Cringe: Is there a price you have to pay for writing?
Mary Morrissy on her career as a writer, an extract from Look! It’s a Woman Writer
The Town of Fibs
Your first attempt at fiction is during the summer of 1967. You are 10. It’s very hot – of course it is; it’s a summer from the past. But no, really, it was. The tar on the road curdles and softens and gives off a singed smell. It is too hot to walk on in bare feet.
The soundtrack is Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) – written for another summer entirely in Haight-Ashbury, the exotic elsewhere. Meanwhile you’re on a holiday in a rented house in Portrane, with your mother, two brothers and sister – and your father on weekends when he escapes his civil service job in Dublin, 15 miles away.
You are going through a tomboy phase, wearing hand-me-down shorts from the boys and a grey sweatshirt they’ve both grown out of, sent from relatives in America. Sweatshirts are unknown in Ireland at the time, so this quintessentially American fashion item is much coveted and envied. It gives you an extra swagger.
You don’t know where the idea comes from but suddenly – it seems – you decide you’re going to be a boy. (Now, of course, you understand why – your sister, then a cute two-year-old cherub who came as a great surprise – to everyone – has inherited your mantle as the baby of the house). You have unconsciously found a way out of that conundrum.
You will keep on wearing your brothers’ clothes as you do now, you will call yourself Mark, which requires only the change of one measly letter in your given name. The transition shouldn’t demand too much of anyone else, you think. When you get back to Dublin, you’ll get your hair chopped – it reaches to your shoulder blades and is plaited for school. Despite all the internal planning, you decide to keep this new identity secret for the moment until you have perfected it. While the holiday lasts you live as Mark, but tell no one. (Mark does not survive the summer).
Your father arrives on Friday nights. On Saturday mornings you go swimming with him. The route to the beach is along a sandy track, lined with spiky dune grasses. On one side is a picket fence and behind it is a field filled with an assortment of homes – chalets (glorified sheds, really) built with odd bits of timber, railway sidings and corrugated iron. There are caravans tilted at precarious angles with breeze-block doorsteps, and old train carriages, tarted up in bright colours, grounded on brick towers as if to stop them escaping.
“That’s Baile Phib,” your father says pointing to the summer shanty town. “This is where the Number 19 ends up.”
(Baile Phib is the Irish translation of Phibsborough, a northside Dublin suburb, and is familiar to you from the destination window on buses).
You can barely credit this – that the 19 bus travels this far? Into the country? As far as the sea? But he says it with such authority that you believe him. He is your father, after all.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars
Three years later he will die, after an eight-month long illness. You don’t know this until about two weeks beforehand. In your mind he has been sick for so long that you find it difficult to remember him any other way. Every day when you come home – you’re in secondary school now – you climb the stairs to the bedroom to tell him the news of the day.
It is usually dull fare – what you read in English or did in Irish, something from history, a bit of Latin translation. But one day a visitor comes to school, someone from the outside, and provides a break in the routine. You recall nothing about this emissary – not even if it was a man or a woman. But you do remember the slide show in the school hall about the perils of smoking and its links to cancer.
You tell your father all about it. The slides have given you lots of ammunition – those tumour-pocked lungs in ravishing technicolour, as lurid as bottled babies in formaldehyde. You spare him none of the detail, describing how the rogue cells spawn and multiply and overwhelm the healthy organs of the body that fall, good soldiers slain in an uneven battle. You draw on all the metaphors of war that were used in the presentation. He asks questions; you rattle on.
I see, he says, as you talk about the statistics of certain death.
As far as you can remember, he reacts no differently than if you’d been describing a lesson from your Folens French primer or talking about Caesar’s Gallic Wars. When you’ve run out of steam, he pats your hand – his has turned to claw – and tells you to run downstairs and start your homework. As you reach the door of the room, a terrible thought strikes you. What if this – cancer – is what he has? But no, you dismiss the idea as being like something you’d see in a book or a film. For years afterwards you think you might have hurried his death along by describing its process to him with such forensic relish. Even now, you cringe when you think of it.
The Spirit of Progress
After some almost accidental publication in your late teens, you are scribbling away. That’s the best description of it, an unwilled, spontaneous act not weighed down by the burden of expectation. It’s a background activity.
In the foreground of your life, you’re broadening your horizons. In 1979 you get a working visa for Australia. Australia is your dream world, the place you’ve always wanted to see – its landscape, its largeness fascinate you. You get copy-editing work in Sydney, live in a flat with some Irish expats on Station Street, Wentworthville, a farflung western suburb. It’s not quite the harbourside penthouse you fantasised about but you feel that great inhalation of freedom that comes with stepping off the island. Ireland, that is.
You are seduced by life in Sydney, an impossibly futuristic city to your eyes used, as you are, to the dimmer confines and darker mood of your native Dublin. Here everything seems open, possible. Perhaps it’s that which prompts you. Or is it the repetitive and restricted diet of women’s magazine journalism – your working day involves editing down recipes. Or has the lucky country liberated some aggrandised sense of your secret self? Whatever it is, you decide you will devote yourself to writing, forsaking all others – apart from your six-month boyfriend whom you’ve promised to go back to Ireland for.
You make this vocational decision in a small town called Junee close to the border of New South Wales with Victoria, roughly halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. You’re on your way to visit cousins you’ve never met who live in a place called Sunshine – which you’ve always imagined as a bushy, untamed place, a cross between the set of The Flying Doctors and Skippy. (You realise your mistake when you actually see Sunshine).
You step off the train – which is, improbably, called The Spirit of Progress. Even the trains here have aspirational names! You’re joined by the train’s catering staff – this is where the shift changeover is. There are two hotels on either side of the street, their barred balconies baring their teeth at one another. You choose the Loftus Hotel. Impressions of brown, both inside and out.
Room 11 overlooks the railway tracks and the rhythmic drumming of trains passing through and the clangour of the level crossing bells continues through the night haunting your waking and sleeping. In the bedside table there is a Gideon bible. There are sounds of revelry from the bar downstairs, but you’re too shy to go there on your own. Who would the clientele be? Sheep shearers? Farmers? Commercial travellers? Instead you snack in your wainscoted room, then lie on the bed staring up at the stilled fan in the brown-varnished ceiling and will yourself to create meaning in your life. (You’re 22 and think this is within your control). Now is the time, you tell yourself. You will write, you will write, you will write.
The Black Hole
This optimistic spirit doesn’t persist once back in Ireland, but the decision holds. You’re writing, all right, but now it’s a desperate, furtive activity that can’t be named or admitted to and doesn’t amount to much. (When you cared less about it you had more success). The most important thing about it is that no one must know what you’re doing.
You’re married to a musician (the boyfriend from the section before). Your young husband has no such qualms. He’s out in the world, performing. It isn’t that he hasn’t struggled, but at 27 he’s on the road, sure of his gifts and sure of yours, even though you aren’t. When he tells people you write, you cringe. You’d die if people knew; you cannot claim to be a writer without proof.
The proof threshold is never defined, even to yourself.
When you face the blank page you’re suffused with a poisonous cocktail of emotions peculiar to the writer – two parts dread to five parts loathing. Dread that your material is so thin it will disintegrate on the page, that you simply don’t have enough ideas, that your world is too small and too narrow to write out of. The loathing is reserved for what you do manage to write, which seems paltry and timid. So you hedge your bets. You keep quiet about the writing in case it doesn’t work out. You have a day job as a journalist and you define yourself by that.
You’re living in a commune at the time, a shared household with some half-baked ideals about subverting the confines of the nuclear family. Six of you have banded together, two couples and two singletons, and bought – miraculously – a large Edwardian house, two storeys over a basement, on an elegant square in south Dublin, with a thin sliver of sea visible from the back windows. The house has 17 rooms with intact plasterwork and marble fireplaces. There are lots of wine-fuelled discussions about how you’ll use all this space. A jazz room, a library, a Japanese room?
One of the other young women in the house, J, (from that flat in Wentworthville) is also a tyro writer and you two plan to carve out territory you might use as a joint study to write in. The space you earmark is the coal bunker, a dank hole under the granite steps that lead to the front door, with no natural light bar the manhole up above through which the 19th-century coalman once poured his merchandise. It’s not even watertight. Moisture seeps in from somewhere and you can’t stand upright in it. Cringe has found a home. Here is where we think our writing belongs. A black hole.
You attend a writers’ workshop – your first – hosted by several eminent writers. One, a man, says you are not a short story writer; Chekhov is his model. Another, a woman, berates you for being “evasive”, both personally and in your writing. (Ironically, when you read back over this early work, you smart at how much is unwittingly revealed). Both pieces of expert advice depress you – the first for its dogmatism, the second for its condescension, its whiff of therapy, the implication that you have to fix yourself before you’re allowed to write.
Your first “real” publication – a story in the literary pages of the Irish Press comes after three years in the commune, but your marriage has fallen apart by then. The question that exercises you all through this period is this – is there a price you have to pay for writing? Is it husband and children, or being a writer?
You seek out answers from other writers. Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, writes in an essay that “women artists should have children – assuming this is of interest to them (her italics) – but only one.” Anne Tyler recalls being asked at the school gate by another mother if she’s found work yet or is she still “just writing”.
Either/or? It’s a dichotomy that persists throughout the 1980s – your child-bearing years – and despite being a card-carrying feminist some part of you believes you can’t have it all. No one, not your ex-husband certainly, has ever put the choice to you in these terms. No, this is a virus of doubt you’ve cultivated all by yourself.
A journalist with the Observer interviews you after your first novel is published. You are 37. She notes you are single and describes the book as “your baby”. You bristle when you see it on the page. But she has hit on a truth inadvertently. The child of your writing is always looking to be fed even if it’s only thin gruel.
Despite the cringing, the deep-seated denial, the “black hole” thinking, the writing prevails. From this distance, you see what a false choice you made for yourself. Now you see your uncertainties as a chronic anxiety about your womanhood, not a gun to your head to write.
Whimper, whimper, you’re dead!
After three books and into your forties, you go through a publication drought. It’s a dry patch that lasts 13 years. It isn’t that you aren’t writing – no, in this period you write two more novels and a collection of short stories, but you just don’t get published. Suddenly it’s as if your work is toxic. Your editor rejects two novels; your agent says she can’t sell your work anymore. After 23 years you’re back at the beginning again.
And it’s worse second time around. Because at the beginning you have hope; you have the dream of being published to sustain you and it can be nursed behind closed doors. Now you’re “out”; your secret vice is no secret anymore. As the rejections pile up, you realise there’s a kind of infectious suspicion of the writer who’s been published and then dumped. Is she damaged goods in some way? Trouble in some shape or form?
And you ask yourself the same questions. Was it something you did? Or failed to do? Were you ungenerous in your success? Did you deserve the success in the first place? Did you take it for granted? Has your work suddenly become terrible? Were you ever any good? Have you lost the capacity to judge your own work? Is there anybody interested in your kind of writing anymore? Is your writing relevant? Is it worth continuing?
You very nearly surrender. You’ve given up the day job and you teach intermittently so you have no fixed identity anymore. Or a fixed income. You don’t want to be the kind of teacher who once, long ago, wrote. You consider what else you might do; you toy with the idea of becoming a speech therapist – a road not taken at an earlier stage. At least that way you’d be doing some good. Anything is preferable to this dead end.
But, for some reason, you persist with writing. Not out of courage or confidence, but out of dogged, fatalistic commitment. And because of all the other life choices you’ve made to facilitate it.
Instead, you learn to adjust your attitude to publication, which becomes a lucky by-product of writing, not a transformative end result. You’re writing now for its own sake, to have a body of work even if no one wants to read it.
There’s a different cringe factor to deal with. You start to avoid literary functions and the company of other writers because of the inevitable question. When’s the next book? You quip that you’re writing for your posthumous reputation. But that begs another question. If your work can’t be read, does it exist? And if you’re a writer, that calls into question your existence. Are you already dead?
You Only Live Once
But you’re not – you are published again. You reach your 60th year. More behind you than ahead. A shifting in the sands of time. It’s not all bad. Contrary to the beginning, you’ve too many ideas now and not enough time left to pursue them all. It’s a kind of richness you never imagined, a superfluity the mileage of years has to offer. All the distractions of life that got in the way of your writing have accumulated into a storehouse for fiction.
There’s still the problem of words being dead on the page. And the dwindling band of readers. You’re writing historical fiction, a subgenre, at a time when the literary novel is being declared terminal. You’re writing in the realist mode, when neo-modernism is in vogue. And sci-fi and steampunk and fantasy and autofiction – and a million other more edgy narrative options. But one thing the drought has taught you – you can only write what you write.
Sadly, the cringe persists, if not for you then for others. It may be more diluted but the binary ultimatum hovers in the questions your young female writing students ask – is writing worth it, or how can we live and write, or I want children, or I have children and how is that going to work, or should I just give up?
As if you might know the answer.
And you still don’t.
This is an extract from Look! It’s a Woman Writer!: Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020, edited by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (Arlen House)
Mary Morrissy was born in Dublin in 1957. She is the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey, and two collections of stories, A Lazy Eye and, most recently, Prosperity Drive. Her work has won her the Hennessy Award and a Lannan Foundation Award. She is currently working on a speculative novel about Nora Barnacle. She is associate director of creative writing at University College Cork and a member of Aosdána.
A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape/Scribner, 1993)
Mother of Pearl (Scribner, 1995/Jonathan Cape, 1996)
The Pretender (Jonathan Cape, 2000)
The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013)
Prosperity Drive (Jonathan Cape, 2016)