Late Bloomer

You come here every summer. The gardens are beautiful then.

Flowers bloom in casual abundance. Trees are in leaf; the great 19th century glasshouses infused with scent.

The gardens are busy, too. Visitors mill about, pause to take photos or jot down the names of plants. Couples stroll along the riverbank, keep pace with mallards and moorhens. (The lucky ones will catch the low, blue flash of a kingfisher.)

Yes. You come here in the summer; enjoy the busy beauty of it all. But you come when summer is over too, when the air stings the skin and the dark comes early.

You come on days like today; days when the gardens will be empty (more or less). You meet a man with his collar turned up, and a woman wearing a red hat, but they pass by in silence. Their presence does not disturb you.

The flowers, too, are discreet. No heady excesses now. Pansies and violas lie low to the ground. Geraniums cluster in the greenhouse.

You step into the small walled garden.  You like this garden within a garden; its view of the graveyard next door. You like the poplars that rise into the sharp sky, dangling clumps of mistletoe like crows’ nests.

You run your fingers along the greenhouse wall; warm your hands on bricks worn smooth by seasons.

You take a moment to peer into the greenhouse and admire its assortment of gardening tools. (You know the name of only the most common tools: rake, spade, hoe.) Someone has taken care to hang the tools neatly on the wall.

The walled garden looks bare, unloved; its beds empty and dull. But the tools in the greenhouse tell a different story.

Be patient, they say.

The blossoms will come.

botanicThe National Botanic Gardens are situated in Glasnevin, less than 4km from Dublin city centre. Founded in 1795, the Gardens were originally designed to promote the study of agriculture. However, the focus soon shifted to botany and the collection of plant species from around the world. Today, the gardens contain some 20000 different species and cultivars, including 300 rare and endangered species.

The gardens’ twenty hectares encompass a sensory garden, a rock garden, herbaceous borders and an arboretum. An avenue of yew trees dates from the 1740s.

The curvilinear glasshouses were designed by Dubliner Richard Turner and built between 1843 and 1869. Turner was also responsible for the Great Palm Houses at Kew Gardens and the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, but these glasshouses have since been repaired and restored with steel. The Glasnevin glasshouses, monuments to light and elegance, are the only ones to retain their original wrought iron.

The gardens were placed in government care in 1877 and are currently managed by the OPW. Admission is free.

Fixing the Focus

IMG_7807Years ago, I had an old Nikon that I loved. One day, the cover of the battery compartment came loose and the batteries stopped holding their charge. The camera was unusable.

It never occurred to me to have the camera repaired. Or to replace it. Instead, I stuck a band aid across the battery compartment and carried on.

I’m not sure I’d have come up with the same solution today. Somewhere along the way, I acquired the notion that problems are complex and require professional solutions. I developed a habit of over-analysis, which led, predictably, to paralysis and procrastination.

Little things became big. Simple things became complicated.

And so I’ve been taking stock, wondering if fixing the small things might be a good theme for the year: the cracked glass in the photo frame, the dryer door that gets stuck. It sounds simple, a kind of broken window policy for the home. But it might encourage a return to resourcefulness, a renewed sense of competence. Who knows? It might even seep into other areas of life.

I still have that old Nikon and all of its (expensive) lenses. The lenses don’t fit the camera I use now, but I’ve ordered an adapter that should fix the problem. It cost me the price of a paperback.

Happy New Year everyone.

Words in the Air

I started to study sign language before I knew there was more than one.  I learned the alphabet for British Sign Language when I was about ten. I still remember it, even though I never had a chance to use it. (There wasn’t much call for British Sign Language in Dublin. Besides, I didn’t know any D/deaf people.)

When I lived in America, I took classes in American Sign Language. By then I knew at least one (very small) deaf person. I loved the classes, but failed to make much progress.

Undaunted, I started studying Irish Sign Language when I came back to Ireland. Years later, I can just about say hello, but don’t ask me to interpret what other people are saying. People sign fast in the real world–way faster than in the classroom.

Still, I’m a great lover of sign. It’s a language of beauty and grace; of meaning made visible. I still hope to become fluent, but have years more study ahead of me. Meanwhile, I offer a little Christmas treat. Here is the choir of St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls (Dublin) performing Fix You by Coldplay.

Happy Christmas everyone!

What happens on tour

I’m forever extolling the virtues of openness. “Try new things!” I tell my students. “Be brave.”

When Jenny at http://readsbyredriverbanks.wordpress.com/ asked me to take part in a writing blog tour, I immediately said yes. But the more I thought about it, the less confident I felt. Writing about writing seemed an indulgence, or worse, an invitation to writer’s block.

Still, I was curious about how blog tours actually worked. And I’d given my word to Jenny. So, I headed back to her site to see what I needed to do.

Turns out I just had to answer some simple questions. Alas, minimal demands have never prevented maximum procrastination.

First, I spent some time catching up with Jenny. She lives in Brunei, a part of the world I’ve never visited, and writes about her life and travels. Her writing style is relaxed and lyrical, and complimented by her wonderful photography. I can’t recommend her blog highly enough.

Second, I decorated the house for Christmas.

Third, I started to read The Victorians, A.N. Wilson’s 700-page history. I got as far as chapter four (‘Typhoon Coming On’) before stopping myself and remembering what I was supposed to be doing.

And so, in the spirit of openness (and its sister spirit, not chickening out of things), here are my answers to the four questions that make up the Writer’s Blog Tour.

What am I currently working on?

I’m working on a collection of short, nonfiction pieces based on the lives of pioneering women. The women (pirates, adventurers, and inventors) led fascinating lives. Some of them were famous in their day, but their stories have largely been forgotten.

Most of the pieces I’m writing are less than a page in length. It’s difficult to compress a lifetime into so few words, but I enjoy the challenge of working in tight frames. The trick is to find a natural ‘pivot point’ in each story that allows me to flash forwards and backwards in time. Sometimes I find the pivot point quickly, but other times it requires a lot of thought. Once I figure it out, however, I have a structure. The writing usually comes easily after that.

The pieces read like flash fiction, but they’re all thoroughly researched and historically accurate. They can be read and enjoyed on their own, but I’m hoping some readers will use them as a stepping stone and learn more about these women. They really were remarkable.

This blog is a side project, a chance to relax and enjoy myself. My first blog Hush was very structured: a post a month for one year. I was surprised by how much I missed it when it finished. I started Here and There a few months later. At first, I envisaged it as a chance to write lyrical, fragmentary pieces, but I’ve expanded a bit since then. Now I’m more open to trying different things (this blog tour, for example), and to allowing the blog to evolve.

 How does my writing process work?

I’m a slow writer. I do most of my thinking before I start a project, and tend to write fairly deliberately. (Apologies, Anne Lamott.) The advantage is that my first drafts are fairly finished. The disadvantage is that my writing can be too controlled.  Swings and roundabouts, really.

For the pioneering women project, I spend a couple of weeks researching each woman. I try to read a full-length biography if available and any primary sources I can find. I let things percolate for a week or two before I start writing. I often find that researching one woman leads me to another.  I love that sense of serendipity.

I belong to a writer’s group, and I find the discipline helpful. Members are expected to produce something new each week. I can only make so many excuses before embarrassment sets in and I produce something.

 Why do I write what I do?

I write what I do because it interests me. Simple as that sounds, it’s taken me years to figure out. In the past, I’d see or read something interesting and immediately move on to the next thing. I craved stimulation, I suppose. Now I’m more inclined to pay attention to the moments my mind perks up, the little twinges of curiosity that occur throughout the day. I allow myself time to examine things that catch my attention. I’ve learned to honour that first impulse, to slow down and let the mind and the imagination do its work.

 How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

I work mostly in creative nonfiction and the genre is pretty elastic. You can find wonderful writers using all sorts of techniques in CNF, so I think it would be difficult to come up with something completely original.

At the moment, I’m interested in mosaic and braided essays. Mosaic essays depend on the placement of elements for their success, and braided essays wind two or more independent strands together to create a whole. I like the challenge of forms like these.

I also like to bring material from a range of sources into an essay: excerpts from medical reports, historical archives, primary sources etc. It’s a bit like found art. Can I take these strange snippets and make something cohesive from them?

Finally, I like white spaces. I’m not inclined to spell things out, so I expect the reader to do some of the work. Using white space carefully can help the reader make his through a piece. It’s a type of pathway, really, and I enjoy the challenge of laying it out properly. (Or at least trying.)

And there you have it; a quick peek into the way I work.

As always, the real value of a post like this is the opportunity to link to other wonderful blogs. Many thanks to Jenny at http://readsbyredriverbanks.wordpress.com/ for inviting me to participate.

Jenny was nominated by Indah at http://indahs.com/; Indah was nominated by Allane Milliane at http://packingmysuitcase.com/; and Allane was nominated by Ting Dalton at http://my-travelmonkey.com/. I’ve been enjoying exploring these blogs and travelling the world vicariously through their lovely words and photographs. All highly recommended!

Lastly, I’m delighted to nominate the following writers to participate in this blog tour. I’m always interested in hearing how other writers work, particularly writers I admire. I hold out the hope that their talent will rub off on me. Success by osmosis, right?

Rachel Stolzman at http://rachelstolzman.wordpress.com/

Roy McCarthy at http://backontherock.com/author/roymcc/

Clodagh O’Brien at http://www.clodaghobrien.com/

Bookshelf Shuffle: Ten Writing Books that Remain

 

bookshelfI’ve been knee-deep in books this week.

Literally.

Inspired by who knows what, I emptied the bookshelves and piled my books on the floor. A quick calculation revealed the scale of the challenge: a thousand books – more or less — to be sorted into two categories: keep or give away.

And so, I’ve been shedding books, filling boxes for the charity shop. And because we’re such a good team, my husband has been emptying those boxes and piling the books beside our bed ‘to read later’.

Oh well.

The project has had one unexpected benefit. The lovely Ellen, who blogs at Always the Garden, asked me to recommend some books for writers, a request easier to accede to now that my writing books (at least, the ones that survived the cull) are gathered together on one shelf.

Of course, recommending books is dangerous. I’m bound to have offended someone. But for what it’s worth, here are ten writing books I’ve found helpful over the years.

(A word of warning: as useful as these books are, reading them is no substitute for writing. Believe me. I’ve tried.)

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Lamott is funny, and her self-deprecating wit is hugely entertaining. But she’s also honest and insightful. This is the first book I turn to whenever I lose faith in writing.

Writing down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Goldberg draws on the practices of Zen meditation to encourage careful observation and attention to detail. Short, stand-alone chapters are beautifully written. Still inspiring writers, almost thirty years after its publication.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Writers have been doubting themselves for a long time. Ueland’s book, first published in 1938, is an exhortation to write anyway.

Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, by Dinty W. Moore

A genial introduction to the basics of essay writing.  Great place to start if you’re just beginning to write nonfiction.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by New York Writers Workshop

Good technical guide. Chapters devoted to fiction, poetry, magazine writing, and personal essay and memoir. Practical advice on structure and craft.

Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Brief insights that add up to a compelling writing philosophy. Here’s a typical excerpt: “Your job as a writer is making sentences. Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.”

Tell it Slant, Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Short and useful. A simple guide to several forms of Creative Nonfiction, including lyric essays and braided essays. I come back to this whenever I need inspiration.

Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore.

Short essays by writers, editors, and teachers exploring the flash essay form. Includes exercises and examples.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser.

Gentle discussion of poetry for beginning poets and readers of poetry. Warm and conversational in tone.

The Making of a Poem, edited by Mark Strand and Evan Boland.

Clear definitions and wide-ranging examples of poetic forms, including the pesky villanelle. Lovely introductory essay On Becoming a Poet by the late Mark Strand.

writing books

 

 

 

 

A transatlantic hop turns fowl

Vision in Blue

Vision in Blue

I ‘bumped into’ American writer Rachel Stolzman a few weeks ago. We were both participating in Blogging 101, and found each other in the usual technological way. That’s to say, entirely fortuitously.

I stumbled onto Rachel’s blog, or she stumbled onto mine, and we liked what we saw and ended up having a conversation. She had some questions about Ireland that I was able to answer, and the fact that we live three thousand miles apart was inconsequential.

I asked Rachel for permission to reblog the piece she wrote about our meeting. She’d done such a nice job explaining the serendipity behind it. But when I reread her post, I was embarrassed by her kind words about me. I’ve decided instead to reblog a piece she wrote about reading a Flannery O’Connor essay while travelling on the subway in New York.

As it happens, this piece is a further illustration of internet serendipity. I’ve been thinking about birds recently and the Flannery O’Connor essay is a lovely tribute to one of the most beautiful: the peacock. Rachel’s post, in itself charming and pitch-perfect, led me to the O’Connor essay, which in turn led me to a wonderful Pathé video of a young O’Connor showing off her backward-walking chicken.

Which just goes to show, you should always follow the links.

 

Rachel Stolzman Gullo

flanneryI am very much an urban dweller and probably always will be. I love the city I live in and I love urban capitals in faraway lands. I love learning about the cities of antiquity too. Several years ago I visited what is touted to be the oldest city in civilization in Oaxaca. If I rememebr correctly 100,000 people dwelled on this mountain top, playing an early form of soccer and holding public trials and beheadings when laws were broken.

Like many of us though, I have rural fantasies. For the twenty years I’ve lived in NYC, my sister has lived a rural life in Northern California. The fact that she’s had chickens, goats, alternate high-maintenance power sources, and a cottage made for Snow White, has probably aided me in not succombing to my own rural fantasies. But I’ve decided in advance, in case I go rural, that the animals I want…

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A charm of a day

 

The exercise says to write down three things that stop me in my tracks over the course of a week. Three things seems optimistic.  My life is predictable and routine. Being surprised even once seems unlikely.

Still, I need to write something, so I decide to give it a go.

Next day, I meet up with my classmates for a bird watching trip. I’ve been meaning to learn about birds forever, and this year I finally enrolled in a course. This morning, our ‘safari’ is along the coast road in Malahide.

There are dog walkers and Sunday strollers aplenty. Still, we see a good range of coastal birds: oystercatchers and greenshanks, Brent geese and turnstones; even a solitary curlew.

We turn our attention inland, walk parallel to the coast. Two stonechats pose on a fence, allow us to come close; a meadow pipit calls from the distance. Our instructor signals us to stop. He trains his binoculars on the grass, indicates that we should do the same. Suddenly, a flock of goldfinches rises in front of us. The birds fly low and lovely, close to the ground.  They settle for a moment, rise again, settle; snack on thistles and teasels.

I must have seen this bird before. (In the wild, I mean. I’ve seen it in paintings, and on the cover of Donna Tartt’s novel.) But I never noticed it. Brown body; red and black head; yellow wing bars. Its Irish name is lasair choille, flame of the wood.

It’s exquisite and it’s tiny and my eyesight is poor. (I’ve only recently taken to using binoculars and scopes.) I imagine I encountered it before but saw it only as a blur.

I like this explanation better than the alternative: I didn’t see it because I didn’t pay attention.

The question of what else I’ve missed stuns me.

Black and White

We pile into our cars and make our way to the Swords Estuary, home to a large flock of mute swans.

They’re a familiar sight to most Dubliners, frequenting the city’s rivers and canals in groups until they disperse for the breeding season.

It would be easy to confuse this flock with any other city flock, except here comes a black swan, unmistakable in his non-Irishness, smaller than his flockmates but equally regal, equally heart-stopping.

My first black swan.

The strange heart beating where it lies

Our instructor Richard is a licensed bird-ringer. He surprises us by producing a bird-ringing kit, then coaxing a swan out of the water.

The swan is a large male, about three years old. (Later, we find out he weighs 12.5kg.) Richard approaches quickly, and before I can raise my camera, he captures the bird and pins him to the ground. A squawk and a flurry of wings and it’s all over.

The swan lies still, quiet and submissive now, its long neck stretched out on the grass. Richard examines its feet, lifting each carefully to search for cuts and calluses. “A country visitor,” he tells us. “No damage from city pavements.”

He takes a ring from his tackle box and fastens it around the swan’s leg. He notes the number on the ring in a small notebook, then checks the bird’s sex and age. Finally, he places a belt around the swan’s abdomen. The belt has a strap attached with a built-in scale, and Richard stands slowly and dangles the swan on the strap.

Before he releases him, Richard asks if we’d like to feel its heart. I place my hand on the swan’s breast, experience its slow and steady heartbeat.

I am stopped in my tracks all over again.

This is Not the Print Museum

Labour History Museum“This is not the Print Museum!” proclaims the sign.

A man opens the door.

“Is this the Print Museum?” I ask. (I can’t help myself.)

“Ah no,” he says. “This is the Labour History Museum.” He begins directing me to the Print Museum, but I’m joking. I want to visit the Labour Museum. Really. I do.

I’ve passed it many times, mostly on my way to the Print Museum. In fact, I’m on my way the Print Museum right now.

I don’t mention this to the man at the door.

“Come in!” he says. “Take your time.”

He whizzes around before me, whisking the dust cloths off the exhibition cases.  (When was the last time anyone visited?)

The museum is small, more of an archive room. There are boxes of papers stacked in the back; theses and reports lining the shelves. There’s not much to engage the casual passer-by. I look at the book covers and pamphlets displayed in the cases, but can’t make sense of what I see.  Too much detail, too little context.

Metaphor for life, I suppose.

This Is

The print museum is around the corner in the old garrison chapel. It’s bigger than the Labour Museum, but smaller than other museums I know: an hour to look at the exhibits and browse the gift shop; twenty minutes to relax over coffee.

I head to the trays of type: wooden and metal letters and punctuation marks.  The letters are stored neatly, and I pick out the letters of my name, slide them onto a composing stick.

“Would you like to print your name on a Wanted poster?” asks the museum guide. She seems disappointed when I shake my head no, but I’ve already got a stack of wanted posters at home.

Besides, it’s the physical type that interests me, the sensation of holding letters in my hand. The ultimate deconstruction of the writing process.

The machines intrigue me, too: a wooden printing press ( a replica, built for the set of The Tudors), a Linotype machine, and a Wharfedale Stop Cylinder press (similar to the one the 1916 Proclamation was printed on).  They’re bulky and functional, but there’s a beauty about them too, an engraving here, a nameplate there.

In one corner is the Shaw Pen Ruler, a massive machine that looks like a loom. It was used to print three-colour cashbooks and copybooks. I like its elaborate set up, a system of pens and guides designed to encourage us to stay within the lines.

The machines are silent now, and it’s easy to romanticise them.  They took skill and patience to operate. Strength, too.  But on days they broke down, or smudged ink, or refused to take an even impression, they must have broken their operators’ hearts.

A lot like writing, then.