The last stop of a busy month. I’ve got as much out of it as I have put in. It was good to see the amount of people who were serious about the business of writing, from those who found space in busy and sometimes difficult family circumstances to the schoolgirl who used her two hour bus trip to school to work. You often hear writers talking about how tough the job is - which always irritates me. There are people in the world who struggle with illness, poverty, repression and a million other things which make life difficult. That is what tough is, not sitting down at a keyboard and stringing words together. Having said that writing demands a particular kind of attention, an absorption in the doing of it that can be hard to come by. I hope that this residency has given those who were generous enough to come out and participate some indication of how they might achieve and sustain that attention. Certainly, if the quality of work on show in Derry is anything to go by, many of them have already grasped the essentials.
I pack up and turn towards home. Gale force winds and driven wet snow buffet the car on the Barnesmore Gap. I think back to the libraries I visited in the past month and I revisit my first thoughts on libraries as civic spaces and it seems to me that libraries have never been more important, but they are only as good as the people who work there and I would like to acknowledge them all. Without exception the library staff were warm, welcoming and gracious. Thank you.
As in my other Saturday appearances I’m struck by how busy the library is, a vibrant and warm hub of activity on a cold spring day. As before, a talk turns into a dialogue - the questions are searching and to the point. It has been heartening to see teenagers turning up at these events. Often I would attend readings and other literary events and wonder where the young people were. It isn’t every young person who wants to see a local author or some bigshot novelist or poet from abroad, but there should be a few. It is important to go to these things if you want to write, I think. You get an idea of what the world of a writer might be like, a feel for the job if you like. The more you attend, the more idea you get for the structures of the writing world which in turn makes it easier to find a foothold in publishing. I keep pushing young people to read - the writers voice will come, but when you’re young it is important to have other writers as your teachers, absorbing voice and technique. And it is important to read books which you might find difficult. I don’t think you should always read serious literature. Its fine to read magazines, and an departure lounge is probably a place for John Grisham rather than John Milton. Read as much unchallenging work as you like, as long as you read the other stuff, the work that stretches you and opens you to other voices, other worlds.
Although titled ‘From Blog to Book’ this turns into a more general talk about writing in general. The audience is intent and interested and I respond by talking far too much - I wasn’t aware of time passing which is hopefully a mark of spontaneity rather than self-indulgence. It was great to see young people in the audience. You don’t necessarily have to start writing when you are in your teens, but it does help. Or even if you’re not writing, it is important to be thinking about writing. How the world can be encompassed in words. I was never happy with anything that I wrote when I was in my teens. I didn’t realise that, as in any other trade, you have to serve your time, learn the techniques, make mistakes. This process took me the best part of two years before I started to see glimpses of the writer that I might become. It is important to be stubborn, to keep your head down and keep writing.
I have a thing about northern seaside towns - Newcastle and Warrenpoint near where I was brought up. Portrush and Portstewart as the far-flung exotica. I take a spin along the coast before the talk and am struck once again by the warmth of people in this part of the world, a welcome that continued into Coleraine library. I’m looking forward to coming back. And I won’t talk as much this time.
I’m told that the Clinics are the most popular events in a library residency. It isn’t hard to see why. You do all your writing alone in a room. You might have one or two people to read it then - or perhaps a writing group where work is shared. But often it is difficult to escape the vacuum. The writer starting out is faced with a seemingly impenetrable thicket of publishers and agents with little actual information on how to get feedback, never mind get published. As in Omagh people approach workshops in different ways. Some are starting out and want basic advice and feedback. Is my writing any good? Is this story worth telling? Others are further along the path and simply want some kind of affirmation that their instincts about their own work are good.
Its worth remembering that publishers and agents are only the gatekeepers of a particular industry. There is more to writing that their preferences and fads. From my experience in clinics, everyone brings something to the table, and success in writing is not measured by how much you have published. The starting point is always discovery - a story worth telling, a piece of good dialogue, an image. And you do it for yourself first and foremost. In Seamus Heaney’s words you write ‘To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’
It’s a long time since I’ve been in this part of Belfast. When you’re in the flat estuary plains of the centre you forget about the places that abut onto the mountains. There is a clarity to the air and a straightforwardness to the people. The meeting with the reading group goes really well. The formalities are brushed aside and it turns into a conversation, which makes things easy from my point of view. I’ve learned how to stand up and talk in front of people over the years-it’s a part of the writers work now, but it isn’t really where I came in as it were, not what I thought a writers life would be like. Like most people I’m an ordinary citizen with not much original to say outside my own field of expertise, so I like it when the talk is about work, and the questions are searching, making me think about aspects of writing in general and my own books in particular. I wouldn’t presume upon the people who came along to say that I left with a sense of having been among old friends-you have to share too much of life for that. But I’ve certainly been among generous and open-hearted people.
This feels like hometown territory as well. The library has a homely feel to it and a lot of people are using it-there is a low key bustle, people getting the best out of their local facilities. I’m talking about the Blue trilogy-three novels based on three real-life interlinked murders. One of them-the murder of Pearl Gamble-took place just up the road-and audience members have memories of the era. It’s one of the consequences of using real life events as the basis for fiction. People bring you information on days like this. Sometimes the information is to do with people on the periphery of events and sometimes it is more that that, altering your whole perception of what has taken place. You get a sense of the past as a mutable thing. Harold Evans said that still photographs have an affinity with memory-think about an old photograph of yourself as a child then recognise how the way you see the photograph changes over the years as people grow older, relationships alter, backdrops mature or regress or disappear altogether. Everything depends on where your point of view is-the teenage you, or the fifty-year old you. I leave the haven of Banbridge library in a thoughtful mood.
A hardworking group at the workshop in Antrim. They spread out around the library, working up stories to bring back to the group. A month long residency is not going to change the way people look at libraries, but the culture of having residencies, readings, workshops and other events can help. I’ve been trying to get the workshop participants to work in the body of the library, to add to the energy that is already there, a low hum of work getting done, people using the space. Some excellent work comes back. I’m never sure about teaching writing - you learn to write by doing it, by sitting down and working. But you can help people to observe, to listen, allow the world to reveal itself and the Antrim participants take this to heart. It's gratifying to see people grappling with words and finding evocative and meaning fragments in the short period of time available. I drive away from Antrim with the sense of a good days work done.
The live tweeting session. I’ve never quite got the hang of twitter. Partly through fear. Like anyone who earns their living at a keyboard, the temptation to squander your time on social media is always present and I don’t want to add another outlet. I sit down with Joe and wait for the questions to come in. It is surprisingly relaxing. The character limit isn’t a problem. I find that I’m inclined towards cutting things short anyway. You can see how people lose the run of themselves and forget that the whole world is listening. I know tweeting is a communal experience but there seemed a slightly otherworldly quality to the whole thing. Lisburn City library as a Jordrell bank, waiting to pick up signals from distant galaxies, signs of life from another planet. It may be a fanciful way of looking at it but there is a sense of communality but also of isolation, people alone at their keyboards. Having said all that the questions were incisive and I hope my replies did them justice.
Heavy traffic and rain on the way to Hollywood Arches but Ross Wilson’s The Searcher outside the library, brings me back to a quiet room in Kilkeel when I was a child, reading CS Lewis and discovering an appetite not just for reading but for the worlds that writers create. The library staff have put a lot of effort into the refreshments-including lemon drizzle cake which is becoming a theme! I talk about the Blue trilogy. The murder of Patricia Curran has become part of the folklore of Belfast. The dark undercurrents are a long way from the brightly lit civic space of the library. It can seem a little dramatic to talk about books being a bulwark against barbarism. But as we head off into the night it is reassuring to know that somewhere one of us is opening a wardrobe door, poised on the threshold of another world, and that there are those who work to spread the news of those worlds.
A grand old building. I’ve read here before and used the newspaper library-notably when I found Judge Currans charge to the jury in the McGladdery trial. I felt a cold hand reach out to me from the past that warm August day. McGladdery was found guilty and hanged in December 1961.
No cold hand today though. There is a warm welcome from the staff and the first clinic participants arrive. A broad range of writers, all with some experience. The talk is easy, and, I hope, constructive. Not everyone will find their way into the literary pages of newspapers but there are more modest satisfactions and triumphs to be had which are no less important. Having said that there is the jolt of recognition with some writers when you feel the stirrings of a new and original voice.
At the end of the day I make my way to the car parking at the back with Paula, going down through the unseen parts of the building, the solid utilitarian spaces. There is a weight of history and consequence in these old libraries. They are the anchor points that hold the city to its past. They are the compass points by which we set our bearings for the future.