When I was a young girl, I got laughed at a fair bit. We weren’t very well off, I was a chubby swot and I wore those pink plastic glasses you got on the Medical Card. Then, there were my secondhand clothes, my bike with the brown parcel tape covering the ripped saddle, and the way my face went bright red with pale splotches whenever I did any exercise. (I still wince at the shame of cycling through the village after camogie training, red face glowing under an orange knitted hat and long, long matching scarf trailing behind me). I knew I was the antithesis of cool and sometimes that really upset me. But it had absolutely no effect on what I wanted to do or to be. It just made me mad, which then made me want to do well even more. My long-suffering husband would say it has also left me with a large chip on my working-class shoulder and that is probably true. It might explain why I cannot see Teresa May on the telly without morphing into a female version of Father Jack Hackett (a whispering Father Jack though because the children are usually around). I’ve spent my life ping-ponging between a sense of not being good enough and a smouldering, unshakeable belief in my ability to do whatever I put my mind to.
It’s the same with my writing.
What I find exhausting, but also at times exhilarating, is living life in the messed-up zone where doubt and self-belief wrestle endlessly with each other. You’ve got to have a phenomenal amount of self-belief to finish a book. You have to believe that you have something to say and that you can say it in a fresh new way. Basically, you’re saying: I am a seer, I can take you places you have never been before and I can promise you the journey will be worth it. Now, you might not be right every time. Some readers will hate the journey. Some will wish they had taken a later flight, a shorter route. Some of your fellow travellers may turn away, pop in their earphones and pull down their eye masks. You are willing to take that risk. What arrogance! It leaves the plastic-glasses-wearing me frankly flabbergasted. I’m actually quite a shy person. When I was younger, I used to dread walking up the aisle to get communion on Sunday. Even though we were only four benches from the altar. Nonetheless, I am brazen enough to believe I can build worlds that others will want to visit. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written my books. I wouldn’t keep trying my hand at short stories despite failing miserably in every single competition I enter. I know I’m not a natural short story writer. I got another “Not this time” email this week. You’d think I’d get the message and give up but although every rejection plunges me into an hours-long funk, I keep entering competitions. Why? Because I honestly believe that one day I can nail this short story lark. I just have to keep trying.
When I was writing my second novel, Rain Falls on Everyone, the Jekyll and Hyde parts of my personality were in overdrive. I remember an early-days lunch meeting I had with my editor — oh, how I waxed lyrical about the scope and scale and depth and pure brilliance that would be my as-yet unwritten novel. Everything was crystal clear in my mind. Six months later, sitting at the dining-room table, my head in my hands, I was literally moaning like a stuck cow as I tried to find another way to describe the sky (If you fancy, I wrote this piece for writing.ie on that whole process). Everything I read during my months of grappling with Rain Falls was both an inspiration and an indictment. I remember a description in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies — a hilarious and lyrical coming-of-age novel set in a boys’ school in Dublin. The passage that caught my eye was this:
“In the distance, on the crest of the hill, the silhouette of the obelisk protruded like the nib of a fountain pen, inscribing a clouded signature on the tenebrous contract of the night sky ..”
Okay, maybe a little over-written but there was an obelisk in my own novel and a sky and I hadn’t come within an ass’ roar of imagining it as a fountain pen. I felt like such a fraud. And bear in mind, I wasn’t even writing at that point. I was supposed to be relaxing. But as depressed as I felt, there must’ve been a tiny, very faint whisper of self-belief underneath the all the self-pitying whinging. Because the next day, I sat down at my computer and wrote and deleted and deleted and wrote until it was time to hold my head in my hands again, get the chocolate chip biscuits, eat 15 and try again with sticky, smudgy fingers.
Dolly Parton put it well: If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.