by Angela Carr
On this first National Writers’ Day, the focus is on the practicalities of being a writer and how to create a sustainable writing life. ‘How I Made This’ gives three writers the opportunity to discuss projects they’ve worked on and share insights on their writing process.
Colin Murphy is a journalist and radio documentary maker, who also writes for stage and screen. His documentary ‘Roger Casement: Apocalypse Now – Africa & 1916’ was broadcast in March 2016 as part of RTE’s Documentary on One 1916 Season.
Murphy sets the scene with a clip from the documentary – he first heard about Casement’s time in the Congo when he was an aid worker in Angola and thought there might be a play in Casement’s relationship with Joseph Conrad, a possible source for his most famous work.
He pitched the radio documentary to RTE, a move he describes as opportunistic, to secure funding for research. Strategically, his journalist experience and skills made the transition into radio easier.
There were also artistic advantages – his previous writing for stage and screen used structural devices that could be applied to the craft of storytelling through radio, putting existing skills to work in a new genre, and incorporating interviews, research, narration and more.
While we might not automatically associate writing with radio, Murphy stresses the opportunities on offer –
- No prior experience required,
- Always open to new ideas,
- An audience of 300k listeners in Ireland – 100k worldwide,
- Working with the best documentary unit in the English-speaking world.
‘I’ll try to make it sound as if I knew what I was doing…’
So begins Kiwi writer Ashleigh Young whose collection of essays about life in small town New Zealand ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ (Bloomsbury, 2018) bagged the Windham-Campbell Prize for Nonfiction, one of the world’s richest literary prizes, in 2017.
The book was eleven years in the making – a process she describes as ‘constructive procrastination’. After years working in an educational publishing company, having her work rewritten or worse – her book about Pluto was pulped when the celestial outlier was downgraded to a dwarf planet – she was ready to create something of her own.
She convinced her employer to send her on a writing course where she received ‘the right measure of encouragement and gentle criticism’. One exercise, describing a childhood memory, conjured her father watching TV, shouting at the rugby, as two canaries sang over the TV sound – she’d found her metier.
She talks about having ‘faith in small things’ – a small town, on the edge of the world, her family, her brothers, where she was always the listener, frequently talked over. Writing allowed her to say what she meant but not everyone wanted to hear.
Her brother objected to her writing putting them on show, talking publicly about things they’d never even talked about themselves. She felt shamed and put the book aside.
Moving away, she started a blog as a means of experimenting and finding her writing persona.
When she talked to her brothers again – they’d eventually regret their earlier rejection – she felt the book could be revived and it gave her the spark to create new pieces. The published collection is, she says, a product of Time + Confidence or Recklessness and a faith that she had something to say:
‘I looked at my stable of former selves and picked the one that would most illuminate the story I was trying to tell’.
‘Just because you haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t.’
Colm Keegan is a Dublin writer, performance poet and creative writing teacher, who wants to ‘be like Dermot Bolger’ – the kind of writer who tries everything.
When the opportunity arose to participate in a 24 Hour Play at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2017, a fundraiser for Dublin Youth Theatre, he decided to throw his hat into the ring but not without reservations:
‘I had the wrong accent for the Abbey,’ he says. ‘I get altitude sickness in places like that.’
However, the opportunity to see new plays and work with top directors and actors proved too strong a pull – putting imposter syndrome aside, he jumped in.
The concept is six original dramatic pieces, written and performed within 24 hours – six writers, six directors, a host of actors. Everyone brings a prop and a costume. Actors suggest something they’ve never done on stage, eg. act drunk, do improv, sing etc. By the time the actors and director left for the evening, Keegan had a wedding dress, monsignor’s robes and one bold idea: a body dragged in onstage.
From 11pm until 7am the following morning, he was on lockdown at the theatre writing the play. The risk in a tight timeframe is there might be a great idea that remains unresolved – Keegan’s aim in taking part was to produce a fully finished work.
He wrote the first scene where two couples meet outside a nightclub but didn’t know what happened next.
‘You must know when to stop,’ he says. ‘Wait. Tune out. Let the magician into the room… It was like a voice whispering in my ear.’
He handed off the script to the director in the morning but instead of taking part in development, he took a step back and watched for the first time with the Abbey audience: ‘A beautiful outcome.’
His final words of advice: ‘Dreamers dream, writers write. Look for deadlines and finish things.’
Writing is a solitary practice. It’s easy to feel everyone else knows what they’re doing and you’re the only one treading water, which is why it is good to be reminded that we belong to a community of writers on a day like this – to meet, to talk and to listen.
My main takeaways from the Practice & Process presentations:
- If you specialise in one form of writing, look for opportunities in other genres that use the same skill sets;
- Don’t worry about taking the slow path. Do the work you want to do and trust it will find its way when it is ready;
- Don’t wait for someone to invite you to try something new – throw your hat into the ring!
Angela T. Carr is a poet and writer based in Dublin. More at www.adreamingskin.com