I recall siting with the handful of my classmates in Beneavin College, in the working class Dublin suburb of Finglas, in May 1977 as our English teacher, Colm Hewitt, gave up his Saturday morning to help those of us who were doing the higher level English paper to study Yeats’ poem, “Among School Children”. It is the poem where Yeats described his feeling when walking through a class of children who gaze in wonder at a “smiling sixty-year-old public man”.
Across the gap of more than forty years since that day, I can recall the beauty and linear strength of Yeats’ words but also what for me back then was the impossibility of imagining what it must ever feel like to be 60 years old. Yet in February 2019 this is the milestone that I will reach. Recently I walked through a classroom of children gazing up at me as I gave a talk and I realised how—although obviously I am not in any way a public figure like Yeats was—I was suddenly about to become the sixty-year-old man inside his poem. Yeats’ poem has stayed with me since 1977 although its depth of meaning has subtly continued changing in my mind as my life has changed. This is true of many of the poems that I didn’t fully understand when I first encountered them at school but which have [since] become signposts to my adult life: their lines re-emerging in my memory from across the decades to often help me survive moments of personal trauma.
At twelve I decided I wanted to be a poet. My primary teacher, the late Michael Donnelly, read us a poem by Francis Ledwidge that was not on the school curriculum. Years later, when I tracked it down, I realised that it was one of Ledwidge’s weaker poems, but to someone like me with a stammer, subjected to sporadic bullying, his words about being excluded were mesmerising. I walked home that day with a friend whose ambition was to join the Irish army. I shyly confessed my new ambition to be a poet. He was not unsympathetic but said that to be a poet you needed to go to university and as neither of us knew anyone from Finglas who had attended university he suggested that maybe it might be wiser to become a soldier instead.
We were wrong on two counts. Firstly, many Finglas people went on to university: one girl a few doors down from me became an esteemed medical doctor and one lad I kicked a football with behind the shops later became a physician who was knighted in Britain for his research into the molecular pathogenesis of human obesity. Secondly, you needed no degree to become a poet. The great freedom of poetry is that you need nobody’s permission—all you need is just a pen and paper and the courage to go wherever your imagination leads.
I still treasure a copy of Patrick Kavanagh’s Collected Poems inscribed to me by Frances Barron, another teacher in Beneavin College. While many poems in this volume remain lodged in my memory, it is Kavanagh’s “Author’s Note” that most resonates now. He wrote in it: “A man…innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life”, saying how, if he hadn’t discovered poetry, “I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland”.
I don’t know what Kavanagh’s Monaghan neighbours made of this ungainly and (in his later years, when in ill health) occasionally cantankerous man, though I loved the observation of one Monaghan neighbour—stunned by how many national figures descended on Inniskeen after his death in 1967—that “locally his funeral was the making of him”.
If Kavanagh had not decided to dabble in words then it is no foregone conclusion that he would have remained all his life living in his native Inniskeen, working as a small farmer and shoemaker and being remembered now—if at all—as merely an erratic Gaelic football goalkeeper for the parish team. Intellectual wanderlust or clumsiness (his father told him, “you broke everything on the farm except the crowbar. And you bent that”) might have seen him disappear into the Irish diaspora in London. Any such fate might have given him a more financially secure life that the one he actually led, where—again quoting his “Author’s Note”—“I literally starved in Dublin. I often borrowed ‘a shilling for the gas’ when in fact I wanted the coin to buy a chop”. But a less precarious life in a secure job would probably not have seen his statue erected on Dublin’s Grand Canal or a literary centre honouring him in Inniskeen.
I return to Kavanagh’s “Author’s Note” because I love his phrase about how someone “innocently dabbles in words”. It sums up the problematic alchemy of poetry: something which I have now written for forty-five years, spending the past thirty-five of these years making a precarious living from just the thin sliver of my imagination. Poetry is not like fiction in that no novelist “innocently dabbles in words”. They sit for hours slowly coercing characters to allow themselves to be summoned up from within the novelist’s imagination.
But poetry is a more mysterious kettle of fish. You can no more summon up a poem than hurry one along. Poems write themselves in your subconscious, then ambush you at unexpected moments, when you are walking the dog or washing dishes. Yeats said that from the quarrel with others we make rhetoric and from the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. Because human nature is conflicted, there is always a quarrel in our mind with contradictory thoughts. Occasionally, one thought sparks into life with a jolt of electricity and we know instinctively this is a poem’s opening line. We also know that if we don’t write it down immediately it will disappear and we can no more summon it back up than last night’s dreams.
Poetry has never made me rich, but thankfully my ability to diversify into novels and plays means that, unlike Kavanagh, I’m unlikely at this stage to starve. But just like him, my innocent dabbling in words has brought me on two extraordinary journeys. Firstly, a physical journey where I have read poems in a blizzard on a stage in a Beijing park or led two thousand Irish soccer fans through Stockholm as Grand Marshall of a St Patrick’s Parade or performed in venues as diverse as New Delhi, New Brunswick, New York and Newcastle West. And, secondly, on an imaginative journey where at unlikely moments—sitting upstairs on a 16 bus in Dublin or having to lie sprawled in a Manhattan hotel corridor (to the consternation of other guests stepping over me) to scribble words that came from nowhere and would have vanished if I didn’t catch them—I’m constantly surprised by the words I innocently dabbled in.
It is a career where you never retire. Indeed calling it a career seems extreme when, in the main, it earns a writer so little money, but then again calling it a vocation sounds rather pretentious. So maybe it is best to term it “a calling” because at unlikely times words come calling to you. Those words are linked to emotions and because we each experience emotions differently, a poem that touches one reader will leave other readers cold. Poetry cannot be foisted on everyone. But because poems are often crafted from the rawest grief or the height of love or other deep human emotions, I’m convinced that there is nobody alive who, at some tumultuous moment in their life, could not pick up some particular poem and feel a shock of recognition at how someone else has captured the emotions they are feeling.
My impulses, experiences and work practices as a novelist, a playwright and a poet are all radically different. The theatre is a more collaborative and convivial workspace where (even though you must begin the process of writing alone in an isolated room) you wind up seeing the phantoms of your imagination being brought to life, day by day, through the work of talented actors in a rehearsal room and learn so much in advance of the opening night by watching those actors unselfishly give you all their commitment and energy. Because you are constantly learning just by seeing the play being rehearsed, the text of any play is always still a work in progress. When Picasso was once asked “When is a painting finished?” he replied, “When the gentleman from the gallery comes to hang it.” As a playwright I have discovered that a play is only finished when the gentlemen and ladies from the newspapers come to hang the playwright.
On one level theatre is the most engaging and exciting of all disciplines because, as theatre is live, anything can happen on any given night. On the opening night of the production by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin of my adaption of Joyce’s Ulysses I watched the audience intently during the first act, not sure if they would go with the text. Even when it got a great reaction at the interval, I was still too afraid to allow myself to relax until we reached the fifteen-minute mark in Act Two by which time the audience were so engrossed that you could hear a pin drop. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt we had made it. Then at that exact moment I saw a movement in the audience and a former World Middleweight professional boxing champion stood up, cradling the body of an old actor in his arms. The old actor had just passed out unconscious and the boxer could only carry him to the nearest exit to get urgent medical attention by, quite rightly, striding across the playing area of the stage, leaving the cast standing there, dumbstruck, and then having to pick up the pieces of the play and try and rebuild the spell they had been weaving until that moment.
Not every night is quite this exciting, but every performance is different because of the constantly changing dynamic tension and interaction between the cast and audience. For a solitary creature like a writer, there is a great immediacy in seeing a live audience of several hundred people engage with your words, whereas, in contrast, a novelist rarely encounters his or her readers in these numbers or this way. But within minutes of the last curtain call on closing night, the carpenters are at work demolishing the set before the audience have even left the building and you know that no other audience may ever get this full experience of the play back unless a new director and a new cast are prepared to take the risk of mounting another production of this same play in another city on some future date over which you have no control.
In contrast to this, even if a novel has been left sitting untouched for years on a library shelf, having fallen out of fashion, an individual new reader who stumbles across it, ten or twenty years later, can still fully imaginatively engage with the characters in a fresh and original way. The forgotten drama text, however, has to wait for a theatre company to rediscover and add it to their repertoire before a new audience can experience the text of that play properly.
For that reason, the novel is the most special and intimate of forms for me because, even when a novel ceases to be widely read, it is still always lurking there between the cover waiting to be stumbled upon by chance by a new reader who will bring the characters to life in their own minds. The thought that this can happen at any time is a very special privilege for a writer.
There is a notion of novelists as omnificent masters of invented universes and that we pull the strings of puppets in fictional characters who dance only to our tune. Some novelists do work in this way and at times both I and my bank manager wish that I did. Indeed, if I did so, I would probably still have hair, but there again my imaginative life would be less interesting. Or to put this simply, if I knew what was going to happen next every time I sit down at my desk to write fiction, I would be so bored that I would probably never bother sitting down.
This is a point I often make to aspiring novelists: sometimes the less we know about what is going to happen in a work of fiction, the better off we are. The more we know about what happens next, the more we close off the possibilities of the unexpected, the less chance we have of allowing our subconscious minds to speculate and probe down to the awkward truths that we need to express instead of the glib things that we initially thought we wanted to say.
If we already know what we intend to say in a novel we are going to learn nothing by saying it. Only when we allow our imagination the space to catch us by surprise, when we sit back and stare in bafflement at words that suddenly start appearing on our screens, do we find ourselves to be truly writing. Only then can we honestly say that we are being brought—often by the seat of our pants—on imaginative journeys into the unknown. Suddenly we have left our comfort zone behind and start to discover things about ourselves, often in the guise of writing about some character who seems utterly different.
Therefore, in my experience, good writers very rarely talk much about whatever novel or short story they are currently working on. A work in progress is a private affair, because it is an unfinished imaginative voyage into the dark. You may often know instinctively from quite early on exactly how the novel will end, but not how to reach that ending – because if you get too far ahead of yourself mentally, the imaginative curiosity that drives you on may die.
I am now the author of fourteen novels, yet the process of writing a new novel remains as uncertain as when I wrote my first book. Writing my first one was probably easier, in that I felt under no pressure because I never believed that it would ever be published. What held me back at first was a supreme lack of confidence, the inability to understand that everyone’s life is of equal importance. I now believe that, if written properly with the right engine of curiosity, what fascinates me about a character will hopefully fascinate unknown readers, provided that I commit my heart and soul to this character, that I believe in the world I am making up with sufficient conviction to allow others to believe in it too.
Poetry may be a sprint and a strong adrenalin rush when inspiration strikes and words fall into place (often at unlikely moments). But novel writing is like marathon running. Novels are not written with inspiration—although they need bursts of inspiration. Novels are primarily written through boring, repetitive routine. They are ground out in slow paragraphs on boring wet Tuesdays. They are the culmination of writing sessions when words turn to muck in your mouth and of other writing sessions when you start to filter through words that had seemed uselessly inadequate yesterday and find a way to mint fresh language from them.
Writing a novel is like opening up an imaginary hotel for the phantoms of your subconscious. You cannot be guaranteed that guests will turn up on any given night, but you need to have the light on and the door open just in case. I have been lucky enough to write my novels in some unlikely places. Two were written in the watch room of the Baily Lighthouse. Passengers flying into Dublin may have thought that the light flashing on and off at Howth Head was to warn shipping, but it was frequently me trying to find the right light switch on my way out.
But you don’t always need a physical room or a full day of doing nothing else. Writers work in short bursts. If embarking on a book or memoir, what you need is to take your ambition seriously and insist that others close to you respect those rules. You need to partition off part of each day for yourself—even just one hour when you lock yourself away, when people know you are not to be disturbed, when you open that imaginary hotel in your mind and see who turns up.
I have learnt perseverance and patience and that a huge amount of writing takes place in your subconscious mind. It is being formed by your inner thoughts before you become aware of it. It may physically need to be written during snatched moments if you are juggling numerous responsibilities. But it is also being written in the hours when you are not writing it. Your subconscious mind is toying with it and it will come to you—like a forgotten name or the clue to a crossword puzzle—when you cease thinking about it.
Writing a novel is daunting, but less daunting when written one page at a time. If you wish to not get swamped, you need to break the book down into achievable mini-summits, to focus not on finishing the book but on finishing each chapter. You need to know when to push ahead and when to backtrack and restart. Starting again does not mean that there was anything wrong with the original words, but it means that characters change as a story changes. When you start writing a book you think you know your characters, but as the book evolves they evolve too and after fifty pages they have subtly become different from the characters you had on your first page. There also comes a time when you need to go back to the start and readjust things before the characters you are now writing about become too detached from the characters you started with.
When a novel is finally finished then, as a novelist, you send it out into the world hoping it may find a reasonably large readership and maybe foreign translations or even film rights. There is a launch, press interviews and a small cluster of reviews in newspapers to give the process a minor sense of occasion. However as a poet, when you send out poems into the world, it is like you are dropping the tiniest pebble into the deepest well. The astonishing thing I’ve found after four decades is that, years later, you finally hear the tiny splash it has made when, to your surprise, you meet a reader somewhere who has kept that particular poem by their bed because your words captured something of the essence of their experience. Such rare encounters make the hours and months of reshaping poems worthwhile because you find you’ve touched someone in a deeply personal way that neither of you can explain. Those are the encounters and moments that send you back to your desk the next morning knowing that, in the end, the English language will always defeat you, but that just perhaps on this particular day you will win the smallest skirmish with it.
It does not always happen but, just occasionally, I emerge from whatever room I am working in, feeling that perhaps I may have come up with a line or a phrase or a verse that would have captured the imagination of the eighteen-year-old boy whom I once was, sitting in a Finglas classroom, just about able to comprehend Yeats’ “Among School Children” but feeling that surely I would never be able to comprehend the impossibility and implausibility of attaining the age of sixty.