Of Beauty and Despair

Does truly great literature have to take after Darth Vader? Does it have to come from the dark side? Do we need to examine sorrow, adversity, the underbelly, the river of tears, the filth and the madness before we can be taken seriously? Books of the ‘light and fluffy’ kind will never be considered literature.

Conflict of course is core. Without conflict there is no story, without obstacle. And we by instinct feel obstacle to be a negative thing, a shadow. But it is also a fence we climb over and the view from a fence can be quite lovely and the  bounties that open out before us absolutely glorious. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the triumph over adversity book or the Hollywood ending. What I really want to talk about here is nuances of shadow and light.

This topic is something I have often thought about and this post was prompted by something Dan Holloway of the Year Zero Writers said “Writing, and especially reading, is not about smiley. It’s about reaching deep deep down, pulling out something deeply ugly and bringing it screaming into the (candle)light.”

I am taking his phrase out of its original context and plonking it down here but it made me think about whether there is a place for  ‘smiley’, comedy, light and joy in well respected literature.

I am a fan of Monty Python and the Coen brothers and the terrific children’s TV show based on the books by Terry Deary;  Horrible Histories. The scenes and sketches can often be grim, grotesque, based in grisly fact. The juxtaposition of humour and darkness creates a discordance that elevates the joke further. Beckett’s dark humour was applauded and he remains a literary giant to this day.

This is one area where darkness and light work together. My personal philosophy and one that filters through to me as a writer is that darkness and light are two sides of the same sphere, loss is on the reverse side of love, laughter holds the echo of tears, summer the remembrance of winter. As I have mentioned before I wrote a personal book/journal The Book of Joy when going through a difficult period in life. It could just as well have been called the Book of Utter Devastation or the Book of Grief. The grief was documented and the Joy that became the title of the book was found in the shadow of that grief. I described beautiful things, people, places that gave me solace while the pain still remained.

Sometimes its cool to be dark, sometimes it seems that the mud of life is more real than anything else, more worthy of elaboration. And writing about blood and mud and guts is wonderful when done beautifully. But its where there is the absence of any kind of glimmer of light that I find it relentless, hard to take. I was going to say ‘and not in essence, true’ but yes, of course there are aspects to life where situations are irredeemable, darkness permeates. What writers on the dark side are doing is embracing the murk and elevating it through their carefully crafted attention, the beauty of their phrasing. But in most situations, even the most dire moments of self-loathing there may be a wisp of optimism, a pulse of outward looking, love, remembrance. Even if it is fleeting, flares up and dies, it is real, it is what brings the other side into sharp relief (ironic phrase there).

Recently I was developing an idea for a novel. It would be on the literary side of mainstream, lyrically written. It involved someone’s search for identity, exploring the choices we make in life and what is lost along the way. I developed the idea, wrote passages, became passionate about the book and couldn’t wait to start. As November 2009 approached I also began to jot down amusing phrases that came at me quite randomly, I envisaged some strong main characters and began to feel the guts of a comedy sci/fi fantasy rising out of the stew of my unconscious.

When the novel writing challenge Nanowrimo arrived I found myself drawn to starting the comic fantasy novel rather than the more serious one. The wry style of writing gave me back the energy I needed to keep going to write 50,000 words in the space of a month. I read it over now and I laugh out loud. This is quite thrilling and surprising since I already know the jokes! In many ways I was exploring the very same themes in this book as I had envisaged doing in the more literary version. Was this in fact the same book being told in a completely different style? And will the style prevent it from being taken as seriously as the first novel might have been, should it of course gain readership.

It has often been said that a comic piece is difficult to write well. As a general principle it is often difficult to find a humourous novel. One of the most memorable moments of my reading life was when as a young teen I was moved to tears by a passage in Dicken’s ‘Dombey and Son’. I couldn’t believe that a book had had the power to make me cry. But a book that can make you laugh out loud is a terrific thing. But not laughter in a vaccum, rather that wry laughter that is a counterpoint to the less than wonderful things that may be happening to characters in the book or indeed to you in your life.

After my comic novel, I may go back to my more serious novel with its undercurrent of loss, inevitability of death and all the other very nigglely human things we carry with us. But if I do not juxtapose it with comedy, I will use beauty. My main character may feel a fist around her insides and escape outside where the air is round and cold like newly scooped ice-cream and the pink streaked cirrus are breathing.

Should darkness be allowed to stand alone, without beauty and light? Can a humourous writer ever hope to be considered literary? What do you think?



My comic NaNoWriMo novel became  Housewife with a Half-Life the heartwarming tale of Susan Strong who saves the universe with her space friend Fairly Dave now published on Amazon.

A trio of shortlists

Yesterday was an amazing day. I opened my email and discovered that I had been shortlisted by the Words on the Street Publishers for their inaugural WOW! awards for my comedy story Sad about the Plumbers Uncle. My story is now included in the WOW! anthology. The winners of the award will be announced on April 30th in the Galway Bay Hotel, Salthill.

Thrilled and excited I shared the news with my nearest and dearest and my supportive writing buddies. Later in the day I clicked on my email again to discover another email. This time from the prestigious Fish prize organisers who announced that my entry ‘All that Thinking’ had been placed out of 1,800 entries on a shortlist of 140. This thrilling and totally unexpected development sent me into a spin of euphoria.The winners will be announced on March 17th but inclusion on the shortlist is a terrific honour.

I have concentrated on writing short stories over the past year and a half and I have seen their development over this period. I enjoy what I write at the time but can also see when I have reached a new level in terms of subtlety or layering, character or just being a well rounded story. Being shortlisted lends credence to my belief that my writing is strengthening and it means a lot to know that it is being enjoyed by others.

Back in August I enjoyed the first taste of shortlisted joy. A short story ‘Bog Body‘ was published in the Sunday Tribune and thus qualifiies for entry into the Hennessy XO Literary Awards for New Irish Writing. The results will be announced in April.

2010 has already turned out to be a thrilling and encouraging year in my literary journey. It may indeed be a tipping point, happening as they do, often without warning, dramatically and all at once.

My Year Zero Valentine

If you haven’t already, make your way to the wonderful Year Zero Writers website, a collective of writers who aim to engage with their readers as much as possible by posting often and by offering free downloads of their work.  Recently they invited others to post Valentines on a literary theme. Here is my creation.

(Note: this is an old post, Year Zero folk have moved on to new things :))

Use the fire escape Cathy
Or the front door
Its fricking perishing
On the moor
The double glazing salesman had me
At u-values
And I value u, u know I do
But I got those integrated lock thingy’s
That stop the windows being jimmied
Hang on there a tick
While I get my slippers
Don’t want my feet slapping on the cold stairs
Like flapping kippers

You look like Helena Bonham Carter
In that rig out
Quit your tapping woman
There’s no need to shout
That Bronte woman had me painted like Eminem’s Stan
Or a droog from Kubrick
These fluffy puppy slippers
Suggest another rubric
I’ll just nip down and get the burglar alarm deactivated
Cos when u and I are parted I just hate it
I heart u Cathy, I always will do
The pain just grabs me, stabs me
Like a kind of voodoo

What’s the code again? Bugger
A few more deadlocks, dreadlocks maybe
Just a jiffy I’ll be there for you.

Can’t wait, Your Heathcliff, baby


My real birthday cake!

Hello lovely peeps and thank you so much for all the wonderful good wishes for my birthday and most importantly for your generosity in crafting all the forty word stories.

I now have the pleasure of announcing the winners from the following shortlist.


(in no particular order)

Ed Hickey: The woman took the chalk…

Anne Tyler Lord: Seize. Chains…

Darla: “He thrusts his fists…”

Lady Scribbles: A ghost agreed to be photographed..

Roma Diaz: Entering the raucous party…

Helen Williams: Cold to his aching bones…

Rebecca: As the red mist cleared…

Jane Travers: Her toes curl around the lip…

Barbara Scully: Excited chirping from the nest…

I really wanted to say in a heartfelt way and honestly that there was little to distinguish the final entrants from each other and that I loved so many of the entries. In the end I went with those that struck me on first reading and also lingered longest. I chose Anne as the winner because her piece resonated on many levels including its structure. Well done to you all and thanks again for participating! Can the winners please email me their addresses in order to receive your prizes. Email alison@brierwell dot com


Anne Tyler Lord

Runners up

Helen Budgey

Ed Hickey


First entrant prize:

Barbara Scully

Winning entries

Anne Tyler Lord:

Chains and shackle the monsters, so
Screams of terror subside, as
Breaks and sun evaporates horrors of regret, revealing
Children in cages and all whine turned to wine, as
Wishes are granted by magic serpentine.

Helen Budgey

Cold to his aching bones. Body juddering, fingers and toes numb. Daggers of icy air piercing his lungs, breath ripped away by the freezing blizzard. Behind him, a warm sleeping bag. But today he was going to reach the summit.

Ed Hickey

The woman took the chalk and began to write her life’s story on the wall. The chalk wore down to a nub, then vanished, her work unfinished; she sighed. But in the box were more sticks for her to use.


“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.”

The stuttering boy’s vocal exercise ran through the nervous man’s mind like a mantra. He could do this. He knew his presentation. He needed the promotion.

The Forty Word

A significant birthday!When that significant birthday comes along we all take stock, ask ourselves important questions, for instance – will we be an ostrich or a diva? Will we sit in a comfy chair with a lap blanket and document the body bits that are no longer in tip top condition or will we metaphorically see our lives for the dusty rugs they are and take them out to the washing line for a good old beating – making ourselves wheeze with the debris of our decrepid DNA?

Well in what I hope will be the spirit of the coming year,  I choose DIVA! There will be a party and dancing in the non cyber world and maybe even in the blogosphere and twitterverse. But before DANCING, there has to be WRITING. And so I come, very longwindedly to my FLASH FICTION COMPETITION.


THEME – Seize the day.

I require you, dear people, to enter in the comments your entry for this competition. You must – loosely – follow the theme and your entries must be EXACTLY forty words long. I will take entries until midnight on Sunday 7th February, for those not in GMT this is whenever YOUR midnight happens to be. This will give me time to recover from my birthday celebrations before I and choose the winner. And because it is my birthday it will be the entry I like best. Oh and by the way, enter as many times as you like.


Textured cover


I’m not the only clever bunny in my family. My sister is a fabulous felt-maker and she makes gorgeous once-off notebook covers using wool, silk threads and ribbons. As you can see from the pictures they are different on each side, are textural, inspiring and unique.

The coversInside cover are made to fit an A5 notebook and can be removed and used on another notebook once your current one is full. First prize will be a notebook with a handmade cover and I will give further prizes of lovely felted bookmarks.

Good luck and thank you in advance for this bounty of birthday stories. And if you’re still wondering – why 40 words? – bless you.