Kaleidoscope: a tool and a toy celebrating Irish writing

50 Irish writers from North and South and the diaspora reflect on their writing process

When the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (Efacis) chose the name Kaleidoscope for its first project involving Irish artists, the name appealed, because a kaleidoscope is both a tool and a toy, an object you reconfigure (or play with) in pursuit of luminous fragments. Derived from the Greek, kalos, eidos, and skopós, “to take aim” at the “good form”, our kaleidoscope was an invitation to 50 Irish fiction writers from North and South and the diaspora, to reflect on their writing process. And we certainly received some colourful answers.

Some writers used an extended metaphor, like Mary Morrissy, who sees the writing of a novel as a road trip in a bucking car, or Jan Carson’s fictional character who felt chased by a bird-like presence. Both hunting and hunted, a writer is also haunted: for Claire Kilroy, a novelist feels like a child entering a haunted house; to Dermot Bolger it is like “opening up an imaginary hotel for the phantoms of your subconscious”. In order to pursue this, writers need space to concentrate: it could be the privacy of a packed train (once one’s headphones are plugged in), or when the study fills with silence, the music from a personalised playlist can transform mere space into a room of one’s own (Roddy Doyle).

Going through all 50 contributions one can identify four aspects of the writing process. Firstly, writers must operate at one remove from the world of habit and distraction, secondly they move from the mimetic world to an explorative one, getting in touch with their unconscious; thirdly, as preconscious and consciousness start to dovetail, they begin to love their work. Finally, writers hope that their imaginative exercise will prove as emancipatory for their readers as it was for them.

The first aspect is what WB Yeats identified as “the struggle of the fly in marmalade”. In contemporary parlance, the fly struggles in the nets of social media (Kevin Barry): as our flickering screens incessantly project distractions distorting our ideas we are subjected to “corporate assimilation” (Paul Murray). Beyond these new perils lurks the omnipresent threat of the banal as household chores lure writers from their work (Mary O’Donnell, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne). In order to escape the mere mirroring of reality, Pat McCabe suggests “I might have to disorientate myself” and Bolger agrees: it is not the “glib things” writers need to say, they should “probe down to the awkward truths that we need to express”. For this tall task one needs a “pure heart” (David Park), be without pretence (Mia Gallagher) for only then the “elaboration of the soul” (Eoin MacNamee) can stoke “the right engine of curiosity” (Lia Mills). Against the seductions of “necro-capitalism”, Murray pitches the private space of the novel, where both authors and readers become “able” again “to be with ourselves”: in fiction, succinctly, the “I” finds a playground of identifications and choices where one can, at one’s own pace, discover an authentic self.

Yet the writers’ task is daunting. As Lia Mills notes, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”. If they want to convey real human depth, they must draw from their deepest self, their “own unspoken fears and desires” (Bernie McGill). These can ambush and paralyse, and lead to writer’s block (Kilroy, McKeon). Self-doubt is a “toxic disempowerment” (Mills) which undercuts the necessary sense of authority over one’s fictional experiment. Glenn Patterson’s text focuses on the banality and repeated occurrence of writer’s block: “I have quit writing 783 times”. Contrary to paralysis, a certain mania may also be at work which makes an author lose all worries about oneself and one’s health (Gerard Donovan): to Rosemary Jenkinson, “Writing is everything … Living is merely a hobby”. In Danielle McLaughlin’s witty short story, one’s own life is only interesting if it yields material to be harvested.

But then there is the preconscious which brings, rather than fear and struggles, “serious play” (Mia Gallagher). This is where Bolger finds the “signposts to my adult life”, which “across the decades … often help me survive moments of personal trauma”. Mary O’Donnell relies on “My instinct” which “actively seek[s] things that will nourish me creatively”; Mills talks of “an initiating idea …[which] stands up in the recesses of your mind and waves an invitation”. In Roisín O’Donnell’s specially written short story, My Patron Saint, the author’s subtle (and hilarious) use of magic realism is the perfect medium to describe how a writer interacts with their preconscious. Alan McMonagle’s preconscious assumes the shape of an Ingmar Bergman-like devil; but whether angel or fiend, the interaction is always “seriously playful”, as it demands a lot of psychic energy. Catherine Dunne quotes Nadine Gordimer on this, noting that writing intensifies the “Powers of observation” due to the contrast between “identification with …others” on the one hand and “monstrous detachment” on the other. Likewise, Mills observes how this lively imaginative presence allows one to be “absolutely present” in grave illness. As long as one can “translate experience to words, images, sentences” one can live; if you can articulate the world, you can process it. Nessa O’Mahony agrees, describing the need to “wrestle with images that capture whatever existential crisis I’m currently grappling with”. To Anne Enright, wondering and writing go together: “in uncertainty … I go to the keyboard the way other people go to bed. I wrap myself in work”.

A point many authors make is that writing is never therapy, or healing. It is simply development, “it’s about having somewhere to be” (Billy O’Callaghan): writing is all about exploring the emancipatory potential of the imagination. Each new book is an adventure, there is no plan: “one word at a time will get you there” (Mills), or as Bolger puts it, work is cut up into “achievable mini-summits”.

And what does fiction achieve for the readership? Some writers question the evidences of society, as Evelyn Conlon does in her reaction against the “narrow view of family” in Ireland, or Martina Devlin who looks back on her childhood in Northern Ireland. Emer Martin stresses the cathartic function of stories while Lisa McInerney and Rosaleen McDonagh present readers with characters who would otherwise never appear as “active protagonists” in literature. Against the “precipitous decline in public discourse” and “the rise of hate speech”, Murray pleads for more attention and empathy, two qualities which presuppose the engagement of imagination. But what if a writer empathises with an existing person and translates this life into fiction – is this robbery or recovery ?

These 50 texts which comprise our kaleidoscope offer a multitude of insights into the process of writing creatively. A resource for the curious and the classroom alike, they are freely available to everyone. This was made possible with the help of many: we thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Embassy of Ireland, Belgium, the Northern Irish Executive Office in Brussels and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Since the launch of the website in Leuven on December 1st more authors have joined, and the texts will be republished in an anthology to be launched in Dublin and Belfast, Brussels and Boston in March - July 2019. We hope you are as pleased (and surprised) by these original texts as we are.

Efacis (efacis.eu) is an organisation in which academia works as leverage for Irish literature and culture. It has now managed two European and two worldwide programmes in which Irish literature and culture are analysed, contextualised and translated, and thus made available to a wide and varied audience across the continent. The first two translation projects are published on yeatsreborn.eu and johnbanville.eu, the next one is Aistriú, which involves translating 20th-century Gaelic texts.

The Irish Itinerary, funded by Culture Ireland, has enabled Irish writers and performers since 2013 to interact with some of the 42 centres of Irish studies in the network. Most of the writers in Kaleidoscope are potential participants in the Irish Itinerary; we also hope that the writers in residence project will take off in 2020 so that they can stay in some of the centres offering hospitality. On the academic side Efacis organises annual international PhD seminars (alternatingly in Prague and Leuven) and biennial conferences for all scholars (the next one on Stage Irish in Ljubljana efacis.eu/conferences) and it publishes the internationally peer-reviewed open-access journal RISE (Review of Irish Studies in Europe) as well as the book series Irish Studies in Europe. With thanks to Ciarán Byrne, who skillfully coordinates all these programmes.

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