Our back garden in the snow. Let’s build a snowman, says my father. The winter light is milky, shot through with a tentative sun.
I am wearing a brown pinafore. Its fabric is thick and scratchy. Do I have gloves? I don’t know. I don’t feel the cold.
The snowman is made before I know it. He is a fine creature, as tall as me. Dad fetches pieces of coal from the coal bunker for his eyes.
We have a grooved metal rubbish bin at our back door. The snowman needs a hat. The bin lid will do the job. It clangs as we lift it.
Years later, my daughters sing songs from the hit Disney film ‘Frozen’. The character of the little snowman who longs for summer brings me back to my own first snowman, his stick arms pointing skywards, his wide-brimmed metal hat shielding his eyes from the sun.
Put up your arms like the snowman, says Dad. Click.
Do I really remember the day itself, or have I retrofitted a memory from the photograph? I am sure I can still hear the metallic ring of the bin lid.
It is 1977. I am just gone three.
I’ve been trying most of my life to become an overnight sensation.
It started when I was about seven. I had read a series of books by an irritating twelve-year-old prodigy whose name I no longer remember. (One of her characters was Penelope Pomegranate – ring a bell with anyone?). Her photo was on the back of each book. She was a serious-looking girl with long, straight hair and a sensible woolly jumper. My seven-year-old self, who had previously entertained airy notions of writing books one day, was stung into action.
I began writing like a thing possessed. I had to outdo Miss Sensible Jumper before I hit twelve.
You can guess the rest. I slowly came to learn that overnight success can take a very long time.
I was prompted to reflect on all this last week by a brilliant piece of literary news. Irish writer Nuala ní Chonchúir has just signed a book deal with Penguin USA and Penguin Canada for her third novel, Miss Emily. Nuala got to write on her blog last week the words that every writer longs to type: “I am living my fantasy just now – Penguin USA and Penguin Canada are going to publish my third novel, Miss Emily…”
Nuala has certainly earned the joy of writing those lines. She is one of those talented, hard-working writers who puts in the hours, day after day, year after year. She is a familiar and much-loved name to anyone involved in the Irish literary scene, but up to now, she has not been a household name. Now, readers all over the US and Canada are soon to enjoy the work of a new overnight literary sensation.
I have written elsewhere on this blog about the cultural phenomenon of overnight success. Let’s look at Nuala’s case a little more closely. Her first work was published in 2003. Factor in a very conservative estimate of at least five years of serious, committed daily writing graft before that, and you’ve got a minimum sixteen-year lead-in to the Penguin deal.
I remember attending a workshop with Nuala three or four years ago. The topic was self-promotion for writers. Nuala told us that her income as a writer was small; I think the phrase she used was “laughably small”. This, from a working writer with several published works under her belt, as well as a steady stream of workshop gigs and appearances at literary festivals in Ireland and abroad.
I, for one, greatly appreciated Nuala’s disarming honesty about her income. It helped me to realise the magnitude of the mountain that writers have to climb.
So what can aspiring published writers learn from all this?
Before the gravy, comes the graft. The bad news is that in most cases, the graft takes a painfully long time. The good news is, when the gravy starts pouring, it tastes so, so sweet. And you get to write sentences like: “I am living my fantasy just now.”
Miss Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, sounds like a great read. Enjoy the gravy, Nuala.
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.
Things may not have gone quite as hoped for Jedward in the Eurovision, but Denise Quinn’s performance in Garter Lane theatre in Waterford on the same night, May 14th, won a standing ovation and a resounding douze points from the packed audience.
Local woman Denise is the writer and sole performer of two one-act, one-woman plays, Bardot Bites and Lucy Bastible, which ran for two sold-out nights in Waterford last week as part of a nationwide tour.
The plays are beautifully observed glimpses into the lives of two very different women. Denise’s scripts cleverly use humour to draw in the audience and make them feel an instant connection to two women at crisis points in their lives. “Bids” in Bardot Bites is a single, middle-aged, put-upon woman determined to get her life back on track after her elderly mother’s death, while Lucy Bastible is refined, well-off wife of a solicitor who unleashes her wild side after her husband’s infidelity.
While the script is sharp, witty and insightful, it is Denise Quinn’s acting skills and stage presence that made this performance truly wonderful. We, the audience, genuinely forgot that there was only one person on stage. The stage seemed to teem with characters – Leonie and Leandra, Bids’ two young, man-mad colleagues at the cheese counter in the local deli, were particularly brilliant. Denise’s depictions of the ridiculous situations in which people find themselves in daily life were a joy to behold (one scene involving a balcony bra and a roving hand in the cinema will stay in my mind forever).
The script is also a great example of that great maxim of creative writing: “Write what you know”. Not content with being an accomplished playwright and actress, Denise is also a qualified solicitor and sales assistant at a well-known cheese counter in Waterford. Both cheese and the legal world featured strongly in the scripts and the playwright’s background in both greatly added to the credibility of the plays.
Accolades are also due to the show’s director Mary Curtin, a high-profile name in Irish theatre with a long list of theatre and film credits.
Bardot Bites and Lucy Bastible went down so well on the Cork leg of the tour in April that Denise has been asked to give repeat performances there later in the summer. Let’s hope she can be convinced to do the same in her native city at the earliest opportunity.