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Looking into the Abyss: Sinéád O’Hart

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers | The Big Idea
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Writing is, as most people who love it will agree, the best thing in the world. Nothing beats the feeling of having something in your head which needs to get out, whether it’s a spiky and belligerent thing or a soft and silky thing, a quiet or a loud thing, a red-rage or a cool-green thing, and which you have the means to express on paper. Watching something build from nothing, knitting sentences out of little more than an idea and a generous sprinkling of hope, is exhilarating; I have yet to find something which thrills me more than getting so lost inside a story that I don’t even notice the hours ticking by as I struggle to get it all down before it fades away.

None of this will sound unfamiliar to anyone who writes, or indeed anyone who creates anything – it doesn’t have to be a piece of written text. We all know how it feels when a tiny seedling of inspiration starts to sprout inside your mind, questing around for fertile ground, seeking rootholds and putting out tendrils. While ideas are coming, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than behind a keyboard, bringing them to life, but every so often I have to face up to the one thing that sends a shiver up my spine like nothing else: what will I do if I reach a point where I really, truly don’t have anything left to write about?

I tend to get a little worried when I read interviews with other writers where they talk about their ‘boxes’ full of ideas, or I see they’ve written hundreds of books already, or they mention that they have too many ideas to ever make use of during their lifetime. I get ideas, too, but not like that. Mine don’t come to me in a torrent, leaving me grabbing frantically at them in an attempt to salvage as many as possible before they get washed away. It’s more gentle than that – they come, dropping slow, into my brain every once in a while, in a completely unpredictable way. I have a list of ideas saved on my computer, but I don’t have hundreds of them, by any means. I have some, and I hope to have more eventually.

I guess I’m not one of these people who is overrun with inspiration, so blessed by the Muses that they can’t get out of bed in the morning because their brain is too full; every time a flicker of an idea suggests itself to me, it’s a cause for celebration. I work hard to keep my eyes and ears peeled for ideas, and I work hard to craft them into sentences and – sometimes – into stories or even novels. It’s not an easy thing. Writing is a precarious pursuit at the best of times, but if you feel the only stable ground under your feet – the sense that you will have ideas in the future, that you’ll always have something to write about – might be taken away from you without warning, then it tends to quicken the pulse somewhat. If by nature you’re a cautious and fearful creature, like me, this is not always the most pleasant of sensations.

Putting yourself out there as a creative person means facing up to a lot of darkness. Nothing allows you to know yourself better – both for good, and for ill – than tuning into your inner self instead of silencing it and allowing yourself to make the statement you need to make, but sometimes doing this is a lot more difficult than it seems. What do you do when you don’t like the ideas that are sprouting in your mind? What do you do when you start to feel like you don’t have anything authentic to say any more, that your words are meaningless, so much dust and ashes, an unworthy testament, an unfitting memorial? Do you believe it’s possible to burn through all your ideas, as if they’re rationed or allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, and that ‘when they’re gone, they’re gone’?

Or, instead, do you think ideas are the closest thing we have to a perpetual motion machine, and that one will feed another, which will feed another, and so on ad infinitum?

Everyone knows this quote: ‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ This piece of wisdom from Friedrich Nietzsche has always interested me. It makes me think about how easy it is to allow yourself to get stuck into a particular way of thinking, and how hard it can be to turn your mind around when it over-focuses on something. Certain thoughts have that ‘abyss’ quality – you create a sort of ‘feedback loop’ inside yourself. You feed the abyss, and it feeds you.

If your abyss holds candyfloss and rivers full of rainbows, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing. However, if you’re like most people, your abyss will tend to be full of nothing except darkness, and a howling wind will be licking its way around the sharp, pointed rocks that line it all the way down, like teeth around a gullet.

My abyss laughs up at me, in all its emptiness. It says ‘I have nothing. There’s nothing in here! Go on, have a good look. Shine a light into all my nooks and crannies. You won’t find anything, trust me.’ The abyss I can’t stop myself from looking into is the death of my inspiration. It’s the abyss of fear that, one day, the ideas will stop coming, and that if this does happen, I won’t have any idea what to do next. For some reason, I can’t reset my feedback loop to tell me: ‘Don’t you worry! Your ideas aren’t going to dry up. You just get on with writing ‘em down, and I’ll get on with churning ‘em out.’ I wish I could.

Until I find a way to do that, I’ll have to keep remembering a few truths about life. The first truth is: ideas are everywhere, and the only way to miss them is to stop looking. The second is: nobody really knows what they’re doing. Some people are better at pretending they do than others, but in reality we’re all just doing our best to get along. The third: there is no such thing as an inescapable abyss. The fourth: help is always there when you need it.

And the fifth, which is the most important: the world is packed full of wonder, and as long as you remember never to take that for granted, it will keep right on surprising you.

(c) Sinéád O’Hart

Sinéád (S.J.) O’Hart likes medieval stuff, reading, tea, and custard, and blogs about reading and writing at http://sjohart.wordpress.com. A longlisted author in the 2013 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair competition with her Young Adult novel ‘Tider’, she’s currently at work on a trilogy of children’s books. Her work can be found in ‘The Bohemyth’, ‘Number Eleven Magazine’, ‘Synaesthesia Magazine,’ ‘wordlegs’, and ‘The Looking Glass Magazine’. Follow Sinéád on Twitter @SJO’Hart.


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