Carved out satisfaction versus cut throat success

There’s a ‘wealth’ of information out there and particularly on-line about how to become a successful writer, how to write, pitch, blog, market yourself, build up a following, get a publisher, be known. Much of it is excellent advice. However what grates on me is the kind of ‘stop at nothing’ advice where you are meant to steam roller your way to the top by being relentlessly competitive with your contempories. Some will think I am naiive. You simply have to stand out to be noticed, you need to blog more, network more, tour more, promote more.

Absolutely. You need dedication. You need to lose the excuses not to write. You need to be aware of what’s going on in the market. You need to know who’s in the know and what they know! But what I object to is ambition in a vaccum, the one tracked mind to success that doesn’t consider other priorities like the people around you, your home and family life, your relationship with others and with the world.

Christina Katz, writer, woman, mother, powerhouse has asked people this week to blog about happiness. To me happiness can be joy, exquistic moments of enjoyment of the process of writing, of the gorgeous reality of my children and their funny moments, a perfect moment of spring blossom and sun. But that kind of happiness is not always available moment to moment. What is available is an overall satisfaction with your life and its choices, an understanding that you may not always get exactly what you want, when you want (like all the time you want to write) but that you are doing your absolute best to fulfill your ambition while maintaining equilibrium with other parts of your life. As a woman and mother, this reciprocity and balancing of your own needs with the needs of your children, family, extended family and the community as a whole is integral. I am not going to blog everyday if it means that I don’t do a jigsaw with my two year old or colour with my daughter, if I can’t listen to my friend who is going through a hard time, if I never have time for giving rather than just getting. On Benjamin Kanarek blog Isa Maisa said recently As our society today considers fame and fortune to be the Holy Grail of our sense of purpose, living a life in an attitude of a happy medium is hushed as insufficient and discusses Doris Lessing, Michael Jackson and Alexander McQueen’s relationship with success.

There are many people in the writing world I admire who are successful by building up a reciprocal and mutually satsifying relationship with their readers and with other writers.  They bring others up with them, provide others with opportunities for exposure and development. In particular I would like to mention Vanessa O’ Loughlin of Inkwell Writers. She writes, provides great quality writing classes and has created a network of writers who regularly receive her extremely useful newsletter. She uses the newsletter to promote other writers and has provided opportunities for other writers to be noticed. Christina Katz is an expert at platform building, becoming known in the publishing world, making the most of opportunities but she also promotes the careers of fellow writers and provides opportunities for them. The Year Zero collective is a group of writers who want to engage with and give back to readers. They develop a reciprocal relationship with readers by posting work regularly and getting feedback, by doing readings in intimate venues and by often giving away their work for free.

These are only a few examples. In terms of social media, there is, for the most part, a wonderful atmosphere on Twitter of reciprocal help, promotion and respect. Only occasionally do you find those whose own agenda of self-promotion comes ahead of their respect for others.

I want to be a writer first, I want to be a successful but also satisfied writer. But what that means to me is to develop a relationship with my readers and other writers first and foremost, to maintain a courteous, considerate and caring relationship with people in my personal and professional life. And after that, only after, will I count book sales and stats as a measure of happiness. What do you think?

Higgs Boson Anthology

What was I doing at 2am last Thursday night? Finishing a story for the wonderful Year Zero writers Higgs Boson Anthology. The anthology was the fabulous concept of Marcella O’ Connor, one of the Year Zero Collective. What resulted was an anthology of extracts, short stories and poetry where the search for the Higgs Boson particle (using the Large Hadron Collider in CERN Switzerland was the inspiration/philosophical context for the writing. I absolutely love physics/astrophysics and think that it provides just about all the metaphors you could possibly need about thinking about the modern world and relationships between people. I’m at the physics for dummies level though, I don’t have the mathematical brain to fully grasp the science. I gave it a go and probably tried too hard with the science bit and could have got away with just the philosophy but I wrote it in more or less one day. Although it could do with some tweaking I am thrilled that the story Supersymmetric: Almost but not quite, could be included.

All the details are here and the links to bookbuzzer.  There will shortly be a downloadable PDF> When I get my non scientific brain in gear I’ll see if I can figure out how to put the Bookbuzzer button on my sidebar but in the meantime follow the links and enjoy some fabulous writing from some terrific authors.

In person at the Hennessy’s

About to leave for the awards. Will get my hands on some glitzy ceremony photos asap.

Back in August last year when I discovered I was to be published in the Sunday Tribune and consequently was shortlisted for the Hennessy XO Literary Awards I couldn’t speak. I was visiting my parents in Kerry and couldn’t get the words out to explain the significance of this news. I may have circled the kitchen several times saying ‘I don’t believe it!’

Last night, seven months later, at the actual award ceremony; held in the dining hall in Trinity College, Dublin, the sense of occasion, of being part of something of great significance was very much still with me. It was heightened by the surroundings, the photograph session, the receiving of certificates from Ciaran Carty (editor of the New Writing section of the Sunday Tribune)  himself, the presence of the judges Carlo Gebler and Paula Meehan and hononary guest Neil Jordan. I also saw John Boyne from a distance!

Of the shortlisted authors; I met and chatted with Alice Redmond, Cliona O’ Connell, John O’ Donnell, Michael O’ Higgins (who won the Emerging Fiction Category) , Niamh Boyce, Kate Dempsey, Olive Broderick (who won the poetry section) and Madeline d’Arcy who won the First Fiction and was the overall Hennessy Irish Writer 2009. They were a great bunch of people who love what they do and I suppose it was an emotional night for all the writers; having been so honoured to be shortlisted and being so close to the ultimate prize. Then for some; the privilige and joy of stepping over the threshold to the roll call of winners and some of us momentarily bereft but for myself knowing that writing itself is the prize and that the fire is still there to do more and better.

But I received another prize that night, the words of Carlo Gebler who announced the Emerging Fiction category. He said of my story Bog Body

‘I was incredibly taken with this, its very poetic, the language is extraordinary, very finely wrought and beautiful. The events described are sinister/ frightening and although it was not realistic,  within the context of the story and the rules that apply within the story it makes perfect sense. It’s very short, but what I admired, what we admired was this writer’s ambition which is fantastic.’

For the Sunday Tribune press release on the awards see here

In love with the short ones

I am five feet tall. Well, alright then, four feet and 11 inches. Officially I should sit in a booster seat when I drive my four children around in the big bellied people carrier that I nearly need a ladder to get into.  I saw an eleven year old today who was twice my size. My world is a lilliput universe, where my feet dangle at the dining table and I have to ask shop assistants to reach things down for me. In my teenage years the other kids used to ask me what the weather was like down where I was. My beautiful granny assured me that ‘the best of goods come in small parcels’ and if we apply that dictate to fiction then I absolutely agree.

Now that I’ve called myself a writer and do mad things like wake at 4am and think ‘I may as well go up and do a bit of writing while its quiet’, I’ve been working away on a novel (a crazy, funny thing, with a housewife, a spaceman and a lot of heart) and I’ve been blogging, but most of all in the last couple of years I have been falling in love with short stories and finding them in my head, my bed, at the washing line, on the back of the kids eye appointment letters, in journals and writing themselves in new documents that just couldn’t help opening themselves when I was supposed to be doing something else.

As a mother of four it seemed sensible, particularly to others, that I concentrate my ambition on the short story, a manageable chunk of writing that could more easily keep its focus through the interrupted time span it would take to complete. I must admit I had a rather old fashioned view of what was required, a character (somewhat cliched), who needed a conflict to resolve in order to develop and then there would be the obligatory ‘twist in the tale’. What I wasn’t getting then, and think I am beginning to get to grips with these days, is the combination of a light and layered touch that is required to bear witness to humanity or lack of it. The short story is a breath of wind with a scent or a touch that lingers, melds into consciousness and will rise up and surprise you later. Where a novel as a whole is difficult to keep entirely in your head, a short story can swim in the back of your brain like a song and a scene conjured up can sit in memory as if the recollection is yours and not just the authors.

And what of writing them? They start with a title (so often that it is rare I am without one at the end of writing) or an epiphany of a phrase that encapsulates a way of looking at the world,  holds the body of the story in it. These titles and phrases are like keys to the unconscious. Once the phrase is down the story comes pouring out around it. There is still the construction to be done, the thrilling selection of the right words; words that have the sound and rhythm of the sentiment you want to convey; words that have two meanings that render motivation slightly ambiguous, the way it is in real life; words in the same family as others so that they borrow the characteristics of their (unused) counterparts and create semiotic layers.

And I can be other people, get inside their heads. For me, there are two kinds of story, those close to home and those arising out of your interest and invention. The first are so close to the bone that I find that they can be difficult to write and are often put aside for lengths of time until I can gain distance or equanimity. They can be powerful because they are imbued with strong emotion but may lack clarity because the situation is so personal. The other kind of story can be more successful because, as I say,  you need get into another head,  elucidate the characters more both for the reader and your own sake. You want to make them familiar to you, make yourself care about them and whatever is going on for them. You add relevant detail and feeling, crafting carefully, rather than – in the other case – exorcising your demons. I’m not saying that you can’t be successful writing something extremely personal, but you have to find a distance from it, become a storyweaver (picking out the right threads) rather than a memoirist.

Writing short stories gives me joy; the process thrills and astounds me. Novel writing requires the taming of a large beast before you can tap into a similar satisfaction. This short legged woman will be in love with writing short stories for a long time to come.

To read all the shortlisted stories for the Hennessy X.O. Literary Awards (to be announced this Tuesday) including my story, Bog Body, see here.

2009 Hennessy XO Literary Awards

The official announcement of the Hennessy XO shortlist has been made! My short story Bog Body was published in the Sunday Tribune last August and I’ve been put forward for the Emerging Fiction Award. The award announcements will be made on April 20th in Trinity College.  It’s a thrilling feeling to be involved in this event for the first time, wonderful to get my head above water and appear on the literary scene from out of my domestic hideaway. I look forward to meeting the other nominees. The full list of nominations for the Emerging Fiction, First Fiction and Poetry Awards is below.

First Fiction
Rob O’Shea
Madeleine D’Arcy
Sarah O’Loughlin
John O’Donnell
Oona Frawley
Alice Redmond

Emerging Fiction
James Lawless
Andrew Fox
Michael O’Higgins
Niamh Boyce
Alison Wells
Kate Dempsey

Emerging Poetry
Michael Massey
Olive Broderick
Aideen Henry
Cathal McCabe
Helena Mulkerns
Cliona O’Connell

For more details on the shortlist announcement (Woo Hoo!)  see Irish Publishing News.