‘Annaghmakerrig has become my go-to place when I feel the need to write new material’
No institution or initiative has had a more profound impact on Ireland’s arts community than the Tyrone Guthrie Centre
Annaghmakerrig: a game changer for hundreds of writers and artists
The story of The Far Side of Happiness, my debut collection of short stories, began in the summer of 2006 at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. I was there to work on a novel I had begun six months earlier. However, as a result of an emotional upheaval that I won’t go into here, I discovered by day two of my stay that my mind was incapable of accommodating the expansive challenges that the embryonic novel held for my distracted mind. And so, on my third morning, I found myself writing a short story. I write quickly, and by the end of that day I had a complete first draft written. Finishing something I had begun that same morning was a completely new sensation. I wanted to see if I could do it again the following day. I did. And the next day, and the day after. Ten days later I had 10 first drafts written of 10 new stories.
Every one of the 16 stories that make up The Far Side of Happiness had their first drafts written in Annaghmakerrig. I go there as often as I can. The idyllic retreat has become my go-to place when I feel the need to write new material. I can work at home and in cafes when I’m editing, but when it comes to writing a new story, the tranquillity and the creative atmosphere that is the essence of Annaghmakerrig is hard to beat. Indeed, I would go so far as to venture that the existence of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre has had a more profound impact on the general arts community on the entire island (it is jointly funded by the arts councils of the Republic and Northern Ireland) since it started taking in writers and artists back in 1981 than any other institution or arts initiative. It has, quite simply, been a game changer for hundreds of writers and artists, myself being one of them.
Typically during those 10 days in 2006 I would arrive at my writing desk five minutes after rising from my bed and I would take up my pen and write the first and then the second and then the third sentence of a new story. Slowly, over that first hour – usually between 7am and 8am – a story would begin to develop. When I had written a few pages, I would stop, have a shower, get dressed, prepare and eat my breakfast, go for a walk, usually down to the lake and along the old tree-lined main avenue, as far as the gate lodge, perhaps a little further, then back to my desk, where I would pick up my pen and resume. I would write until I got tired, then take a break, maybe another walk, maybe a visit to the main house for a tea and a chat with some writer or visual artist or choreographer or composer or photographer or sculptor. The chats are always interesting, but no one stays long because we are all there to work, so soon enough I would find myself back at my desk and immersed once again in the story.
Those extraordinarily productive 10 days in 2006 signalled a turning point in my writing life. While I was writing a new story, and if it was going well, I had a feeling I had never experienced before. I had stumbled, quite by accident, into the perfect form of writing for the peculiar workings of my mind. A curious sort of mental comfort zone in which my mind was working hard yet the feeling inside was more meditative than fatiguing. Partly, it’s that sense of an unknown journey embarked upon and which occupies my thoughts throughout the day – until I write the final sentence – that keeps me fully focussed and aware, in a way that I am not accustomed to. Sometimes, the final sentence can creep up on me unexpectedly. At other times, it can be lurking in the back of my mind two or three pages before I write the ending.
My best stories are written then, not in a trance, but in something not too far removed. I am aware of what I’m writing and I am also lost inside the story, writing one sentence after the next, moving the story on, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always moving forward, the pen moving across and down the page, unstoppable almost, when the story is working.
When the story isn’t working, the feeling is different. The writing is sluggish, I’m less lost in the story, I’m thinking too much. Which I know is an odd thing to say, yet there is, I believe, much truth in it. If I’m thinking too much, I’m outside the story. If the story is working for me, I am inside it and me writing the story and the story writing itself are in a sense inseparable. That’s how it feels anyway. I haven’t thought of it in this way before, but now that I am, that’s pretty much how the thing feels when it’s working.
I also write poetry, and books for young children. But it will be to the short story that I think I will continue to return. The pleasure I get from writing a completely new story that didn’t exist five or six or eight hours earlier but which is now almost fully formed is so satisfying that I cannot see myself stopping for a while yet. That elusive novel will just have to wait. Though the poems will keep on coming, I don’t seem to be able to stop them, even if I wanted to.
Gerry Boland is a poet and author. He was born in Dublin and moved to north Roscommon in 1999. His first collection of poems, Watching Clouds, was published by Doghouse Books in 2011, and his second, In the Space Between (Arlen House) appeared in 2016. In 2011 and 2012, O’Brien Press published his trilogy, A Rather Remarkable Grizzly Bear, the first of which, Marco Moves In, was nominated for an Irish Book Award. He has written two travel books, A Pocket Guide to Dublin (1994) and Stroller’s Guide to Dublin (1999), both from Gill &Macmillan. He has also published a collection of poems for the young reader, The Secret Life of Mothers, and his first collection of short stories, The Far Side of Happiness, appeared in 2018 from Arlen House. He was writer-in-residence for Roscommon County Council in 2013 and again in 2014. He is an experienced workshop facilitator and regularly leads workshops for adults and for children.