Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post by Kalle Ryan, Waterford / Dublin performance poet, humourist, MC of The Brownbread Mixtape monthly cabaret in Dublin, and possessor of a host of other talents.
This article originally appeared in The Metro Herald, 17/11/2012.
These days when you think of Germany, you inevitably picture Angela Merkel’s Sauerkraut face and her corresponding punitive, penny-pinching proclamations. If you’re more of an old school German thinker, you may have thoughts of wicked World Wars and a land fabled for being humourless, yet funnily drawn to David Hasselhoff’s musical skills.
But those broad strokes are ultimately unfair to a country, that I believe, is home to some of the great unsung secrets and joys of Europe.
As a teenager I travelled the length of Germany in a camper van with my family. It was a remarkable holiday that left a deep impression that lingers to this day. What I encountered was a country of wonderful variety, breathtaking beauty, fantastic food and incredibly warm people (with mullets, a lot of mullets).
We entered the country from the northern city of Hamburg, with its eclectic mix of erotic shops and Liverpudlian musical history, and bombed down the Autobahn (poor choice of verb when talking about Germany, I know) towards the magical city of Berlin.
Berlin really felt like the New York of Europe to me, with its wonderful blend of fascinating German design, historical landmarks, reliable and punctual public services, delightful local beers, as well as cool, punk-influenced, left-leaning art on every other street corner. How could you not love a city that was run by punctual hippies?
Our next stop along the way was Frankfurt, where I had a semi-religious experience as I encountered Germany’s legendary “Currywurst”. A char-grilled, flavourful sausage, sliced into discs and covered in a blanket of curried ketchup, then lightly dusted with fragrant yellow curry-powder. You simply have not lived until you have eaten this triumphant, teutonic takeaway treat. It is said that the secret to Germany’s continued automobile engineering success is founded upon a steady, streamlined diet of these curried sausages.
Sweeping south we entered the city of Stuttgart, home to the legendary Irish footballing victory over England in Euro 88. As an Irishman, the Neckarstadion ranks up there as a historical landmark alongside the GPO and The Hill of Tara. Stuttgart – a compact, cool city – is also home to the culinary delight of Maultaschen (German ravioli invented by monks to conceal meat from the Lord on Fridays). I recall thinking at the time that, if there were a World Cup for food, Germany would probably win that 1-0 every time too.
After several days of driving through swathes of the brilliant black forest, home to the legendary, delicious, unpronounceable Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, we arrived in Munich. Located in the southern province of Bavaria (County Cork’s spiritual German sister), Munich is a wonderland of ornate buildings, sunlit plazas, moustachioed manly types, ample bosomed matronly types and crafted glasses of crisp, bubbly Hofbräuhaus beer. Basically, it is what Heaven would undoubtedly look like if it were run by Germany.
A short jaunt down the road, bordering Austria, was the charming town of Füssen, our final stop. Nestled up in the Alps above the town is crazy King Ludwig’s Schloss Neuschwanstein, widely known as the inspiration for the Disney castle, or, if you’re a Britpop fan, the cover photo of Blur’s ‘Country House’ single. Regardless of the imitators and appreciators, it’s a stunning sight and worth a visit, if only to sit down and eat some traditional Schnitzels in its shadow. This delicious, deep fried, breaded veal dish was invented by some genius from nearby Vienna, who should clearly have won the Nobel Prize.
While this might all sound like a food and drink travelogue / memoir, what it really amounts to is a love letter to a much maligned country that has levels of complexity and beauty far beyond simplistic jokes about the war or our present predicament. I have been back many times since and Germany continues to reward and reveal.
We are, of course, in a recession, so if you can’t afford to travel to Germany any time soon, then I strongly recommend that you stick on a Werner Herzog movie, crack open a cold German beer, pick up some authentic sausages from your local German supermarket and have a Currywurst party at home. Who knows, it may even make you feel more kindly toward Frau Merkel.
(c) Kalle Ryan 2012
Multinational corporations are often derided for their use of “corporate-speak”. But as a former employee of multinational corporations, I have come to appreciate the value of some aspects of corporate wisdom. Two examples I wanted to write about today are outcomes and deliverables.
I recently attended a seminar hosted by Big Smoke Writing Factory in Dublin. The seminar was about Independent Publishing and the facilitator was Vanessa O’Loughlin, founder of writing.ie and The Inkwell Group, and influencer of a host of other literary activities and projects around Ireland.
To my delight, both the outcomes and deliverables of the seminar were excellent, and I met some lovely new fellow writers to boot.
Getting back to the corporate-speak. Freelancers pay for all training and professional development out of our own funds, so we need to make sure that we get a return on our investment. The most useful definition of ROI for freelancing purposes is that used in the financial world: “The money that a person or company earns as a percentage of the total value of his/her/its assets that are invested.”
The corporate world also teaches us that ROI in professional development is best measured in terms of the following two factors, one “hard” and one “soft”:
- Outcomes (“soft”) – something changes for the better as a result of you attending the training course. For example, your knowledge of the subject matter increases, you feel equipped to take specific actions, or you have a new qualification. If nothing changes as a result of you attending the course, there were no positive outcomes, and your money and time have been wasted.
- Deliverables (“hard”) – the specific, concrete things that were promised in the course description and that you take home with you at the end of the day. For example, a pile of useful notes or handouts (“useful” is key here – we all know the horror of taking home stacks of handouts we will never look at again); new practical skills; or a piece of work that you were guided in producing during the course.
For me, the outcomes of the Independent Publishing seminar were:
- A solid grounding in the various aspects of independent publishing, both print and digital
- Knowledge of and confidence in implementing the practical steps in independently publishing my writing work
- Awareness of the increasing significance of independent publishing in the literary market
The deliverables were:
- A careful selection of useful handouts
- 15 pages of my own notes
- Individual advice from Vanessa
So, my ROI on the seminar has been very satisfactory so far.
Of course, it’s too soon yet to know whether the seminar helped with the ultimate outcome: getting published.
I have been considering for some time whether I should release some of my stories as standalone publications. Short stories lend themselves particularly well to the digital format, as evidenced by the success of Kindle Singles. As well as that, Amazon’s digital book sales exceeded their print sales in the US for the first time last year, so the market for digital definitely exists.
I’ll be posting regular updates on my adventures in independent and digital publishing. Watch this space.
Rejection letters are a funny old thing.
When you start out as a writer, your rejections tend to be from smaller publications and lesser known websites.
After you have been diligently persisting for a few years, the rejections still come, but from loftier sources.
I recently received the following rejection letter from Ciaran Carty, editor of New Irish Writing, which appears monthly in the Irish Independent and has launched the careers of many prominent Irish writers, including Joseph O’ Connor, Dermot Bolger, Vona Groarke and Mary O’Malley.
The New Irish Writing page was started by David Marcus in The Irish Press in 1969 and is the longest-running creative writing feature of its kind in any Irish or British newspaper.
Ciaran Carty is also director of the Hennessy Awards. Work published in New Irish Writing is automatically entered into the prestigious Hennessy Awards.
So, after weeping onto my keyboard for a while, I’m now actually a bit chuffed that Ciaran Carty sent me a personally signed letter, even if it is their standard PFO. He even wrote my name by hand!
I will fight on.
Did anyone hear Christy Moore on the John Murray show on RTÉ Radio One this morning? Christy played a selection from his back catalogue as requested by listeners. All the great songs were in there, including a favourite of mine, Lisdoonvarna. (“Amhráns, bodhráns and amadáns” is an all-time great lyrical gem.)
This led met to think about the subject of personal musical tear-jerkers. It’s different for everyone; songs that have some people reaching for the tissue box can leave others indifferent. For me, one song in the tissue-box category is Christy Moore’s The Voyage. I had to turn off the radio this morning when the presenter announced it as the next song, because I didn’t want to start my writing day in floods of tears.
I realise that the words to The Voyage are not great poetry. The song is full of clichés. It over-extends the “boat / voyage / sea” metaphor beyond all reason. The feebleness of “together we’re in this relationship” with the emphasis on “ship” is hard to overlook. But none of this seems to matter. It is those very clichés and so-thinly-stretched-it’s-transparent imagery that hit a weak spot in my heart.
The lump in my throat begins at “determined not to fail” and progresses to distinctly glassy eyes at “working together we learned how to cope”. Full-blown, undeniable tears set in at “Now gathered round us, we have our own crew”.
For me, other songs in the same category include Roger Whittaker’s Durham Town and Brian and Michael’s Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs.
I’d love to hear how the rest of you feel. Maybe my top tearjerker The Voyage leaves you cold? What songs hit you in the Achilles heel of the heart?
Who would have thought that tidying up some Lego would help with structuring a story?
I constantly have to keep in mind that writing time is for writing only and not other tasks, no matter how strong the temptation. Mostly, I am fairly successful at walking airily past household messes and sitting down at my desk to write.
One concession I sometimes allow myself is to do a quick tidy of the room I work in – after all, it is part writing den, part children’s play room. (The two parts are separated by room dividers from Woody’s – highly recommended if you share a writing space.)
So this morning I was in the play room / writing room, on my hands and knees (what a way to start the writing day), picking up Lego and mulling over the short story that I had started yesterday. I had most of the components of the story in my head: main character, secondary character, a strong visual image, and setting.
Some elements in the story are a little out of the ordinary, and I was stuck for “something” that would tie together all the pieces in a plausible way. I was beginning to get quite grumpy about being stuck and was wondering if I should just park the whole story.
As I tidied, an idea struck me and I began playing with a few of the pieces of Lego.
I selected a single yellow piece and put it on the kids’ play table. This was my main character – the component around which everything else in the story is built.
Then I took a bigger, blue piece. This is the story’s central visual image. It is strong in both size and appearance, like the image I have in mind. I placed this piece beside the yellow one, but not attached to it, just as the components of my story were disjointed at that point.
Next, I added a purple piece to the ensemble. This was the secondary character. I was really getting into the Lego-as-symbol thing at this stage, so I stuck this piece on top of the original yellow piece, but only partially, to show that the secondary character is only loosely connected to the main character at this point.
By now my Lego creation was looking like a bit of a mess, just like the story. (If I were someone like Tracey Emin, at this point I would probably throw something sticky at it before placing it in an exhibition and charging people money to look at it.) Something was definitely missing.
Then it hit me. My story needed another narrative layer to tie it all together. In other words, another character who would narrate the story as told to him or her. I remembered Wuthering Heights and how Charlotte Brontë famously used multiple narrators to make the book’s wildly romantic, sometimes fantastical characters and events plausible and believable to the reader.
I chose two long red Lego piece as my supporting, super-narrative layer and attached the existing structure to the top of it. The red pieces now supported everything else and connected it all together.
I have now started translating my Lego “creation” into words - that is, creating my additional narrative layer. This does raise questions about having too many characters, which can weigh down a short story. However, I am inspired (again) by Raymond Carver’s story “Fat”. This story’s main character tells her story to a friend over coffee, which is a variation of the technique; the reader hears the story as told to a third party.
The creativity that I was able to tap into by playing with the Lego led me to this solution. Techniques for tapping into creativity are something I have toyed with in the past but never devoted much attention to. I may re-visit them now.
“Mind” is such a multi-purpose word, isn’t it? As a verb, it can mean to object to, to look after, and in a more archaic sense, to remember. As a noun, it encompasses all those nebulous concepts that we associate with our non-physical selves: the spirit, the personality, the intellect, among many others.
Today, my mind is all over the place. Since it is a work day, this poses a serious challenge. If my mind were connected to a printer, this is an extract from what it might be printing right now:
gottobookthatportraitsessionformysonmustphonetheeventspeakerfortomorrownightohgodidon’ttknowyet what’llimakefordinnermustsendthanktocardtofriendforlovelypartygottoremindhusbandtocomehomeearly onwednesdaybetterwritecheuqeforcommitteetreasurerohgodihaven’tmademuchprogressonmynewshortstory sincelastweekandihaven’tevenstartedontoday’sblogpost.
My mission for today – and I have no choice but to accept it, since I’m a writer – is to extract something meaningful from the whirl of nonsense in my mind. Right now, I feel like dangling by a rope from a precipitous cliff-face might be the easier task.
One thing that really helps with calming a chaotic mind is Mindfulness. Those of you who have read Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman will know what I mean. Those of you who haven’t, I strongly recommend it. The CD of guided mediations that comes with the book is worth it alone.
I find the first CD track, an eight-minute “body and breath” meditation, great for clearing the mind. The mind printer certainly outputs less of the scary, stream-of-consciousness stuff afterwards.
If anyone else in the writing field or other areas of the arts uses mindfulness techniques, either in conjunction with the book or otherwise, I’d love to hear about it. Just leave a comment below.
There’s nothing that makes you analyse your beliefs more than having to explain them to other people.
I’m coming up against this hard fact a lot at the moment, as I’m preparing to co-facilitate a half-day workshop. It’s called “Selling yourself without selling out”. (It’s for artists of all kinds, and aims to take the cringe factor out of self-promotion.) My co-facilitator is novelist, writer and creative writing tutor Derbhile Dromey.
For one thing, just because it’s obvious to me why using social media for self-promotion is a good idea for artists, workshop attendees may not necessarily agree whole-heartedly. So I am having to peel back the layers of my assumptions on that score, and come up with a way to elucidate my reasoning.
For another, like any skill as you practise it more, using social media for self-promotion as an artist becomes second nature. Consequently, if I am asked “Should I create a separate Facebook page for my artistic work, or can I just use my personal account?”, I really have to scratch my head to ensure that I give a clear answer. I know what I would do, but telling someone else what they should do, and why, is a different matter.
It’s all part of the preparation work, which, like anything worthwhile, is a time-consuming task.
On the plus side, I’m hugely excited about working with Derbhile and having the opportunity to support some fellow artists with their self-promotion work in the world of social media.
There is an inspiring new post by Rosie Lugosi on the Myslexia blog called “Hare / Tortoise”. In it, Rosie describes how her novel-writing career is finally taking off after twelve years of slog. The post has got me thinking about the cultural phenomenon of “overnight success”.
I have often mused about this with a friend who is also interested in the topic. We in the English-speaking world are obsessed with the idea of overnight success. It is the concept upon which talent shows like The X Factor are based: Someone is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight on the strength of their amazing talent, which was just waiting to be discovered.
Mary Byrne and Susan Boyle are perfect examples. In the PR narrative that was presented along with them as they came to media prominence, both women (both undeniably very talented) had languished in obscurity for decades, their gift known only to their nearest and dearest, until Simon Cowell and co. swooped in to rescue them.
However, look a little more closely, and it emerges that both Ms. Byrne and Ms. Boyle had been singing for many years, and with some success, long before they went on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, respectively.
Mary Byrne had been a singer in her brother’s band and had actually won a singing content on Irish TV in 2008. Susan Boyle began singing in school productions at age 12, and she and her mother often talked about her possibly becoming famous. She sang for years in pubs and local competitions before The X Factor. In both cases, they had worked and grafted away for years. There was nothing overnight about it.
As an artist, I resent the overnight success concept. Anyone who has ever achieved anything worthwhile, ever, no matter in what field, knows that it takes graft, graft, and then more graft. Staying up til all hours, getting up at all hours, working when you could be out socialising, working when you could be spending time with your family… and you keep doing all these things for months, years and quite possibly, your whole life. That is what lies behind most creative success.
There are several examples in fields other than showbiz: Search engine behemoth Google and the ridiculously popular game Angry Birds both appeared to gain incredible popularity in no time, whereas in actual fact, both took several years’ steady, unremarked-on work on the part of their creators.
Overnight success is a myth, in all senses of the word.
Despite this, as a human being, I love stuffing my rational brain into a drawer and gorging myself on reality TV sob stories.
So why are we so in love with the idea of being suddenly “discovered” and catapulted to instant success?
It has to be something to do with the Cinderella meme that is still so strong in Anglo-Saxon culture. We all love a good rags-to-riches tale, and the Disneyfied Cinderella, the version now most familiar to us, is the iconic one. After pining for years amongst the cinders, Cinderella is transformed into a beauty by her fairy godmother (or the spirit of her dead mother, depending on which version you read), goes to the ball, and after some token faffing about with glass slippers, marries the prince and lives happily ever after. This is the original overnight success narrative arc, now found in countless movies, books and TV shows, and we can’t get enough.
The key question is, of course: Which came first? Did something inherent in human nature lead to the creation and rise of the Cinderella meme, or was an original affinity with the idea of sudden success nurtured by the rising popularity of the Cinderella fairytale?
For my part, I don’t know. If anyone with expertise in sociology or cultural history can shed more light on the question, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
In the meantime, all hail to Rosie Lugosi on getting her debut novel picked up by Harper Collins after she won last year’s Myslexia Novel Competition. Her overnight success took twelve years. I’m still hanging in there for mine.
Well-known writers are always being asked, “What advice would you give to new writers?”
This question must fill writers with dread. For one thing, it is quite a responsibility to give advice that someone may actually act on. For another, it is even more of a responsibility give such advice publicly. For yet another, advice is a strange beast that can reveal more than is intended about the giver of the advice.
Every week, in the “There are no rules” section of Writer’s Digest editor blogs, the author trails through the magazine’s archives, searching for writing advice from famous authors. The most recent list includes Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and James Thurber.
The article contains several contributions from famous and less famous writers, and is worth a read. Also, it’s fun to try to connect each piece of advice to the author’s personality (or persona).
Harper Lee’s contribution seems typical of the notoriously media-shy and no-nonsense author of To Kill a Mockingbird: “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide”.
John Steinbeck and Carl Sandburg both take a subversive approach to giving advice:
“Beware of advice – even this” (Sandburg)
“Sorry – if I had any advice to give I’d take it myself” (Steinbeck)
My favourite is the single word provided by Robert Fuoss: “Write”.
If you have any favourite pieces of writing advice, from well-known or less-well-known writers, I’d love to hear them – just reply below!
What have I been doing? I’m happy to report that I’ve been writing, a lot. Progress on my short story collection is going well: I now have three completed stories.
Since I last posted, I attended a lecture given by Claire Keegan in Cork, aid of the Munster Literature Centre. I’d never heard Claire speak before. Her points about writing were brutal and straightforward: Get out of your own way, let the story speak for itself. Writers hear this advice regularly, but somehow, coming from Claire, it had a major impact. When writing, I now regularly refer to the notes I took at Claire’s lecture and try to implement some of her techniques and approaches.
Getting back to the long hiatus in this blog: Hopefully it’s been worth it for another reason. One of my stories was shortlisted for the 2011/2012 Fish Short Story Prize. The awards were announced today. The judge was David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame (shortlisted for the 2004 Booker prize). The shortlist consisted of 145 stories, whittled down from 1900 entries. I am very pleased with that result.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!