Writing is everything to me. It’s my husband, my children, my religion and my lover. Next to it, living is merely a hobby.
Those words might sound overintense but the nature of writing is that it takes over your life. I don’t fit my writing into my life; I fit my life into my writing. When I look back to being a child, I had this built-in bookcase in my bedroom and I used to keep climbing it to the top. How could there be a more apt metaphor for a writer’s dreams?
As a teenager I liked to say inappropriate things to shock people and still do to a certain extent. Writing needs spice and confrontation and theatre in particular is the best place for saying the unsayable, so what was a verbal liability earlier in my life has become a written asset. Funnily enough, the most flattered I ever felt as a writer was when the playwright, Philip Ridley, called one my plays ‘vile’.
Writing affects my mind deeply. Friends sometimes say to me, ‘Do you remember that time we…?’ and they can’t believe I’ve no recollection of it at all. The thing is I have so many fictional stories in my head, half my memories get superseded.
I think as a writer you feel that you can never quite capture the right words. There is no such thing as perfection, but you always want to try and wrestle your writing into submission. I remember once being really upset that I’d lost a set of rewrites on a play. There was nothing else for it but another rewrite. A few days later I found the original rewrites and…guess what? The second rewrites were word for word the same as the first. It just goes to show that, in a certain time and location, you can’t aspire to write any better than you do.
Brevity of form makes it easier to be experimental within a short story than a novel. The one guiding force I try to adhere to is ‘story over style’. Although I do stand back and look at my work critically, I deliberately try not to overthink. To analyse is to paralyse. Analysis is for academics, not fiction writers. Why would you ever take a scientific approach to writing when art is greater than science? Science is a set of rules waiting to be discovered; art is a set of rules waiting to be broken.
Most of us writers would die for our art. The doctor once told me I needed an immediate operation with an overnight stay the day before I was due to have a reading of my play at the Abbey Theatre. So what did I do? I chose the play over the op, undergoing makeshift treatment with terrible consequences, leaving me with infections over the following months and needing a bigger operation in the end. I’m not alone - I’ve known a writer who postponed cancer treatment just to attend a writing workshop!
Dorothy Parker said: ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’ Personally, the part of writing I most love is having been published. The act of writing to me is futile unless the end goal is publication. Without it, I’d much rather go out and dance in the daisies than sit writing in a shaded room.
Writers talk about the holiness of their art and it is true that there are times we’ve had to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of literature. As John Banville notes, a writer is ‘priest-like’, devoting his/her life to ‘etherial faith’. However, thanks to the revelatory scandals in Ireland, it transpires that some priests did have a considerable amount of sex which to me somewhat dilutes the metaphor.
Being a female writer has always been a hurdle. Even the words critics use for bold writing like ‘ballsy’ exclude women. What’s wrong with ‘breasty’? I remember at a time when I was tired of short story rejections I sent a story off under the more gender-neutral name, Jo Eliot (yes, it was consciously like George Eliot). The story was picked up and the comments about it were hugely positive. I did think about adopting Jo Eliot as my pseudonym but there was the vain, ignoble part of me that kept asking, ‘Why change your identity when it means you can’t flaunt your success in front of all the teachers and publishers who never supported you?’
All of us writers are mythomanes. I love the image of myself as a latter-day Brendan Behan. My father likes a drink every day and he once said to me when I was complaining about a hangover, ‘Sure you’re no daughter of mine unless you can drink five pints.’ It was certainly something to live up to. When I die, I’d like a pinch of my ashes sprinkled into a big vat of mulled wine for a post-funeral party. The wine can be passed around and consumed by the guests, so that it can be said of me, ‘Drunk in life, drunk in death’.
My mother had an enormous influence on my life. She’d longed to be an artist (painting, not writing) but told me that having a family had taken up too much of her time. Her words definitely deterred me from marrying or having children, so I do think I was the repository of my mother’s dreams. However, I don’t believe that a writer’s life without children is in any way barren or sterile. I’ve given birth over the years to so many characters I’m almost the Prometheus of my own bedroom. Sometimes, a voice from plays or short stories cries out to me in the night like a teething child.
Poverty or the fear of it is the big drawback to writing. It’s more than ironic that the one symbol which doesn’t work on my keyboard is the pound sign. But I want to keep experimenting with my work and, after all, it’s far better to be a poor living writer than a rich dead one. I still live in a rented house but the most important thing is that I’m writing nearly every day. While I may not have my dream house, I will always have what is infinitely and gloriously better…my inner house of dreams.