Open a hotel for your subconscious


Beginning a novel seems much less daunting if you portion off a little time every day to write, take it one page at a time, and follow your imagination wherever it leads you, writes DERMOT BOLGER, in the conclusion to his series about the process of writing fiction

WRITING A NOVEL is like opening up an imaginary hotel for the phantoms of your subconscious. You cannot be guaranteed that guests will turn up on any given night, but you need to have the light on and the door open just in case. I have been lucky enough to write my novels in some unlikely places. Two were written in the watch room of the Baily Lighthouse. Passengers flying into Dublin may have thought that the light flashing on and off at Howth Head was to warn shipping, but it was frequently me trying to find the right light switch on my way out.

But you don’t always need a physical room or a full day of doing nothing else. Writers work in short bursts. If embarking on a book or memoir, what you need is to take your ambition seriously and insist that others close to you respect those rules. You need to partition off part of each day for yourself – even just one hour when you lock yourself away, when people know you are not to be disturbed, when you open that imaginary hotel in your mind and see who turns up.

I have learnt perseverance and patience and that a huge amount of writing takes place in your subconscious mind. It is being formed by your inner thoughts before you become aware of it. It may physically be written during snatched moments if you are juggling numerous responsibilities. But it is also being written in the hours when you are not writing it. Your subconscious mind is toying with it and it will come to you – like a forgotten name or the clue to a crossword puzzle – when you cease thinking about it.

Writing a novel is daunting, but less daunting when written one page at a time. If you wish to not get swamped, you need to break the book down into achievable mini summits, to focus not on finishing the book but on finishing each chapter. You need to know when to push ahead and when to backtrack and restart. Starting again does not mean that there was anything wrong with the original words, but it means that characters change as a story changes. When you start writing a book you think you know your characters, but as the book evolves they evolve too and after 50 pages they have subtly become different from the characters you had on your first page. There also comes a time when you need to go back to the start and readjust things before the characters you are now writing about become detached from the characters you started with.

Few marathon runners run a marathon without hitting what they term “the wall” – the pain barrier that seems impossible to run through, but which you must push past to get your second wind and complete the race.

Similarly few novelists complete a novel without hitting a similar wall more than once. However novelists have certain advantages over runners, in that several tricks can get past this “wall” called writer’s block.

Unlike a runner, a novelist can simply stop and retrace their steps, hoping that if you go back 30 or 40 pages then in rewriting this section you may reacquaint yourself with the flow of the language and rediscover the imaginative thread that leads you on. If you are writing a novel you can also cheat by skipping the next bit and coming back to it again. By this I mean that when a narrative grinds to a halt because your subconscious has not yet decided what happens next, maybe you need to stop worrying about what happens next. Sometimes you need to let the characters float free of that logjam and just imagine them in some other scenario into which the novel might possibly lead them. You need to do what I call “irresponsible writing”. “Irresponsible writing” is a bit like having two of your characters go on a blind date.

Forget about where they currently are in the book and try to imagine them where you might like them to eventually be. Throw them into a totally different situation and see what emerges. Imagine what they might really want to say to each other and just let their voices confess or argue. You may wind up with 2,000 words of dialogue. You may not know how any of this fits into the book, but this unrelated scene may open up these characters for you. Freed from having to carry the plot forward, they may simply speak from the heart. The section may not even become part of the finished book, but when you return to where you are in the stalled narrative you may see your characters in a new light.

That is where my Blackrock novel in progress currently is. It exists in eight segments of varying lengths, pieces of a jigsaw that I have not yet found the code to piece together. It is like the engine of a Ford Fiesta taken apart on a garage floor. Experience has taught me that most of these parts will eventually fit together to form the engine that drives the book forward. As I walk around Blackrock or sit in the small room where I write, I know that dozens of other people are engaged in this same mental game of cat and mouse, are starting to write novels, to abandon novels and restart them as new ideas come.

I wish them all luck and eventful journeys getting there.

  • This is extracted from Talking Books, a free newsletter by Dermot Bolger as part of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Co Council Place Identity Per Cert for Art Programme (available from DLR libraries or from Ciara King,

Public conversations between Bolger and contemporary Irish writers (including Gerard Donovan, Brian Keenan, Deirdre Purcell, John Boyne, Claire Kilroy) will be podcasts on the website and Bolger will be in conversation with authors Carlo Gébler and Paul Durcan, agent Faith O’Grady and editor Ciara Considine ( Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Agents and Editors, but were Afraid to Ask) this autumn in Deansgrange library.

  • Next Monday: Sara Keating looks at development schemes for new Irish writing for theatre

‘I stopped being afraid of uncovering things about my parents or about myself and tried to be honest’

BRIAN KEENAN is famous for An Evil Cradling, his extraordinary memoir of being held hostage in Beirut, but when we talked in Deansgrange Library in May 2009, we focused on the writing of his new family memoir, I’ll Tell Me Ma, which will be published next month.

This is the story of an ordinary boy growing up in Belfast, which recreates the lost world of the 1950s in its vivid vernacular and grey, post-war austerity. Keenan explained how writing the book was not just an attempt to understand his own past, but also to understand the world of his mother, who endured a lingering death while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His conversation became a masterclass in how to approach writing a memoir, in how to find ways to see your childhood and to see the lives of your parents in a new light.

BRIAN KEENAN:I remember, as most kids do, asking your parents questions. My mother was never forthcoming about family relationships, about aunts and uncles and about her father, with whom, it seemed to me, she had a hard time.

If the story had just been about myself it would not have been worth writing but to find myself I had to engage with the very real people my parents were and not shy away from them. Because I am one of these people who believes that the best of books write themselves: the process takes you places and you’ve got to follow even if it might not end up in your book. Because even if it does nothing else, if you follow strange cul-de-sacs into the dark place where you desperately want to avoid because you don’t know where it is going, what you will find, if nothing else, is a perceptive and illuminating vantage point from which to look back on the work you are intending to write.

Even if you never use all this stuff that bubbled up and surfaced up when you went chasing after, invariably it will shape and form what you write and reset your compass point and point you in directions where you have to have a lot of courage to go on.

DERMOT BOLGER:How about family skeletons?

BK:The thing about skeletons is I decided to forgive my anguish about them. I think I was afraid of saying things or maybe afraid of uncovering things about my parents or about myself. Then I just stopped being afraid and tried to be honest and authentic to the words and the story that was coming to me, because it was coming to me because it wanted to be told.

DB:And at the end of the 18 months or two years it took you to write the book, did you know your mother very differently?

BK:Completely differently. I fell in love with a woman in her dying hours that even as a child. and I was fond of my mother as a child, I remember being in love with my mother the way you are with a film star. but I found a new sense of love and compassion and deep understanding and deep sympathy for my mother and all the mountain of pain and hurt that she had carried and talked to nobody about. Strangely, in the “other” of Alzheimer’s – in the mumbo jumbo sequence of incidents that spilled out from her and which I had to piece together in my own confused way – I found that not only did I admire this woman and not only had I fallen in love with her, but she and I were very alike and I was more like my mother than my father whom I probably admired more. And I felt this dreadful sense of loss that I never got to say the things that I should have said before it was too late and now she is gone.

DB:And could you have said those things to a woman of your mother’s generation? Because it was an extraordinarily reserved generation – our parents’ generation. And it is a hard generation to write about because they didn’t leave memoirs, it was a generation which covered its tracks, a generation which was very circumspect.

BK:No, I couldn’t have said these things to her. But I remember – and I write about this in the book –taking my mother out. I wanted to get her out of the hospital, because I saw this woman dying because there was no stimulation. I coaxed her into a wheelchair and wrapped her in blankets and took her out into the grounds of the hospital and talked about the landscape of the city across the way, which we had passed often when I was a child. I tried to tell her about things I had done there as a child and tried to talk to her. You know the way if you ever go and see somebody who is in intensive care in hospital and they are out of it, there are tubes up their nose, but you’ve got to keep talking to them because they hear you anyway and it will just keep their minds alive. I thought that I was trying to keep my mother’s mind alive, but I wasn’t. My mother was very happy with her mind wherever she was. But I wanted her to hear what I was saying and suddenly it was easier to say because I wasn’t sure whether she understood it and I didn’t really need a response. But I suppose, in the end, you do say it because it is all said in the book. My mother was there, although she was dead when I wrote it, but I knew she was there when I was writing it.

DB:Do you ever fear the woman in the book isn’t your mother, that she is a reinvention of your mother and that there is a gap between them? I mean, how real can memoir be?

BK:I don’t know. It can be emotionally coherent because it releases psychological parts of your own understanding about relationships that need to be let out. But I often think that when surviving aunts and uncles and sisters read this, they are going to say: “Ah no, Minnie wasn’t like that”. Well, that’s fine because Minnie was like that to me. Whatever she was like to you is probably what she was like to you but we all understand differently, we all understand separately, we all understand uniquely and that is why everybody has the book within them – whatever that book is – the story about their childhood.

DB:You mean everybody has the right to write their version of the truth?

BK:Absolutely. I have that firm belief. In most of the books I write I have one kind of guiding authentic principle that I cling desperately to, and it is to be brutally honest. Not brutally honest in the sense that you are honest about others, but brutally honest to yourself about the work you are doing and why you are doing it and who you are trying to help. I try and stick by that principle.

If I become inauthentic or dishonest, then the reader would know it right away, and there wouldn’t be a lot of point to it. Anyway the book wouldn’t write itself – if you were fabricating stuff the book wouldn’t come to you. A book only comes to an authentic mind that is prepared to let go.

DB:And is prepared to not lie to itself?