Mary Costello on the shelter of words and the rightness of writing

VIDEO: ‘People say it’s a lonely occupation, writing. Writers say so too. But I think we’re at our least lonely when we write. I think we write our way out of loneliness’

June 27th, 2012

Last June I gave up the day job to write fulltime. Now, when I rise, a long luxurious day opens before me. I don't know where time goes – I get so little done. In recent months, since my book came out, I'm between worlds. Good worlds. But there's a lot of languishing. I'm not writing, or not writing much. I mooch around, pick up a book, leaf through its pages, set it down again. I'm searching for one who shares my sensations. I know the authors that deliver and, like an addict, I keeping returning to these. I idle. I jot down notes for new stories. I want to start again but I dread the start of anything, for fear I'll spoil it. I miss the old stories. I miss being deep in a story and the routine that brings, the shelter it gives. I used to walk out at lunchtime, under trees by the River Poddle – fingers feeling for the notebook and pen in my pocket. Occasionally, something would drop down – kindling for the story, a small illumination. An Einfall, Jung called this, a thing which falls into your head from nowhere.

People say it’s a lonely occupation, writing. Writers say so too. But I think we’re at our least lonely when we write. I think we write our way out of loneliness. I try to be patient. I know the words will return – any day now I’ll sit down and they’ll do a slow-shuffle back onto the screen and after a couple of hours I’ll be right again. Restored, replenished, energised. There were times, before, after rising from my desk on a good day, when the surge of energy was so great, and I so strong, that it seemed like nothing would faze me. I could, I believed, in those moments, perform near-miraculous acts of physical feat. I could, I thought, hop up, throw open my half-empty fridge, and in the blink of an eye make dinner for forty people. I could run out, harness myself to a plough, turn over a whole field in under an hour. And, oh, go on, show me where Everest is, and I’ll climb it for you.

The immersion, the falling away of time, and place, and self – it’s all gravy, then. You’re very porous, too, everything goes in. A line from a poem or a song heard in a certain moment, in a certain state, and the plainest, mundanest, most ordinary word is suddenly more. Suddenly greater, weightier, suddenly devastating. On those days – rare indeed – you hit a place that is the nearest thing to home you’ll ever know. You are the character in his or her most private being. No, you are yourself. No, you are no one. You hold still, you want time to stop, everything to stop, so you can catch it, whatever it is. Whatever it is, it’s what you’re after. And it’s fleeting. But you keep chasing it. Day after day, you go back for more.


On Monday, we shall publish a round-up of reviews of Academy Street and next Tuesday we shall publish the podcast of Mary Costello’s discussion with Gary Quinn and other Book Club members.