‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’

Shauna Gilligan reflects on being the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s writer-in-residence

It was the day of my first residency workshop with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. On my kitchen worktop lemons nestled in their net, flour unopened, butter out of the fridge and softened, and the caster sugar golden in the light: ingredients ready to become the cake to celebrate the election of a woman to the White House, and to be eaten at the end of a productive creative writing workshop. But as the election results unfurled across the news channels I knew I would not be baking. Later that evening as I walked past Stephen’s Green on up to Leeson Street towards the welcoming reception at the centre, Dublin city felt different, as if something had shifted. In my head I went through the steps of baking that cake; I watched groups of men tumble out of pubs, laughing.

As our workshop got going, I thought of what artist Georges Braque once said, that art is a wound turned to light. It was a cold night when we finished up and I felt a sigh in the room – not of relief – but of satisfaction at the healing power of spending a few hours reading, discussing writing, something other. The peace of water, the smell of polish, the laughter of a common sensory memory. That joy in knowing that the very thing to do in adverse times is to return to the landscape around us, what smells or tastes provide comfort, a place – real or imagined – in memory. We work with what we have to hand; in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. LL Barkat's piece about Aduki Beans rings true. We don't always need to have the right image/emotion/first line. Maybe nothing is right but we still write.

The evening and lunchtime workshops favoured creative process over finished product. At the heart was an active engagement with words in the broadest sense; reading fiction, non-fiction, memoir, interviews, and poetry; discussing our experience of free writing, and considering our creative processes. Much of the writing was influenced by what was happening globally, nationally, personally – as well as the seasons in which the workshops took place. We also returned to work we had already written, seeing it with new eyes. We wrote fresh pieces: raw from heart-felt intuitive reactions to photographs, spontaneous takes on random words, surprised when a painting on a postcard triggered feelings and scenes, which then became engaging stories or poems that begged the reader to think, remember and to question.

We examined exact meaning – without any greys – of the verbs we used to give voice. There's an exercise we did which involves going through a piece of writing and circling the verbs. It's a way of isolating and questioning meaning. Is the verb I wrote really what I mean to say? Is it saying exactly what it needs to say? Is it precisely in the place it must be? You can get to a place where suddenly everything seems uncertain – what did I mean by "walk"? Would "saunter" have worked better? There's a moment or two of wobble before you pull yourself back into the rhythm and sense of the writing, before you change, or revert to your original choice. You sit back; consider the clarity of your piece, the fact that everything you've written is what you really meant to write. There are no grey areas here. There is a resounding yes to all the meanings.


As the workshops took on a rhythm of their own formed and timed by the participants – and set around each of their incredibly busy working days - I gleaned a sense of the intensity of all the work that is done at the centre, and how the residency provided participants the opportunity to step out of the pressure of the daily work and into a space which enabled play, and engaged them in work of a different type.

I also found myself listening more attentively to the news, the active verbs used to name a crime, or the intention behind it. I closely followed the important campaign the centre ran on consent. And I thought – time and time again – of the importance of meaning what you say, of saying what you mean, of igniting your words with passion for and of good. My son asked me if there was one rule to life what it would be. I thought about how awful it is to want to live a life dictated by rules and edicts, yet how much we need boundaries and safety. My mind wandered to Maslow's pyramid of need. I looked into the eyes of this child, the search for meaning and the need to be understood – embers in the pools of brown. And I said three words. Do No Harm. He asked if there was a shorter version of that rule. One word came to mind: Love.

The life of a writer is never switched off. I found myself thinking of themes the participants might like, or writing they’d admire; snippets of dialogue that would fit in a draft of a piece I had glimpsed as it was being created. I spotted the perfect colour of a leaf described in a story about the loss of colour or sight, but never loss of insight. In my own fiction, I’d been writing about war zones, conflicts, and the plight of female refugees in the 1930s and ’40s. Nancy Venable Rain in her book After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back says that “Remembering is a re-creation that gives meaning to the present, itself a moving point”. Over the course of the residency, I found myself considering what I was writing about, and how it is echoed in the current displacement of people, increase of homelessness and escalation of inequality – in particular gender-based violence – here and elsewhere.

Perhaps with writing, not only do we remember, but we re-create and move to envisage new ways of seeing and being in our world. Or, perhaps it really is, as Joan Didion says in the first sentence of The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And if we tell stories in order to live then the practice of a community writer-in-residence is surely less about making that perfect cake and more about working with what we have and where we are; facilitating participants to weave the stories they have found, witnessing emergent discoveries turn into new creations.

Below are four pieces from the workshops – each illustrating the diversity and breadth of the work that was produced.

If those mountains could speak...
By a participant of the Wednesday evening workshops

"If those mountains could speak..." said Farijhe.
"What would they say?" I asked.
"They would say where my husband lies buried,
With the rest of the men, and the boys.

We have searched in hope for many months now
While dreading what we might find–
But all we found were some papers,
And rags, blowing in the wind..."

Prose based on A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8-1543)
By a participant of the Tuesday lunchtime workshops

I wonder how long he expects me to stay frozen, transfixed like this. It’s been nearly two hours now and my neck has long since developed a stiffness and my hat has slipped a little to the left. A consistent urge to itch my nose has also been consistently resisted since we started. Luckily for him that I am an animal lover; hence the little squirrel on my arm nibbling on an acorn is a delightful presence. Her bushy flourish of a tail, however, tickles my bosom. She is his daughter’s pet and is chained which I object to but I dare not raise this with him as it is not my place to do so and Mr Holbein is somewhat irascible.

Still, it is a break from my usual deadening routine. Mr Holbein is a demanding master and expects a full breakfast, butter to be churned and fresh bread bought at the bakery by 7 o’clock each morning. It’s also the first time I have actually sat in this parlour, instead I’m normally scurrying over the wooden surfaces with a brush or a cloth. Life below stairs is relentless, rarely allowing for the light of day or some fresh air air save for my daily excursions to the market.

He’s been quite complimentary about my skin, how unblemished it is, the fullness of my lips. Would that Mrs Holbein was privy to his musings. They rarely sit together and their evening meal is served at separate intervals. Communcation is minimal; the odd reference to housekeeping or how cold it is becoming.

I’d love to swivel my eyes around and look him striaght in the face just as he is doing to me now but he would become angry and that would lead to an awkwardness, a tension. His eyes are an intense blue, piercingly so in fact.

I sometimes sense his loneliness along with my own.

By a participant of the Wednesday evening workshops

Though there are miles between us
and you have no knowing that I think of you,
You are here, your presence will not leave me.
A thin little body, craving and counting calories daily,
receding from a world it can no longer bear.
For you the hangman is redundant,
you chose the rope of starvation. Controlling and
relishing your own shrinking frame.
Yet, you cry out for help.
I use words that seem futile, that float between us,
As futile as your zero calorie diet.
The vicious circle contracts,
tightening its noose round your neck.
Yet, I look on helplessly.

The Red Shoe
By a participant of the Wednesday evening workshops

The small brown suitcase lay half open on the small plain single bed.

Those who viewed it would assume that it would be of the most ordinary items, half filled with what would be considered life’s necessities. The kind of things you would expect to find when travelling; the most practical and functional items all neatly pressed and folded. There were beige and browns, calm and practical with more than a hint of ordinary.

However, peeping out of the corner was one dark red shoe, shiny and perfect. Where did it come from and just what was the story behind it? There it was, solitary and shimmering as it caught the light full of hope and promise. The bold colour was most striking amongst the beige and made quite a statement. It was most unexpected. In fact you could say that it was magically misfitting, adding a dash of sublime to the mundane.

She hesitantly picked up the shoe. Admiring the boldness, she decided on a whim to put it on. She turned to the left and then to the right, suppressing a giggle, then surprising herself she twirled around. As she twirled and twirled, gathering speed, she felt suddenly free as if somehow transformed and liberated.

Yes, she was off balance but strangely she felt wonderfully alive.
Shauna Gilligan is the author of Happiness Comes From Nowhere
This DRCC Writer-In-Residence was an Irish Writers Centre initiative funded by Dublin City Council. To find about more information about Irish Writers Centre residencies for writers click here