Getting down to writing business


Procrastination is the default mode of all writers, writing is a declaration of independence and novels are primarily “ground out in slow paragraphs on boring wet Tuesdays”, asserts DERMOT BOLGERin the first of a two-part series about the process of writing fiction

CERTAIN STATEMENTS may not necessarily be true. Inside every fat man there may not be a thin man trying to get out. Outside every thin woman there may not be a fat man trying to get in. And inside every Irish soul there may not be a novel yearning to emerge. Yet the explosion of debut Irish novels over the past decade suggests there has never been a time when more Irish people are sitting down to see if the novel they always talked about is really inside them.

Writing starts as a deeply private business because memory is private. But writing is a public act too; it is the ultimate two fingers to those forces that wish to label you merely as a consumer, to funnel your thoughts in certain ways, to discreetly sell you lifestyles and packaged lies. The moment you begin to write – be it fiction or journalism, song lyrics or simply a diary – you are making a declaration of independence, determining to think for yourself, to leave a record of the person you actually are as against the person that other people would like you to be.

As part of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s Place and Identity Per Cent for Art programme, I am completing a new novel inspired by my imaginative interpretation of life in Blackrock. Many readers of this will be going through a similar process of writing a work of fiction or procrastinating about starting to write one. I know this because procrastination is the default mode of all writers who, while yearning to write, generally need a metaphorical Colt 45 pressed to their temple before overcoming stage fright and actually getting down to it.

You cannot write a novel in public, but readers who plan to write themselves may enjoy this metaphoric glance over my shoulder. I would like to be able to say what my Blackrock novel is about, but the nature of fiction means that I don’t fully know yet. Certainly I have an inkling. I have spent a lot of time reading about Blackrock, walking its streets and talking to people. I know more about Blackrock than I knew before, but I still don’t know enough about the “other” Blackrock, the parallel one still being formed in my subconscious. While I have names for my characters and think I already know a fair amount about them, I still don’t know enough. My characters are still forming themselves in my imagination. Each day I get glimpses of them, but I can still only guess at what truly goes on in their minds, like I can only guess at what goes on behind closed doors on Sweetman Avenue or Avondale Park, and what commuters truly think about as they wait for the Dart at Blackrock station.

THERE IS Apopular notion of writers as omniscient masters of our invented universes, pulling the strings of puppets who dance only to our tune. Some writers do work in this way. I wish I did. If so I would probably still have hair, but my imaginative life would be less interesting. To put it simply, if I knew what was going to happen every time I sat down at my desk I would probably never bother sitting down.

So in talking about the business of writing, this is the first point I would make: sometimes the less we know about what will happen in a work of fiction, the better off we are. Because the more we know about what happens next, the more we close off the possibilities of the unexpected, the less chance we have of allowing our subconscious minds to speculate and probe down to the awkward truths that we need to express instead of glib things we initially thought we wanted to say.

If we already know what we intend to say, we are going to learn nothing by saying it. Only when we allow our imagination the space to catch us by surprise, when we sit back and stare in bafflement at words that suddenly start appearing on our screens, do we find ourselves to be truly writing. Only then can we honestly say that we are being brought – often by the seat of our pants – on imaginative journeys into the unknown.

Suddenly we have left our comfort zone behind and start to discover things about ourselves, often in the guise of writing about somebody who seems utterly different.

Therefore writers rarely talk much about whatever story they are currently working on. A work in progress is a private affair, because it is an imaginative voyage into the dark. You will often know from quite early on exactly how the book will end, but not how to reach that ending – because if you get too far ahead of yourself mentally, the imaginative curiosity that drives you on may die.

I am the author of nine novels, yet the process of writing a new novel remains as uncertain as when I wrote my first book. Writing my first one was probably easier, in that I felt under no pressure because I never believed that it would ever be published. What held me back at first was a supreme lack of confidence, the inability to understand that everyone’s life is of equal importance. I did not understand that, if written properly with the right engine of curiosity, what fascinates me about a character will fascinate other readers, provided that I commit my heart and soul to that character, that I believe in the world I am making up with sufficient conviction to allow others to believe in it too.

Poetry may be a sprint and a strong adrenalin rush when inspiration strikes and words fall into place (often at unlikely moments). But novel writing is like marathon running. Novels are not written with inspiration, although they need bursts of inspiration. Novels are primarily written through boring, repetitive routine. They are ground out in slow paragraphs on boring wet Tuesdays. They are the culmination of writing sessions when words turn to muck in your mouth and of other writing sessions when you start to filter through words that had seemed uselessly inadequate yesterday and find a way to mint fresh language from them.

  • Series concludes tomorrow

This article is extracted from Talking Books, a free newsletter by Dermot Bolger published as part of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s Place Identity Per Cert for Art programme, available from DLR libraries or from Ciara King As part of the programme, public conversations by Bolger with Gerard Donovan, Brian Keenan, Deirdre Purcell, John Boyne and Claire Kilroy will be podcast on

Bolger will be in conversation with authors Carlo Gébler and Paul Durcan, agent Faith O’Grady and editor Ciara Considine this autumn in Deansgrange library.