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Niall McArdle: How A Leonard Cohen Song Worked Its Way Into My Story

Writing.ie | Magazine | Tell Your Own Story | Writing & Me
niall mcardle

Niall McArdle

Usually when I write a story, I fumble around with ideas and characters for a long while, and eventually the plot and theme reveal themselves to me. Only then do I think what the title will be.

That wasn’t the case, though, with one story: “19 Ways to Say I Love You”. The title came first.

I really should keep a writing journal so that I can keep track of where and when and how the Muse decides to grace me with a gift.

I don’t remember what I was doing when I first had the thought. I was probably reading something, or maybe watching TV, and for whatever reason the line “19 ways to say I love you” popped into my mind.

It was such an odd phrase that I grabbed the nearest scrap of paper and made note of it, and as soon as I had scribbled it down, I immediately knew it was the title of a short story, and I knew exactly what the structure would be. I imagined nineteen vignettes that elucidated the idea of love.

I didn’t have a plot in mind, though.

A few nights later I sat down with that scrap of paper and began thinking about declarations of love. I started writing, and I planned a fairly snarky tone at first, and I planned on keeping it humorous. I think I was inspired – if that’s the word – by the Internet, which is filled with annoying ‘listicles’: 27 Ways Your Cat Hates You; The 16 Most Luxurious Celebrity Toilets; 11 Easy Ways To Help You Avoid Writing.

But then suddenly I started hearing a woman’s voice telling me about the breakdown of her marriage. At first I didn’t know who she was or where she lived. I didn’t know much about her at all, really, except that she liked to read.

I had the image of her holding one of those sweets with love-hearts, and that the message would be a typo, and the story flowed fairly easily from there. I stuck to the original plan of nineteen little vignettes, and the story came quite quickly.

I really wish it was always that way.

I tend to be obsessive about certain music. When I hear a song I like, I put it on repeat and listen to it over and over. At the time I was writing the story I was reading a biography of Leonard Cohen that a friend had given me. I like Cohen a lot, but I hadn’t actively listened to him for ages. Reading his biography made me want to hear his music again. My local library has a couple of his CDs. I borrowed Songs from a Room, which might be the quintessential Music to Slit Your Wrists to album of his. It includes such uplifting numbers as “The Butcher”, “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes”, and “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”, all sung in Cohen’s signature drone.

Because I am obsessive, I put that CD on repeat and listened to it several times every night for about a fortnight, which means I heard “The Story of Isaac” close to eighty times. It’s no surprise that the tale of Abraham and Isaac, therefore, worked its way into the story I was writing: I hadn’t planned that at all.

“19 Ways to Say I Love You” is one of the quickest stories I have written (I am a slow writer, generally). I fiddled around with it for a bit. I revised it ever so slightly by making sure the word heart appeared in each of the sections because the image of the love-heart was central to the story.

Then it came time to submit it somewhere. There were several places I considered sending it, but for many of them the story was just a little too long, so I cut it down, and for while it was known as “17 Ways to Say I Love You”.

Eventually, though, I restored it to its original form and submitted to the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I am very pleased it has been chosen and published by the Irish Times as Short Story of the Month.

I still like Leonard Cohen, but I haven’t listened to “The Story of Isaac” since.

About the author

Niall McArdle is a freelance writer and critic. He writes about the arts for 2paragraphs.com, and blogs at www.ragingfluff.wordpress.com. He has contributed to the Generation Emigration blog at The Irish Times, and his book reviews have appeared in The Collagist, The Malahat Review, and Canadian Literature.

His story, “19 Ways to Say ‘I Love You'” was selected as the Hennessy New Irish Writing Short Story of the Month for October.

Originally from Dublin, he now lives in Canada in a house with too many cats.

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