Hilary Fannin: The cat’s mother

As her memoir, Hopscotch, comes out in paperback, the Irish Times columnist recalls having to overcome an aversion to the word ‘I’ drilled into her by nuns to write the book

 Hilary Fannin at the launch of Hopscotch: The process of writing a memoir, of blowing away the chalk dust from those formative years, of opening the suburban doll’s house and breathing life into the characters with whom I shared my life, has been a tremendously positive one. Photograph: Fergal Phillips

Hilary Fannin at the launch of Hopscotch: The process of writing a memoir, of blowing away the chalk dust from those formative years, of opening the suburban doll’s house and breathing life into the characters with whom I shared my life, has been a tremendously positive one. Photograph: Fergal Phillips

 

“Never start a sentence with the word ‘I’,” the nun used to tell us, standing in front of the blackboard, chalk spores lightly dusting her habit. “Never I, girls, never I. We don’t want to be thought of as vain and selfish now, do we?”

“No, sister,” we tiny grey mice in our pleated grey skirts and roomy grey pullovers would reply. “No, sister, we certainly do not.”

I. I. I. I. I. I.

After more than three years of writing a personal column for The Irish Times, after more than three years spent breaking off small chunks of my nearing-its-sell-by-date life and throwing the crumbling pieces to the newspaper-reading ducks, starting a sentence with the word “I” still makes me wince a little inside.

Can you start a column, or sentence, or even a book, with the word “I”, without sending peals of irritation through the reader? Without causing cheeks to pinken with annoyance, lips to purse with impatience, and red Biros to strike from under a dark habit, crossing out that slovenly, lazy, selfish, self-aggrandising word, that who-do-you-think-you-are word, that too-big-for-your-own-boots word, and making you start your sentence all over again?

I am beginning to believe that you can.

When it was mooted by the publishers at Doubleday Ireland that I write a memoir, my instinctive, or rather my learned, reaction to such a bizarre proposal was to say no. Say no and run.

No. No no no no no. No, I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s called showing off! Memoir? Have you lost the run of yourselves altogether. Are you insane? Writing a memoir (excuse me while I just snigger up my well-chewed sleeve here) is akin to putting your head above the parapet, with your tongue out, your fingers waggling in your ears, and inviting someone to take a running kick.

I’d be slaughtered. Memoir? Who do I think I am? The cat’s bloody mother?

I was thinking “no” when I heard my mouth say “yes”.

“Yes,” it said. “Oh yes. How kind.Thank you very much. I’d love to write a memoir, couldn’t think of anything nicer. I’ve only been dying for a chance to air my putrid linen in public and invite the scorn and derision of the three people who might actually buy a copy.”

The publishers produced a contract. I couldn’t sign it quick enough. It was just after Christmas. All over the city, people were packing away fairy lights, sweeping the faux snow from inside shop windows. Nothing felt quite real.

“We’ll need the completed manuscript by late summer,” the publishers warned.

“No problem,” I replied, while my gut sank lower than a stricken armada and waves of panic washed over my neck like the whisper of a noose. We shook hands. I sat in a bar with my agent on the way home, and we borrowed a pen from the barman so that we could could calculate word counts on the beermat.

“My column in the paper is around 800 words,” I told her. “How many words is a book?”

“Around 80,000,” she replied, smiling.

She’s American; she’s culturally hot-wired to smile her head off through unpalatable news. Eighty thousand is a sea of words.

“Do you think it’s okay if I start some of the sentences with the word ‘I’?” I asked her.

I went home, started writing column-sized chunks, tried not to think about deadlines, word counts. I sat down, remembered a little girl in grey uniform singing a song about a hole in a bucket, while outside the high classroom window an autumn day ripened to yellow. I had begun. I kept writing, throwing a handful at a time to the yodelling ducks.

Someone – I think it may have been my Doubleday publisher, Eoin McHugh, or maybe my wonderful editor there, Brian Langan – convinced me that memoir, rather than being something to fear, was a very freeing form in which to write.

Our memories are just that, our memories, personal, unarguable, unique.

You and I might have witnessed the same event, fought the same beast, loved the same child, but our experience will be radically different, our memories entirely our own.

The book, with me nominally at the helm (it seemed, after a couple of weeks, to take on a life of its own), began to restrict itself to a handful of childhood years. I found myself focusing on the period between starting school, in the redbricked convent that sat on top of our parish like a very grand Sunday hat, and being asked to leave the same school five years or so later by the head nun. My family and I had somehow failed to live up to the expectations not just of Sister Immaculately Immaculate (no, that wasn’t her real name) but also of a larger society, a changing world, a restless culture that, as a child, I observed and attempted to be part of, without ever quite grasping the finer points of the rulebook.

Life doesn’t lie down quietly and take a nap while you’re writing. If anything, my domestic and work life seemed to intensify. We lost a close and much-loved family member, my mother became ill, other work was pressing, demanding attention.

When Hopscotch finally came back from the printers, tucked itself between covers, slipped itself into padded envelopes, posted itself to that population of people whose stock-in-trade is books and bookselling and book judging and appraising, I felt relieved, I suppose. Relieved that I’d met the deadline, albeit with priceless help and encouragement from all at Doubleday Ireland; relieved that I had the time to think about something else again, ironing the cat maybe.

In the end “I” wasn’t struck down by a bolt of lightning or eviscerated by a razor-sharp red Biro for daring to write about myself and my early life. Indeed, the process of writing a memoir, of blowing away the chalk dust from those formative years, of opening the suburban doll’s house and breathing life into the characters with whom I shared my life – my parents, my siblings, my educators, the secret shadow dancer who was always there but never to be spoken about – has been a tremendously positive one. I am deeply grateful to the people whose encouragement and belief made it possible.

I am glad my mouth said yes. I am glad that slovenly, lazy, selfish, self-aggrandising word, that who-do-you-think-you-are word, that too-big-for-your-own-boots word, that skinny little letter “I”, that carries a lifetime of memory, prevailed.

Hopscotch by Hilary Fannin is out in paperback on June 16th (Black Swan Ireland, £7.99)

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