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

Catherine Conroy writing in her yard, with bunting and bells for company

Fri, Aug 8, 2014, 01:00

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.


Little rituals

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.

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