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Writing Workshop

Writing.ie | Member Blog

Ciara Cassidy

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I had the pleasure of meeting author, Bernie McGill, this week. She’s the author of The Butterfly Cabinet – the story of an upper class family in Northern Ireland in the late 1800’s, told by one of their servants through letters she writes in the 1960’s and through the prison diary of the mother to the family. It captures the wild beauty of our North Coast, reveals life in the Big House, deals with the murder of a child and reveals a long-held secret. Whilst touching upon the divisions and turbulence in our history, it also portrays the hardships and joys of life.

Bernie is also the current writer in residence for Northern Ireland Libraries. Through their collaboration, a writing workshop was held in my local library on Wednesday night.

My first writing workshop, I approached it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Happy to meet other writers, face new challenges and learn something about the craft but nervous about what tasks we might be given and whether I’d be able to accomplish anything. The fear of a blank page.

We had a lively evening amongst pleasant company. Plenty of different writing styles and tastes led to some very interesting stories. As someone who writes on the more commercial side of things, I listened in awe to some of the poetic and literary voices within the group.

Bernie gave us three challenges, throughout the evening.

In the first we were given the word LOST and a few minutes to write whatever came to mind. I tried a piece of flash fiction about a mother losing her child, probably giving voice to one of my deepest set fears. Scribbled quickly, it needs a lot of polishing but this is my attempt:

She’s gone.
I search the faces, push against the crowd.
The imprint of her hand still felt in mine.
It only took a second.
A moment of distraction.
I call her name but no-one responds.
Why doesn’t anyone even stop to look at the mad woman, calling names in the middle of the street?
She can’t have gone far.
Those little legs I’ve cradled and kissed so often, can’t run so fast, yet.

For the second task some black and white pictures were passed around. Each person chose one, selected a character from the picture and then paired up with their neighbour. In the mind of the character, we were to answer questions from their POV. I found this a very useful exercise because a character questionnaire is something I’ve been thinking about. Don’t groan because I’m going to mention that book again – Write A Blockbuster. It advises drawing-up a character questionnaire and provides a useful template for doing so but I found it so much easier to answer those questions when someone else fired them at me. I asked Bernie about character development in a Q&A at the end of the night. Some of the ideas she put forward gave me a deeper understanding of how to tackle the character questionnaire – for example if your character saw a road traffic accident or a spill at the supermarket, are they the sort of person who drive/walk away, would they seek assistance or would they stop and get involved?

After answering questions in pairs, Bernie gave us 4 questions to tackle:
1. What do you want?
2. What is your secret?
3. What are you most passionate about?
4. What are you afraid of?

I chose a humorous, whimsical photo but it got me thinking about this innocent, happy scene and what it might hide. I decided to think about one of the characters as a grandfather, watching his grandchildren at the fair, with his wife. Their happy day out hid sadness. A broken marriage, daughter and mother lost to cancer, a man more aware and scared of his own longevity. I got the bones and thoughts of the characters and plan to expand it, give it a mixture of light and dark and develop it, at least into a short story. So watch this space – you may yet get to meet Gladys and Norman.

I found the last task most difficult as it seemed more personal. The blank page did get filled but I felt more dissatisfied with that effort. We were given a poem, Snakeskin Stilettos by Moyra Donaldson and were asked to write about a time, as a child or young adult, when you did something mildly or strongly forbidden. Certainly one to shake the grey cells and one I’d recommend you try.

I’ve had a productive writing week. My edits of The Glass House continue and it’s getting stronger and positive reviews from the online writing groups. I’ve started a complete rewrite of my first full MS – Twisted Truth – and have managed to rewrite over 7,000 words so far, cutting all the teenage chapters, moving the pace forward and changing it to 3rd person. Another MS which has languished unfinished may get re-started as the spark has arrived for how to move it on.

I learnt a lot from the workshop, overcame my fear of writing on the spot and sharing it with others and discovered a writing circle in my local area. A few of us have swapped twitter ID’s and numbers and hopefully we’ll be meeting up soon for a coffee and chat. Writing can be a lonely business and at the end of the day, you alone are the only one who can bring your characters to life and fulfil their story but there are plenty of others out there, experiencing the same thing as you and together you can find a shared topic of conversation and spark ideas of each other.

Would I recommend a writing get-together? Absolutely.

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