Writing Lives: How to Make it As a Rural Writer

Brian Leyden

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 1 December 2016.


In pursuit of an already self-isolating career is the rural writer further disadvantaged? Patrick Kavanagh, a countryman who knew that if you want an apple to fall in your lap it helps to sit in an orchard, left distinctly unmetropolitan Monaghan in the late 1930s and never moved back. Even today, migration to Dublin, London or New York has the advantage of taking you closer to the hubs of power and influence about which literary circles and the publishing industry cluster.

Against which, Leonard Cohen chose a Zen Buddhism centre on Mt Baldy outside Los Angeles in the belief that “the minimum environment that would enable you to do your work with the least distraction and the most aesthetic deliverance came from a modest surrounding”.

John McGahern, the quintessential rural Irish writer, lived and wrote on a small farm in Leitrim and said “the universal is the local, but with the walls taken away”.

Leastways a decision made where to situate your career puts you in a position to supply literary competitions, journals, agents and publishers with self-addressed envelopes for the return of rejected manuscripts. The process generally starts with a visit to the Irish Writers Centre, Writing.ie, and latterly, the Words Ireland websites, which offer extensive guides on where and when to send out work. In my experience it’s best to begin with a couple of pages of foolscap paper, or set up a spreadsheet, to keep track of every work and every competition entered. At the very least you will be helping to keep a rural post office open. But do not expect the bottom line of submissions and responses to make happy reading. A result, however, makes it money and time well spent.

I got my first break when I won the RTÉ Francis McManus Radio Short Story Award. And to have work published in the likes of New Irish Writing or Stinging Fly, Winter Papers, Gorse, Moth, Banshee or Cyphers, or to be commended, or placed, or to win one of the more respected competitions outright, is how a writer accumulates a résumé and gets noticed.

Hitting the jackpot is acceptance of your work by an established publisher. This has long been the final arbiter of your claim to be a writer wherever you reside, and automatically licenses associated activities. You transition when you get a book published; you cease to be one thing and become another.

If by grace of talent and persistence you cross the publication threshold you will meet the gatekeepers. These are the book pages editors, critics, reviewers and professional colleagues: conscientious individuals who see themselves as standard bearers and guardians of the craft, and of the values that have shaped the literary canon for thousands of years. The newcomer’s depth of reading and knowledge of the canon is the great signifier of dedication to the profession and a passport to inclusion. So befriend local bookshops, especially the independent outlets. Support literary events. Join book groups. Take out subscriptions. Read.

As in the music world, new digital technologies and social media platforms are making huge incursions on traditional modes of publishing and on ways in which to bring work to the market. There are probably two main forces driving this upheaval. The first is the increasing range of self-publishing services and tools that are simple to use and cost-effective. The second is a reasoned response by writers to the dwindling opportunities offered by mainstream publishing. Among the myriad self-released titles there are abysmal books and works that truly deserve publication. The difference is often the lengths taken to replicate the standards and practises of what was once the traditional publishing industry, where skilful writing undergoes rigorous editing, peer review and expert proofing, and design and layout are important considerations.

Also, the self-publishing platforms offer a practical way to reissue out of print titles; and to be in a position to sell books on a scale and in places ordinary distributors are reluctant to supply.

It almost goes without saying internet access is essential, yet a disheartening number of writers who work outside the larger conurbations find themselves stuck with atrocious broadband services; often matched with a useless mobile phone signal. (If naming and shaming gets results, I include Eir among the culprits as they tally my next bill for little more than a buffering service).

Since even the most critically respected writers can take years to complete new work the Arts Council of Ireland is a vital presence in the funding landscape. Different writers take different approaches when applying for support, in that some never miss an annual or bi-annual funding deadline they qualify for, and only proceed with projects that get funded. Others plough on regardless of whether the reply arrives in a small envelope – always a bad sign – or a chunky plush envelope that betokens a successful application.

Regardless of the amount received, great kudos attaches to having the support of the Arts Council, not least for the way literary bursaries are intended to help fulfil personal promise, whereas most other funding bodies have to conform to strategic development goals rather than the furthering of individual excellence. The push towards more prescriptive funding criteria, closer to social provision than support for the arts, has given rise to a species known as “homo applicatus”: endowed with questionable talent but skilled in box ticking.

The proliferation of creative writing programmes helps on the income (and income levy) fronts and PRSI top-ups through university payrolls. Reviewing is scare. A resourceful and effective County Arts Officer and Arts Service are probably the final mainstays of the long-haul rural writer’s upkeep: through direct engagements and commissions via regional theatres, arts centres and festivals, and – in the shortfall left from cutting Poetry Ireland’s funding – by subsidising writers’ groups to engage facilitators and hold workshops. Likewise, a properly-funded library service with the capacity to invite guest authors, fund residencies, and deliver literary programmes not only provides income but allows the writer, as Seamus Heaney says, “to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole”.

Ultimately it is the public who grant you a career – the people decide who they read and buy and turn out for. Some writers are better than others at knowing you need to be able to write, but equally you need an audience for what you write. I would qualify the influence of the public only by adding that audiences have to become aware of your work in the first place. A long-term career in writing endures finally through passion for what you do, wherever the work comes from

Brian Leyden lives in Sligo. His new novel is Summer of ‘63. The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland.

In conjunction with the Words Ireland Writers Series, The Irish Times have printed a series of articles entitled Writing Lives. The Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland and coincides with the Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators.

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