How to anchor your creative endeavor while juggling work, study and family with writing.

When I’m not writing I work full-time in a library.

What is it like to try to pursue writing with a full-time job – (I work in Dlr Libraries) while doing a Masters (Library and Information Management with the University of Ulster – Distance Learning) , not to mention guiding and looking out for four teenagers/young adults and keeping connected with extended family, friends and other pursuits?

If you’re already tired just reading the list you’re getting the feeling that can come over me, or anyone at first pass – a sense of overwhelm, futility, foolishness, exhaustion. Voices in your head questioning the choices you have made.

The short answer is that like I did when raising four small children and writing alongside I have to make choices, pick times, try to focus, to put life aside (so very difficult), use tricks to keep me in the seat, hide my phone, enter things, submit and apply for programs and mentorships (I’m working on a Words Ireland mentorship this year with Jan Carson) to give me deadlines and an impetus. The longer answer is that maybe, it’s not possible to do everything and indeed, what you can do might be very little. In that case how do you mitigate that sense of futility and make a richer experience of the time you have?

Find the place we can be ‘lived by’ our desire to write in the midst of real obstacles

One of the ‘other pursuits’ I hope to realise ‘sometime’/soon is answering (through writing and courses) to these questions of time, focus, motivation, values, creative resilience and helping others to find a comfortable landing spot in which to exist at least some of the time. A place where they can feel that they are doing at least some of what they want to do, for reasons they have identified as being important, without beating themselves up/undermining their own foundations. A place where they can anchor themselves and be ‘lived by’ (to quote the extraordinarily pragmatic and psychologically astute Rick Hanson) an enduring sense of their own commitment to creativity and the wonder of living and observing. We can make our own fuel if we know what we love to do. BUT there are constraints, of time, of financial position, bereavement, social class, employment status, personal challenges and circumstances, difficult events, physical or mental health/fragility, commitments, even philosophy of life at a moment in time. There are things we can muse upon and there are things that punch up in the face and tie our hands.

Question your perceptions – noise in your head can drain

There are areas of ‘agency’ – what we can change, even on a small scale. How we perceive a problem, how we perceive ourselves, how we ask for help or payment, how we gather supports from friends or changed circumstances. We need to interrogate our own blinkers about whether we can change our job or relationships or our perception of our abilities or our habit of worrying whether we are good enough or can do it or our constant striving to produce or be perfect, our assumptions that others have it easier or – on the other hand – that it is really possible to be able to raise a family, play sport to a high level, have a full-time job, maintain a wide circle of friendships and write two novels in a year.

Most of my writing is about how people’s beliefs blinkered, absolute or otherwise can make them believe in probably impossible things, allow them to hurt themselves and others or – more positively – make life bearable or allow them to do extraordinary things. And yet on a daily basis we all struggle to convince ourselves that what we are doing matters, that small progress is progress, that doing rather than producing or achieving makes sense.

‘Getting’ somewhere rather than ‘Being’ somewhere.

This blog, which flourished at a certain point and has been put aside (due to time/headspace constraints!) looked to answer to headspace and ‘finding the time to write’. How is it to try to pursue writing alongside a job, a Masters (in Library and Information Management) and everything else? I have tried to make pragmatic choices, focusing on writing over the summer break from college, fitting it into the two mornings before my library job late shift and some time at weekends. Truthfully it has created a feeling of compromise, of dissatisfaction, of panic at times. Two strands – Firstly: panic at ‘getting somewhere’, i.e. – producing more, getting an agent, getting published, ‘finishing’ i.e. starting, the several novels I have been thinking about for years. (Alongside panic that I am falling short as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend. ) Secondly: a feeling of running on fumes, lack of sustenance, lack of connection with the satisfaction of creating, making, observing, writing observations down, wordplay and sentence generation.

The mistake I have made is allowing the first strand to shout louder than the second. To somehow – and I will come back to explore the means required – connect in with the pleasure of creating, to create a relaxed and open space to potter and experiment and move things around even while (in the back of my head) the clock is ticking. Another voice now shouting – this is naïve – you want to have a body of work, you might run out of time, what are you doing with your life.

Give us some tips

I have answered nothing. What do you do when juggling to make space to write?

  1. Figure out the space and time you have (tiny pockets of time!) and make it a place – as far as you have agency – that signals creative space – quiet library, coffee shop, spare room with all your writing stuff. The necessary conditions – to reconnect with the certainty – that spot – inside yourself that knows what you love about writing.
  2. Look at your values, your passions, why you write, why you are writing this. Put objects and talismans around you to remind you. Read a chapter of one of those ‘on writing’ books that have been on your self unread for the past five years.
  3. Slow everything down, your breath, your writing, starting a new project.
  4. Gather, mess around, play, incubate, rest, but
  5. Yes, show up and sit down and plan, in small chunks
  6. Set writing goals, in small manageable chunks. Then half them.
  7. Write down what you would like to do, write down each day what you have done
  8. Realise that you will hate writing, not want to do it, that the feeling of doing it will sometimes make you sick. Go back to number 4. 5 and 6.
  9. Make even smaller goals in sequence. The goals of a king or queen in a miniature writing kingdom. Or the goals of a maid in the servant’s quarters with 5000 things to do.
  10. Take space to questions your assumptions about the project, really novel – or better as short story, is it two books, are you ready to write this now, does this character really fit. Keep asking new questions – especially about things you think are obviously correct.
  11. Laugh, don’t take yourself too seriously. Realise that it both does and doesn’t matter if you write these words or if people see your book or not, if it’s one person who is moved or 1 million. How can you measure impact? How can you understand the ripples? Even if the writing is not seen, how can you know that the mere act of you trying, the encouraging smile you gave to a passer-by after your endeavour did not create something amazing.
  12. Include an awareness of the other areas of your life that require and deserve time whether for practical, mental health or inspiration reasons. You cannot operate from guilt.
  13. Make your work different sizes so you can send out haiku or poems, or dribbles and drabbles, prose pieces or flash fictions or short stories or novellas or novels or epic series at different points and make a difference through the tiny to the gigantic.

Yes you will forget, but remind yourself

Forget everything you read here and find yourself beating and berating and wailing and grim-faced as you get into the car for your commute having written the sum total of zilch.

Then find that spot inside that knows you find the world and its people, wondrous or funny or entertaining or horrific or all of these at once and you have always wanted to figure out how to say it. Find that spot, that sense of observation and wonder, and use it to steady yourself, then look out the window, and notice, and record.

These are some of the ways you can keep hold of the reason for writing and the satisfaction (alongside the hard work) that comes of connecting with creativity itself. Let me know what you find hard to do when juggling life and writing, both physically and mentally and remember, yes it is hard, its not a ‘fail’ to feel you can’t do it, or do it adequately, just remember to rate what you do and what you are trying to do as you move (albeit slowly) along the way.

Novel Tips for a Sustainable #NaNoWriMo

IMG_3476 NaNoWriMo is the phenomenon that encourages people to put 50,000 words on the page in the month of November. I’ve completed it before and blogged about it. (I’ll post some links at the end) My experiences have ranged from joyful completion and the ultimate self-publishing of a comedy feelgood novel about saving the universe to a frantic splurging of words for a more literary novel that led to a subsequent year of forensic untangling to make the story coherent. I have learned that

·       deadlines and quotas help me actually put fingers to keyboard (pen to paper had a much nicer ring to it!) and write all those thoughts down – thoughts that otherwise float away on the wind unrecorded

·        (to use a mining analogy) if I can hit upon a seam rich with material/access memories, the subconscious, something I’m passionate about, a vivid place or character, the words can come very quickly

·        I have very little idea how to hit upon the seam other than ideas here about taking time out to fuel your imagination, doing the counter intuitive thing of not writing, going on a walk, reading a book etc. Or put it another way writing is not usually like turning on a tap so don’t beat yourself up.

·        Every project is different and you have to respect that. One will be closer to your heart/have had more preparation/be technically easier to do/require more or less research than another

·        a sustainable approach may work best and is the one I am favouring this year

What is sustainable approach for NaNoWriMo? What I have learned this year is that I am very good at doing everything that is not NaNoWriMo. For example, here I am writing a blogpost, I have also checked on the US election count (who hasn’t), gone for a walk, made a dental appointment, planned some fruit pies and found out how to renew my driver’s licence online. I have also completed the third workout in the couch to 5k challenge that my workplace is organising. This year is also different in that, every other year, I’ve been very rule-bound about getting the 1667 words on the page each day. This year I am already well behind and some days I haven’t written anything. After wresting with ‘shoulds’ and questioning my entire identity as a writer and whether I ‘should’ give up trying to write books, I decided to put things into perspective and show some self-compassion and self-respect. I decided that I needed to balance out the desire to ‘produce’ and ‘succeed’ with an acknowledgment and acceptance of my circumstances (family and work alongside writing) and  the true stage and state of my project. This is where the sustainable comes in. I want to be true to my values and circumstances . This means I want this project to be feasible, possible, not to cause harm, not to deplete my resources, not to make life hard, not to be about suffering and self-flagellation but about finding the joy in the book, being true to what I want to say, producing only writing that is satisfying to the project and not just thrown down to make the wordcount. (That is not to say that some work will turn out not to be right and will be cut later and I’m not saying that I can’t take flights of fancy or try out sections/characters/plots just for the hell of it). I want to go at the pace for which I’m able while building up my momentum and resources. I’ve learned a few key lessons from completing the couch to 5k exercise challenge before and renewing it now: Achieving small goals and building up strength and stamina over time works brilliantly and a sense of camaraderie and connection with others doing the challenge can be very motivating. For me, sustainable means working within my current limits and taking time to develop and stretch myself without overdoing it.

·        It means building up the structure first – warming up, thinking, daydreaming, writing a scene list, reading an article or book related to the project.

·        It means starting with lower wordcounts and not fretting over it.

·        It means writing sections that I’m more sure about first and working from there

·        It means staying true to the shape of the project and what is needed to bring it forward whether that means more research, more daydreaming, spending time on character and story development and plotting (you CAN ‘cheat’ and add this explorative work to your wordcount if you wish)

·        It means getting enough rest, minding my physical and mental health through other activities

·        It means planning to fail if failing means not ‘winning’ NaNoWriMo but winning my true aim of writing something that means a lot to me and that I’m happy with.

I think this is a lesson for modern times. How can we live in a way that nurtures ourselves, our loved ones, the world? Instead of producing for the sake of it, consuming and disposing, how can we create work that is meaningful, entertaining, enriching and is made with love and joy rather than worry and angst?

Is NaNoWriMo for you?

I look at the Monumental Challenge of NaNoWriMo and give pointers as to whether this challenge is right for you at this time in your Writing life.

How to do NaNoWriMo when you don’t have the time

This very popular post from the archive gives you tips and tricks to help your productivity and rally support when your life is really too busy to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Ten Ways to Ace NaNoWriMo

Ten sure-fire ways to keep yourself motivated and productive during your 50,000 word marathon.

Personal experience

Running for my writing Life. The ups and downs during the 2009 NaNoWriMo session

NaNoWriMo – Now it’s all over would I do it again?

Realistic pluses and minuses of using NaNoWriMo to work on your novel


Creative resilience in writing : positive, realistic values and aims

Be open to opportunity: Submit widely to competitions and journals

In the last post we looked at how you can build a better attitude towards the substance and quality of your own work. Some of the approaches we looked at such as progress recording and taking a class were very practical. Others were more psychological and value driven such as honouring your background and identifying your personal reason for writing.

Today I want to look further at the area of values but once again link this to practical steps you can take to improve your chances of fulfilling your aims. In particular I’d like you to take out that personal notebook/phone notes/document again and ask yourself some further questions.

What is the range and scope of my artistic endeavour?

We’ve looked at ‘why I write’ (or why I make art). Now its time to ask yourself how far you’d ideally like to go.

What place does my writing have in my life? Is it the major or minor key? Hobby or vocation?

List all the things you love to do in life in order, where does writing come?

What do you want to come out of your writing? Money? Fame? Recognition? Camaraderie? Connection? (This question is closely aligned with last week’s Why I write?)

What is the range of your writing endeavour? Self-expression? Friends and family? A quiet following? Mass appeal?

If published do I want a small print run or to have a shot at a big publishing house?

What sacrifices am I willing or able to make?

What time am I willing or able to give to learning and producing?

Mission statement

Using your answers from above decide how far you want to take your writing and the range you would be happy with. You may ideally be a bestseller but be happy enough with ‘quietly published.’  You may choose self-publishing either as a small scale friends and family project or with a fully-fledged business plan in mind to promote and develop a full marketing and production strategy for your self-published trilogy.

(By the way by incorporating some of your value responses from last week with today’s task you’ll come up with an artistic statement that will be useful if you wish to apply for arts council or other funding. )

One mission statement might be: I want my writing to reach a discerning but reasonable-sized audience through publication with a reputable small press.

Another might be: I want to write in order to join a local writing group and make friends.

Look at what you’ve got

 You might interrogate this area with the SWOT analysis businesses use. (Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). In the writing context you will be looking the elements of your own craft/product but also looking at the condition of the publishing industry and your place in it. Here are some possible questions you can jot down answers to.

What are strengths /weaknesses

Eg: Research skills, language, character/world building, unique style, humourous outlook etc etc?

Publishing: Social media presence, friend already in writing group, great synopsis, referral from agented friend,

What are threats/opportunities

Global pandemic, recession, vampires are now out, book hard to pin down, too many writers!, publishing industry in uncertainty, ticket for publishing day, writing retreat, extra time due to retirement or less time due to illness/family commitments.


I’ve written before about aims (and what to do if you can’t achieve them). The advice is always to have realistic, measurable and specific goals that you can use to gauge how you are doing and mark off progress. About a year ago I did the couch to 5k challenge. The early aims were tiny – running for just two minutes – but I found it almost addictive being able to tick off each week’s accomplishments and it really contributing to a fantastic sense of pride. The bite-sized incremental goals worked brilliantly to make me feel happy with what I had also achieved and also – this is so important – they gave me the confidence that I could achieve the next goal. While this sort of aim works perfectly for wordcount or projects completed, longer term aims such as ‘get published by this time next year’ might not always have a definitive path or a certain outcome even if you complete a set of steps. It’s probably best to include the more quantitative goals alongside the less quantifiable ones.

Be realistically positive

While we’ve all heard of books like The Power of Positive Thinking purely positive thinking would be something close to delusional. No matter how positive you are “I can fly without wings from the top of this cliff” would not end well most circumstances! But there are several things we can do to that can help us achieve our goals or, at the very least, make it more pleasurable trying. This, in turn, will make it more likely we will have the energy to keep going. Some of these things are:

Think of what you can do in a particular moment rather than what you can’t

If I don’t have time to finish this chapter then aim to solve a knotty problem in paragraph two. In fact, it helps to list everything you can do right now, in your head or on paper. Earlier today I was despondent when I could not recall a great idea I had for my novel. For a while I focussed on how I could not remember and what a loss that was but then I began to focus on all the ideas I already had written down and the possibilities I could follow with those. Incidentally, this approach works so well for ordinary life. A feeling of helplessness can be so detrimental to our mental health, but feelings of agency and autonomy – even in small ways can be transformative.

Be versatile

Linked to the point above, if we think of different ways that we may succeed, if we try different alternatives, if we at least explore alternatives (eg. Self-publishing vs traditional), a class in poetry where we’d normally do novel writing, writing a story instead of something longer, trying flash fiction, entering a competition that we don’t normally enter, researching, reading or writing outside our own genre. Writing for half an hour and then stopping, writing at night, writing outside, writing with a prompt or using an object for inspiration, writing in a group setting. Every time we do things differently or come up with other ideas we are wiring the brain anew, we are becoming more creative and interesting people with a lot more going on, a lot more to say.

Relax and widen the odds

Who said ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself?’ I’ve become very interested in positive psychology recently. I’ve discovered the benefits of the ‘half-smile’. Even when a low mood begins to descend you can coax your body into thinking that you are happy and up for the challenge. At the library where I work, walking out onto the floor with an energetic gait and a smile makes me more approachable to my colleagues and library patrons. When pursuing your goals we don’t want arrogance but a quiet confidence and self-belief, an enthusiasm about your work, a submission cover letter that shows you care and believe – this pushes your work -and you- forward in the mind of the agent or publisher.

In terms of increasing the odds for publication if that’s your thing, do what every successful writer has done, submit widely, increase your odds by entering competitions, attend events and launches, post your work online or do readings if you are comfortable. Even if you don’t get a mention you will be learning and developing as you go.


Building creative resilience in writing is both about getting in touch with values & the range of your ambition and taking very practical steps to create opportunity and affirmation.

You have nothing to lose – as long as you balance your ambition with the values for the whole of your life. Become clear about the shape of your endeavour within the wider framework, be cognisant of the realities of your situation and the industry but look at ways to maximise your chances and solve problems rather than reside in a general fug that cannot be tackled. In the comments you can let us know what has worked for you in providing focus and energy  in an endeavour full of uncertainty. Wishing you all well.

Creative resilience in the face of self-doubt

I’ve wanted to restart this blog with a specific focus on creative resilience. There are so many things that can stop us – a world pandemic, climate crisis, tiredness, overwork, confusion, conflicting demands and that old perennial self-doubt.

To endeavour in the face of all those mega obstacles you need to have a reason. Once you have a reason you need to believe 1) that your work will fulfil that reason and 2) you can actually produce something half-decent that other people will want to read.

In a cruel twist of self-fulfilling prophecy if you falter at any of the above steps and succumb to self-doubt you begin to lose impetus to begin, if you begin your productivity disappears, nothing you write seems good enough and voila! Your greatest fears have been realised.

So let’s start with a reason.

Perhaps you’d like to take out your phone and open up the notes function, perhaps you’d like to tab to a blank page or open up that very special notebook someone gave your for your birthday and you’ve been saving up to now.

Now write down your reason. Why do you want to create? What drives you to write? What difference do you want your writing/artwork to make? What would be the best thing that someone could say about your work? Write all the answers down.

Next: What fascinates you? What gives you most satisfaction about a piece of work you are creating? What are the little highs along the way? What would you miss most if you could not do it again?

When you look over those answers you have your reason. Next week I will talk about looking at your range, what scope and reach is enough to satisfy you, what you can do to fulfill these aims.

You have a reason. Try to distil it in one or two sentences. Write it down and pin it up where you right or commit it to memory but every so often change the phrasing so that it doesn’t wear out.

Right now my reason might be: I want to write to make the ordinary glorious, to reach and console others in our common human experience.

You have your reason, it’s wonderful, it probably makes sense, now you know why you spend hours wrestling with words (or paint or whatever your medium) behind closed doors, for years and years with no recognition maybe in an endless groundhog pursuit that may possibly qualify as mad.

Then you sit down to write. You do your best to try to convey an idea, a setting, a character, a pure feeling adequately and I say adequately as it often does not feel more successful than that. We begin to question our subject matter or our ability in comparison to other writers whose work we enjoy and who are successfully published. Why can’t we be as (insert adjective) as they are?

First we must accept who we are and where we came from   

Each person is a conglomeration of circumstance, particular genetic and developed competencies and intelligences, particular ways of looking at the world. A person’s background and experience leads to a particular linguistic range and ideology, particular preferences, favoured words and themes. Some of these words or ways of seeing may seem inspired or some sort of genius or out of reach by dint of our different experiences. Take the rich Indian landscape of colour and spice versus the equally apt Scandinavian noir. Take the World War Novel or family drama. Each has its riches. What do you know inside out? Or what does your fascination drive you to know well? We might look at books on a grand scale -so ambitious and successful that we stand haggard in the face of them and believe we can never achieve such brilliance. There are moments when we see others render the seemingly normal and mundane in a searing and luminescent manner that takes our breath away. Getting the mundane right seems an even greater accomplishment.

Take time to recognise where you came from, what your memories are, how you grew up, the language you know. Accept that as your legacy and lexicon. What you see as your limitation can be a rich store from which you draw. Go deeper, mine your memories, recall local stories, interrogate your everyday and your past for the fine details. These may be details that others can identify with and love or specific moments that will give your work its originality and colour.

Believe in the jewels and record them

As you write you will churn up mud, you will make mistakes, you will write a hundred ordinary words and then, suddenly something will come up. Bursting out into the light, beyond our conscious plan or knowledge something appears like a cave strewn jewel or a spring bulb out of dark and cold soil. In that moment a true union of intention and completion occurs. We are delighted, we read the phrase over and over. In the longer term we struggle to pull an entire novel together and eventually succeed. Yet we forget, time and time over what we have achieved. In psychology terms it is the cruelty of the recency effect (when writing we are more often closest to frustration than to celebration) and how we are wired neurologically for evolutionary advantage to see what is wrong. Take time to note the lovely phrases, the commendations, the compliments, publications or shortlists or just the internal satisfaction of having a phrase or a character do what it, he, she, they was supposed to do. Yes, write these successes down and allow yourself to enjoy the intrinsic motivation of doing a good job at something you (yes, see Reason) love. Have a long list on your noticeboard or at the back of a notebook noting every success. Revel in it every once in a while.

Business-like ways to eliminate self-doubt

Daily aims

After the poetic be practical. Beyond meaning and reason and lovely words you can also mechanically and practically work to eliminate self-doubt. Make a plan, create daily aims, put them in a table or spreadsheet and tick them off, include mitigating factors – a sick child, an unexpected errand.

Record and reward increasing wordcount or the solving of difficult problems

Wordcount isn’t always a true indicator of the worth of your work but its an easy way to feel that you’re succeeding. If you’re wrestling with a problem again get out your work notebook and note what you’ve been working on and how you’ve moved it on. At the very least logging progress on a daily basis will help you see that you are getting somewhere.

Share and submit

This is a tricky one. If you submit and are constantly rejected you may feel worse than ever but even sharing and getting encouraging feedback from your writing group is a way of feeling that you are truly a writer and that you can develop and improve. If you widely submit (but choose your appropriate level – a local competition as a beginner or something more prestigious later on) then you can gain feedback and – sometimes – validation and success.

Classes and Mentorship

It can be daunting to take a class to improve your skills. You may have so much self-doubt that you won’t even apply for a mentorship scheme but classes and mentorships are ways you have to develop and improve your skills to improve your self-confidence. Be realistic about skills you may lack and take steps to address these. A proactive and problem-solving approach engenders an energetic feeling of efficacy and competence. Classes and mentorship will also identify your particular strengths at this point in time. This brings us full circle. Make the most of what you’ve got, shine within your own sphere, if your background and interests are confined it means they can be highly specialised but if you want to broaden your scope, take steps to do so. Instead of self-doubt, revel in the self’s unique perspective.

In summary, don’t let self-doubt become a miasma that clouds your thinking and impedes your progress. Make a clear path through identifying your reason, passions. Inform yourself by noting what you have in your backpack (or baggage!). Plan your route, set your goals, review your progress and get help and fuel along the way in the form of mentors or other inspiration (more on that in future). These practical and value-driven methods will align your purpose and progression and help you put your self-doubt to one side.

Creative resilience in the face of chaos

During lockdown I saw things in the garden much closer than before.

In the past this blog has focussed on how to keep going in difficult times during periods of upheaval, overload, uncertainty, loss and grief and in 2020 during the time of the Covid19 pandemic we have all these together. If we have not lost a loved one, we know of someone who has, we have seen the devastation on our screens and in the daily reports. Across all occupations and in the arts and culture sector outlets and earnings are severely curtailed. Some of us may have been gifted time along with the burden of uncertainty or guilt.

For writers, what does anything mean anymore? What is going to happen to the publishing industry. Isn’t the book we were just about to pitch completely out of touch now? How can we write without referencing what is happening? Should we? Isn’t the skin of self-doubt we have always worn since we decided we have to write just a petty arrogance in the face of real problems?

To the latter question, the answer is Yes, and No. For the writer the aim, beyond fashioning words and sentences for their own sake, there is usually a further calling – to amuse, entertain, inform, console, touch, inspire, create a common human feeling. Surely these aims are just as important now, than ever? And when everything is called into question, when everything is meaningless and horror abides, isn’t it the choices we make (as put forward so touchingly by Edith Egar and Victor Frankl) and the ways we make meaning and enhance the lives of others through writing more important than ever.

Be on your own side

So many of us struggle with self-belief, self-esteem, even basic self-respect. We vilify ourselves with our critical self talk. As writers we beat ourselves up about the opportunities lost, wrong choices, lack of productivity, lack of progress, lack of publication. Yet when we hear of our writing colleagues getting a break after years of trying or a small success along the way we cheer. Because we know what it took, we can empathise with how hard they worked, how they wanted it. Yet we do not afford ourselves the same cheer leading. I’ve benefited hugely in the past couple of years from the work of Rick Hanson whose message ‘Be on your own side’ tells us how important it is to be a friend to ourselves, to visualise ourselves and put a hand on our own shoulder, to have genuine delight in our own achievements, to have pride and joy in our efforts and aims. When we treat ourselves with compassion we allow ourselves to stop panicking about panicking, to stop being afraid of being afraid. Everything I say to you I struggle to do myself but I know that the moment I soften and enjoy the fact that I have written 500 words today instead of getting fraught that I wasted 3 hours, I feed myself more energy for my next attempt rather than taking the ground from under my own feet.


I will explore all of these ideas more in the coming weeks but I think one of the things that we can do especially in these times of uncertainty whether in the writing or arts arena in general is to use any spaces or bestowed time to listen to how we want to respond to our situation, our creative situation and what are the things we want to say. Mindfulness practice is one way that has been extremely beneficial for me in creating equanimity – not filling my mind with the rush of frustration, anger, confusion and so on. Jotting down early morning phone notes or journaling have also been ways of collecting those interesting fragments and juxtapositions of ideas that have arisen both generally and in these ever-changing times. Ideas are everywhere and in chaos even more so. And adversity is a fire that can forge these ideas and allow us to shape and utilise them.

Accept where you’ve come from and where you are

In my next post I will focus specifically on perfectionism and self-doubt and how we can discover the creative potential of our limitations. The broad point I want to make here is that yes, we all do have limitations and blind spots, we all came from certain backgrounds and cultures, we have certain educations and upbringings, we have financial security or we have none. We can see right now that there is a huge impetus in society to break down so many prejudices and barriers and open opportunities to wider groups but it’s also true that people have never been so judgmental. We have also never been as exposed to so many (quantum) possibilities against which we can judge our own progress or path. You may have a physical or mental health challenge, be a carer, be discriminated against, be exhausted, or nervous, or not fit into the profile of the bright young star or the critically acclaimed author or artist. You may never ‘make it’ because of these issues but, personally, I know it helps to shine your light as brightly from where you are, especially if that place is dark. We have all felt helpless or frustrated in the face of barriers of time, finances, visibility, market forces etc but we can only work from now, sometimes in the smallest of ways. Tara Brach’s work on Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion has been hugely helpful to many. Sometimes it’s right to rest, recoup, take a realistic appraisal of our chances but it’s also a testament to the human spirit to keep trying, to look for opportunities, to create, submit, use the mulch of our difficult experiences as a way to enrich our writing and reach others. It is when we accept ourselves and our circumstances that we, as so many have done in this crisis,that we can begin to be endlessly innovative and creative.

Let me know how you have found these past months in terms of creativity, has your head been buzzing with everything but you’ve struggled to produce writing? Have you managed to focus even for a short time on putting down your thoughts? Have you been working on an existing project that has enabled you to leave the current chaos and focus on another narrative? I would love to hear from you.

Never give up – The Exhibit of Held Breaths goes to Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair

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.


The long writing road to a finished novel (Eat!)

alison on road
A long time ago in Death Valley.

When I finish this post I will start work on some final edits and tweaks to my novel Eat! I’ve just begun to submit (very systematically this time) to agents and this is my blurb.

Consumption becomes medicine for Anise Fish from the Big House who – feeling responsible for her mother’s death – runs through a manic, 2008 boom-time town eating unusual, inedible things. The town’s inhabitants grapple with strange new cravings and Benedict – a would-be cannibal – creates dubious recipes. As the Doctor with the help of philosophical police detectives tries to unravel the case histories of the afflicted he must face his own culpability in the origins of this strange and disconsolate contagion.

Eat! explores the relationship between Anise Fish, a boy trapped inside by illness, the children she au pairs, her grief-stricken father and the Doctor who tries to save her. Eat! is a musing on grief, guilt, nature and nurture, crime and responsibility, how people make up for losses in twisted ways and how relationships and nature can heal.

Now I know some people can write a novel in days and I know that every project is different. Our writing production exists within a particular set of circumstances each time. How crystallised is the project in our minds or are we just feeling our way? Do we have confidence, mental and physical reserves? How is our life? Full of chaos and complication or running relatively smooth? Have we had to cope with transition or loss? Have we had mental and physical space or have we had to carve out niches?

Here is a social media post about Eat! from 2014

About 2 years ago (in May) I was gripped with the feeling for a book but made myself knuckle down and finish the projects in between. With two other novels finished it’s finally time. I have 40,000 words of notes, an excerpt (flash fiction) coming out in the Stinging Fly, now I would like to lock myself in a garret somewhere and do the rest. If it’s no trouble world, thanks a mill.

stinging fly cover
Flash fiction Eat! is published in The Stinging Fly Spring 2014

I was invited to read the piece at the launch at the Irish Writers Centre. I’d read it before at a Big Smoke Writing flash fiction event and it got a great response from the audience. When I went to read at the Irish Writers Centre, the lighting was much more ‘atmospheric’ and I realised with horror that – as part of the sacrifice we writers make – I had killed my eyes. I struggled to see my own printout but muddled my way through the reading, hesitantly this time.

2019-02-15 (1)

The next few years were in a word challenging; loss, grief, financial and other severe family difficulties with no support from relevant institutions. I created swathes of Eat! from participation in the NaNoWriMo writing challenge (write 50,000 words in a month). I got the words on the page. The story ranged round a cast of characters who emerged out of this unstructured mining of the imagination and concerns from the subconscious. It’s not autobiographical but I saw later certain truths about my own life arrive out of my writing. I had a mass of words in the end (over 144,000) and then I needed to make sense of it all. For this book, this process – coming out of the slivers of mental space available and out of the wide scale the book seemed to take – involved an extended period of time (about a year) in just putting the material in the order it needed to go. It was a laborious, painstaking (painful!) process that I had to do without knowing if it would pay off. Has it paid off? We await the verdict.

(Adding to the original post, say whatever you like about Facebook, it does act as diary sometimes, allowing you to mark out feelings and events at a point in time – here is a further entry re: the book in February 2017)

So much more work to do, four years from the initial idea, three years from the Stinging Fly flash vignette, 145,000 words (so must be pared down) but I finally have a rough first draft of my next book. I CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT A RELIEF IT IS. Going to print it out now and let it sit. Yippee!

I’ve had the pleasure these past years of being involved in a real world writing group. These are lovely people and accomplished writers – widely published and shortlisted for many awards including the Hennessy New Irish Writing. They have given me feedback, criticism, suggestions and encouragement on many projects including Eat! It was they, who, sometime last year, encouraged me to submit Eat!  to the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. So we come full circle again. The books first words spoken at the centre, then this January I got the news that Eat! had come highly commended in the Novel Fair. I’m part of a second group of 12 who will get our submissions critiqued. (The winners will pitch to agents and publishers around now at an agent fair.)

You know, as writers, how hard it is to keep the faith and especially with a long project, to dedicate the time (years!) to writing a book that might never see the light (Eimear McBride’s terrific A Girl is a Half-formed thing took ten years to be published once it was done.) To get positive feedback in terms of being longlisted means a lot.

aw-hwah-cover-front-midI’ve written three other novels (and a couple of other attempts). One of these is the heart warming Housewife with a Half-Life that publishers were interested in but wondered about the ‘genre’ (domestic comedy sci-fi?) (I believe now in 2019 that cross-genre is no longer such an issue and I have a sequel to the book planned in any case.) Another two novels have been submitted but perhaps not with the necessary gusto. As I finish my own edits of Eat! (knowing that in case of possible publication more work may be called to be done) I’m giving the book the best chance by doing my research carefully and contacting agents.

A new phase is about to arise in life. After a long stint of caring for children (my eldest has now become a man) I’ve been offered a library job. This blog has been all about finding the resilience and headspace to be creative in the midst of what life is offering at any one time. Now my challenge is, while enjoying the new perspective and connections a full-time job will offer me is to find ways to maintain the focus and forward momentum on new writing projects and to keep doing this writing thing that I know I love and is so important to me.

I’ve written short stories and worked on other projects during the long incubation, writing and creation of this book. I’m yet to hear from agents whether they want to see more. It has been very difficult keeping the faith in my writing even with this feedback and other positive comments (from the editors on the Writing Workshop now Jericho Writers Self-Editing course). Mine is just one story of persistence. I hope you have been able to find ways of keeping going along your own long road and that you might find comfort in knowing there are many along the same path.


Publication and pondering: There’s a café in this story


Dear reader,

I’m knee deep, waist deep, actually head under water in my monster novel of 140,000 words. No – as I keep saying – not an actual novel about monsters but the more I say that the more I want to write a novel about monsters. My novel is based on a flash fiction published in the Stinging Fly in – was it 2014? – quite a while back anyhow and it’s about a girl with pica running about eating the world to shore up her own loss (a mother dead in childbirth, an emotionally absent father) but it’s really an allegory for the 2000s boom hysteria, so everyone ends up eating the world (consumption see) and everyone’s out to shore up their loss (bad relationships, the spectre of the Famine in Irish society, feeling inadequate) and there’s a guy who wants to be a cannibal. So typical run of he mill stuff really. So I’ve been untangling years of notes and scenes and then going to Mia Gallagher’s workshops and now working on an online Self-Editing course run by the Writer’s Workshop and putting other pet projects aside for what seems forever. So I haven’t written many short stories recently but was so pleased to have one printed in the fabulous Welsh based The Lonely Crowd back in July.

As part of the publication we were encouraged to submit a piece on how we wrote the story submitted, or what was the crux of the story. As a man begins to become emotionally attached to a woman he meets in a café the narrative he tells himself about the state of his life, the feelings he feels he has for the woman and where his wife fits into the picture are key in how the story – an the ultimate conclusion will play out. However I wanted also to think about how, each time, we as writers set out to try to conjure up a story out of a slim idea, a visual, an anecdote, a phrase or a rough sketch of a character, we set out to make some kind of reality out of nothing and how this must always fail in some way (more on that in the next post.)

The writer tries to construct a whole that will, as the sum of its imperfect parts provide some epiphany or at least a satisfying sense of recognition, a consoling (or disquieting) feeling of common humanity or experience.

I talk about how with every version something is left out – something we need to become more aware of in this era of fake news

“As a young college student taking a module in media studies in the early 1990s, I remember the astounding realisation that news was not just news, it could be partisan, that parts of a story could be left out. And in this era of fake news and endless rhetoric, the watering down and frowning on any absolute moral stance, it is often implied that all views are equal. With the narratives we make of our own lives on social media, in our own heads, in the frenetic, consumerist, production-centred world we live in, we have never been more aware that all stories are a version.”

You can read the full version of my musings on The Lonely Crowd website here and I would be grateful if you do.  Issue 7 of The Lonely Crowd with my story and stories from Danielle McLaughlin, June Caldwell and many more can be ordered from the website.

How are you doing? Are you working on more than one project at a time? Do you feel bereft of the shorter stuff when working on novels? Listening to Nuala O’ Connor/Nuala Ni Chonchuir at the Bray Literary Festival recently she said she was bereft of her poetry in particular since her focus has been taken up by novels. I thought a between version lull in my novel would allow me to go back to another project but with the editing course it hasn’t turned out that way.

Blogging apparently is dead since I started this blog many years ago. That said I hope to be back here a little more regularly to connect with whoever passes this way.

Ever ask yourself if you should give up writing?

Writing is an endurance test, especially where the novel is concerned and it requires sacrifice and a great deal of time and effort. In the face of the publishing industry’s vagaries, conflicts between the time we need and what we can do alongside our other responsibilities and in light of our own lack of confidence, we can really begin to wonder if dedicating ourselves to writing and a dream of publication is the right choice.

For a variety of reasons it’s been a very difficult few years and when energy is low, deciding whether it’s right to spend that precious energy and a huge proportion of time on a pursuit that often makes you question yourself is an important consideration. Like so many writers I have wailed and moaned that the writing is not going well, or should I even bother. This is especially relevant on my current project which is a monster of a thing (now at 140,000 words, woohoo!) requiring intense dedication.

In this article I look at how we can decide whether or at what level to pursue the writing endeavour if you’d like to read it.  Please share with me here the difficult or challenging choices you have made in either choosing to write or in leaving it behind. I would be grateful to hear how people have made these decisions.

Honour your writing and what it means to you.


Having lost many of our artistic touchstones in 2016 and with world events taking a sinister and dispiriting turn, it’s all the more necessary to identify what it is important and valuable to us and to take steps to honour those values. While we need to turn outward and support and encourage each other, we also need to honour our own values and talents. This new article I’ve written for talks about the ways we can assert ourselves as writers during 2017 and find ways of developing our writing talent.