Serendipity Wednesday – Dust Motes and Wonder

Picture courtesy of Vivienne Tuffnell
Picture courtesy of Vivienne Tuffnell

My last post mentioned the Serendipity of social media and the internet and the interesting, informative and wondrous aspects of life it can put us in touch with. Having been working through some difficult times I’ve come to realise that Serendipity can be a source of great comfort and inspiration, bolstering resilience and nurturing spirit when life throws rubbish at you. Amidst the difficult there are always, in this world, glorious and astounding things that can reach through and set the heart beating fast once more.

Help, Thanks, Wow

Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow is a book for those who are flailing in times of crisis. In the Help section she says “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making.” Whether you are religious or not you can just stop and utter that word, that prayer to the universe ‘Help’. Things may or may not work out but you can just wait and know that the universe, or friends, or beauty will give you something, some kind of sustenance, some kind of peace. (You can read an excerpt here

The ‘Thank’ element of her book is one we’re familiar with. A philosophy of gratitude or marking the positives in our lives and relationships and exchanges helps to slant our worldview back towards the hopeful. The Wow part of her books is what I’m talking about here with this idea of Serendipity, where serendipity is the lucky happenstance that reveals the worlds wonders to us. It has elements of surprise, awe, luck, appreciation and excitement. Again, it enlivens the blood.

Wonders found through Serendipity

Throughout our lives we all happen upon fascination, either on line or in the ‘real’ world. In newspapers, in the street, in the homes of our friends and family, in the garden, on trips abroad. We hear of astounding medical miracles, we hear of bad luck made good, or we watch extraordinary nature programs or visit astounding caves or gorgeous national parks. We hear gorgeous music, admire art and fashion, taste incredible food, watch movies that change our lives, read books that enter our blood.

And chains begin, an artist who learned from another, a collaboration between a singer and an author, a book that refers to another, an artist, or musician or author or scientist or doctor or architect whose work fires up something in you or speaks to you and leads you down the path of their work and thus to their influences, opening and opening up the world further and further.

At the moment I am in the world of my ongoing novel Eat! It’s core theme is how we fill the spaces of loss and need within us in different, somethings unhealthy, poignant ways. Secondly I’m seeing how as we become more and more ‘inside people’ the comfort and intimacy we have with nature is lost. As a child who grew up with an intimate knowledge of my local landscape, I can see how, living in increasingly urban areas, my children do not have the same intimacy and knowledge of the natural landscape – although of course they are more au fait with their landscape of concrete and brick. Some of my characters explore a yearning to get back into the natural landscape while others shy away from it within the backdrop of the recent housing boom, where ‘buildings sprung up from the ground, rampant like weeds.’


But I ramble, like a rambler on hills…My serendipity in exploring the themes of my book began with my discovery in a newspaper of a review of Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, whose aim is to create a glossary of words for nature, words that are beginning to be lost, words that help provide us with that intimacy with the natural world which many of us are losing. I will save the details for another post but this book has put me in touch with many other books on the same theme and thus has already deepened and informed my exploration of this natural theme.

To bring it back full circle (as I love to do). My Serendipity posts each Wednesday will share with you fascinating books, articles, sites, places I have found by chance conversations or browsing (both online and offline). I would also beseech you to share your fascinating finds in the comments, things wondrous and beguiling that might inspire and uplift others.

The Dust Motes Appreciation Society

In the spirit of serendipity and wonder, I recently set up on Facebook, The Dust Motes Appreciation Society. Originally a reaction to a literary editor’s wry exasperation with the number of dust mote mentions in short stories, I wanted to celebrate bothe the beauty and metaphoric power of dust motes. The aim of the society is to share appreciation for everything tiny and wondrous in the universe, particles, petals and persons and to celebrate dust mote mentions and appearances in literature and art. In practice it means that the page is a place that you can go throughout the week to find inspiration, wonder and joy.

The Dust Motes Appreciation Society

Don’t forget also that the Head Above Water Facebook page has more regular posts and links to inspiring articles on writing, creativity, resilience and mental health than I’m able to provide here.

Links to creativity and resilience

Head above Water

I hope you explore some of the books and pages I’ve mentioned here which will lead you to further wonders. I look forward to the fascinating links, articles, books, movies, programmes and so on that you can share with us that will enhance all our experiences. Thanks so much.

Better Writing: Fuel your fascinations & inspiring authors

In my Creative Practice course, one of the exercises I give to writers is to write down their fascinations, what they are absolutely interested in, the things they love and the things they despise. Many of these powerful obsessions, interests, pursuits can become the basis of energetic writing. By starting with the times, places, artefacts or people who really grip you, you are providing the fuel that can produce many short stories (looking through the prism of your fascinations from various angles) or longer works such as novels which, like rockets trying to get all the way to Mars, need massive amounts of fuel.

As well as taking the time to explore your own fascinations and why you even want to write at all (a subject I’ll come back to in my next few posts) listening to other writers describe the background of their books, and the source of their literary energy can also help you clarify your interests and see where the material of your works might lie.

Very recently I was reminded about my own fascination in social psychology and the power of the media through watching an old documentary by writer Don De Lillo. The examples and associations that had formed the basis of many of his works reminded me of my own excitement at making such connections. What was also really interesting was to see how some of his works had started with a single idea or association- a photograph he stuck on his wall, not really knowing how it could develop into something more. Subsequently he made links with other material and began an exploration in writing of these ideas, eventually producing the novel Libra.

This same video obviously struck a chord with writer Daniel Carpenter. I spotted a great post by Daniel yesterday where he links not only to the De Lillo documentary but to several other author videos that he’s found informative and inspiring. Take the time to watch some of these and I’m sure it will fire up your enthusiasm for the art of writing and perhaps help you clarify what you find fascinating to write about.

To Daniel’s great line up I’ll simply add my very favourite inspirational author video – one from Ray Bradbury, a man of great humour and artistic energy. I’d love if you have any further suggestions of inspirational and energising documentaries you have seen by your favourite authors. Please let us know of them in the comments.

My Head Above Water facebook page or @HAWwriters on Twitter are the repository of many links to articles I’ve found that help support creativity in busy lives. Browse for more inspiration!

Creative Practice & Short Story Essentials Writing Workshop

alisons writers course posterAs a psychology and communications graduate and over the course of several years writing this blog I’ve developed a great interest in the techniques and psychology of motivation and creativity. As a mother of four I have personal experience of juggling a busy life with creative endeavour. I’ve had many stories published in literary journals and anthologies in Ireland (Crannóg, The Stinging Fly, New Planet Cabaret etc) and abroad (Two National Flash Fiction anthologies in UK, Deck the Halls and Eighty Nine in Australia, Literary Orphans in Chicago, and online Metazen, The View From Here etc). I’ve also been nominated for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Prize, Bridport and Fish prizes and many more shortlists. ) I’m running a morning course on June 8th in Bray, Co Wicklow to encourage and support new and newish writers on their creative practice and develop the basic techniques to write great short stories.

I’d be very grateful if you could share the details of the course with anyone you think who might enjoy it. I want the focus to be enthusiasm and developing abilities.

Creative Practice and Short Story Essentials Workshop June 8th

St Peter’s Hall, Bray, Co. Wicklow (Dublin Road, coming into Bray, turn right at the Coach Inn.)

Date, Duration, Price

June 8th 10am -1pm, 30euro

Course outline

Creativity: Tips on finding the space, time and energy to write: Aims & deadlines, motivation, writing places, marking progress and calling yourself a writer, gathering material and down time. Idea generation.
Short story essentials: Very short stories/flash fiction, longer short stories, plot, character, journey, showing, telling and dialogue. You will get a good idea of what makes a good short story, how to begin and develop a story, the importance of character, revision etc.
Practical writing exercises

You will also receive handouts on creative exercises and short story resources.



To book or for more info: Email or


(In conjunction with Down at the Gate Craft and Creativity Classes or see Head Above Water on Facebook)


Make them feel it – let the body talk in your writing

A quick one today as I’m trying to train myself into sticking (roughly) to a schedule in order to progress work on a couple of projects at a time (more on motivation soon!)  On one of my projects I’m trying to inject life and tension into a novel that’s already in pretty good shape but needs to grab us by the vitals more.  I recently found a terrific post by Angie Capozello on the Friday Flash site that talks about how she puts body language to use in spicing up her work.

Rouse the reader

She talks about getting up close and personal, but the only seduction is that of the reader. Our characters glare, frown and grin she says but what is the body doing, if they brush against someone, pick up and object, look at their watch there is a direct physical react, and, says Angie, OUR bodies react to these descriptions too.

Get real

She also makes an important point of looking at our use of the word ‘Like’ . If we say something is ‘like’ we are making an intellectual comparison with an object, not eliciting a visceral response. She also talks about our physical reaction to the description of textures. Think of sharp glass, pine needles, pebbledash walls – these evoke a response.

Let your characters react

Angie gives a great example of a piece of dialogue where one protagonist describes how he feels about someones eyes. Our characters don’t just observe, they also have physical responses. Dialogue can be set on fire by characters talking about their own sensations.

Read the great article here in full and let me know the tricks you use to try to make your work visceral and vivid.

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


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 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.

How to write when kids just fight and other stuff

School’s out in this house and my eldest son whose twelve and a half has ‘graduated’ from Irish primary school so a nice sense of achievement and moving on.  In terms of keeping my ‘Head above Water’ writing wise I’m doing my best to get up in the early hours before the kids wake to work on my next book The Exhibit of Held Breaths (which I’m really pleased with so far, hurrah! 90,000 words, 2nd draft).

Still I’m thinking of writing a book called How to Write when Kids just fight in honour of the summer holidays and writing parents. My daughter tried to give me the old writing guilt-trip ‘but you were on your computer’ even though she was quite happily playing with her brother at the time. I’ll stick to the early morning mostly though and no-one will even know I’m a writer. I’ll have nice scones baked by the time they get up in the morning and…ah forget it, let’s just see how it goes!

During the week I spotted that Adam Byatt has been doing lots of posts on creativity so do check out his blog.

And Number Eleven is a wonderful new lit mag venture (now on Issue two). They’re eager to get feedback and build up a following so do check out their latest issue and like them on Facebook. They are open to submissions. Their online publication is very stylish and if you look carefully you’ll see they published one of my stories (and the title of my short story collection on submission) Random Acts of Optimism.

See what you think of my new post on It’s all about how we need to write the book that is right for the time in our lives. Sometimes our ambition might be beyond what we can manage or we might change how or what we write depending on what the circumstances of our life are.

I say “Write to take yourself away from the quicksand of your own life, where you cannot see out or through or write through your life, autobiographically to find an angle, a perspective that can help you tell both the story of yourself and the story of people in situations like yours, help you find that chord that resonates.”

Read the full post here and leave a comment if the post makes sense to you. Thank you!

Tomorrow I’ll have an interview with the fabulous flash fiction evangelist and organiser of National Flash Fiction Day Calum Kerr who’s launching a new flash fiction collection called Lost Property. It’s a very interesting interview about how flash fiction has contributed to his writing life so come and see tomorrow.

Now I’m off getting kids to camps and taking the youngest to the park to teach him to ride a bike without stabilizers.

Creative Prompts and Short Story Sub Opps

Creative Sparks

We spent a lot of lovely time on here in January exploring creativity through prompts. My philosophy holds that inspiration is everywhere and that if you provide yourself with structure and impetus you can forge that inspiration into a finished product. While we’ll continue to explore creativity here, I wanted to draw your attention to a fantastic blog by my colleague Elizabeth Murray. Her Wordspark blog is geared especially towards prompts and creative writing exercises, so she’ll regularly have something to get your mind working on something new.

Must read short story site

I’ve also recently discovered the fantastic short story focused site of Paul McVeigh. This site, with it’s very helpful at a glance layout gives details of submission opportunities, competitions and interviews with very interesting writers and champions of the short story form. It’s a really mine of information.

Sub opportunities

Both the new zine Number Eleven (no deadline given) and The South Circular (deadline April 26 so hurry!) are currently open for submissions.

Taking the time for the book you want to write

Today I’ve written an article including some Tolstoy quotes sent to me by a writer friend, exploring how to really take the time we need to write the book we really want to write. I talk about incubation, deep reading, George Saunders’ view that this slow writing demands a greater focus and integrity than our quick flit modern world encourages as well as the music and resonance of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘masterpiece’ The Big Music. I also consider two possible approaches in publishing – that of the set brand (with thanks to Elizabeth’s Baines) versus the writer as developing artist. Here’s an extract

We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”

George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.

You can read the whole article here and I hope you comment here or there to tell me what your thoughts are. I’m not advocating an arduously slow approach for every project, rather suggesting that where space, time, ambition and courage are required, we need to find ways of holding onto those to maintain the integrity of the project.