Looking forward to hypothermia: another Irish winter

October 8, 2022 at 6:02 am | Posted in Eleanor Dark Foundation, Perseverance in writing, rural Ireland, writers' habits | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Eight winters

I am about to fly into my eighth winter in a row, in less than three years. I’m a summer person. I’m a water baby, someone who loves swimming in rivers and the sea, in council pools and country dams, someone who loves walking warmed by the sunshine and cycling under balmy blue skies. How has it come to this, staring apprehensively into a near-future of an eighth-in-a-row cold, rainy, grey winter?

While not a technically accurate fact, every cell of my body feels as if I have endured seven winters in a row. Not even counting the 2019 Australian summer, because wrecked as it was by the thick wall of smoke that engulfed eastern Australia and beyond, closing the swimming pools and preventing walking or cycling, it was of course extremely hot.

I went from that to an Irish winter for my writing residency in County Kerry’s Cill Rialaig https://irishwriterscentre.ie/opportunities/cill-rialaig in February and March 2020.

[My cottage, left, on a rare sunny day] It was a particularly freezing winter, everyone said, with winds from Siberia blowing in from the sea. I sat in my famine cottage, typing my now finished novel manuscript (A Late Flowering) listening to that wind whipping up the Atlantic Ocean outside and downhill a bit from my little wooden door. At night in my tiny loft bed I listened to the wind’s howl, an eerie grieving sound like the moans of the starving famine victims who formerly lived in my cottage. (Like the ghosts of my ancestors who came from that area – probably my novelist’s imagination in overdrive. But can’t you hear them? – Considering that the west gets twice as much rain as the rest of Ireland: ‘Let’s migrate to Queensland where the sun shines all the time!’)

[That’s me, left, beside a famine pot in Tralee] After that first winter, in which I was heated only by my famine cottage’s little peat fire, I flew home in time for a second winter and Canberra’s first experience of Covid. The third season I’m counting as winter was Braidwood’s following summer when we moved there: a summer in name only. There were four and a half days of it. Not in a row.

After that was the genuine winter, my seemingly fourth, where Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, so it was inside by the fire, finishing that novel manuscript.

The 2021 summer was just like the previous summer, feeling like a fifth winter because La Nina wasn’t finished (and still isn’t). Then there was the official winter, my sixth. The spring we’re officially in now is rainy and cold – the ducks are happy on the creek that flows past my window as I long for sunshine and listen to the well overflowing. If I count this as a seventh winter, when next month I fly into another Irish winter it will be my eighth. I do have keen hopes however that the residency there, at County Mayo’s Achill Island – http://heinrichboellcottage.com/ – will have more than a peat fire. Two reasons to be hopeful: it was Heinrich Boll’s (1917-1985) holiday cottage a good century after the famine and much of Covid was spent renovating it.

Tobias McCorkell’s Everything In Its Right Place

In August (Australian winter) I was awarded a writing residency in my own country, at Varuna, the Eleanor Dark Foundation writers’ house in the Blue Mountains. It is heated and has famously good food, cooked by the lovely Sheila and her team. I wrote well and was entertained by five other writers who were all the most wonderful people one could hope to share a beautiful, luxuriously warm house with. When I returned home I couldn’t wait to read their books.

The one that really stood out was Everything In Its Right Place by Tobias McCorkell (Transit Lounge, 2020). The protagonist of this coming-of-age novel has a high maintenance mother and an alienated father. Ford McCullen was born on the wrong side of the railway line but attends an expensive private school and takes violin lessons, courtesy of his paternal grandmother.

This novel, with its original writing and laugh-aloud wit, is transporting. I loved the mental agility and emotional robustness of the protagonist as he negotiates the difficult terrain of divided loyalties and class differences, of his longing to belong and his struggles with identity. This is a beautiful novel, funny and brave, about an idiosyncratic family with poor communication skills and the likeably conflicted schoolboy son who is trying to find his place within it and beyond.

Four Letters of Love

With so many great books to read it’s been hard to make time to write fiction since Varuna – more about this below. Two other books I’ve loved (out of the countless I’ve read over this winter) are Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (Picador, 2015 edn) set on an island to the west of Ireland. This hard-to-find novel has startlingly original descriptions as well as suspense. It is as seductive as a dream and it will colour your world with its poetry on every page.

It’s a love story like none you’ve ever read, I promise. I had to return it before I’d scribbled much about it but it describes the background of the protagonist’s parents, which happens to be on one of those western Irish islands:

‘When they sailed for the island to take up his job, Margaret had not yet set foot there, had never seen its million stones, nor felt press down on top of her head the absolute grey hush of its wet winter stillness. It was the quiet, not the storms that was frightening, the sense that the island had slipped its moorings and was slowly adrift on a tide of forgetfulness.’ (p. 146)

Every sentence in the novel shines with freshness as Williams shows his readers an astonishing world we’ve never seen before. Such talent can cause self-doubt about one’s own creative abilities. Sometimes I ponder Chaucer’s melancholy observation about writing: ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’ And the huge gap between vision and execution can be depressing. It helps to see how other writers cope. Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography (Jonathan Cape, 2021) was illuminating – plus rivetingly crammed with literary gossip and humour. Roth was ‘a fanatic reviser’ who said that his ‘first drafts are terrible’ and I always find it heartening to learn that it’s hard for great writers too. He wrote 12 drafts of his last novel.

I paint myself into a corner and time expands

If it takes so long and is so hard to get right, why do we do it? I’m driven by curiosity and I also feel how Charlotte Wood – https://www.charlottewood.com.au in The Luminous Solution (Allen & Unwin, 2021) feels: ‘When I’m immersed in creative work time expands and everything else drops away …’ Like her, I love the process. Playing with words is my idea of fun.

Wood quotes artist Chuck Close (1940-2021), who outlined all the negatives about contemporary life, ‘as if we’ve entered a new dark age’ but who insists in the midst of this gloom that ‘to create is an act of enlargement, of affirmation…. Art urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know.’ (p. 43)

I’m driven by curiosity. With writing we paint ourselves into a corner where the only way out is to dig deeper and solve the problem with something brought up from the depths of oneself. There’s something mysterious about the process and it’s scary because I worry with every new manuscript that I won’t be able to do it again. But curiosity and that expansiveness that Wood refers to above kicks in and I love the exhilarating surprise of new writing that I didn’t think I had in me.

So even in my seemingly eighth winter I won’t mind too much because I so appreciate this opportunity for immersion in creative work. It will transport me from the wind and rain blasting my temporary island home into the warmer places of the imagined summer that my characters are living through and I can hope that by the time I return to the southern hemisphere the sun will be out.


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Go well, Pen

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Ireland sounds like an inhospitable place.

    But you know, Vancouver where I live has its rains and its cold, too. In fact, we’re a month away from when the two of them really hit. Like Ireland, Vancouver is known for its greenness. But that’s about where the similarity ends, for Vancouver is fabulously wealthy and Ireland is not (though it has been trending well for 20 years now).

    — Great Vampire


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: