In 2010 I began scribbling in a notebook, imagining a decrepit museum-gallery “I’m writing to tell you about a place where I worked many years ago and a particular exhibit – the Exhibit of Held Breaths. I recently revisited the museum-gallery after an interval of ages. It’s a grim place now; dust shored up in the corners, the spiders spinning improbable threads, descending not from old beams but from torn polystyrene ceiling tiles interspersed with chunky fluorescent lights. The museum was shut down quite a few years ago – I’ve kept a key, although I hardly needed it; when I put my hand on the side door it crumbled, rotten, into flakes and shards.”
As any writer knows, writing is not as others might imagine – a solitary person stares out of the window, pen in hand, face lighting up as a idea appears in consciousness, pen goes to paper – or in these day perhaps fingers start tapping on soft computer keys – and a story bursts onto the page. No! More often it is small scratchings, false starts, sentences struck out or the delete key, head in hands, standing up, walking round, more useless words that need endless revision before they take shape – and only ever approximating the first vision.
But on a handful of occasions (in my experience anyway) a story arrives, yes, arrives as if sent from somewhere, as if already existing in some alternate reality library and plonks itself on the page. Without too much agonising on this occasion the short story – quite a long short story at 5000 words – was written and within it was encapsulated a larger story, a whole trajectory. It asked to be a novel.
Art and belief collide when the strange Exhibit of Held Breaths and its twin exhibit Sighs take apart 1980s Rivenstown and the life of reluctant curator Norman White.
Featuring a Miss Havishameque Mrs Reeves, the reviled aristocrat of a failing 1980s town, and her protégée, The Exhibit of Held Breaths follows the quest of an ordinary man to explore the exaltation of art, and burn bright beyond his usual existence. Through her own warped motives, Mrs Reeves ignites the fire in him and raises up the town, but at what cost to Norman, his wife Jenny, their children and the people of Rivenstown? The sinister influence of the exhibits begins to unravel it all. Art reveals more about Norman and his past and his future than he’s prepared for.
Time is strange and our writing journey exists alongside life. In 2010 I had four young children aged ten and under, my mother-in-law suffered a devastating stroke that put her in a wheelchair and left communication difficult, one of my children was diagnosed with Aspergers. At the same time I had been utterly thrilled – and shed a tear of joy – when the one other story that had almost written itself Bog Body was shortlisted for the Hennessy Award ceremony that took place in April 2010. Around that time I had also been shortlisted for the Bridport prize. I had fallen for writing aged 8 when a poem I wrote in school was well received and I had been writing since then but only began in earnest when in 2000 I decided to give up paid employment and raise my children at home.
In the early years I wrote when I could, when my husband took sole charge of the children. My artist sister and I shared childcare to free the other up for creative activities. I became a member of the 5am write club to eek out words at my most productive time of day – although small children strangely also like to wake early sometimes. In latter years my family worked together to build a writing shed. From my files I see that a draft of the novel of The Exhibit of Held Breaths was completed in 2013, although I know that I let it sit after that and completed further drafts and improvements based on feedback from people in the publishing world and my writers group.
In 2014 I was focussed more on short stories and was delighted when I was invited to the Irish Writers Centre to read my flash fiction piece Eat! for the Stinging Fly launch of the anthology it was published in. By coincidence last year the novel that emerged from the flash fiction was longlisted (next 12 after the finalists) in the Irish Writers Centre’s Novel Fair Competition. This year I decided to give The Exhibit of Held Breaths a try and was thrilled when I received a call from Betty Stenson of the Irish Writers Centre to say that I was a finalist and would be part of the Novel Fair in February 2020. The Novel Fair is an opportunity to meet sixteen agents and publishers in person to pitch our novels (and ourselves). And in a satisfying full circle the room where we will be pitching our work is the same room where I performed my flash fiction back in 2014.
Since I wrote The Exhibit of Held Breaths there have been further difficulties and tragedies in the family but also positives. I now work as a librarian in the largest public library in Ireland and absolutely love my role in connecting with library users and being surrounded by books and readers.
In this blog over the years I’ve tried to help others to find headspace and resilience to write and shared submission opportunities that will help writers to raise their profile. There is no clear formula, no clear or linear trajectory to success. You may write the perfect and most lovely novel but it may just not be for these times, you require an element of luck but you need to create opportunities, visibility, you need to keep following your fascinations and inspirations and writing new things. You need to try new styles of writing, new genres, new types – poetry, screenplay, playwriting, worldbuilding for games – and see what freshness they can bring to your work. You need to dust off old work and see if it still sings and whether it can now find a place. You need to look at your writing with a critical eye but be on your own side and advocate for work you believe in.
On 1st February the 12 finalists for the novel fair were welcomed, congratulated and supported in a preparation day at the Irish Writers Centre. In a few days time we will get a chance to meet agents and publishers and for all those writers who usually send manuscripts into the void, its a fantastic chance to connect up with people in the publishing world. The Irish Writers Centre run the competition every year and will soon be announcing details of what will be their tenth competition on their website. Whatever happens it is a tremendous opportunity and one I’m grateful for and I’ll tell you more about the process after Feb 14th.