new take on some aspect of the writing process, I enjoy mixing with like-minded people to get the creative juices flowing. There’s often a valuable exchange of information and a different view of a familiar topic, too.

Sometimes I find the deadlines presented by journal and magazine submission windows, or literary competitions will help focus my writing mind, and I’ll often use the prompts for competitions as inspiration, even if I don’t end up sending in an entry.

All those books waiting to be written…

Like most people, I don’t have anyone cracking a whip to make me write, and I’ve no muse (fake or genuine) to kindle my writing fire, just a compulsive desire to keep on writing.

If you’d like some inspiration and think competition prompts might help, here’s a few links below to start you on your way.

And ‘Fake Muse’? Well,  I think I might have once harboured dreams of becoming a Sun headline writer…

  • Here’s a good one (which I’ve never entered because it takes me longer than a week to polish a poem to perfection, although I’ll often use the prompts): Ó Bhéal Five Words International Poetry Competition. Every Tuesday  until  January 29th 2019, five words are posted on the competition page. Entrants have one week to compose and submit one or more poems which include all five words for that week.
  • If you’re not inspired by SOMETHING on this comprehensive list of writing opportunities by Angela Carr I would humbly suggest you ain’t doing it right (or write?)
  • Another long list of writing opportunities in the UK, Ireland and further afield here
  • Its not wasting time trawling through this site for inspiration. Its called ‘research’ and you’re sure to find something of interest:  writing.ie
  • More essential reading if you want to be a writer – Paul McVeigh‘s mix of opportunities and examples of published excellence

There are zillions more of course, but these are my top five. Good luck!

Flower Power

Flower Girl Tully
Flower Girl Tully

I’ve written before about how some of my best ideas for poetry and short stories come to me as I walk the lanes of County Roscommon. These days, an inspiring  walk usually involves me taking an arthritic dog, a pen and paper, and my phone (of course).

But while walking, I’m often distracted by having to name wildflowers. And then I have to stop and take photos. Because one or two thousand is never quite enough is it?


The naming thing is a bit strange. I have no recollection of learning the names of so many plants, but somehow, plenty of common wildflower names are still lodged in my otherwise empty head. And it is important I tell my canine walking companion Tully what the flowers are called. Yes, I know.

We are both delighted to see so many wild flowers flourishing in the hedgerows which were ripped out last year and replaced by mud banks and barbed wire  😦

Gorse fights back

The Orchids seem to have been swamped by long grass, but it may be early for them yet. There were a good few butterflies and bees, which is a good sign. Some of the farmers hereabouts are quite enthusiastic users of pesticides and weed killer, so I like it when nature triumphs with a come-back, even if the butterflies  are mostly Cabbage Whites and Orange Tips

I can’t now remember much else of what I learnt as a schoolgirl all those years ago, but I

may blossom
For the month that’s in it…May blossom

can still identify Herb Robert, Lesser Celandines and Germander Speedwell. I counted 15 different flowers on our walk yesterday, including the usual Dandelion, Daisy and Field Buttercup. There were also Wild Strawberries, Red Clover, Gorse, Cow Parsley, Lady’s Smock, Plantain, Violets, Primroses, Vetch and Shepherd’s Purse. Yes, I know that’s 16. I was never very good at maths, and Tully’s hopeless at keeping count.

Hmm, I think there may be a poem in there somewhere…

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!

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?