Q&A with Nessa O’Mahony. Creative Writing – Getting Started

“When I was 30, my parents gave me as a birthday present a place on a creative writing course. And life changed totally.”

We’re delighted to introduce Nessa O’Mahony as our 2016 Creative Writing – Getting Started Workshop Director. Nessa was one of the first people in Ireland to complete a PhD in Creative Writing and is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University, as well as a regular facilitator at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin.

She has published four volumes of poetry, the most recent being Her Father’s Daughter in 2014. She won the National Women’s Poetry Competition in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and the Hennessy Literature Award.

Listowel, A Place Where Literature is Prized

Lovely Listowel
Lovely Listowel

Q.  You haven’t visited Listowel Writers’ Week before Nessa. What have you  heard about the festival and what are you most looking forward to?

A. I’ve wanted to attend Listowel Writers’ Week for the longest time.  From what I’ve heard from friends, colleagues and former students, it’s one of the best and most enjoyable literary festivals in Ireland. Listowel has always had a reputation as a place where literature is prized – how could it be otherwise given it has produced writers of the brilliance of John B. Keane and Bryan MacMahon? In fact, its literary links go far beyond those two titans with scores of brilliant poets, novelists and playwrights coming from the area.  What seems to be utterly unique to the Listowel Festival is the ability to attract consistently top-class writing talent and to combine wonderful performances with a friendly and informal atmosphere.  Very few festivals achieve that balance so I’m looking forward to experiencing the Listowel ambience for myself.

The Benefits of Creative Writing Workshops

Q. You teach Creative Writing at the Open University. What aspects of it do you most enjoy and what are its challenges?

A. I love working with writers in workshops. Some of my happiest and most rewarding experiences have taken place around a writing workshop table, both as a participant and as a facilitator. I can remember those really significant moments in the classroom when somebody gave me the sort of feedback and encouragement that kept me going, or that pushed me further to take risks and try new approaches. So I’ve always wanted to offer the same sort of support to students I work with.

The Open University is an amazing institution in which to teach creative writing. They are some wonderful teachers and the course materials developed by the Creative Writing team are the best I’ve worked with. Given that it is predominantly a distance learning university, I don’t get many chances to work face to face with my students, but we have some very vibrant online discussion forums and it’s hugely enjoyable watching them develop their ideas and voices over the course of an academic year. I think one of the greatest challenges for creative writing within academic contexts is that you have to encourage students to develop their own potential but at the same time assess their work according to standard academic criteria. That can sometimes jar.

Q. What do you think is the main benefit of attending a three-day Creative Writing Workshop?

A. The nice thing about a three-day workshop is that there’s time to develop ideas from that first moment of inspiration to the finished product. There’s the space to try out lots of different approaches and to look at things from different angles. It’s a great way of meeting like-minded people too.

Women Writers as Literary Influences

Q. Who are your favourite writers and why?

A. I grew up with Jane Austen and I still love her for her wit and slyness and ability to give women power over their own fates, within the limited social circumstances prevailing at the time. She showed off womens’ intelligence, I suppose. And although her tone is very different, I think Anne Enright matches Austen for that intellect and ability to show women in all their complexity. I adore the poetry of Paula Meehan and Louise Gluck and Sinead Morrissey; they are each very different poets but share a mastery over the visual image and an utter bravery about the topics they tackle.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright

Q. Who were your early literary influences and why?

A. Apart from Austen, I’d have to credit Agatha Christie, who gave me a life-long taste for the well-told tale of intrigue. I still devour her (though mostly through TV adaptations). I like anything that anatomises human nature, and the strange motivations that direct us. In terms of poetry, William Wordsworth and Patrick Kavanagh taught me a great deal about the umbilical cord that links the poet to the landscape.

Q. Who is your favourite fictional character and why?

A. Anne Elliot (from Austen’s Persuasion) has long been a favourite. Not perhaps the most dynamic of characters, but she’s the patron saint of never giving up.

The Writing Life

Her Father's Daughter by Nessa O'Mahony
Her Father’s Daughter by Nessa O’Mahony

Q. You’ve published four volumes of poetry, the most recent being Her Father’s Daughter in 2014. What is it about the form that you most enjoy?

A. Poetry is all about distillation. I really enjoy the challenge of distilling ideas and experiences into their essence. It’s a huge challenge to find the best and fewest words needed to express an idea or to capture a moment but there’s something really satisfying when you reach the point of knowing that there’s nothing more you need to cut or adjust or change: the poem is finished.

Q. Did you always want to be a writer?

A. I did, although I didn’t realise it for 30 years. When I was little, I constantly lived in the stories I read or watched on television. I’d always rewrite them to give myself a role – I was usually the helpful friend, rarely the hero, interestingly. When I went to university to study literature, that seemed to quell my story-telling tendencies, because the writers we studied were mostly male and mostly dead; it didn’t occur to me that I could join the ranks. But when I was 30, my parents gave me as a birthday present a place on a creative writing course. And life changed totally.

Q. Do you have a daily writing schedule?

A. I wish I did. I discovered last year that I could be incredibly productive if I got up 90 minutes earlier (e.g. 5.30am) and wrote without disturbance. It helped that I was going through a bout of insomnia at the time but unfortunately my sleeping patterns have improved and I’m not getting up early these days. I’ll have to come up with a better plan for 2016.

Q. For those who are starting out on their creative writing journey, what is your best piece of advice?

A. How does Beckett put it? “Fail Again. Fail Better.” One of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to give myself permission to fail, to be imperfect. Some people stop themselves in their tracks because they don’t see the point of producing something that is less than perfect. But you have to start somewhere, and keeping going is the harder nut to crack. So give yourself some slack and don’t sink yourself with overly high expectations.

Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in your Creative Writing Getting Started Workshop?

A. Getting Started is all about ways of conquering the fear of the empty page. We’ll be looking at ways to find inspiration, to structure our stories and to discover our own private stores of images and words. We’ll be looking at all the forms of writing, so this should be of interest to poets, fiction and life writers.

For details of Nessa’s and indeed all 13 of our 2 and 3-day workshops please click on the link below.