As a poet, I have always had a particular interest in story-telling as a way of interpreting my world. As with many writers, the narrative instinct was formed in childhood. The stories I told myself, the plots I lived through in my imagination, were more vivid and meaningful than my actual reality as a shy, bookish, youngest child. I read a lot of novels. My exposure to poetry was limited to what the school curriculum had to offer (Yeats, Kavanagh, Kinsella, Wordsworth) and what I was capable of memorising (“Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind / I turned to share the transport …).
When I went to university, the study of literature continued, but the gap widened between the reader of literature, learning new skills to critically appreciate the text, and the aspirant writer; put frankly, the writers we read were usually male and generally dead – there was no sense that any of us in that lecture theatre might ourselves one day join that elite group of literary lions. As I matured, I transferred that narrative instinct to more practical uses, starting to work as a journalist and learning how to use language to tell other people’s stories in as concise and accurate a manner as possible.
I only turned to creative writing at the age of thirty. I re-discovered my imagination courtesy of a creative writing course which I had taken as a way of branching out from journalism. The course, tutored by Roger Gregg at the Gaiety School of Acting, covered the full range of genres, from poetry to scripts. My first efforts were short stories, all of which I realise now were heavily autobiographical. Nor were they particularly good, the characters being little more than ciphers for the emotions that I hadn’t yet learned to understand or, indeed, channel.
Furthermore, these stories simply weren’t satisfying to write. The short story form reminded me too much of the journalistic pieces that I had been writing for my living over the past few years in that they needed structure, plot development and exposition. I had no sense of discovering through them a voice or a style that was uniquely mine.
Then came the moment when I was asked to produce a poem for the creative writing class. I expressed reservations, reminding Roger Gregg that I wanted to be a fiction writer, not a poet. He countered that I might want to create a poet as a fictional character some day and this would be a good exercise, so I persevered. I was not prepared for the experience of actually writing the poem, however. I had chosen as my subject a favourite spinster aunt who had died some time before; the poem attempts to evoke her personality through a description of items in her bedroom.
I remember the extreme mix of emotions I experienced in writing the piece; the tears were coursing down my face and yet another part of my brain was sharply focussed on finding the right words and shaping the poem in the way I wanted it. Suddenly I had found a way of expressing my own concerns and insights that was profoundly different from my normal discourse of journalism and press releases, and this was deeply satisfying to me. From that moment on, poetry got my full attention.
So too did the idea that creative writing courses might help to broaden my range and take me further out of my comfort zone. During the following decade, I attended as many of them as I could, from residential courses in various beauty spots (the weather always seemed to be glorious then, for some reason) to evening courses in places like University College Dublin and the Irish Writers Centre. I made some incredible friends, learned an enormous amount about the skills needed to read critically as a practitioner, rather than as a literary critic, and was introduced to writers and texts that I might never have come across otherwise; for example, it was at a workshop with American poet Dana Gioia at the Poets’ House in Co. Antrim that I first learned about the poet Richard Hugo, and his incredibly important book on writing, The Triggering Town. These courses gave me confidence when I needed it; I doubt very much that I would have been brave enough to start sending out manuscripts and getting my work published had I stayed in my own little garret.
For the past decade, I’ve been mostly facilitating workshops, rather than attending them, although now and again I get away for a week somewhere and find that, in the company of fellow poets and encouraging tutors, I can knock down even the most formidable writer’s block. And in the classes that I facilitate, there’ll always be a moment when another student’s breakthrough finds an echo somewhere in my own creative core; an image or an idea gets planted that might just result in something new later on. Creative writing workshops are a place of symbiosis; in the best ones, students and teachers get equal rewards. I’d recommend them whole-heartedly.