Thursday, 21 August 2014

BKS Iyengar

I was working in the Upstart Crow, a book and coffee shop in Long Beach, California, (doing a little writing on the side) when I happened upon BKS Iyengar's book, Light on Yoga. This was 1990 or thereabouts, and I'd never encountered yoga before, at least, not up close. It was practically unheard of back at home. But something about the simple silver cover and the black and white photographs attracted me, so with my 30% staff discount I bought it and brought it home to have a go. I opened a page randomly, to prasarita padottanasana. Legs wide, bend forward, how hard could that be...? There was a ripping sound, hamstring maybe...

WhenI bothered to read the introductory essay it became apparent — if it wasn't already — that yoga is not for the faint hearted or the fickle. It requires attention and discipline, and ideally, a teacher. I've been to quite a few classes since, and have been teaching classes myself since the mid-90s. Although I never went to Puna to attend his classes in person, many of my colleagues did. Mr. Iyengar was an exemplary practitioner of yoga and an exemplary teacher, and by all accounts, an exemplary human being.

May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Irish Women Artists 1870-1970

This exhibition is on in Adam's showrooms on Stephen's Green (free), and it's well worth a look. There are familiar names - but often these are of the famous male relatives of the women artists (Yeats, Henry, Beckett, McDonagh etc.).

Mainie Jellett's cubist paintings are wonderful, though A.E. Russell, apparently, did not agree, describing them as 'subhuman' and a type of 'malaria'. I loved the illustrations of Nationalist, Grace Gifford, and the gorgeous portraits by Estella Frances Solomons. But Camille Souter's impressionistic landscapes are my favourites (you can download the brochure). [In one of those weird synchronicities, she also happens to appear in a story-thing I've been working on; I'll take it as a sign not to abandon it. Yet.]

We followed our visit up with take-out coffees and a shady spot in Stephen's Green - perfect!

Monday, 21 July 2014


I'm just back from the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna. There were parallel sessions running each day, along with up to five different readings to choose from, so sadly I had to miss lots of great-sounding events. But there were lots of highlights to compensate:

  • an all-round great panel, The Writer's Perspective and Influence on Form, featuring Pat Jourdan's wonderful story-paper "Various Exits" on 11 stages of closure in the short story, Louise Ells' inspirational "What can we learn from Alice Munro?", and the very different approach of Lisa Smithies on how human behavioural biology influences the creative writer (and congrats to Lisa on winning the overall conference short story competition). 
  • meeting Robert Luscher, whose theories on short story sequences saved me oodles of time during my own sequence writing crisis.
  • meeting Elke D'hoker, whose work on short story cycles I've encountered and admired.
  • the warm and lively response to my reading, in no small way thanks to the lovely Rebekah Clarkson and my high-energy co-reader, Ida Cerne.
  • the relief of finishing my talk "When is the story no longer a short story?" and the pleasure of listening to, and meeting, my fellow panellists, Paul Mitchell and Neta Gordon, and of course our kind and humourous co-panelist and moderator, Allan Weiss.
  • the must-read list I came away with, including...

Friday, 11 July 2014

The End Of The MFA (my MFA...)

Nearly two years ago, at the start of my MFA in UCD I wrote this post.
Today I handed in my thesis, a novel-in-stories called No One's From Chicago. It's wonderful to have had the opportunity to spend time with like-minded, same-stage writers, working under the supervision of experienced (kind, patient) professionals. I can honestly say the MFA was two of the most enjoyable, and profitable (artistically!) years I've spent.

And in breaking news, UCD MA alumnus Colin Barrett has just won the Frank O'Connor award for his Young Skins. Well done, Colin!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Skellig Michael

For the sake of my neglected blog, let's call it 'research', or an artist's 1-day retreat. Skellig Michael has been the single item on my bucket list for about 20 years, and I finally got there.

As you can see, those monks had the right idea.

And probably very pert bottoms.

Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they'd one long stairway just going up and one even longer coming down and one more leading nowhere... Or, a 600-step stone stairs leading from each of the three landing places on the island.

Now to figure out how to persuade those nice OPW people to let me have a sleepover, with these cuddly guys for company.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack at the DWF

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack took to the stage on Thursday lunchtime for the Art of the Short Story event, ably facilitated by Thomas Morris of the Stinging Fly. He began by introducing the two authors: Nuala, he said, writes 'truths that are rarely spoken' (evoking Robert Olen Butler), while Mike writes black humour and arresting dialogue, deepening into core sadness.

As both authors write short stories as well as novels, he asked about the differences between the two (an area dear to this blogger's heart, as I am currently working on a paper exploring genre, and genre slippage, as in the novel-in-stories).

Nuala approached the question first as a reader, saying that the pleasures are different, that there is resistance to short stories from readers, and that the novel is perceived as the highest form. For her, there is a different 'hit' or feeling, and it is not just about time. The short story, she reminded us, is designed to be read in one sitting. She felt that the reader needed to be trained in the art of reading short stories, and that perhaps this could be achieved by making them more available, for example, as Kindle singles.

As a writer, she says the novel is something you can come back to every day, and that is a great comfort, whereas with short stories, you're constantly starting anew. There is always the fear that you will never write another.

For Mike, the short story holds out the promise that you might possibly get it right, whereas the novelist is condemned to getting it wrong. But, if the novel is created in a quarry, with a lump hammer, the short story is keyhole surgery. It is a much more exacting guest. There is more pressure. It demands your attentiveness. The novel is expansive, generous, openhearted: we are people among people, whereas with the short story, 'you're only codding yourself; we're on our own.'

What if you're not getting it right, Morris wondered. Are there stories you've given up on?
Mike admitted to chiselling away and polishing a story for 18 months, and that sometimes he just doesn't know if he's getting it right. Nuala said that if a story is rejected she will work on it until it finds a home, and that some are constantly rejected until they end up in a book.

On openings: Mike tries to sound a note that will reverberate. He added that a story might survive a bad opening, but it won't survive a bad ending. He admitted that he sees journals and competitions as 'part of the drafting process; the real arguments are when you're putting a book together.'

On endings: Nuala says she has no need for resolution, but that endings are crucial in the short story. She quoted Elizabeth Gilbert who said that the ending 'should bend over backwards and kiss the beginning.' The reader should be 'holding their breath from start to end.' She remarked that with short shorts, or flash, she likes crisp, arresting openings, and decisive endings which make sense.

Neither author plots. Morris wanted to know if it is difficult to trust that. For Nuala, it's the joy and excitement of writing; she might not write it if she knew where it was going; she might bore herself.
Mike starts with an image, a man and a place, for example, and dialogue gathers around it. 'It serves me well.'

Advice to writers?
Nuala: 'Just write. And do years of that. And read.'

On the question of reading one's peers, Morris asked if there was a lack of variety. Mike feels that 'our reputation is bloated,' that we use the nineteenth century Joyce/Chekhov template — linear, single-voiced, past tense, gathering towards epiphany —and we have not developed it, as borne out by the two big collections, Granta and Oxford. He says we have one true genius of the short story since Joyce, rarely acknowledged, and that is Beckett. 'The Irish short story is skewed and misrepresented by his absence.' He wonders why this happened. Before Joyce and Moore, we had the Goths, 'pale, worried Protestants, going to Trinity College,' writing about ghosts and vampires. Beckett, he claims, is a 'reconstituted Goth.'

Nuala notes that there are people pushing against the nineteenth century model, and she mentions Ryan O' Neill, Cathy Sweeney, Dave Lordan, and June Caldwell.

Much food for thought, but too short, as dictated by its lunchtime slot.

Lia Mills and John Kelly: Writers On Top Of Their Game

I've been neglecting my blog. I have many excuses, not least that I've been posting on the Dublin Writers Festival blog.

The Festival kicked off on Saturday with the Lia Mills / John Kelly event.

Which I blogged.
Which was 'pending'.
Which has disappeared into internet ether.

Sob! It was good!

What follows is a poor reproduction:

Mick Heaney described Mills and Kelly as writers 'on top of their game'. Kelly is a madly imaginative and entertaining author; Mills has the gift of a keen eye, and the beautifully rendered sentence. [I've had first hand experience of Lia's keen eye as she is supervising my MFA thesis/novel-in-stories — always kindly, always meticulously.]

Where did the impulse for the novel come from?

Kelly, knew he couldn't write another pastoral novel about Ireland, he couldn't write the farm novel, so 'white-knuckled' he wrote 'something they're not going to like' (From out of the city). He wanted 'to discombobulate himself, and the reader. [He succeeds. It's a great read, it shows what is possible, it pushes the reader out of their comfort zone.]

Mills, whose mother lived 'over the shop' in Parnell Street during the 1916 Rising, wanted to explore what it is like when your own city blows up around you. Fallen was an act of restitution.

It's been a while for both writers since their last novel. Heaney asked if it was difficult to get back up on the horse.
Mills' was a long process. Books get written 'a word at a time' (and then there are the interventions; Heaney drew attention to the Acknowledgements in Fallen, where Anne Enright is credited for saving Fallen from the shredder, not once, but twice!) 'I'm slow,' she admitted.
Kelly talked about how extraordinarily hard it is to write a novel. Stamina is needed, especially when one is 'writing with little hope of getting published. Writing into a black hole of nothingness, wondering why.'
You don't sleep either, both writers agreed.

On writing memoir:
Kelly referred to his as 'think pieces', written when he was in his early twenties. Mills said it was easier (than writing fiction) because you didn't have to make anything up. Memoir is all about editing, 'taking out the 'poor me' and libellous things.' She added that you have to be careful about not writing other people's lives.

On being a writer: Richard Ford's 'don't have children' mantra was evoked, echoing Cyril Connolly's infamous 'pram in the hall'. Kelly observed that artists can tend to leave a 'trail of casualties'. Mills agreed, saying that 'you are torn all the time.' She mused that it can't be easy living with a writer.

On their previous books:
Kelly felt his were not as good as they could have been, and said that with From out of the city he 'started all over again.'
Everything you write teaches you something, Mills said, that it is the classic dilemma of the artist 'it is never quite what I thought it was going to be.'

An audience member asked if they had any advice for would-be authors, and they agreed that one should read. Read stuff one wouldn't usually read. Read Paris Review author interviews. Heaney concluded that a good place to start would be to read Lia's and John's books.

Next up for me in the Dublin Writers Festival, hot on the heels of Mills/Kelly, barely giving me time to buy my books and say a few hellos in The Gutter Bookshop, came Writing for Games.