A couple of weeks ago the novelist Kevin Barry gave a reading at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, and spoke in a really practical way about what it’s like to write fiction. Several things stuck with me because they seemed so true and useful, so I’m going to note them here, but this isn’t a full or accurate report —just a few points paraphrased as I remember them…
– Most writing days feel more like failure than success: most days are ‘not nothing’ days, when you sit and stare and painfully produce a sentence or two, and at the end think ‘well, it’s not nothing’. By persisting through those days you get to the rare days when five hundred words come easily.
– To decide to be a writer is to make a pact with your unconscious. You say to it ‘give me the stuff’, and in return you promise that you’ll be here to receive what you’re given. Most of the time you don’t get much, but now and then the unconscious will say to itself ‘ok, let’s throw him something, keep him coming back.’
– The short story is the most mysterious form, the ‘spooky art’, and stories get harder to write as a writer goes on. The first stories you write are ‘low-hanging fruit’, but the next ones are harder to reach. The more stories you write, the less you know about how to write them.
– The short story as a form has a lot in common with nostalgia as a state of mind. Stories come from a nostalgic impulse.
– When you finish a large writing project like a novel, you’re left with a bundle of restless energy. You can either rest and allow the energy to dissipate, or you can put it into a different kind of project with a different rhythm: write stories, write a play.
– One mistake you can make as a writer is to try and write a particular book too soon. You can cost yourself years by trying to write the great masterpiece that you’re not ready for. You may need to recognise that you don’t have a hope of being able to write that book yet: and then you may find there’s something else just under the surface which you can get.
Barry also demonstrated how to read fiction aloud for forty minutes and hold an audience’s attention completely. A lot to do with the material he read, but also something to do with his way of seeming to listen very closely to his text and to interrogate each sentence in the reading.
P.S. I’m posting this in an experimental spirit, because I’m not yet sure how I’m going to use the ‘news’ section of this website. I’m very much not a natural blogger and won’t be writing a lot here, but I feel it may be worth putting up writing-related things like this occasionally.