Advice for a literary apprentice

Viktor Frankl. . . . whose family perished in the Holocaust.

As a mature student of creative writing, Irene Halpin Long regards her studies as a “literary apprenticeship”. In that spirit she decided to ask some practitioners in the field of writing  for some practical advice.

My first semester has ended and I find myself asking even more questions than I have answers about what I should be writing about and how I should write. During these moments of self-doubt, I seek solace from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh who suggested that “young writers should get other degrees first, social sciences, arts degrees, or even business degrees. What you learn is research skills, a necessity because a lot of writing is about trying to find information”.

I’m a latecomer to creative writing. I’m a qualified accountant and auditor and I’ve always had a keen interest in current affairs. Working as an auditor, I formulated questions about businesses, broke them into their component parts to find potential weaknesses, dug out information from directors and business owners so as to understand their companies and to try to add future value. I’ve  also learned to fine-tune my active listening skills, to work under pressure and to organize. So, Welsh is right about one thing – the skills I acquired from my career in finance have proved to be transferable.

But the problem is that at 36, I hardly qualify as a “young writer”. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I don’t have the luxury of time.

Since May 2017, I have been working from my makeshift home office as a freelance feature writer. I spend a lot of time making calls to editors of newspapers to ask if they have read my article pitches. I have also submitted some pieces of fiction to publishers. I now class “rejection letter collecting” as one of my new hobbies. I wonder, am I naïeve to try to work across genres?

As a self-labelled literary apprentice, I decided to approach three of the speakers at the Rostrevor Literary Festival, held in November 2017 – which I attended – and seek their advice on how to proceed.

The three people I approached for advice had participated in a panel discussion on “Brexit, the border and borders of the mind”. The discussion centred around the effects of Brexit from political, social, geographical and psychological standpoints. One of the people I approached was Ciarán Ó Cuinn who said of the discussion “people felt free to speak their minds, not leashed by party political issues. I liked the literary framing of the event. It was about the broad impact of Brexit beyond politics”.

The diversity of voices on the panel inspired me to seek advice from people who are from differing professional backgrounds. I reckoned that a journalist – Stephen Walker – a musician – Tommy Sands – and Mr Ó Cuinn, the director of the Middle East Desalination Research Centre (MEDRC) would give me a broad view of writing as a career.

BBC Northern Ireland correspondent, Stephen Walker:

Stephen Walker successfully combines working as a journalist and working as a writer. As well as reporting from Westminster and Stormont for the BBC, Stephen has written three non-fiction books.  Forgotten Soldiers charts the story of Irish soldiers in the British army who were executed in the First World War on desertion and cowardice charges. Hide and Seek profiles  Monsignor Hugh O’ Flaherty, the resistance priest, who was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews during the Second World War, while Ireland’s Call follows 40 Irish sporting heroes who died in the Great War.

“Being a journalist,” Stephen says, is a seven-day-a- week job so you have to create writing time when you can. When I am writing my books, I write early in the morning and on my days off.

”To the aspiring writer,” Stephen advises, “write all the time. Write for as many outlets as possible. Seek payment and do not work for free. Your work has a value and do not undersell yourself”.

Tommy Sands, musician:

Tommy Sands grew up on a small farm in Mayobridge, Co Down, where he said, he “learnt the language of neighbourliness”.

“We naturally fostered a higher quality of disagreement through language. We were going to disagree on political things, but we tried to find a higher quality of disagreement so that we could function as neighbours.”

Tommy chose to write via song and music. He said his “earliest memories are of watching feet tapping to the same rhythm, regardless of the political dissuasion. I realised that music and art could connect up the sacred things inside us, without our knowing or understanding”.

I asked Tommy if someone, like me, a creative writer who is also interested in writing for media, can bridge the gap between the two.

“Yes, I think so”, said Tommy, “the very fact that you want to be a creative writer means you have an interest and a love for the written word and a need to express oneself, tell a story. If that story has a moral that is relevant to the present day, it’s going to be all the more readable and attractive to people”.

Director of Middle East Desalination Research Centre (MEDRC), Ciarán Ó Cuinn:

Before Ciarán moved to Oman to run MEDRC, he worked for more than a decade in Irish politics and as a ministerial adviser in three government departments. A significant part of his work involved writing speeches, articles, press releases and parliamentary questions. Because he has political and policy experience, I asked Ciarán whether or not he thought the creative writer has a responsibility to use her voice in the mainstream media?

“Whether you are interested in current affairs or not, you have a duty and a responsibility to society,” he said.

“I’m a big fan of  Viktor Frankl who saw responsibility as the essence and meaning of life. In his opinion, human freedom is not freedom from, but freedom to.”

Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. His experiences in German concentration camps shaped his therapeutic and philosophical outlook. He is best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, Frankl wrote “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”.

Ciarán’s advice echoes Frankl’s idea of choice. “Whether that responsibility is best exercised in the media is a whole other question. Current affairs media demands concise, precise, direct responses. It’s not for everyone. It’s sometimes best for current affairs to flow through the writer or artist than vice versa.”