Hard truths and hot faces in creative writing
Having given up my legal career in Dublin to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, now I am faced with the realities of my new path
Catherine Conroy writing in her yard, with bunting and bells for company
I am sitting in the garden, reading and working on college assignments. I look up to see my dad standing at the back door, looking unconvinced. I started the master’s in creative writing at the University of East Anglia last September and have come home over the Easter break to hide out for a week. He is starting to worry about when I might be coming back to reality.
I have been using his address for all my “official correspondence” while I’m away, and the stack of windowed envelopes has been piling up in my absence. After nine months of student life, the patience of the banks is wearing thin.
Since the course began, all of the writers we have met are killed telling us that there is no money in this. Late last year, an Irish writer whose work I love came to speak at the university. We had met at a literary festival the previous summer.
Through a combination of white wine and me restraining myself from reciting large chunks of her writing to her, the conversation fell in the direction of house prices and repossession.
When I meet her at the University of East Anglia, she says: “Oh, you were the girl who I talked about mortgages with. Well, wasn’t that a great night for Irish literature?”
After talking for a little while, she says, “Isn’t it good that you have the law though? You’ll need that.”
Everyone will go on to say that: visiting writers, lecturers, agents and publishers. One agent even tells us she prefers dealing with writers who have full-time careers so that extra financial pressure is removed.
Q&As with authors are an almost weekly occurrence on the course. We sit, packed into a room. There is never enough space, so we sit on the floor, leaning our backs against the legs of the ones in chairs, notebooks and pens at the ready.
We want to know how many drafts they write before it comes together, how many words a day, longhand or typed, all the little rituals.
John Banville comes in, balances a glass of red wine on the arm of his chair and says: “I hope you’re not expecting pearls of wisdom. I don’t do pearls.”
Eleanor Catton is charming and wonderful and humble, at 28. A student asks her how she kept herself while writing. “Oh I always worked,” she says. “I had a job in a paint and hardware shop while I wrote The Luminaries. I liked that job because every person who came in had a little story.”
Someone else asks her how winning the Man Booker changed her life: “Well, not in any fundamental way. Like, it doesn’t make anyone love me. I still have to do that all by myself.”
Emma Donoghue says the best thing about writing historical fiction is how cunningly you can hide your own experience in the trappings of the past.
Joanna Trollope tells everyone young in the room that she is afraid they might not yet have enough life experience to write anything very good. (She recently had lunch with PD James, who she believes wrote her best book in her 90s.) Then, before leaving, she sits forward in her chair and says: “It is difficult, but for God’s sake, please persist. Promise me that.”
In the last few weeks of the course, the university organises agent nights, at which agents and publishers tell us how it all works, what is selling and what they like. By the time some people leave the course, they already have agents.
Hot and bothered
On one of the last of those nights, I sit with one of the younger lads, after everyone else has gone, drinking the last of the free wine. While chatting about what we will do with ourselves next, he swipes left and right on his phone. Everyone Tinders in college these days, sitting at their desks in the library, swiping away at faces: nope. “The English use it for dating and the Americans for hook-ups. So it gets a bit confusing,” he says.
Lying back on the couch, he talks about giving up on writing. He is disheartened now, at the end of the course. A lot of people are, as if they have suddenly run out of their allotted time. I’m not really listening to him, instead looking at my phone waiting for a text from a musician I like. “You’re in your 30s,” he says. “You’re in college, and you’re running after a guy in a band. Are you not a bit old for all this?”
For the past eight months, once a week, we have spent three hours in a workshop, in a group of about 20, critiquing each other’s work. The group spends the weekend going through one person’s 5,000 words with a red pen, and arrive in on Monday to sit around and discuss the piece with the group. The author must say nothing.
Like everything else in life, early on you decide whose opinions to take on board and whose you will close your ears to entirely. Sometimes the criticism is hard to take and you leave the room with your face hot and with only a slight thirst for vengeance.
But you are constantly discovering one another through the writing.
You meet someone new and form an idea of them; then you read their work and it’s like they have turned themselves inside-out for you.
You end up in lots of high-falutin’ conversations here that you wouldn’t have anywhere else. In one brilliant class called ludic literature, we discuss nonsense and play. We read Muldoon and Perec and Borges. We listen to John Cage. At times I look out the window and think, Jesus Christ, if anyone heard us.
Towards the end, I sit up late at night and chat with a couple of the Irish lads from the fiction course. I do that sort of awful thing sometimes when I go away: stand in front of other Irish people and say, “Make me feel at home.”
I begin to think I haven’t been very successful at leaving Ireland behind. I turn on Ian Dempsey when I wake up in the morning, and, between Twitter and Whatsapp, my phone is like a portal to Dublin.
A friend compares me to the aul’ fella in the corner of a pub in some far-flung place who hasn’t been home in 40 years but could tell you everyone who is dead or dying in the parish. I know that the night the MH17 plane is shot down, there is thunder and lightning so hard over Dublin that people don’t sleep and dogs hide under beds.
I don’t live there any more, but I am still facing in that direction.
Law or literature?
After all my classes are over, I move to London to address that pile of windowed envelopes.
I’ve been working for a little while now in a skyscraper, where the temperature inside is perfectly pitched, and the windows are tinted so that the sky doesn’t ever look too blue. On Whatsapp, I send a picture back home of the view from the company restaurant. It overlooks the Thames. “Is that a view afforded by literature or law?” comes the first question.
I sit beside a guy from New Zealand. He’s going to do this for a few years, work like mad and travel like mad. “This is what we do. Then we go home. Because this isn’t real life, is it?”
Long hours in an office in the City; it feels like real life to me.
On the Tube in the morning, the men sweat through their shirts around me. Everyone reads or tweets or plays Candy Crush. I wonder if I’m back where I started, if this has all been like some Paulo Coelho parable.
But I wouldn’t give back this year for anything. It is still warm at night when I get home from work, and I tap away at my laptop out on the patio table while my housemates make their dinner inside.
There is coloured bunting strung across the yard and it has little bells that jingle in the breeze. The dissertation is due in September.
A lot of what I’ve written now is based on my experiences of my mother’s death 10 years ago. A couple of my close friends lost their mothers around the same period, and it was a strange time for us all to be left motherless – not children any more, but not yet firmly into adulthood.
One agent says, “Oh, like a meditation on grief?” and I think, God, no, not at all.
So I am here, reshaping it again, waiting to see what it turns out to be.