Writer’s stock

I went to the Ty­rone Guthrie Cen­tre to write but ended up wrestling with the weight of fail­ure and am­bi­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - NI­AMH DON­NELLY

Ni­amh Don­nelly on wrestling with the weight of fail­ure and am­bi­tion

Ear­lier this year, I found my­self at a large stately home on a lake. It was the be­gin­ning of March. A few days pre­vi­ously, the coun­try had been cov­ered in snow – thick du­vets of the white stuff had brought ev­ery­thing to a stand­still – but now, mirac­u­lously, it seemed to have lifted, and all that re­mained were icy boul­ders in fields and stony mounds at the sides of roads.

“You made it here grand, in the end,” my host re­marked.

“Sure it’s as if there was never any snow at all,” I replied.

I was led to my room: a large, ground-floor space with a case of in­trigu­ing old books – The Ex­panse of Heaven, The Loss of the Agra, The

Tem­pest – all hard­bound and dusty. On the walls were art­works by names like Nor­man Fraser. In the cen­tre was a com­fort­able couch, and in front, a pol­ished wooden desk, fac­ing on to canted bay win­dows and a view of the grounds. This would be my work­place – the hub where I, like many oth­ers, would cre­ate my mas­ter­piece.

In my stately home on a lake, I felt like I was in a gothic novel, but I was not. The lake was An­nagh­mak­er­rig, and the house was the Ty­rone Guthrie Cen­tre, one of the most cov­eted places for artists in Ire­land to stay. I knew how lucky I was to be here. I had heard all the sto­ries; how in­spi­ra­tion was thick in the air; how art­works bloomed from the walls and fully formed manuscripts ac­crued in the cran­nies. The list of for­mer guests was like a longlist for an im­por­tant prize: Anne En­right, Derek Ma­hon, Edna O’Brien . . . And now me. I was here as part of the Next Gen­er­a­tion Artists’ Award, an ini­tia­tive of the Arts Coun­cil to help artists at an early stage in their ca­reers. Lit­er­a­ture was my thing – I was sup­posed to be writ­ing a novel – but there were also vis­ual artists, ar­chi­tects, cir­cus per­form­ers; our tal­ents were mul­ti­fac­eted. Dur­ing the res­i­dency, we would work on our craft, col­lab­o­rate and learn from es­tab­lished artists, who would visit dur­ing the course of our stay.

Over the next few days, I met with my fel­low artists. They were a fas­ci­nat­ing group of 19 women and five men. In the evenings we ate mar­vel­lous din­ners of casse­role, curry, lamb shank. We dis­cussed pol­i­tics, cul­ture, art. In the af­ter­noons, we worked in our stu­dios, and when we needed re­ju­ve­na­tion we walked around the lake, which was some­times pink, some­times white, some­times a shock­ing, com­puter-screen blue. Around the grounds we en­coun­tered wildlife: hares, badgers, frogspawn. “It’s so in­spir­ing,” we said.

The first vis­it­ing artist to ar­rive was Val Con­nor. She was ra­di­ant and in­sight­ful. She re­ferred to me, star­tlingly, as “the writer”. At din­ner, one evening, she turned di­rectly to­wards me and asked my opin­ion, as if I, “the writer”, had the an­swer. I gave it my all. I spoke the way I had seen other writ­ers speak, as if they knew ev­ery­thing there was to know.

Of course, I knew noth­ing. I felt clown­ish and stupid. I willed those en­cour­ag­ing faces to look away. They were the tal­ented ones, with some­thing to of­fer. I was . . .

I didn’t know what I was. With ev­ery pass­ing mo­ment I could feel the weight of my own fail­ure.

The days passed and I watched the oth­ers per­form their daily rou­tines, ar­riv­ing down­stairs in leo­tards or painters’ smocks; car­ry­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, or pro­fes­sional cam­eras. Their projects were am­bi­tious and ex­cit­ing. I had no cos­tume or in­stru­ment. I spent my time at a desk, writ­ing. Or, as seemed to be the case: not writ­ing.

I couldn’t write. I had been nom­i­nated as the next gen­er­a­tion of Irish lit­er­a­ture and I barely had the courage to lift a pen.

In­stead, I made the mis­take of googling the other Next Gen­er­a­tion writer, Ni­cole Flat­tery. She was in­cred­i­ble. She had pro­duced lots of short sto­ries, each one bet­ter than the last. When I told her how amaz­ing she was, she laughed. She said that writ­ing sto­ries was fun. Fun!

She asked about my work.

Feel­ing a fraud

“I’m writ­ing a novel,” I said. It felt like a lie. It wasn’t, ex­actly – on my desk was a 70,000-word man­u­script, but I couldn’t bear to look at the thing. Still, I leaned on it, this novel I wasn’t writ­ing. I spoke about it like it was im­por­tant. I used words like “craft”, “prac­tice”. I was cer­tain that soon some­one would send me home, hav­ing re­alised what a fraud I was.

I couldn’t write. I wanted to write like Ni­cole: play­fully and pre­cisely. I also wanted to write for Ni­cole: to earn my place be­side her. I wanted to write for Val, too, who was so kind to me; and for the peo­ple in the Arts Coun­cil who had deemed my work wor­thy of this award. I wanted to write for all the peo­ple who had helped me get this far: the teach­ers, the friends, the believ­ers. In­stead, I went for runs. I ran around the lake. I went for walks, too. Walks and runs and hikes. One morn­ing, two dogs fol­lowed me. “This way,” I said, pet­ting them. I got lost.

When I found my way back to the house, I made my­self sit in the li­brary with a pen and pa­per. “Write any­thing,” I told my­self. I thought I might de­scribe the lake. It was mostly frozen over, ex­cept for a few lit­tle is­lands of warm wa­ter. The sky was beau­ti­fully white and tex­tured – rip­ply, cot­tony, satiny. I could hear birds singing with joy.

There was so much cause for joy. I knew that. Or, at least, my head knew. My heart ached, none­the­less. I thought of past ver­sions of me, long­ing for this; a fu­ture where I had the time and re­sources to write. I was so lucky. I was so lucky. I was so lucky.

Out­side, some tourists were ex­plor­ing the grounds. They came close to the win­dow and peered in at me. I mar­velled at the idea of me in here. I should’ve been out there, look­ing in. I wrote noth­ing. I don’t know why I wasn’t writ­ing. I loved writ­ing. It would have helped me. I could have con­fided my wor­ries in the page and they would have blinked up at me like the child­ish things they were. But I con­tin­ued to not-write as though it was the an­swer.

Real artist

One night, we went to the pub in New­b­liss. We sat in a cor­ner by the pi­ano. Our con­ver­sa­tion started with in­tel­lec­tual stuff like pol­i­tics and cul­ture, but after a few hours we were bash­ing out chords on that pi­ano and singing the cheesi­est songs we knew. The pints were cheap. We stayed long after clos­ing time. Back in the house, we sat in the draw­ing room hic­cup­ping and talk­ing about whether God was real. I felt loose and free. Fi­nally, I thought, I am a real artist, do­ing what real artists do.

The next morn­ing, I woke up and hated my­self. I could barely move. I re­gret­ted what­ever un­in­tel­lec­tual garb I had been spout­ing. I hadn’t drunk that much in years. If I couldn’t write be­fore, I cer­tainly couldn’t write now. What had I been think­ing? I was an un­grate­ful per­son, wast­ing my time here.

I wasted the rest of the day sleep­ing. After din­ner, one of the artists in­vited us to the dance stu­dio to lis­ten to a piece he had com­posed. We lay on the floor in dark­ness, and let his work,

Waves, wash over us. I was touched. I knew I needed to be bet­ter.

Since we were shar­ing work, some­one in­vited me to share mine. I was hes­i­tant, but a nig­gling part of me felt that even if my work was bad, shar­ing some­thing, in the form of a read­ing, might at least be a pos­i­tive out­come to a neg­a­tive day. I shared. The oth­ers lis­tened re­spect­fully. After, they were kind about it, and I felt both ex­posed and re­lieved, the way art some­times man­ages to make you feel – like even if it is bad, it doesn’t mat­ter: it is nec­es­sary.

That night, when every­one had gone to bed, I sat at my desk, pen in hand. It was dark out­side, but I hadn’t drawn the cur­tains. The light from my desk lamp il­lu­mi­nated my face, so that when I looked at the bay win­dows, all I could see was me, re­flected three times, in the black of each pane. So, that made four of us, en­deav­our­ing to do this task of writ­ing. Each time I put pen to pa­per, all three of them put pen to pa­per, too.

The one on the left looked smug, as if she knew what she was do­ing. The one on the right looked un­cer­tain, and the one in the mid­dle looked fierce, as if know­ing wasn’t as im­por­tant as do­ing. And then there was me, the only one I couldn’t see, but who would keep go­ing none­the­less. They were all count­ing on me.

Ni­amh Don­nelly, be­low, and with fel­low artists at the Ty­rone Guthrie Cen­tre in Co Mon­aghan

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