I flit anxiously and eagerly from genre to genre. I always have a few stories on the go. Some of them are like eels – they slip away if I do not make a fast grab. Some are like bold children - they pay absolutely no attention to anything I tell them to do. One or two arrive unannounced from the farthest recesses of my imagination and insist on writing themselves with little or no input from myself. A couple of plays require open heart surgery. Several poems are threatening to rise up en masse and bite off my fingers, feet and other unmentionables if I do not give them immediate attention. I have four novels to write and so I am tentatively trying to negotiate with the devil for more time. These nights said devil shows up at the foot of my bed brandishing a chess board. I feel like the knight in the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal. Heaven help me.
I don't know if my writing is in any way distinctive. I am an aural learner as opposed to say the more common visual learning that attends so much writing. I hear things before I see them. Often I mishear things. This can provide delightful moments. Last week, I misheard something. The actual statement was, There are suspicious organisms in the water. I heard it as, There are suspicious orgasms in the water. I like to use humour. I find it pleasingly challenging to make the reader smirk. Plus, I feel humour helps brings the unfunny moments into relief. Mark Twain said the secret source of humour is not in joy but in sorrow. And I think it was Chekhov who said happy people write sad stories and unhappy people write funny stories. I'm not sure what that says about me or my writing and I probably don't want to know. Any time the vaguest notion permits me to consider that I am in any way different I feel the devil at my shoulder, sniggering.
My reasons for writing are partly intrinsic, partly spiritual, partly fanatical. Intrinsic because if I do not write I will go mad. Spiritual because I like to hang around with people who do not exist. Fanatical because I love moving as quickly as possible from the everyday world into the world of the imagination. Stretching reality; bending it, distorting it, somehow twisting it out of shape. Watching what characters make of this tilt in their lives – this is what I like to do.
I began writing as a boy. Little stories, plays, poems. I remember churning out a radio play that featured, in its opening moments, the discovery in a hotel bedroom of the slain corpse of the neighbourhood gossip. Along with a lunchtime radio show I used to tune in to, my early offering was heavily influenced by an unlikely combination of Agatha Christie and an anthology of Greek myths and legends devoured innumerable times in my local library. I named my sleuth Hercules Poirot. He was a cast-iron genius. By the age of twelve I declared myself a similar kind of genius and announced my retirement. I stopped writing and, for a long time, was reluctant to resume. Don't ask me why. I drifted. I procrastinated. I avoided. To misquote Don DeLillo, what we are reluctant to touch often seems to contain the fabric of our salvation. I believe very much in the redemptive powers of the imagination. And, having abandoned it for so long, when I returned to writing as an adult I was so grateful and so relieved upon realising that the realm of the imagination had not abandoned me. Let yourself be led by the child that you were. This is a tendency I adhered to upon my resumption and, indeed, return to when it all threatens to get away from me.
I am, at various times, a reluctant, plodding, instinctive, spontaneous writer. At times I feel that, if I stay awake for long enough, I can reach the very end of a considerable narrative arc. At other times I feel that uncapping a pen is a bridge too far. I wake and enter every day with ever-varying combinations of wonder and dread. It is a flip-flop shoe of an existence. I like what Goethe said: do not hurry, do not rest.
Late last year I told the devil I could no longer stay up chatting until five in the morning. He laughed at me and suggested I refrain from refreshing my email every five seconds and not log on to facebook until well into the afternoon. I thought this was good advice. Thanks, devil, I said, let me know when I can do something for you. A week later the demented lunatic started showing up with his chess board.
If you know what you want to be you will be it. If you don't know, then you will spend your days reinventing yourself, discovering who you are. I accept and indeed envy the former standpoint in so many ways. But I am an uncertain person. And rather than rail against this uncertainty I suffer it and endure it and try to harness it, make something of it. And so each day becomes the first day; it allows room for discovery, invention, re-invention, wonder, mystery; all of which are manna for the creative urge and time spend dwelling within the imagination. DeLillo again: May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.
I have started several novels. There is the edgy-existential one about the brother-sister assassination squad who must go on the run after taking out a controversial Irish politician. There is the comedy-of-desperation one about the office slave finally tipped over the edge by a boss constantly referred to as the highly evolved vegetable. There is the life-weary one about the last day in the working life of a barber terrified beyond measure of the imminent reunion with his poet-activist daughter. There is my iffy west-of-Ireland situated bildungsroman featuring an as yet-to-be-named antagonist who is more of a genius in dreams than in life. I intend to return to each of them, grant them time and energy, sweat and tears, some blood too. One reason I have started them is because I so enjoy beginnings. That sense of flailing about heedlessly before committing to a singular inevitability. Another reason is that I am all the time hankering to work on the very project I am not currently tangled up inside. Yet one more reason is that I do not want to reach the end – it is a little death. More than little. My solution is this: they are never finished. Merely abandoned.
I find every novel I have started or have done some work on (as already noted, there are several) has one all-encompassing definitive centre. But long before I become aware of this there are several, smaller centres which seem to have an elevated notion of their place in the scheme of things and so spend a lot time fooling me into thinking they are worthy of this singular vital point in space. These various centres – frauds, imposters and infidels the lot of them – declare themselves to me at various moments in a narrative's progression. Some shout and wave and make lots of theatrical gestures. Some are quieter and comfortable enough within themselves not to attract any attention – as though they are aware that I will stumble upon them and act accordingly. And then there is the centre that is very much in hiding, invisible and utterly soundless. Buried deep. A needle within a haystack. An x-mark on the treasure map. This is the centre I need to find.
The devil continues to rile me. Not so long ago I was about to read a short story to a packed house. (By packed I mean ten or twenty people.) I took to the platform, stepped up to the lectern, and opened my book only to discover the story I had intended to read was no longer between the covers. Convinced that invisible gremlins were playing their usual havoc with my abilities to adequately function in a public space, I flicked through pages, certain that I would alight on the piece I was after. But there was no sign of it. I closed the book, looked out at the expectant audience, half-smiled and took a gulp of the wine that had magically appeared. 'My story seems to have momentarily absconded. Please bear with me,' I managed to say. Convinced that some form of visual trickery was at large I reopened the book. Again, there was no sign of the story. It had definitely absconded. Deciding I should instantly summon and resort to a plan B, I flicked to the beginning pages of the book and to a story I had read many times before, one I knew I could rely on to get me out of a bind, a crowd-pleaser. It, too, had disappeared. Again, I closed the book, took another gulp of wine, deeper and longer-lasting than the previous, did my half-smile which was really little more than a vague attempt to mask the gathering maelstrom inside me, and once again looked out to the audience. One or two were fidgeting in their seats. One or two were actually walking towards the exit. I looked down at the book, checked to ensure that my name was on the cover and opened it again. The entire thing was a swathe of blankness. Then I had a brainwave. I tossed that particular copy and reached for a second copy on the nearby sales table. Nothing. And so it went. My entire oeuvre. Black page after blank page. At some point, satisfied that he had gotten his kicks, the devil decided to release me from this latest torment. At once I jumped out of bed and made a beeline for my bookshelves. I piled the books around me, curled up, and swore that I was never setting foot outside my door again. Then my phone pinged through a message. It was the devil, informing me that for one evening only it was buy-one get-one-free in my local pub. At the end of his message he added some sniggering emoticons. I put on my 'isn't madness a fright' t-shirt, grabbed the chessboard, and out the door I toddled.
I often think of the scene from Lewis Carroll when Alice encounters the unicorn. 'I didn't think unicorns existed,' Alice says to the fabled horse. And the unicorn replies, 'I'll believe in you if you believe in me.' I think there is something magical about this exchange, it contains a world of possibility, more manna for the imagination.
Writing is about taking risks. It is a high wire act. A game you lose almost all the time. I remember reading Dostoevsky's The Gambler. And when my delay mechanism finally kicked in I remember thinking, gamblers don't gamble because they want to win. They gamble because they want to lose. Later again, I read Bohumil Hrabal's joyous one-utterance Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age. The narrative is prefaced with a line from Ladislav Klíma: Victory is made up exclusively of beatings. Which in turn sends me to the line from Cormac McCarthy, think of the worse luck your bad luck has saved you from. Ha-ha. This is what the devil says in my ear most days. Of course, being Irish, I have an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustains me through fleeting periods of joy.
And of course it has to sing. Be it rock 'n roll or moonlight sonata. Swing time or daft punk. Looney tune or Greek chorus. A Miles Davis Kind of Blue or bohemian rhapsody. And always a quest that quietly insists: don't seek what's there, seek what's not there.
These are my current writing thoughts. They will change. Sometimes the questions can be enough – that is, if they are the right questions. And now I can hear the devil sniggering again. It occurs to me that I may have to come up with a pet name for him.