Why write: A more Humble and Sustaining Path

I’ve just finished Douglas Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby, a very touching book about human condition and it’s made me understand what I want to do as a writer. It’s not just about me finding a way to unburden and express myself but it’s also important to me to pay witness, yes to speak for the ordinary people or speak through the mouths of ordinary people and to touch others. When I wrote Housewife with a Half-Life I felt it was a touching book and that it said some human things and with its follow up and the other books I’m working on I want more than anything to continue that, to make entertaining books but those that at their heart are about people  just trying to find their way.
I think that’s what I saw in Douglas Copeland and what I need to say over and over is this generation is all about finding ourselves and being who we need to be and not sacrificing ourselves for others and yes it is so hard when we reach out and care for others and when they don’t reach back or sometimes do even more, turn against the care and twist it round and make it nasty. Or when society deals unfair blows, lets banks destroy lives, take away supports from those who need them most. But turning outward and finding the joy in that is what really sustains us, and turning away from the idea of the troubled artist to one who wants to connect and testify to life is what can give us a more sustaining ambition.
I heard a lovely piece on the radio about Alice Munroe who recently won the Nobel Prize for writing. All she wrote all her life was local stories about ordinary human things. She didn’t try and follow the market or trend, she could not explain her stories she said, she just reached in to what was real and did it. The writing and the witness was the thing, for her and how lovely that her writing was, in the end, recognised at the highest level.
What I want to do, have always wanted to do is to spread some comfort and to express what is uplifting and admirable in the world against the juxtaposition of the struggles we face. This is exactly where books such as Eleanor Rigby, The Fault in our Stars and the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are pitched, loneliness, connection, disaster and optimism side by side.
To try and stay true to exploring these human fundamentals is a more humble aim for our work. It takes the worry and the hype away from writing because if you stay true to that thing, that idea of humanity that that you want to get through, this is the purpose of the books, the focus of it, then that will give a path through. Technically I want to make characters in the book real, I want us to care about the people more that the ideas behind the books, I want the human to come through – even when I talk in certain books, about possible aliens and UFOs, it’s still all about humans. Motifs such as Voyager travelling out of the known universe now with all these human artefacts on board, going just to see what’s there are very relevant and striking to me. We are all Voyager, travelling across our human lives and carrying the markers of our lives with us.
We like the idea of this cabin away from the world without society beating in because society and it’s preoccupations and inequalities becomes a fog, creates chains, keeps us from the quietness of the things that are important. I want my books to be cabins that people can go into and find these human stories, stories about our frustrations and concerns, our strange psychologies. Life is the thing and the writing bows down to it. It is a more humble starting place, it may be a more vocational philosophy that others trying to develop a writing career are comfortable with. It does not preclude all ambition to be published though or to be known, but it’s main focus of making and testifying takes, in every instance of writing presence and practice, the external worries away. It’s then about you and the clay and the shapes you want to make, not whether others will like them just now.

Related: Dan Holloway’s new book Self-Publish with Integrity helps you explore what you want from your writing

More thoughts on maintaining the Integrity of your project http://alisonwells.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/taking-the-time-for-the-book-you-want-to-write/


What I’m writing now: Eat!

I’ve been tagged by fellow writers Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Paul Carroll to take part in the What Am I Working On blog tour. Due to family circumstances I haven’t been able to be online as much and so haven’t done the requisite forward tagging to other writers. But writers I admire who have a lot of great stuff going on at the moment are Kirsty Logan, James Claffey, Colette Caddle, and Anouska Huggins (who is appearing on the facing page with me in this issue of The Stinging Fly), so do check our their activities and upcoming work.

1) What am I working on?

I am writing a new, very visceral, language intense book called Eat! which originated from the flash fiction of the same name which is in the spring Stinging Fly. It features a girl, Anise Fish with pica, a killer/cannibal and a gingerbread house exhibition among other things. It’s set in the Irish boom and explores the psychopathology of loss and greed,  consumption and acquisition and the modern tensions of development versus landscape.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know that it does. There are many books such as Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, and Eimear McBrides A Girl with a Half-Formed thing that let language create the atmosphere and mood and that revel in the joy of language itself while telling a story. What these books do and what I hope my book does is let language evoke particular emotional resonances, to draw the reader very viscerally into the feeling of the story. This book differs from my other books so far and perhaps other published books in the extent to which I throw the reader directly into a more subconscious experience through the evocative language of food and food memory.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Most of my books are about either ways of telling a story or about belief (which is also how we tell ourselves stories). With a background in communication studies and psychology and an interest particularly in social psychology I am fascinated in tracing how extremes of belief and delusion, trends and mania can occur on either an individual or societal level. In many ways the boom/Celtic Tiger was a maladjustment to various social conditions and elements in Irish history. On a personal level our actions can often stem from old losses or gaps in our personal histories. In the novel I have just finished The Exhibit of Held Breaths I trace how an strange Art exhibit becomes the conduit for the fears, anxieties and hopes of both individuals connected with the exhibit and the entire town in the strange and anxious landscape of the 1980s. We often wonder why people act the way they do, why evils such as Nazism happened, what I look at in my stories is how, incrementally people can move toward psychosis or at the very least poor decisions. It’s an endless topic which I know will occupy me for the rest of my life.

4) How does my writing process work?

It depends on the project. For Held Breaths it started with me jotting the first line in a notebook, then writing a short story based on the idea, then writing scenes and matching them up to the chronology of the short story. In general, I’m not a plotter, at first ideas and scenes mushroom in my head and I write them as they emerge. This can be quite a visual process. With many random scenes, I then go through a painstaking (and sometimes painful!) process of seeing how the scenes fit best together dramatically to create a holey first draft. Gap scenes then need to be filled to create a complete draft, then there are many drafts and revisions to organise chronology, cut or enhance characters, heighten tension, create meaningful links and transition, heighten voice and cut superfluous detail or repetition. The aspect of writing I love most is when I’m following a thread of associations to create interlinked scenes which later add layers to the book and when I’m so immersed in a scene that I draw on memories and information that I didn’t even realise were there. My aim in writing is to bear witness to the wonder of life and the fascination of what it is to be human. Through associations and language I try to draw out the feeling of our human experience.

Creativity, Verve and Short Story Submission Opportunities

For various reasons (head Under water) I haven’t posted here in a tremendously long time so this will be a various post to apprise you of some interesting posts and submission opportunities etc.

In the particular spirit of this blog and it’s focus on getting into the mindset of creativity, I read this great post recently on creativity and endurance sports, in this case cycling.

This month one of my writing dreams came true when I was published along with some dear writing pals in this issue of The Stinging Fly. The flash fiction Eat! is the genus for my next novel that I’m currently putting in some semblance of order to get a working first draft. (In the case of this particular book I’m writing in bits and inspirations that I’m sticking together later to form a coherent (I hope!) whole.

This issue was guest edited by Nuala Ní Chonchuir who is a prolific, poet, short story writer and novelist who has a novel coming out on April 7th with the fabulous title The Closet of Savage Mementoes and who recently announced a further publication deal with Penguin UK and USA.

The Stinging Fly has a new editor Thomas Morris who presents us with this rousing and insightful editorial into what a short story is, can be and above all about your relationship as a writer with your own short story writing, what you can do with it and why you should follow your own path and heart when writing. Read it all here, it’s very worthwhile.

The Stinging Fly is also open to submissions for the whole month of March. I write about Mslexia’s short story competition and the resources for those thinking of entering in my most recent writing.ie post here.

If you want to discover some exciting Irish literary mags to submit to, browse through the articles in my writing.ie blog Random Acts of Optimism. I’ve spoken to editors from ESC, The Moth, Number 11 and The Bohemyth so far in my lit mag series.

And Quick! Pal Calum Kerr who runs the UK National Flash Fiction Day is looking for submissions for this year’s micro fiction (100) word prize. Deadline Sunday 9th March! All details here. It’s a great comp and publication to be involved in as I’ve had the pleasure of both last year and in 2012.

If you want some tiny fictions to get you inspired, you can grab my Stories to read on the Train for only 77p.

New Year, New Writing Verve

New Year's in beautiful Kerry

New Year’s in beautiful Kerry

Happy New Year and I hope it will be a terrific one for you personally and writing wise. This time last year I took the big step of committing to a creativity post each and every day of January and while I hope sometime to compile these and others I’ve written into a downloadable book, the resource of those 31 posts, on walking, persistence, inspiration etc is there for you to peruse now and all the links are here.

To start off with verve this new year I’ve written a post based on my reading of Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing called Writing with Love and Gusto: Lessons from Ray Bradbury over on my Writing.ie blog. Please take a look and share your thoughts. As you’ll see I wrote a list of my life fascinations in the post as it’s by following and exploring the things we love that we can put heart into our books and make them sing for readers and agents/publishers alike.

I like to think that I put my fascinations and wonder at this world into my books, and I write to connect and share this wonder with others, so I’d be delighted if you want to read any of them. (They are good value I think!) You can read what people said here or go direct to a full list here.

Let me know if you will be releasing a new book this year or what you are working on. I’m submitting my novel about an unusual exhibit that transforms the life of a town and a reluctant curator The Exhibit of Held Breaths to agents just now and I’m still very excited about a new project set in Ireland’s manic boomtime, a voracious, linguistic feast exploring greed, emptiness and featuring a girl with pica and a would be cannibal. The book is called Eat! and the flash fiction from which it is developed will be in the next issue of The Stinging Fly.

Now I must fly, wishing you every good thing this year and the determination and optimism and love in your work to keep going at whatever you do.

Explore! Be Brave! New Planet Cabaret

new planet cabaretNew Planet Cabaret is a brand new flash fiction and poetry anthology full of experimental, wacky, way out and deep in observations, playing with rhythm and beat, irony and satire, postmodern memes and themes and good old fashioned storytelling. Some pieces are self-referential, from Freddy and Jam-Jam Head to Outguard that takes apart narrative and the notion of a book, or this book itself to Kate Dempsey’s Yesterday whose satirical pieces underlines what effect, in an ideal world, poetry and fiction in general should have upon the world (how we wish!). Throughout this is a book that pushes, yearns, puts the finger up and asks questions, there’s a strong thread of laying life on the table and asking is this the way we want it to be, and just look at what we face every day. But in no way are these questions asked while lying quiet and low, there’s defiance and brilliance, like turning a crystal every which way and seeing the bright reflections, this collection dazzles and cuts through, slicing the way through the undergrowth of life to make new paths, new possibilities.

Explore! be brave! this is the message of a book that is entitled New Planet Cabaret, this is the message I felt when I went to the launch in Dublin’s Gutter Bookshop where energetic, surprising and mind bending performances from the likes of beatbox poet Jinx Lennon with North Louth Moustache Sunday Roast, Shush by Colm Keegan (makes you hold your breath), Fighting the Man by Cathal Holden, He Sent her a Text by Brigid O’ Connor, Gawk, Sarah Clancy and Perfection by Mel Kavanagh, the previously mentioned Freddy and Jam-Jam Head to Outguard, and a piece by Sarah Marie Griffin (apologies if I’ve left anyone out, my memory ain’t what it used to be) all these, delighted and inspired and woke me up to what’s been done out there right now by a plethora of unique thinking individuals. And what was performed is just a drop in the ocean, there are forty seven pieces in the book to be devoured. The fabulous cover designed by Julianna O’ Callaghan represents the journey that writers can take in exploring their own new worlds of ideas and words.

Explore! Be Brave! Take chances. For me that’s always what flash fiction and peer review opportunities such as #fridayflash and Fictionaut have been about. That’s what flash fiction is about, the chance to take a single idea, tear it apart and put it back together again upside down. For editor Dave Lordan, it’s all about embracing creativity. The book originated through the Creative Writing Workshops run on RTE Arena arts show by Dave. He gave a prompt each month and people responded. The book is just a slice out of the new pieces that were generated by the show. In all seventeen participants were chosen from the creative writing prompts and then further pieces were added to the book by writers already out there who were challenged to do something completely new. Dave Lordan is passionate about this venture and about stirring up creativity in general. His editorial at the start of the book evidences that. Within the book he made loose groupings of pieces around the headings, The Day Began with Silk, Control to Let Go, Sluminosity, Premature Obituaries, Scroobfish and Slaughtered Dreams, Rebelling against the Signs, Electric Sutras. Each title is a magnet for work with a particular preoccupation and as a whole the book takes us through the preoccupations of Irish society, right down into gutters and back out and to higher reaches as we explore the tar and the blazing light of being human. The other day I was blown away by an Italian chef on Masterchef (more in a future post) who was the epitome of the creative mindset, he was joy and verve personified, he created dishes like mini flash fictions, each told a story and the essence of each story had to be translated into a taste sensation. He decorated plates like expressionist paintings flinging the jus onto the plate. New Planet Cabaret does similar, emotion, colour, tone, rhythm, sentiment flung onto the plate with joy and abandon but the effect is cohesive, the juxtapostions new, startling but wonderfully satisfying.

There is a vibrant performance scene in Ireland whether it be at open mics or festivals, there are many opportunities to get out and connect with an audience and the performance at the Gutter Bookshop which was live broadcast by the superb ARTS show RTE arena emphasized that. Poetry is meant to be read out loud and with flash fiction where a play can be made with rhythm and language it also makes sense. Personally I remember the great buzz I got from the audience reaction to a particular piece EAT! (now forthcoming in the Stinging Fly) I read at one of the Big Smoke Writing nights. For writers, too long sitting down in quiet rooms, to take words to people face to face is to add a new dimension and vibrancy. In the absence of face to face, I’ve recorded my piece The Woebegone’s Slaughtered Dreams here.

I think you should get your hands on New Planet Cabaret. You should get your hands on New Planet Cabaret if you want to educate yourself on the new, modern and into the future kind of writing that is happening in Ireland right now, if you want to be inspired and feel shocked and horrified and hopeful and thrilled, if you want to find a path for your own new ideas, if you want to find a way to explore and be brave, this is a book worth diving right into.

New Planet Cabaret is available from bookshops, is published by New Island in association with RTÉ Arena, and is also available online.

My secret life with an inflatable Dalek


You think you know someone but then you discover they have this whole secret life you never imagined. Given the week that’s in it (for non Doctor Who fans, the 50th anniversary episode airs on BBC on Saturday and we have cinema tickets for the 3D version, Woohoo!) I decided to draw attention to one of my other blogs where I document the domestic life of an inflatable Dalek.

Here is the latest picture where the Dalek dreams of a house with no stairs. One of the pictures later in the week will be the Dalek reading one of his favourite novels, but what book is it? You can guess in the comments if you like!

A post on more literary matters tomorrow!


Short story hub and Strictly Critical

My youngest is six today and I became the mother of a teenager on Tuesday. I have a party to organise now so I’ll just leave you with a few links. In a recent post on writing.ie I talk about criticism and why tough judges like Craig Revel Horward on Strictly Come Dancing aren’t necessarily bad. We all need challenge and sometimes realistic and nit picky criticism CAN be a compliment and a sign you’ve reached a high standard. Read more and see if you agree or not on Strictly Come Writing: Why we need critics like Craig.

Great short story news. Máire T. Robinson is one of the founders of a new central resource for Irish short stories (including reviews, sub opportunities and more) Short Story Ireland. I interview her about the background to the venture and what’s on offer here.

Another site dedicated to getting excited about the short story in the UK and Ireland has been announced by Tania Hershman. It’s called Short stops and will feature links to lit mags, live readings and more.

Here Rachael Dunlop wonders if age makes a difference to publishers and agents.

I am very quietly (and somewhat casually) taking part in the 50,000 word challenge nanorimo this year (more on that anon). If any of you are involved and want to buddy other writers, I am writing as randomoptimism this year. Feel free to leave your nanowrimo username in the comments if you want some camaraderie, which is what it’s all about really!

Now off to organise musical whoopee cushions game :)






Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ni Chonchuir Review and Interview

Of Dublin coverBeing a flash fiction aficionado it was my pleasure to be able to review Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapbook of tiny fictions Of Dublin and other fictions. Published by Tower Press in the USA it consists of eleven flash fiction gems. What I particularly love about Ní Chonchúir’s writing in general and this collection in particular is the diverse mode of her writings. She explores both territory that is otherworldly and situations that are utterly real and feelings that are both tender and terrible. In stories such as Penny, Leo and Married Bliss and in the voice of Jesus of Dublin she evokes the colloquial and colourful. We feel a strong affection for the characters in these slices of life. Her stories are lusty, vibrant and irreverent, grabbing you right into the heat of the moment, and with her stories, it’s definitely heat.

In Room 313, From Ugly to Alice and Fish the undercurrent of sexual tension reveals the very human vulnerability of the characters. Throughout, and very much in the more fantastical and philosophical stories such as TreeDaughter, Vincent in the Yellow House and The Road that Mills and Boon ®Built the book is both sensuous and gorgeous in language and sentiment. Striking moments of connection leave the reader with an sense of humanity’s enduring journey throughout time – no mean feat for stories that are only a few hundred words long. Whether it is because of this brevity, the flash fiction stories in this chapbook had, for me a particular potency and resonance. It is a collection that will stay with you long after the read and I highly recommend it.

Nuala on flash fiction…

I had a chance to ask Nuala about the particular characteristics and strengths of flash fiction.I wanted to know what she felt the power of flash fiction is. “I love the way flash stories suit the surreal and the odd; they can be about anything and can be driven by language or mood or by the ‘what-happens’, so there’s a lot of scope for experimentation and/or fun within flash. Their power lies in their brevity coupled with the ability to set the mind ticking; they beg re-reading when they are done well. I like that.

As a reader I enjoy a range of flash: a quirky chunk of banter like Kevin Scott’s ‘Sheltered’ (http://www.fracturedwest.com/issue-4/sheltered/); or an emotion-driven short like Thisbe Nissen’s ‘Deer at Rest’ (http://www.obscurajournal.com/Nissen_Deer_at_rest.pdf). I also love short-shorts that delight in language, like ‘Funky Little Blaze Orange Pork Pie Hats’ by Michael Gillan Maxwell (http://www.metazen.ca/?p=13207)”

Since she works also as a poet and a novelist as well as producing this book of flash fictions, I wanted to know if Ni Chonchuir thought that the subject or sentiment dictated the form and what she thought made something fit into flash rather than poetry mode.

“I have really been neglecting poetry for the last year or so. It’s like that part of my brain has shut down while I get on with writing novels. But I can manage flash (maybe because I am in fiction mode?) The other thing, and it just occurs to me, is that my poetry tends to be confessional (not a dirty word, in my book) and I’m not going through any major upheavals lately, so maybe the poems are not there because life is good.

My flash tend to be language-  and narrative-driven – so the two things have to collide in my mind and offer me a first line that will take me somewhere interesting. So it’s subject coupled with language coupled with a forward impetus. I think the sentiment (the emotion) grows out of the rest.”

Given the great humour in several of these short fictions, particularly ‘Jesus of Dublin’ and ‘Penny and Leo and Married Bliss’ which comes out best in the voices of your characters. I wondered what Ní Chonchúir thought could be achieved with humour in a very short piece.

I think humour is unexpected in literary fiction – people expect lit fic to be dour and worthy. And I think we are all guilty of feeling this and acting on it – very few writers enter funny stories into lit comps, I find (having judged many of them). I love funny. To me Anne Enright is funny because she uses the self-deprecating, rueful, dark humour that Irish people are good at – we love to laugh, to slag each other, to poke fun. Ulysses is funny, but it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when people think about it. ‘Penny and Leo and Married Bliss’ is a rewriting of the Penelope episode in that novel and I had great fun transposing Molly Bloom’s bawdy humour to the 21st century.

I guess humour works best when it is wedded to something more profound (in Molly’s case, infidelity), so that it achieves more than a mere gag or extended joke – it makes you feel for the character(s). So, while the reader is laughing, she is also being made to think.”

Nuala Ní Chonchúir 2013

Nuala ni Chonchúir lives in Galway. Nuala’s awards for her writing include RTÉ Radio’s Frances McManus Award and the Dublin Review of Books flash fiction prize. Mother America her fourth short story collection was published by New Island in 2012, her second novel will be published in spring 2014.

Of Dublin and Other Fictions will be available shortly on Amazon and from Tower Press direct.

More about Nuala here www.nualanichonchuir.com

#fridayflash Anise Fish and Colin behind the Glass

#FridayFlash (check it out, anyone can do it) as I’ve said many times before has been the single most important influence and inspiration for me in my writing development over the last few years, since I began calling myself a writer, writing everyday and striving to say things that were important to me but to say them new. There are phases when we beaver away in the background – I haven’t posted in FridayFlash for some time while finishing novel work. Due to the inspiration of Fridayflash I wrote a flash fiction about a girl eating the world that is forthcoming in wonderful mag The Stinging Fly. But the story didn’t end there, various vignettes arrived, which will be combined into a very human tale of psychotic consumption, loss, love, depravity – all very human things, many of which are rooted in the excesses and tragedies of the Irish economic boom and bust. Anyhow that’s for later, for the novel but here is a taster as my fridayflash piece today. All feedback very much appreciated.

“What is the sickness that you have?” Colin behind the glass wondered.

“Too much world,” said Anise Fish.

“We have that in common.”

“I’ve always had it, since I was tiny.’ Anise stroked the glass. ‘I ate four cots. They had to keep replacing them… I ate the curtains and the table legs like a puppy. Things used to go missing – pegs, toothbrushes, spoons…”


“Yes, and yoghurt cartons an’ all. One day a man came to the house. He lifted me up and spun me around and I jingle jangled. They did an x-ray and found all sorts of things inside. Once my uncle said that I must have eaten the constituents of a garden. Mud, worms, flowers, rocks, bits of twigs. ..So in a way I have a garden inside me…“

“You do?” he said, then he reached out for her and their fingers touched through the glass.

She saw him pale as wafers, as edible as the moon. “Come outside with me, you can’t live in here.”

He felt: homemade lemonade and the assault of her eyes. He took a deep breath and turned the handle of the window.

“Come into my room,” he said.

He stepped back as she leaned on the window sill and clambered up. He felt the oxygen of the world as she opened the window wider and climbed through. He relived for an instant that trip on the train when he was five and the countryside was moving too fast. The grass was a blur, the cows, dry stone walls, the sidings, wide motorways. Victorian warehouses with old kiln dried bricks, the metal skeletons of goods trains, graffiti filth, the onslaught of cities and their electric lights.

Anise Fish had brought the outside in. He covered his face with his hands and then he felt her hands on him. Her face so immediate, so close. He reached out for her.

There was no honey. There was salt, seaweed and sand, and yellow; the colour of buttercups under her chin. Her skin felt like paper first and feathers and old books, all those old musty books from his room that he had buried his nose in, face down flat on his bed. Her tongue was slippery and muscular like a fish.

She kissed every inch of the half-moons under his eyes, the dark inventive hollows, the hamlets of his temples, his lip topography, licked his cheeks of fragile dawns and fever.

He tasted the air on her skin and the sky with kites, sea spray, bog ale, moss and pine needles, forest floors and old dung at stiles with wind waves of dried sedge beyond, the snap of licorice dogwood, red twig fire between the teeth.

Come outside she had said.  “Come outside.” whispered Anise Fish. And she kissed him again, that soft fishy tongue in the salt of his mouth. And he sucked on her mouth for air and he held onto her shoulders and ribs for his scafenfolding.

He was inside now, right inside, inside this room, inside this girl, all sensation.

Anise: the tips of her fingers were popping, her groin was burrowing into the molten earth core, into dark tunnels of ancient trolls with groping gnarled fingers, down smooth slippery rivers of ice and fire.

Their legs had gone from under them. They sunk into the soft billow of sun sheets. They lay at the bottom of the pond, in the salty rockpools then; watching shoals of tiny two-spotted gobys, sea anemones waving fronds.

His hand fell from her as she rolled away. He heard water running and remembered trips to waterfalls; his own perpetual screaming at the overwhelming sound and the relentless pouring. He recalled his parents’ bemusement. He caught a glimpse of her hair and it was the sun in his eyes. He covered his face.

He rolled onto his back, naked, onto the sheets that were not too anything, feeling his own fingers in his own space, the ghosts of trains still clattering in his exerted heart. He put his finger to his lips and could taste the world from them.

He became aware of an insatiable yearning.

From the pale iced door, returning, Anise’s face contorted. He closed his eyes against the view of her and continued to chew. The bedstead tasted of meatloaf.

Copyright: Alison Wells