Archive for August, 2010

Books on Writing: my well-thumbed half-dozen

29/08/2010 4 comments
I have a full shelf of Books on Writing and still buying. I had a few goes at making this selection, ended up with ten books, then had another go to get it down to the half-dozen I’m allowing myself. Along the way the criterion I used was this: which books have I reached across for most often from the typewriter and then spattered pencil-marks and underlines on page after page? This is it then; my selection of my half-dozen favourite books on writing.


 Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande. Hard to believe this book was first published in 1934, such is its freshness. Brande believes ‘that becoming a writer is mainly a matter of cultivating a writer’s temperament’. She steps the reader through practical ways to build such a temperament.

Writing Short Stories, Alisa Cox. Not a rigid ‘this is the way to do it’, this book is about spinning a yarn in many different ways and the theme running through of the relationship between the cinema and the short story is fascinating.

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N Frey. The sub-title to this book tells it all: ‘A Step-by-stp no nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling’. Even if you’ve no interest in doing that novel, you will get great tips on producing  dynamic prose. In summary, he says, ‘your prose should have time, color, textural density, convey a sense of motion, appeal to the senses…’

Writing Creative Nonfiction, eds Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard. This book works by having a section on the art and craft of creative nonfiction and its various sub-genres followed by a selection of excerpts from a wide variety of contemporary writers. And the hairy chestnut of truthfulness in the genre is well covered.

The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. If you’ve ever wrestled with poetic form in writing or reading poems, this book makes it all so simple. The approach is to take the form (Villanelle, Sestina, Ballad …..) and summarise it in a few bullet points, give a short bit of history and then show the form being used by contemporary poets.

Writing for Success, Patricia O’Reilly.  A no-nonsense gallop through pages of practical advice on the publishing process across the spectrum of fiction, non-fiction, radio and print journalism. A great resource book to have to hand.

That’s my list then. I’ll pile all these books back on the shelf now and then get on with it – the writing, that is.

Bells in the Clouds and Fire on the Road

23/08/2010 Comments off

I picked early blackberries this week on the road that connects the main arteries from Kilkee to Doonbeg to the north and Kilkee to Kilrush to the south. It is the West Clare area of Corca Baiscinn and that has to be one of the most musical place names that I know of.  The roadside is aglow with blooming montbretia and a woman with wild hair is sweeping at the road’s verge as if it is a hearth with a blazing fire.

The road climbs to a hill-top where you can see for miles around and across to Scattery Island. It is said to be the site of a penal mass rock and there are a series of memorial stones to St Senan, patron saint of Inis Cathaigh – Scattery Island. One of the plaques has an image of the holy man receiving a bell from heaven – lifting it down from the clouds. This was one of the stories collected by the children at Bansha School, just down the hill from me, as part of the Schools’ Folklore Scheme (1937-1938).

St Senan’s Well is in Kiltenane Cemetery, down the hill and  just across from the school and in a place so serene and nestled in the quiet of the landscape that you think to yourself that this must be the most ideal of resting places. And after that you pick more blackberries  until you figure you have enough for an apple and blackberry crumble .

Before heading back – purple blackberry juice staining your fingers and the orange glow of montretia all around – you start thinking that there is the stuff of a poem in this place.

An Accidental Gatherin’ of Mollycewels an’ Atoms: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin

17/08/2010 2 comments

Sean O’Casey was in the air for me at the week-end. I had tickets for The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey on Saturday evening and woke to find the Irish Times magazine had a reproduction of poster by American artist Owen Smith for the new production of The Silver Tassie by Druid Theatre. It had two interlinked images of a footballer and a soldier and made me think of the murals on Belfast walls at the height of the troubles.

I meandered in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin. For the rest of the sunny Saturday I kept noticing advertisement hoardings on Dublin’s streets with sports themes that had a sinister edge: a hurler astride a gigantic heap of sports helmets with the caption ‘One conquers all’ that conjures up the movie image of soldiers planting a victorious flag on a hill-top; a News of the World ad, ‘Nothing gets past our Team’; Eric Cantona’s bearded stare alongside the words,  ‘Compromise is not an Option’. Heroic images within sight of Croke Park where the hurlers of Tipperary and Waterford would battle it out next day.

It’s 130 years since he was born at 85 Upper Dorset Street. There’s another house there now, owned by the Mater Hospital, with a sign that says the dramatist was born ‘on March 30th 1880 in the house which stood on this site’. There was no ‘Bedroom Elegance Furniture Shop’ or ‘New Asian Cuisine’ restaurant in O’Casey’s times but there was the same view of the distant mountains when he came out the front door and looked to his right into the afternoon sun.

I strolled to Mountjoy Square where O’Casey lived during the 1916 Rising and absorbed the ‘deragoratory’ and ‘vice versa’ talk of the north city tenements that is sprinkled through The Plough and the Stars and provides the play’s Georgian house setting: ‘struggling for life against the assault of time, and the more savage assaults of the tenants’. Black teenagers played basket ball in the park, a bus filled with Waterford hurling supporters pulled up beside me and a tourist returned a bike to the depot at the park railings.

I left the Abbey after The Plough & the Stars performance that night with a thought for the week from the mouth of The Covey: ‘Look here, comrade, there’s no such thing as an Irishman, or an Englishman, or a German or a Turk; we’re all only human bein’s. Scientifically speaking, it’s all a question of the accidental gatherin’ together of mollycewels an’ atoms.’  Makes one feel humble, it does.

Literary things to do in Erris

05/08/2010 1 comment

There are a host of literary things to do in Erris – the area in the north-west corner of County Mayo, Ireland, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. A thrilling place for the literary inclined. Here are a half-dozen suggestions of things to do and texts to read:

  1. Read Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Belderg’ at the Ceide Fields – the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world dating from 5000 years ago: ‘A landscape fossilized, / Its stone-wall patternings / Repeated before your eyes / In the stone walls of Mayo / Before I turn to go.’  

    Ceide Fields, Ballycastle

  2. Follow in the footsteps of  JM Synge and Jack Yeats who visited Erris in 1905 on their Congested Districts Tour. Read Synge’s account: ‘Belmullet itself is curiously placed on an isthmus – recently pierced by a canal – that divides Broad Haven form Blacksod Bay. Beyond the isthmus there is a long peninsula some fourteen miles in length, running north and south, and separating these two bays from the Atlantic.’
  3. Walk the six-mile Children of Lir Loop at Carrowteigue in the North Mayo Gaeltacht near Benwee Head after you have read the legend of the childrens’  wanderings until they found rest on Inishglora out in the Atlantic west of the Mullet Peninsula.  View the one hundred metre long earth and stone mound sculpture that is part of the North Mayo Sculpture Trail.
  4. Take a boat from Blacksod to the deserted Inishkea Islands off the Mullet Peninsula armed with Brian Doran’s, Mayo Lost Island: The Inishkeas. View the remnants of the whaling station. Visit Ionad Deirbhle Heritage Centre at Aughleam to see wonderful film footage of men at the whaling station a century ago.
  5. Drive across the strand to the island of Claggan and read the words of poet Derek Mahon (‘Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’) engraved on a stone at Marion O’Donnell’s sculpture at the burial site of the anonymous dead: ‘They are begging us you see in their wordless way, / To do something to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.’
  6. Visit Geesala where JM Synge once boarded and watched girls picking cockles on the strand at Doolough which gave him the inspiration for the ‘village girls’ – Sara Tansey, Susan Brady and Honor Blake in The Playboy of the Western World.  Druid Theatre group visited here in 2004 while rehearsing a 21st century version of The Playboy.
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