Tadhg Coakley on finding your voice
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a writer. Or you want to be a writer. And the only difference between the two is that writers write.
In her essay ‘On Writing’, the great American short story writer Lorrie Moore has some advice. I wish I’d read something like it when I was seventeen. She says: ‘Perhaps one would be wise when young to avoid thinking of oneself as a writer – for there’s something a little stopped and satisfied, too healthy, in that. Better to think of writing, of what one does as an activity rather than an identity – to write, I write, we write; to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun … so that your life does not become a pose, a pornography of wishing.’
So if you want to write, just write. And if you write then you’re a writer. Not because you got a six figure deal from one of the Top Five publishers, or you hooked Sally Rooney’s agent, or because you won the Booker. You’re a writer because you write. And it is a calling which is perilous to ignore.
So go ahead and write. Do it now.
Don’t be like me and leave it to your mid-fifties. On the other hand, if you’re in your mid-sixties or mid-seventies, it’s not too late to prevent your life becoming a pose, a pornography of wishing. Look at Bonnie Garmus.
As my fifth book since 2018 has just been published by Mercier Press, I still struggle to call myself a writer, but as long as I’m writing, I know I’m doing what I am meant be doing.
Writing needs time, so find the time. It doesn’t matter when or where but you have to sit down and write. It doesn’t matter if you sit in a car park after you dropped your children to school like Doireann Ní Ghríofa, or if you buy your favourite writing café to prevent it closing down like Jo Nesbø.
I won’t sugar coat it: writing is a slog. It takes commitment. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes there are rejections, sometimes watching Netflix seems like a much better option. But answering the call is worth it.
I can’t advise you what to write about or in what form. Only you know that.
I think the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Dillard summed it up best about what we should write: ‘There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this; your own astonishment.’
The reason my first book, The First Sunday in September, was a novel revolving around an All-Ireland Final was because I had never read one. The fervour around All-Ireland finals has always astonished me, so why not?
The reason my second book, Whatever It Takes, is a crime novel exploring authentic Cork voices, characters, and the city’s topography was because I had never read one. My love of thrillers and the city where I live has always astonished me, so why not?
The reason my fourth book, The Game, was a book of personal essays exploring the fascination of sport in millions of Irish people and billions worldwide, was because I’d never read one. Sport has always astonished me, so why not?
There’s a book, play or poem out there than only you can write, so go and do it.
Some other advice for aspiring writers: find like-minded people and be among them. Writers’ groups, workshops, literary festivals, book launches, communities like writing.ie, courses, social media. When I took early retirement in 2015, I signed up for an MA in Creative Writing in UCC to be in a community of writers and to receive advice. That worked for me, but there are many options.
Main thing is to write. And to read.
Read – not as a reader, but as a writer. You’re looking for your way into your book, but other writers have solved that problem before. And we can all learn from them. In The First Sunday in September I wanted to go inside the game with one player and I wanted to subvert time in his point of view, but it’s very difficult, technically, not to appear clichéd in doing that. Then I read a short story by David Means called ‘Coitus’ which is ostensibly about a man and woman having sex in a hotel, but in reality the story is about the drowning of the man’s brother as a teenager. That gave me a way into my game, which was ostensibly the length of the time a sliotar spends in flight (five seconds), but in reality it spanned the player’s whole life, past and future. It was a Eureka moment for me and you’ll find yours if you look hard enough.
My current book, a thriller called Before He Kills Again, is a sequel to Whatever It Takes and it explores themes like gender based violence, how misogyny can be spread by social media and what home means. It has a twin narrative around the murder of a woman in Cork city and a drug ring in West Cork. I wanted two locations and landscapes in the novel, reflecting two aspects of the protagonist, Detective Garda Tim Collins.
My books are voice and character-driven, rather than hinging around plots. Now this book does contain plots, plot twists, sub-plots, tension (the life blood of all art), dramatic moments, shocking moments and resolutions. But how people interaction with other people and how characters develop astonish me most.
What astonishes you?
Find it. Write about it. Do it now.
Don’t let your life be a pose. Let your voice be heard.
(c) Tadhg Coakley
About Before He Kills Again:
As the sun sets on the bustling streets of Cork city, a young woman lies brutally murdered in her own home. Former inter-county hurler turned detective Garda Tim Collins, and his new partner Deirdre Dempsey are tasked with solving the case. As they dig deeper, they uncover a sinister plot to attack more women. Against the clock and with a fierce commitment to stop the violence, Collins and Dempsey race to find the perpetrator before he kills again. But when one of Ireland’s most dangerous criminals shows up in Collins’ hometown of West Cork, that case becomes personal. Witnessing a vicious murder pushes him to the brink. As the investigation explodes in a brutal showdown, we see a different side of Collins as he questions how far he will go to seek justice. With a strong sense of place and a shocking double climax, this second instalment of the Tim Collins series is a gripping and thrilling read.
The first book in the Tim Collins series, Whatever It Takes, was the One City, One Book choice for Cork.Catherine Kirwan, author of Darkest Truth, called it “Stylish, tense, thrilling, building to a truly shocking conclusion.”
Order your copy online here.