Interior space, exterior space, and mood as securing agents of creativity
As a child, everything creative—although nobody referred to it as ‘creative’ in the 1960s—occurred during periods of relative quiet. Whether I was drawing and colouring, or writing, or playing the piano, a level of isolation from the main activity of the household was automatically an agent. I enjoyed this, and was aware of a certain feeling which could overtake me as I occupied myself with an of these activities, and a pleasurable sense of very deep absorption.
It has continued in this manner down the years. When I was a full-time secondary school teacher (1985-1988), I gradually realized that the busy schedule of a working school, and the pressure on internal energies, were not ideal as means of developing new writing. For that reason, I very occasionally took one day off work if I sensed that a new piece of fiction was on the brink of my consciousness. Writing took, to my mind, first priority. I could write poetry at weekends, but fiction required a level of attention not restricted to weekends. This says nothing about the order of importance of either genre. To write a novel takes over one’s time and energies, full-time. When one is not actually writing the novel, one is thinking about it, and finding and securing the delicate balance between detaching oneself from ordinary life whilst being ‘in’ it. Carrying out one’s daily business is sometimes challenging. If too much time passes between putting the novel aside and taking it up again, one has to return right to the beginning, because everything is forgotten! And with novels, there’s always invisible trouble brewing in some corners. It’s like spinning plates, and everything must be kept in the air, nice and taut, spinning and making sense of my writer’s inner gravity, until completion. This is just how it worked for me. Poetry, on the other hand, can be at least thought about and noted down in all kinds of ways (in my experience), in one’s iPhone for example, by voice memo or whatever. The thing with poetry is to catch the wisp of a moment in the air, almost as you pass it by, like a butterfly or dragonfly. Once caught, it can be left with its beautiful wings in your notebook (or head) until you have enough time to jot down a basic draft and develop it.
Over the years, despite having a perfectly good study or workroom in which to write, I find that the home I live in has grown exponentially in terms of my consciousness of it. There is something about putting down roots in a specific place that is not always helpful to sustained work, unless one’s workroom is slightly at a remove from the home, perhaps down the garden. Up to the time our daughter was born twenty-five years ago, neither I nor my husband bothered very much with domestic tidiness. In the years after it however, I found that a ‘nesting instinct’—to my surprise—emerged, and I enjoyed the notion of making a pleasant space in which to raise the child. It’s not so much about tidiness, per se, as creating an environment in which a child can be physically and mentally free. But the downside of this for a writer like me is that a house that is a home can also become a kind of Doppelgänger which haunts our waking minutes and consciousness. It follows me with things it imagines I need to do, attending to it as if it were an Other, but one which makes capricious demands on the Self. It’s very easy to be diverted from writing, especially on a morning when one isn’t so confident about the actual work to be done, to suddenly become preoccupied with something like hanging out the laundry. (These are things I never thought I’d think, say, or write!)
For that reason, I sometimes work at night, when the house—the presence which reflects back many different energies—is asleep. I know that when the house is creaking in silence, or when I can hear a leaf gently blow against the window of my study, that I am truly alone and beyond haunting by this place now at peace with itself.
Solitude is the only true space in which writing can occur for me. Whatever mood is dominant in my personality is also affected by the place in which I find myself working. As a writer I cannot bear emotional disharmony, and have never understood the writers who thrive on emotional Sturm und Drang with those closest to them. This does not infer that I live on a calm plateau in which feeling does not occur. In fact, it is the opposite, and all life’s experiences have tended to flow through my skin (this is how it feels), some of them lodging with sufficient obstinacy as to connect with my unconscious Self.
It is, for example, how my third novel, The Elysium Testament, began: an awareness of the brittleness of the taught habits of love, especially maternal love, and how we practice these after the death of a child. In that novel, interior and exterior space play a significant role and space itself aspires to ‘character’. Where else do we have our experiences but within space? And as we respond to those experiences, we use and abuse our spaces, we destroy them or exalt them, as needed. Human unhappiness can be regarded as an abuse of space, it can be a destroyer of how we perceive the space we inhabit. For example, it is possible that the human spirit and attitude is not suited for the average restrained dimensions in which the majority of people live. Yet technically, most crime against women and children takes place in what we call a home. Domestic violence against men also takes place there. It is perpetrated by a violator capable of exploiting the privacy of the contained building. In this way, the spaces in which our experiences might ideally flower, instead, are abused and diminished.
The place and position of writing in my life
Occasionally, I’ve exhorted my daughter when she was a student and a little bored during the summers, to go out and find some young fellow “to pass the time pleasantly with”, as I put it, which was basically what she wanted to do anyway. I saw it as a question of learning to live with what encounters we have, and to enjoy the moment. Some encounters are important, some are not. There are times when we need to think, and times when we must do and simply be.
For me, living involves finding something meaningful with which to “pass the time” as we mature, grow, and until we die. I wasn’t telling my daughter to be trivial, but to accept the periods when what “blows” in the wind may actually be worthwhile in between the other activities of her life, and to accept such things without too much judgement.
I can’t say that writing always passed the time “pleasantly” for me throughout my years of writing and publishing, although sometimes it did. It was not, after all, a pastime or a local romance. I took it deadly seriously, believing in the idea of authenticity of being, and was very influenced by my early readings of what had been offered at university, of Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, anti-semitic German literature, Alfred Döblin, and Elias Canetti. Not a woman author in sight! But these men encapsulated the creative freedom I aspired to. This was how I envisaged myself, an Irish version perhaps, at some point in the far future.
Essentially and on a philosophical level, such writers began to half-answer the many questions which had been tussling through my head throughout my teen years, largely unanswered within my milieu.
My thinking was this: if there were these published authors who were using characters to deal with the nature of existence, and it was not directly philosophy, but even so engaged with philosophical questions, then perhaps there was also room for me to try this out. I was naïve, of course, in the Ireland of the 1970s: any woman starting to write had a very hard struggle to gain fair recognition and equality of stature with the pantheon of male writers, the rows and rows of ‘greats’ who loomed over us, wagging patriarchal fingers, or else ignoring us entirely. The exception to all this exclusion was the writer David Marcus, the late editor of New Irish Writing in The Irish Press, who gave equal space and more to the female voices now rising on the horizon.
The place and position of writing in my life had been insulted—as with so many other female authors in Ireland—by the long resistance of canonical writers to include our voices in any discussion of the art and act of creativity, and of course (notoriously now) by our exclusion from certain significant anthologies. These exclusions remind me that writing was so hugely important in my life, that it had never just been how I would “pass the time” on earth, but that it was a raging force of expression that did not want to be refused its space in the world and was frustrated by the attention to gender and not to voice.
But away from the politics and gender awareness and canonical inclusions and exclusions, I am, thankfully, a little independent republic! My instinct is to invent fiction (long and short) and to experience the making of poetry as it filters through my unconscious Self and upwards and out into the conscious world. My instinct also is to go out and actively seek things that will nourish me creatively, intellectually, and in a less visible way. There is a seeking soul within all of us that beckons towards byways we had not expected to visit, but which we arrive at, explorers landing on new territory. My job as a writer is not to colonize that territory (the word revolts me for its historical and contemporary resonances), but to simply pause in wonder, and allow fragments, hints, and imaginary scenes (and sometimes memory too plays its part), to rise up from the source within the Self.
Enter, the magpie unconscious!
When writing The Elysium Testament in the mid-1990s, I was conscious of this novel emerging from several different directions. Over the months preceding the first pages of the first draft, I had been collecting quartzes and a few fossils, simply because I like them; that led me to read a book called Follies and Grottoes which I also enjoyed. I had a vague notion that the character in my about-to-be-written novel would be involved in some kind of restoration. Then I heard a story about a local woman whose son had been accidentally impaled on a gate. At the time, my own daughter was still an infant, and I was very attuned to protecting her, as any parent is. The abduction and murder of an English toddler called Jamie Bulger by two very young boys was also on my mind, and affected communities everywhere at that time. It fed my anxiety, but filtered into my writer’s anxiety, I believe, and what emerged gradually had been gathered, magpie-like, with an incomplete sense on my part of what the final result would be.
I believe the unconscious can create great dramas, enhanced by the realities we encounter. These dramas can be anything along the spectrum of human feeling, ranging from comedy to tragedy. In the case of this novel, the question of how to proceed after a child’s death was to the fore, and how to proceed as a woman, if her art—in this case, the woman undertakes a major commission to restore a Victorian ‘fake’ grotto on an Irish country estate—may have in its way contributed to this loss. Unconsciously, this story pushed forward and onto the page from all the described directions. I had no conscious idea of how the story would actually be unveiled, so much as the main, pivotal events. Nor had I any sense of the full range of characters until I had finished the first chapter. I was led by my unconscious, together with a writerly instinct, to move forward and place my trust in the act of creation and invention.
On the purpose of writing
I rarely consider writing in terms of its purpose, but if pushed, I believe it may have something to do with relieving the odium, the sense of isolation and loneliness, and inner despair which afflicts most thinking people at some point (for some more than others) in life. It offers pleasures, obviously, and complex processes and situations in which the human mind and soul can romp in private, without fear of judgement. When I think of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, or From the Mouth of the Whale by the Icelandic Sjøn, or to move from literature to film, with the Icelandic film Rams, written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, I know something striking and special, which also relieves anxiety, occurs for me in such works. In the case of the film, two isolated and incommunicative brothers are locked in a serious dispute which escalates when one of them conceals the fact that one of his sheep has the contagious disease Scrapie. But the story is about the two sides of primal love and hate between these two brothers, and how love eventually triumphs in tragedy.
I am drawn to the little I have read of Northern European and Nordic and Scandinavian writing and realize that, for me, it acts as a balm on my life. Perhaps this notion of consolation is the naïve response of many Western Europeans who love to sit back comfortably and watch Wallander driving along bleak coastlines, or who digested the novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, delighted at the knowledge that there are so many different words for ‘snow’, but I believe it is something more. I associate the far North with marvelous legends and myths of both life and death, but I also associate it with a pragmatism and social democracy and striving for a general equality that has sometimes been missing within my own culture. Ironically, the Swedish poetry I have read displays moments of playfulness and inventiveness that goes against all the stereotypes of what it is to be ‘Swedish’ in mentality. Yet for their absolute seriousness in terms of subject and formal experiment, I am drawn to the Swedish Tomas Tranströmer, and the Finnish Eira Stenberg. Writers who recognize the essential solitary journey of each of us as individuals, can connect with others who recognize this. I like the seriousness of the far North, the deep gloom that is sometimes acknowledged by the writers. Such writing can automatically exclude the millions who enjoy stories which do not deal with “the journey”, so much as the sometimes socially tranquillising ups and downs of romance or crime, and that’s okay. I don’t mean to cause offence by using the word ‘tranquillising’, but for me, that version of storytelling is as remote from the epistemological as a girl balancing on a circus pony is from the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. So, there is an epistemological purpose to good writing, which some readers are drawn to, and that is equally due respect. We read what we need, perhaps. My hope is that something I write might reach into someone’s soul and allow them to say something like “Oh. Of course. That’s why I felt like that when …” or “So I’m not alone after all, there are other weirdos like me!” or even “I enjoy her beautiful words. Clearly, this writer enjoys beautiful words”.
Mostly though, we writers are like professional liars in our storytelling and poems. We are following a millennia-old habit of being the tribal storytellers, and in order to tell the tales, we must remove ourselves from general society. When we return, we hope we have something that will convince the rest that although life is harsh—birth, sexuality, death and landscape all inscribe marks on our psyches and we bear witness to this—this person has written words which act like a balm and tell them that all is well. All is process. We are helplessly, hopelessly, part of that process until the day we die.
 O’Donnell, Mary. The Elysium Testament. Trident Press, 1999.
 Jones, Barbara. Follies and Grottoes. Constable reprint. 1989