Seeking inspiration from the master of memoirs


'All our demons have been let loose': Michael McCaughan joined a writers' weekend in beautiful corner of Co Kerry designed to release the books within

It is often said that everybody has a book inside them waiting to get out, but few people have the time, energy and commitment to convert that dream into reality. In recent years, however, writer's workshops and weekend seminars have offered aspiring amateurs a chance to test their mettle with a "real" writer who offers a professional opinion and a signpost along the difficult path ahead.

Last month in a beautiful corner of Kerry, ten self-confessed "non-writers" took their private scribbles to memoir guru Carlo Gébler, hoping for a kind word to kindle creative flames. The weekend was organised by Dingle Writing Courses Ltd, established in 1996 by Nicholas McLachlan, Abigail Joffe and Camilla Dinkel, with Arts Council support. Past tutors have included Paula Meehan and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Student numbers are limited to 14, combining group work with individual tutorial.

"I thought of cancelling," said Gébler at dinner on the Friday evening, before rallying his troops with some combative words. "I want everyone here to go away with something in their pocket, a piece of work they can be proud of." Gébler had been throwing up for the previous 48 hours and appeared in no shape to be allowed out of bed, let alone muster up the focus required to pass sentence on 10 precious texts in search of a blessing.

The weekend programme involved two one-on-one encounters with Gébler, for 20 and 10 minutes respectively. This was the crux of the programme. The business minds among us calculated the cost of personal access to Gébler to be €10 a minute, a crude calculation which overlooked the food, atmosphere and seclusion of a weekend spent in one of Ireland's most beautiful settings.

The event was held at Lios Dána, a residential centre at Inch, dedicated to holistic pursuits, perched on a hillside overlooking the spectacular strand below. The guests slept two to a room, guaranteeing social interaction. My presence caused initial distrust as participants suspected a hack on the prowl for a juicy story. The mood lightened as it became evident that I was just one more aspiring writer, using that well-worn journalistic device - the feature - in order to gain entrance to the fiesta.

It soon became apparent that each of the aspirants had arrived bearing their most intimate revelations, themes they had dwelt upon for years. There was rape, food addiction, love and loss, grief and displacement. Somewhat of a skeptic on the issue of weekend authors, I was surprised to find myself making a mental note that at least three of the ideas, if completed, would be on my Christmas list, without a doubt.

Memoir is a literary genre which has taken off spectacularly over the past decade, offering a platform to anyone with a good story to tell and a knack for the common pulse.

The single biggest factor which motivated everyone to attend the course was Gébler's own memoir, Father and I, a moving account of a troubled childhood but also a journey of redemption as understanding became healing.

"You can't change the past," wrote Gébler, "but, with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it." After dinner on the first evening a fragile Gébler set us a task: a one-page prologue, outlining our book idea, accompanied by a two-page narrative, sketching an incident within.

Gébler was reserved and aloof, barking orders in the clipped tones of a drill inspector. "I want conflict!" he said, eyeballing us one by one. "I want narrative!" Thankfully he then collapsed and went to bed.

Some of us stayed up chatting; others withdrew to their rooms while at least one person stayed up and typed their way through the night. A list was drawn up, requiring everyone to select a time slot to meet Gébler. We would have a 20-minute audience on Saturday then half that time again on Sunday, to wrap up the tutorial.

I signed up for the first slot. The mood was a trifle mercenary as each person weighed up the relative advantage of additional preparation time over the risk of Gébler's anticipated hospitalisation by lunch time.

I STEPPED up to the confessional early on Saturday morning after a bowl of porridge and a pint of coffee. Gébler sat in an armchair, gazing toward the sea as he listened to my hesitant words. There was something eerie about the man's powers of concentration. He listened in a state of dreamy absence then retraced the entire passage, almost word for word. I read a piece about my father, which included a passing reference to a kettle. "What was the kettle like?" asked Gébler, who then spent several minutes discussing the sound, form and texture of the Gébler family kettle. He offered some specific tips and told me to go away and rework the text.

As each candidate came and left Gébler's office there was a general consensus that, at a single hearing, he had captured the essence of the text and passed acute observations which encouraged each writer. The critical yet compassionate gaze was all that was needed to raise morale as each student emerged with renewed energy to attack their draft.

One woman read me the prologue to her story that afternoon, a sudden journey into horror, calmly revealed under a late October sun. "Would you be mad if I raped you?" she began. "I was not raped by a hooded stranger in an alley; my rapist carried no gun. There is no official record of my assault." Her words disturbed and provoked, causing a certain unease among the group. This seemed like the very essence of a good memoir in the making.

"All our demons have been let loose," said another woman late on Saturday night, as small affinity groups huddled in different rooms. "And there is no one to pick up the pieces". It appeared that an on-site psychiatrist might have been an additional administrative aid.

Camilla Dinkel coordinated the activities, one eye on Gébler's strained health, another on the evolving group dynamic. There were rows and huffs, facilitators and conciliators, as each person assumed a role suited to their abilities. The following day, at a second sitting, Gébler once more offered helpful hints but also criticised sloppy aspects of the work in progress. It was a challenging yet satisfying encounter.

"This is a rare opportunity for highly motivated people to get away from their ordinary lives and get on with writing," said Dinkel. "No distractions, great food and beautiful surroundings."

For once the hype seemed justified, although anyone expecting a magic wand to turn mediocre prose into literary genius will be sorely disappointed.

Dingle Writing Courses, tel: 066-9154990, fax: 066-9154992,