Last month, I turned 40. Having an age that ends with a ‘0’ makes you think – it makes me think. And the collision of this milestone birthday with the publication of my third novel is making me think about writing, and its place in my life.
When people ask if I always wanted to be a writer, I answer “yes” without hesitation, but I’m not 100% sure that’s true. For a long time I wanted to be a cartoonist, and before then, I wanted to be a detective, like Nancy Drew. But I loved writing essays and when I didn’t have essays for homework, I sometimes wrote plays on the back of stationery that Dad brought home from work.
Nancy Drew came from the library in Dun Laoghaire where I went with my parents every Saturday morning. The pride of the children’s section was an Apple computer with one game that we lined up to play, where you had to get a frog safely across the road. And although I loved that frog as much as the next kid, waiting in the queue, I always had my head in a book.
I’d like to say that in my teens I devoured Jane Austen and the Brontes but I’d be lying: I was more of a Judy Blume and Agatha Christie kind of girl. Classics scared me with their old fashioned words and tiny print and it wasn’t until fifth year that my English teacher opened them up for me so I could see the world these writers lived in wasn’t so different from mine. She had a big impact on me, that teacher. She encouraged me to write creative essays instead of the standard ones about unemployment or Ireland’s role in the E.E.C. I seem to remember her taking me aside one day, telling me to keep writing, that I had a knack for it, but I might be editing that scene in. You have to watch that kind of thing when you’re a fiction writer.
The book that had the most impact on me as a teenager was “The Catcher in the Rye.” I had that edition with the yellow cover and black writing, the finish so smooth it felt like silk when you rubbed it against your cheek. It was on my reading list at U.C.D. and I will never forget reading that first line, the first paragraph. I didn’t know that “literature” could sound like that, that it was possible for a writer to create a voice in my head that I could hear as clearly as my own. I wanted to do that, to create a character that would do that. And that’s when I decided to write a novel.
I was 17 – the same age as Rhea, the protagonist in my new novel “How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?” – when I made that decision. I talked about the novel I would write, talked about it into my 20s, conversations that became increasingly urgent late at night after several glasses of red wine. It wasn’t all talking, I did some writing too. I joined classes, enjoyed them, but once they were over, I’d stop. To write a novel I needed a desk, a laptop, a room to write. One by one, I got these things but I still wasn’t writing. There was something else I needed: I needed time.
Looking back, it was a simple lesson that took me ages to learn– that if I wanted to write I had to make time for it, just like I made time for going out with my friends or going to the gym or watching television. It was the rapper Eminem who helped me finally get it. One day in the car, I heard him say that his songs wouldn’t write themselves, and, sitting looking out at the Donnybrook traffic, I realised my novel wouldn’t either. Thirty was looming large on the horizon by then, and the next week I took a deep breath, walked into my boss’s office and asked for six months off. We agreed on three.
One of the scariest parts of that was telling people what I was doing. I contemplated pretending I was travelling around South America but that seemed an impossible lie to pull off and besides I knew I’d run into someone on the DART. So I told the truth and people said things like: “I didn’t know you were a writer” and I’d feel like a fraud – I wasn’t a writer at all, only pretending. But every time I told them, it was a good thing, because I wasn’t only telling them, I was telling myself. And by the end of that three months I’d written thousands of words, tens of thousands. I had characters. I had a plot. I thought I had a novel.
The best present I got for my 31st birthday was an e-mail from an agent. I’d sent her the first three chapters a while before, and although her response was brief, it included the word “love” and said she wanted to talk on the phone. I don’t remember much about that birthday, but I remember the phone call the following week, hunched on my mobile in my boss’s office. I’d allowed half an hour and we spoke for 40 minutes. The opening minute went well, where she complimented my writing style but before I had a chance to bask in her praise she’d moved on to issues with structure and narrative and pace, issues that she seemed unable to move off for the remainder of the call. By the time I hung up, I’d covered three foolscap pages with scribbled notes. My hand was sore, my head was too. I was late for a meeting and slipping into the back of the room one message rang loud and clear in my ears: I wasn’t good enough, the book wasn’t good enough, I never should have tried.
Now, of course, I see it – that she wouldn’t have spent that long with me if she didn’t see any promise – but I didn’t see it then, I didn’t see it for a long time. I had been editing the book on weekends but I stopped after that, put it away. Weeks passed, months, before I was able to take it out again. And as I reread my old draft, a small voice told me that she was right, something I think I’d known since the day of the phone call, something that somehow made it worse. But even if she was right, what was I supposed to do? How would I know what to throw away and what to keep? And could I just start again?
To finish something, I need to be open to starting again – chapters, paragraphs, sentences, sometimes whole stories. I learned that from her, just like I learned how vital it is to share my work with people I trust, people who can see things I can’t see yet. And to listen to them. I learned to listen too, to that small voice, the one that knew she was right. I learned that voice doesn’t care about sounding clever or being published, it only cares about being expressed. And the more I listened, the louder that voice became, and with a lot of help, that mass of words did become a novel, my first novel that was published a few days after I turned 36.
I’m writing this in a park in New York. I live here now. Life happened, as all that was happening, more life in my 30s than any other decade so far. I faced truths I’d hidden away back when I was reading Judy Blume and in the facing of them I got to go deeper within myself and deeper in my relationships. I got to go deeper in my writing.
I have a part time job here in the city and the best part of this is teaching creative writing. My students are mostly homeless – living in shelters or on the street – and they have stories to tell. Every week, I set them exercises for homework and one they like a lot is the listening exercise. The rhythm of a conversation, the hiss a bus makes before it takes off from its stop, the clack of the subway turnstile – the exercise is simple but not easy: they have to listen and write down what they hear.
Over the past year, I’ve noticed how this has helped them introduce all the senses into their writing, to set a scene, but it’s helping them in other ways too. They’re listening to their own voices, refining, honing, expressing more simply, more sharply. And today, at 40, if there’s any kind of secret to writing I think it’s that: just to listen. Listen and write – it’s what they’re learning to do, it’s what I’m learning to do. I think that’s all there is.
“Learning to listen” was originally published by the Irish Times on Friday 13th June and is available here: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/learn-to-listen-and-make-the-time-to-write-1.1831278?page=3