Mary O’Donnell, Director of our Creative Writing Advanced Workshop Talks About The Writing Life

September 2012 Grafton StreetMary O’Donnell is the author of four novels. Her first novel, The Light Makers, was a literary bestseller and her psychological thriller, The Elysium Testament was described as “a novel of soaring, elegant perception.’ She is also a poet and short story writer, and her work has been widely published in Ireland and internationally. Mary has worked as a broadcaster, theatre critic and freelance journalist and teaches creative writing at NUI Maynooth. She talks here about the writing life.

“When I was young, my imaginings about becoming a writer were vague and unformed. I just knew that this was something I enjoyed doing; that I’d choose it or drawing automatically. By the time I was a teenager I was writing regularly, without exactly knowing whether it would be poetry or fiction. I switched between the two forms, realising that if something didn’t work out for me in one form – or simply didn’t ‘feel’ right – I could try it in the other form to see if it would work. There were other young people in my home town, Monaghan, who were similarly experimenting at the time, several of them well-known writers today, but somehow our paths didn’t cross seriously until I went to university at Maynooth in the seventies.

“I wasn’t aware of influences when I was young, although obviously they were there, and would have come from the material I was reading, which ranged from imaginative fiction to English poetry. My father had signed me up to the London Children’s Bookclub, which meant that from the age of ten I was receiving a new novel every month. That was exciting. Our house was full of books anyway, but I always looked forward to whatever unpredictable choice the Bookclub would send me. One thing I do remember though, is that I had no real appetite for Biggles, but was very drawn to Scottish writers. I guess that may have been an unconscious identification with the Celtic spirit, but somehow their stories meant a lot more to me than some of the jolly hockey-sticks material from English writers.

“Now, my schedule is largely a morning one. I’m at my desk by ten o’clock every morning and I don’t like to be disturbed between then and one thirty. I can’t work for any longer than that without taking a proper break, and perhaps some exercise. The habit of writing is so ingrained in me that I love going into my study, especially when in the middle of new work, because no matter how I have planned it, there is an unpredictable alchemy to the process of writing, as the imagination kicks in and plans are forced to change or evolve in a new direction. Although I’m a very pragmatic person I’m also quite an idealist. I’m aware that I need great freedom in my life, that is, the idea of being hemmed into a nine to five workday has never appealed to me, because ideas happen outside that framework too, and the only way I can accommodate that is to be free to work when and as I wish. Occasionally I do work late, and when that happens the results are usually good. There’s something about night-time peace, when everybody else is sleeping, the dogs are in their baskets, and the whole house is a quiet that invites the muse to be with me. I believe in the presence of the muse, in other words the possibility that the imagination can rise from its sleeping daily doldrums and accompany us on the creative journey.

“Ideas influence me more than writing style, so when I think of the writers who are significant to me in that particular way, they would include John Berger, Alain de Botton and Margaret Atwood. In terms of style I have long admired Martin Amis, JM Coetze and Edward Said. The writers who impress me with their narrative skills would include Flannery O’Connor, Kevin Barry, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. But the older writers, some of whom are dead and some of whom are still alive also exert influences, so I’m always excited by the work of William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and of course Aidan Higgins. A woman in an audience once pointed out that I had listed various men in a list of ‘favourite’ writers and few women. That’s just the way the names rolled out that particular day, and I don’t feel the need to justify my choices in terms of gender.

“I adore Listowel Writers’ Week, which I first attended in 1981, arriving late into Julia O’Faolain’s short story workshop. She was very impressive, though a little daunting to me. She clearly didn’t respond to my work, but that didn’t matter, because perversely it sent me away with even greater determination to do something about it. I really did want to be a writer by then!  The following year, Listowel is where I was encouraged to proceed as an apprentice poet, after attending a workshop, and it was the year I also won a prize in the poetry competition. It was a heady time, and it was the first time I had ever read a poem publicly. But the crowning moment for me was the honour of winning the Jameson Short Story Award in 1990, judged by the late David Marcus. The thing about Listowel is that every time I returned over the years, I always, always felt so welcomed.

“I’m expecting an interesting workshop group this year, and looking forward to it a lot. We will be covering many aspects of the art which I hope will encourage the writers to go back home and carry on with the process. I believe very much in the role of process in any art. What they begin with me – and believe me, they will write for my workshop, even in the short time they have! – they will carry forth into their own busy world, and make time to complete it. What I can do is equip people with techniques – tools – to enhance their thoughts, ideas, and feelings about their narrative subject. We will cover all kinds of things from how to tell a story, to introductions, endings, style, the power of an image, the necessity to economise and be precise with language. My great hope is that the participants will enjoy the work – and have an exciting time discovering the writing self.”

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