Creativity: Author Paula McGrath

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Paula McGrath lives in Dublin. A History of Running Away is her second novel. Her first, Generation, was published in 2015. She has a background in English Literature and a PhD in Creative Writing. She received an Arts Council literary bursary in 2016, and was Irish Writers Centre Writer-in-Residence in St Mark’s English Church, Florence. In another life she was a yoga teacher.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others?

Going to the desk is hard; sitting down is hard; beginning work for the day is hard; staying there is hardest of all. But about ten minutes in, there’s a brain-shift not unlike the one that happens in a yoga or meditation practice, or on a walk, or a run (I’m reliably informed), and you’re immersed in the world of your story where everything depends upon finding the right word. It’s an obsession. You look up after a while and several hours may have passed.

I read and admire those who resist the narrative—I’m thinking about Calvino, for example—and I find satisfaction there as a reader. But when I try to disrupt the narrative in my own work, it quickly feels academic, an exercise, and gives me little pleasure or satisfaction. I also admire the poets, their patience with finding the right word. (Though poets I know argue that writing novels requires a different type of patience they haven’t got.)

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I came to writing rather late so my problem is not a shortage of ideas but of time. Whether I want them or not, new ideas arise when I’m out walking, or from conversations, or documentaries, out of my reading, especially non-fiction, from a museum or gallery visit, seeing a play… The list is endless. I create a new ‘note’ for each one and scribble down everything I know about it as a sop to the part of the brain that’s always chasing the new and exciting, then I get back to the work in hand. I’ll never be stuck for ideas, but I’ll never get to all those notes, either.

When I’m teaching Creative Writing, I use writing prompts, cut-ups, images, nature walks… all the usual suspects, ‘usual’ because they seem to work. I think this is less down to the prompt itself than the writer’s reaction to being restricted in some way. A contrary bent, an instinct to push against imposition, whether that’s a prompt in a workshop or something else where more might be at stake, seems to be an essential part of the artist’s make-up. Prompts are artificial stimuli that spark off a reaction leading often to interesting results. Maybe they help us to identify, prepare for, and rehearse responses to the big ideas—and problems—when they come.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

Every time I close my Twitter tab forever, a but comes bubbling up: book recommendations, it says, project ideas, up-coming events. I’ve met lovely people online, even made a good friend in real life as a result of a Twitter interaction. I open it again; I scroll… Inevitable, there are moments of insecurity in the face of the screaming, dazzling next-big-thing, but I’ve fallen for the over-hyped product—let’s say ‘book’—enough times to be wary. Some of the best books I’ve read barely raised a line on social media—David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land comes to mind—because some of the most underwhelming were taking up all the oxygen. It’s all best taken with a grain of salt, as my granny would have said.

I had a blog when I first started writing because received wisdom said I should, and I hated it, for the reason you raise in your first question: I did not sound like myself. Until I understood that it’s possible to have more than one non-fiction voice, that the “I” that blogging depends on does not necessarily mean sharing parts of myself that are not for public consumption. Eventually, I decided not to waste what little writing time I had on barely-read, unremunerated blog posts. I tell myself the same about Twitter posts. I close tab, possibly forever…

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

There were always books around at home and at my grandparents’, and we made good use of the local library. I started writing soon after reading my first Enid Blyton; I think most children go through a stage of writing and illustrating stories. My parents made suitably encouraging noises and my aunt Mairee was kind enough to type a few of them out. Even the nuns were encouraging, in their way: I have a memory of being sent to the other Second Class classroom to read one of my stories, in a time when looking for attention was severely frowned upon.

I utterly reject the idea that being Irish somehow lends itself to writing in a way that having any other nationality does not. I was asked in a TV interview once why Ireland has produced so many great writers and I couldn’t answer, because while the interviewer wanted me to trot out something about Joyce and Beckett, I could not get past the question. The idea that writers with other nationalities to mine do not produce great literature is ridiculous. What about French literature? British? Russian, Argentinian, Australian? Japanese, Canadian, Spanish? The question of national identity interests me greatly. It is nothing more than an accident of birth—parents and place; or a migration; or a straight financial transaction. My first novel, Generation, explores this theme of migration, its nine point-of-view characters traversing as many borders over a period of seven decades, for a range of different reasons. As far as I’m concerned, the compulsion to migrate is part of what it means to be human.

There is a perception that writers are well-supported in Ireland, and it is true that there is Arts Council support—though not nearly enough—and an artist’s tax exemption; there is a thriving literary journal scene; Creative Writing programmes are busier than ever; literary festivals abound; libraries remain at the heart of our communities. But this is true of other places too. In my sister’s region of rural France, a hardcore literary group meets to share their eclectic and wide-ranging reading discoveries once a month; we both know about the lively the literary scene you were at the heart of in Florence, Mundy. Back in L.A. in the nineties, I read my poems at open mic nights. I could go on. Irish literary exceptionalism is limiting and, frankly, embarrassing.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

If I haven’t written for a while—between projects, or at times during my PhD, or during school holidays when my children where younger—I get contrary. What tends to happen is that creativity asserts itself some other way. I often wonder if my long-time yoga practice, itself a creative act, was what kept the writing at bay for so long.

Motherhood can make creativity a challenge. What differences did you notice before and after? Did it impact your creativity in a way that you didn’t expect i.e. did you change direction, lose or gain anything, etc.?

Is there a bigger word than ‘challenge’? Kids change everything. There are so many variables to factor in such as the age and number of the children, their state of health, stage in education, mood, current sugar intake… When I had my first child, I was appalled at the disruption to my yoga practice and peace of mind. I wasn’t writing at the time, but I couldn’t have strung a sentence together. He’s 22 now, and has three siblings, so I’ve had time to adjust! I began writing seriously around the time my twin boys were born. I don’t know what that was about, except that the urge to write, which was always there, became urgent and refused to be ignored.  I was, as you can imagine, very busy at the time, but this just made the pockets of time I did have all the more valuable; I remember—possibly inadvisedly—dashing out to a writers’ group between breastfeeds! If you’re serious about writing, you will find time. Sometimes I think about all the time I had in my early twenties and wish I’d got my act together sooner. It would have been nice to be eligible for those age-restricted prizes.

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How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I haven’t had terrible reviews (yet!), but I have had plenty of rejection. It comes with the territory. Keeping positive is all about perspective for me. In the context of a global pandemic, a recent rejection stings a little, but even a writer’s ego can’t pretend it matters in the bigger scheme. In more normal times, being an optimist helps, as does talking about it with friends or family. My failsafe positivity activities are yoga, walking down the Bull Wall and watching films that make me laugh, like Clueless, Bridget Jones, Strictly Ballroom, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, especially Sideways…

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Not yet, but I hope to do so shortly, pandemic permitting. I recently participated in an environment symposium, organised by the Royal Irish Academy and British Academy. Early Career Researchers from the UK and Ireland paired up to propose creative projects to address social and environmental crises, and I will be working with a writer and academic from the University of Liverpool on two ‘walkshops’, one in Merseyside and one on Bull Island, the primary output of which we be a co-authored non-fiction essay. It was a lot of fun putting the proposal together so I’m looking forward to the process and to seeing what we come with.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I had another career before I was a writer and am married to someone with a ‘real’ job, both of which help. I received Arts Council funding in 2016 which, though small in the scheme of things, allowed me to contribute to household expenses, specifically childcare. The Irish Research Council provided an income while I did my PhD. I also teach, part-time, in UCD.

I would feel a fraud giving anyone advice since my career trajectory involved stumbling into situations and developing a narrative around them afterwards. The best I can do is pass on the sensible advice I received—and ignored—which is to choose a career you can fall back on. You will need to pay rent and eat and the precarity of working in the arts cannot be overstated.

How does creativity enrich your life and help you in other areas?

My life has been filled with creative projects, so I don’t know any other kind. These days, most of my creativity is channelled into writing, but I’ve also renovated a yoga studio, built an eco-friendly house, planted a native woodland, travelled, practised and taught yoga, baked bread, cooked interesting meals, learned musical instruments, given birth, solved problems… and on and on. I can’t imagine my life without creativity, but then, I can’t imagine any life without it. Creativity is a fundamental part of our existence—our capacity to adapt depends on it—so it will always find a way to assert itself. Those described as “creatives” are just the ones who have figured out how to access their creativity on a regular basis.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Artists are more valuable to society than society gives them credit, if remuneration is the measure. An unexpected consequence of our new Covid-19 circumstances is that artists and arts are being appreciated more. As sports meetings cease; cinemas, theatres, bookshops, concert halls, venues, galleries close; and favourite TV shows and movie-making and other collaborative projects are put on hold, our available arts—whether it’s a Netflix series, or the radio, or books we have stockpiled (ahem) or can download—are keeping us occupied and engaged and, hopefully, sane.

I don’t approach my writing with a sense of responsibility, rather, with an idea that interests me, which needs nurturing in order to keep it alive, that is, my writing practice and everything that feeds it. But my ideas and the work that comes out of them cannot be divorced from the rest of my life, so my concerns will inevitably appear in the work. The Eighth Amendment was a cause for anger for thirty years, so it’s not surprising that I wrote a book about female bodily autonomy (A History of Running Away), or that nature trauma is at the heart of what I’ve been working on lately.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity should play now and after this period has passed?

Given the means and conditions, everyone—not just artists—would be more creative. At the moment, out of necessity, governments across the planet are experimenting with universal income in various iterations and I hope this is something we keep beyond the current crisis, because when artists are free to do what they do, the world is a better place, for everyone.

Covid-19 is a harsh lesson in the interconnectedness of all life forms, one which won’t easily be brushed aside, post pandemic. One immediately observable effect has been the renewed respect for science among those who fancied they were better off without experts. My hope is that this will translate into climate action. Our inadequate response to the environmental crisis can be attributed to more than climate denial, though; we seem to have an inability to act in our own best interests until we experience first-hand the impact of what it means to do nothing. But now, while Covid-19 wreaks havoc, access to the world outside our homes has grown increasingly limited. (As I write, we in Ireland are restricted to a 2km radius of our house, for exercise or shopping.) The mass exodus to mountains and beaches when our freedoms began to be curtailed was our knee-jerk response: we do care about the environment, our animal-natures informed us, so we clogged up the roads to get out into it, let social distancing be damned. Our enforced separation from the natural world during Covid-19 might well be the key to closing the distance from it we have created, allowing us to recognise that it is a two-way relationship; that it is in jeopardy; and that we need to act. Greta Thunberg told us almost a year ago that we must unite behind the science to solve the environmental crisis. The creative and largely collaborative responses to the Covid-19 virus shows that we are capable of organising and acting quickly when we are left with no alternative; as with a writing prompt, creativity asserts itself when it is restricted. We need to apply the learning to the environmental crisis.

Creativity: Tom Molloy

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Tom Molloy is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications at Trinity College Dublin. He is a former journalist with Irish Independent and Bloomberg News and editor of the Kilkenny People. He writes the Social Drinker column in the Sunday Independent.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others? 

I like words and images. I like the challenge of trying to capture a national mood. It is not easy. One often gets it wrong. But making bets on how society is evolving is interesting.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? 

There was never a moment. In fact, I resisted the notion that I had a creative bent for a long time. There is a strong urge in me to be pragmatic. If I like creative endeavours, it is at the practical end of the spectrum – photography, film, stage, music. My family were neutral. They accepted every child’s decision to pursue their own course. I never felt an iota of pressure from them.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this? 

I’m not sure I have such a voice. I don’t really spend much time looking at social media but I do worry about the effects that Pininterest has on creativity. I find that it is important to look outwards – to other countries and cultures for inspiration.

Motherhood can make creativity a challenge. Did fatherhood impact your creativity in a way that you didn’t expect i.e. did you change direction, lose or gain anything, etc.? What differences did you notice before and after?

Yes. I think fatherhood makes one think about money and thinking about money is rarely good when it comes to brave choices.

How do you keep positive if an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Swimming in the waves. Cycling the streets.

Have you collaborated within your field and/or in another creative form? Did your work evolve/change in some way after the experience? 

Journalists and editors meet literally thousands of inspiring people. Some of them rub off you. But you rarely collaborate.

Committing to creative work, especially in the beginning given the often-meagre financial rewards, can be a struggle. What advice would you give to someone starting out to help maintain an income? 

My advice would be not to think about money. Find a mentor. Do good stuff. If you need money, work in the evenings in a bar. Unless you want to be a creative bar owner. Then work as an accountant to pay your way.

Has there been any life event or situation that made creativity impossible? How did you overcome that period? 

Plenty of events and situations. Rest or hard work both eventually overcome this problem.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?  

Absolutely. National identity determines the medium most people excel in. Small, poor countries like Ireland will never have a flourishing film industry. The failure to treat music seriously means we will always struggle to produce composers of orchestral music. On the other hand the ability to write in English and the excessive reverence for poets and the written word in Ireland creates lots of world class poets and writers. Which is wonderful.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do artists have a responsibility?

I think artists should leave responsibility to others; teachers, parents, the gardai. There are enough people in the world who happily step into that (rather easy) role. The challenge is produce something interesting or beautiful or meaningful. To hold a mirror to society and hold society to account.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity and/or the arts should play now and after this period has passed?

I don’t accept the premise of the question. The coronavirus clearly responds to class, gender and age. It attacks the poor, men and the elderly. To my way of thinking, the virus is uninteresting. It is simply nature at work. What is fascinating is society’s reaction. There have been countless acts of altruism but also colossal acts of greed. It seems to me that the young have some legitimate questions about the wisdom of our strategy which is protecting the elderly at great cost to the young. The same strategy we adopted after the 2008-12 financial crisis.

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Creativity: Poet, Story Writer and Novelist Fred Johnston

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951 and educated there and in Toronto, Canada. In Belfast, he attended St Malachy’s College. He moved to Dublin, where he was to publish eight short stories over a period of time with the late David Marcus, in the New Irish Writing pages of The Irish Press. In 1972, he received a Hennessy Literary Award for prose. Working in Public Relations and later in journalism, in the mid-Seventies, along with playwright Peter Sheridan and novelist Neil Jordan, he founded The Irish Writers’ Co-operative (Co-Op Books.) Following a period in North Africa, he received The Sunday Independent Prose Award and followed it with their Poetry Award. In Galway, he founded the city’s annual international literature festival, Cúirt, in 1986 as a poetry-only festival. At this time, he wrote and broadcast for RTE radio a set of programmes on the new poets of the West of Ireland and produced a commercial cassette, ‘Poets in the West,’ featuring Sydney Bernard Smith, Paul Durcan, Gerald Dawe and some of his own work, accompanied by traditional Irish music from the late Charlie Brown (flute) and Sean Ryan (tin whistle.) Later, he founded the city’s Western Writers’ Centre, which ran for almost fifteen years. During this period, he received a Prix de l’Ambassade for translation of a French poet and was invited to be writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What strength do you admire in others?

Reading motivated me in my last years at school and afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to purchase one’s own sorts of books. When writing, one escapes into a world over which one has some sort of control, as it were. For an only child, it was a blessing, the world was very big. If I developed a ‘forte,’ it was a species of unbridled imagination! Again, a gift of most solitary children. Not always enough, of course. And sometimes it lags. I think there is the world of what we term reality and another, parallel world of the imagination and if you’re lucky as a writer they touch against one another at times. By others, I presume you mean other writers. I’m almost old-fashioned in my literary tastes and novelists such as Maugham and Greene, Durrell and Hemingway, Faulkner and Joyce and Steinbeck all had two things, great sense of style and a marvellous command of the English language. Often younger novelists tend to go for the former and let the latter slide. It’s a sort of fashion.

When the creative well is dry, do you have techniques you return to? I’d like to say I did, but I’m a rather moody writer.

The only technique that I have ever found to be efficacious is reading. If you want to write prose, then read prose; likewise if you wish to write poetry, read it. That’s the best kick-start I know to one’s own writing when one’s own stream runs dry. But one must accept dry spells. Like rejection, they are part of the game. Of course in every creative writer there is a hack waiting to get out, and if put to the pin of one’s collar a decent writer can churn out a thousand words on just about anything to pay the rent.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I’d be flattered to think I even do possess an authentic voice, either in poetry or prose. One is influenced by what one reads, that’s unavoidable. The authenticity is in what one says and how one says it, not particularly in the words one uses. Social media, media in general, doesn’t influence me towards a voice of any sort, really, though one wishes one possessed the facility, as some do, to read a current newspaper headline and create a novel from it. The Corona Virus blockbuster novel is, I dare say, just around the corner. People trapped on a cruise ship, that sort of thing. That may sound flippant, but wait and see. Likewise the volume of poetry entitled ‘Corona’ can’t be far off. I have serious doubts about that sort of thing. Social media has given a platform to some dreadful poetry, though. And allowed some people to think of themselves as poets who simply are not poets.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

I was driven to write – there’s no other verb really – from an early age, as I’ve said. Just as I was driven to play the guitar and sing folk-songs, for that matter; a need to express myself, shout out that I existed, I suppose. I suppose I was supported by my family insofar as they didn’t really object to either proposition; but my father did express the view that my writing would not make any money and he was correct there. A very literary man, he did come from an age when learning a good trade was considered vital. My mother, coming from an entertainment background, encouraged my performing. I think parents have to conceal their admiration as well as their distastes from their children. There comes a point where their opinions no longer carry weight with their offspring anyway. And young people in their late teens and early twenties are determinedly self-centred and rather in love with themselves, so a parent’s opinions come up against a very high wall.

In the 70’s you founded the Irish Writer’s Cooperative with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan and in the 80’s you founded the poetry festival Cúirt. What was the impetus behind these two cultural activities? Was the experience worthwhile?

The impetus behind the first was my having read of how the Scandanavian writers were forming groups and publishing one another in turn. I wrote letters to newspapers about it and received a call from playwright Peter Sheridan – might we meet up? In Captain America’s Restaurant in Dublin’s Grafton Street we met with Neil Jordan, a teacher at the time, and over a very decent burger we discussed the possibility of publishing a young contemporary named Desmond Hogan, he had a novel completed called ‘The Ikon Maker.’ To this point, writers really had to seek publishers abroad. We needed a collective name for grants purposes, and settled on The Irish Writers’ Co-operative, which in due course became Co-Op Books. Heady days indeed! The late journalist and publisher John Feeney and I left after a time, others came on board. Writers such as the late Leland Bardwell, Sebastian Barry, Neil himself, Des Hogan of course, Lucille Redmond, and others were all published by Co-Op Books. Irish literary histories, rehashed in newspapers or even in anthologies, fail to mention the organisation. I don’t know why this is. One might suggest with some validity that the Irish home-grown publishing scene would not exist had the Co-Op not come about. One supposes that there is a generation of young writers now who believe that Irish literary history started with them. It didn’t. They have it very easy now. And the younger they are, the better their publishing chances. It was not always so. Founding the Cúirt festival in 1985/6 came about from my reading of Daniel Corkery’s ‘The Hidden Ireland,’ in which there is mention of ‘courts’ of poetry, organised for the most part after the fall of the Gaelic order. I was working as a literary officer in Galway Arts Centre at the time, which was based in an old disused church. Now the title has been foreshortened. Originally it full title was ‘Cúirt Filíochta Idirnáisiúnta na Gaillimhe,’ which makes plain that it was a festival exclusively devoted to poetry. I can’t imagine who believed that it might also be an umbrella title for a gathering including music and prose and so on. The first outing was over a weekend, more or less, and featured great poets such as the late Iain Crichton Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Paul Durcan, Nuala ni Dhomnaill, John Hogan, and others. It was an extraordinary success – and naturally with that success came politicking and, frankly, a march of egos and a very unpleasant time for me. My view of the entire Galway City arts world was tainted by those experiences, at least some of which were, shamefully in my view, to rear their heads again. It wasn’t about money, or anything quite as grubby; it was about power. Who, in a city not far removed from its past as a cattle-market town in the West of Ireland, ought to be ‘in charge’ as it were, of elements of the emerging cultural scene. I was naive, I admit it, and had never thought of art as being linked to parochial power.

How do you keep positive if an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Well, if it’s a short story that’s not going one’s way, or a poem for that matter, one leaves it aside – never throw anything out! You are parent to your creation, after all. Negative feedback, in terms of reviews, for instance? You have to expect those. Maybe a reviewer genuinely doesn’t like your work or genuinely doesn’t like you. In Ireland there’s a lot of the latter. Nothing to be done about it. A writer should never attack his reviewers. They have a job to do, as one also has a job to do and that’s that. If one doesn’t like negative criticism, then one should do well to look elsewhere for a job. I have known some writers to stoop very low indeed to uproot a reviewer of whom they didn’t approve. Very bad form. Demeaning to literature, if you wish. Insulting. There should be a literary Coventry to which such individuals can be exiled.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Did your work evolve/change in some way after the experience?

I have collaborated with translators, of course. And with a French poet whom I translated. And composers. I would dearly enjoy to work with a visual artist. I think poets are closet visual artists anyway. Translation allows one to see one’s work in a new light and working with a composer who is composing his music around one’s poem is always illuminating. Different transmutations take place. Different elements fold into one another. One gets back more than one puts in and consequently it’s all quite humbling. A new work has been created. It is different from what one started out with, of necessity. I should think it would be very exciting to work, as others have, on a lengthy project involving music and poetry. There are some very fine expressionistic artists working in sound-forms, one such being Danny McCarthy in Cork, who has made several recordings. All of that is extremely interesting.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I should advise anyone starting out, much as my father might, to find a job that makes some decent money, or a patron who’ll give one decent hand-outs. Much easier to find the former nowadays. In seriousness, writing, even for those with several novels out, is not a money-spinner. The Stephen Kings are rare, we shouldn’t forget that. Some Irish novelists with, publicly, considerable literary success, nonetheless found themselves having to return to nine-to-five employment. And there is no money in poetry, unless you are very good at ‘networking’ and can find one’s self invited to literary festivals all around the place. One might live on that, and ancillary things, like reviewing or giving workshops. I’m retired now, but generally speaking I’ve worked as a journalist, PR man, sub-editor, loaded train wagons, dug a trench or two, and even giving writerly advice. And experienced long periods on the dole. Most art is created on the dole, by the way. Only arts administrators make money. Which is a bizarre situation. Yet I’ve yet to hear someone at the launching of their new collection of poems say “I wish to thank the Department of Social Welfare. without whose regular payments this work would not have been possible.” They’re far too snobbish to admit that. And most arty audiences are too snobbish to want to hear it.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?

I was born in Northern Ireland and have lived all my live, save for my childhood in Canada, in the Republic. I have always had an interest in, but never a deep patriotic feeling towards, Ireland. Though I admire those who do. I believe that Republican writers should have their work featuring on the educational curriculum, especially those who sacrificed much in the conflict of Northern Ireland. Loyalist writers, too. I left Belfast before what are called the ‘Troubles’ really got under way, so I don’t feel qualified to write about that period too much. Then again an entire school of writing has come out during that period. Unfortunately it has overshadowed much Northern Irish, or Ulster, writing that went before it. Ask a young Belfast writer who Sam Hanna Bell was, hear what he or she replies. I have written poems from an exile’s point of view, so to speak. I ought to say, perhaps at some risk, that writers of my generation in the Republic were never too concerned about the North and perhaps rather envied how quickly big British publishers took up poets and novelists from there. Conflict is always artistically sexy. In the Republic some writers clearly desire to be English writers. Irish-language writers have stayed true to their country in a way some others have not. I see myself as a European writer and admire the French. They have a history in philosophy which we do not, for one thing. Their writing is infused with it. And they have a very healthy suspicion of institutional politics.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Yes, one does have such a responsibility and any artist who says he or she is ‘above’ or ‘outside’ politics is simply dodging it, usually because they fear political engagement might taint them in some manner or interfere with their careers. But writing is not a career. It’s a vocation, and I won’t lean heavily on that word. How can one proclaim that one looks at the world in one’s work and ignore social or political distress? The very first political act is in a word, when one first learns one’s name. The first poem, the first story one publishes declares who one is at a higher level. You cannot look at what Israel is doing in Gaza, for instance, call yourself a writer and at the same time never write so much as a letter to a paper about it. The artist of whatever discipline must speak, make utterance literary or visual against injustice even in a story about love. Look at Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ It’s an act of love. And defiance. And witness. Self-censorship is a dreadful thing. God knows, one’s fellow writers can do a good enough job of trying to censor you.

Given the new situation the world finds itself in—with a virus that does not recognise class, gender or age—what role do you think creativity should play now and after this period has passed?

That’s a fascinating question, for one senses the world will have been changed in many ways. Some we cannot yet imagine. And that ought to happen, we cannot simply slide back into our old ways. Here we have a natural phenomenon, quite deadly to many, that doesn’t take into account how many shares you hold or how much interest you have running on Wall Street. Yet what one term’s the ‘great’ powers dithered and prevaricated and allowed people to die because they didn’t know how to respond. These same powers pour enormous amounts of money into rogue states in real cash terms or militarily and without a blink. They support very dubious regimes to kill and maim and dispossess other people. Yet no one has come up with a cure for cancer or even the common cold. Now this mutated common virus comes along and starts wiping us out – the arms sales continue, the support for nasty regimes continues. Art may explain some things, point out some unpalatable truths when this is over, if it ever is. But politicians do not listen to what art has to say. Besides, the great novels that spoke of totalitarianism, the great poems that warned us, have been written out of former conflicts and we haven’t learned a thing. Art has been allowed to become entertainment. Art should upset people, disturb them, uplift them surely, but most of all move them. You may not be able to hang a riot on a wall, but you can paint something that produces a just anger. A poem means nothing to a starving child, but a poem about a starving child just might move someone to action, however modest. If we are wise as writers and artists, we will look back on this time and think. If we are done with thinking, as many have been in history once a plague has passed, then it’s all irrelevant anyway. Bring on the next plague, the next illegal annexation, the next atrocity. This is not a thinking age. Our iPods and various similar devices have taken care of thinking. A teenager may kill for a pair of expensive runners. But when was the last time a teenager killed someone for a copy of ‘War and Peace?’

 

Creativity: The Gloss Beauty Editor Sarah Halliwell

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Writing about beauty and beyond for 20 years plus. Beauty editor at The Gloss Magazine since 2011. Previously freelanced, writing for publications including Elle, the Observer, and worked on Time Out magazine for several years. Originally from Yorkshire, UK, I’ve lived by the sea in Dublin since 2010.

What about your work motivates you? What would you say is your forte?

I just feel really lucky to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s all I ever wanted to do, and it still takes me by surprise that I get to do it every day. Working with the brilliant, dedicated, inspiring team at The Gloss – who always strive for better even when it’s harder to do so – is a massive motivator. You don’t go into publishing or writing to make lots of money – it’s for the beauty of expressing yourself and doing something you love every day.

I’m far better at listing my weaknesses. But I think I can be a good listener, which helps when doing interviews. And I try to convey my enthusiasm and passion for things in my writing.

What inspires you in the beauty industry today? How has it evolved and where do you think it is headed?

What inspires me most about the beauty industry is meeting creative and passionate people. I find perfumers particularly interesting and have been lucky enough to meet several, from Jean-Claude Ellena, the genius ex-Hermès perfumer, to Olivier Polge at Chanel. It’s like meeting an artist or composer – I never get tired of hearing them talk about ingredients, stories and different approaches to creating unforgettable scents. I also love writing about, and hopefully supporting, small Irish companies working to create sustainable, beautiful things with a focus on local ingredients.

The way the industry is evolving is fascinating, and currently the big focus is sustainability and “slow beauty”. Brands are falling over themselves to show off their eco-friendly credentials, and it’s a positive thing that we’re becoming more discerning and careful about what we consume in terms of beauty products. It’s also a particularly vibrant time for Irish beauty – there are so many brilliant homegrown brands that are truly authentic and passionate about what they do, from the Burren Perfumery to Cloon Keen in Galway and Benoit Nicol’s The Nature of Things.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

When I worked at Time Out magazine in London back in 2000, it was one of the only few truly independent voices in print. The ethos was built around honesty – giving genuine opinions, remaining independent from advertisers and, above all, being true to the audience. Similarly at The Gloss, we all try to take a refreshing and independent approach. At a time when so much of social media has an agenda, or is sponsored – endless influencers being paid to say how much they love a particular fake tan – print seems more important than ever, an alternative to the relentless noise of social media. When it comes to the beauty industry, I’ve always tried to maintain a healthy scepticism. There’s a lot of nonsense talked!

When did you know that you wanted to work the beauty industry? Were you influenced/inspired by your family, friends, etc?

All I ever wanted to do was write. It was my favourite thing to do and the thing I was good at from primary school onwards. I was never pushed or pressured at school which meant you just had to focus on what you were good at. In the 1980s, careers advice at a girls’ school was not the most useful; I remember asking what I could do with an English degree, and the one suggestion was to become a librarian … After a first job working in an eccentric private art collection, I eventually got into book publishing, where my perfectionist editor pushed me out of my comfort zone all the time, making me braver. I became interested in beauty when I was editing the shopping and fashion section at Time Out, and continued from there.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

A small word of encouragement can make a huge difference when you write. You always think that when you’re older, you’ll be full of confidence and authority, but I still feel nervous when I file a piece of work, and rarely feel confident about it; I always want to do it better. However I’m pretty hardy, and genuinely happy to take constructive criticism from people I respect. Getting nominated for a Jasmine Award last year for writing about perfume was a lovely confidence boost. I do think when you get to 50, though, you generally care less about what people think of you and that is definitely liberating. Being able to let irrelevant things go over your head is actually a vital skill.

Have you collaborated within the beauty industry and/or with professionals in other fields? Was the experience worthwhile?

Not really – but I’d love to work with a perfumer someday and create my own perfume, or even lipstick colour; sadly I was utterly useless at science at school and it would take me a lifetime to pass even the most basic chemistry exam so I can’t make them myself …

Outside of the beauty industry, where do you draw inspiration? Do you have certain people you turn to?

I am inspired by travel – seeing what’s new in cities. I (usually) go to Paris and London quite often for beauty launches, and have been further afield too. I love to explore local beauty finds, such as the incredibly atmospheric hammams in Marrakech. Also, reading: I’m a huge fan of Luca Turin’s wonderfully opinionated writing about perfume, and admire many brilliant Irish writers, such as Colum McCann and Sara Baume. And designers like Dries Van Noten. I play a lot of tennis and, in these strange times, am finding a tennis mindset helpful: in a match, you focus on just winning each point at a time, rather than the end result, and it’s the same now – taking everything just one day at a time.

Do you think your national identity influences you and/or gives you a unique perspective on the world stage?

My national identity is slightly blurred at this stage. Though I was born in Yorkshire, I have been in Ireland for ten years now and hope to get an Irish passport. I fell in love with Irish literature and countryside (and an Irishman, now my husband) 30 years ago and absolutely love living here; I wear Stable of Ireland’s tricolour scarf with pride. I’m glad to have worked in London and had that experience, though; I do think it gives you a different perspective to move away from home, and to survive in a big city you have to up your game.

How does creativity enrich your life?

In so many ways. I feel so lucky to be able to work flexibly (now more than ever), travel to interesting places and see behind the scenes of how beautiful things are created, from meeting the lady who designs Chanel’s perfume bottles to talking about colour, creativity and Elizabeth Taylor with Philip Treacy in his studio. I constantly have to do new things, such as make videos, or host beauty events in front of audiences ­and, much as you dread these things at first, new challenges, that push you out of your comfort zone, always keep things interesting. I love doing a job that’s different every day – it never gets boring.

Lastly, you live by the sea, does it play a role in your life, creatively or otherwise?

Living by the sea is one of the biggest benefits of living in Dublin for me – I absolutely love it and swim whenever I can throughout the year. A cold swim instantly changes your mood, uplifts you and clears your head. You certainly know you’re alive! At the moment it’s a particular lifesaver, and I love seeing the older men and women fearlessly wade into the icy water every morning without flinching. I find it endlessly calming and restoring, and feel immensely lucky to have a desk that overlooks the bay.

Creativity: Author Nuala O’Connor

 

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir (aka Nuala O’Connor) lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in the US, Ireland and the UK. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

It’s a great question, motivation. I think it changes, over the years. I’m twenty plus years writing seriously and, at the start, it was pure joy and love of the act of writing. Now it’s my job so the motivations are to share my work, to be published and read, and to earn a living.
The joy remains, but there’s a different impetus added to it.
As for my forte, in terms of writing I’d say it’s fiction. In terms of craft, I’d say it’s stick-with-it-ability and a willingness to always learn and grow.
I admire writers like Salinger and Ferrante who, to whatever extent, managed to extricate themselves from the PR roundabout and just get on with the writing. That’s what important for creatives: doing the work. Not the promo and public appearances – creating.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I rarely get a dry spell. I can’t write poems, often, but my fictional well doesn’t dry up. I have a lot of stories whirling in my mind that I want to tell. The problem is trying to get the time and space to commit to projects. Having said that, my new year’s resolution this year was to not begin a new novel (once the one in hand is done). I want to give my head room and space to think over some stories and, hopefully, some poems.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I don’t tend to feel infected by other people’s voices, I’m confident that I have my own voice and style; I know what I’m doing with my writing, most of the time. That doesn’t mean I think everything I do is great, or that I’m always happy at my desk but, once I’m enjoying myself, that’s good enough for me.
I do sometimes get down about the emphasis on literary prizes. I don’t write prize-winny, zeitgeisty novels; I don’t have one eye on the market. I can only write about things I’m passionate about. Literary prizes can seem like cynical exercises and they also seem to be the only things that the public responds to. So, if you’re not winning prizes, few people seem to care about your books.

I started entering short story comps again in the last couple of years to see if I could up my profile a bit. I live in a very quiet, non-literary town and, sometimes, I feel out-of-it. I wish that prizes weren’t the only thing – we need more quality reviewing outlets. In Ireland The Dublin Review is great, for example, but it can be hard to get quiet books – like the ones I write – noticed.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I come from a creative family: my parents both painted and acted for pleasure, my mother made our clothes (for seven of us!); my sisters are artists, photographers, costume makers, editors. My mother fed me books as a child too, I’d read a book a day, and she supported me in that brilliantly. I always wanted to be a writer but I thought it was for magic people with special insider knowledge, not for working class girls like me. It took until I was twenty-eight for me to really grab writing by the neck and say, ‘You’re for me.’
Yes, I’m very Irish. I love the bones of the place and I love our languages –Irish and English – and all things colloquial and native. I love our ability to laugh at our own absurdity, to talk long and hard, and to enjoy ourselves. That influences my writing.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I go a bit nuts; I get cranky and hard to live with. Writing keeps me on an even keel, keeps me sane and happy.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I cry it out, rant and rave to my husband, who listens well. My agent is super supportive too and she’s honest, which I love. Some things are harder to get over than others because you set your heart on certain outcomes and then, if they fail, it’s very disappointing. Some failures and disappointments still hurt me, but you have to just get on with it. The creative life is hugely about tenacity. I can see why some writers give up and disappear, the rejections and setbacks are constant; there’s no endpoint with this, it’s all journey.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Yes, I’ve collaborated with other writers and visual artists – writing works prompted by their (art) works. I love that, it’s a different way to work, a little daunting, but always worthwhile. You write things that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

The financial side is hard. There are very few writers earning good livings. I supplement book advances with other work: mentoring new writers, articles, essays, appearances at literary festivals, teaching creative writing etc. I apply for bursaries too. Also my husband has a real job, with regular wages, so we never starve. But we live in an affordable part of the country and we live modestly.
If you’re starting out, and can afford to, work part time and organise your remaining time well – use it to write often, commit to one main project and work at it regularly. Routine is helpful – it keeps you connected to the work, immersed in the headspace of it, and that helps with moving it along.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I’m deeply introverted and also shy, so I love working alone and being my own boss. I like that I’m in charge of my own time and can devote as many hours as I need to my writing.
Because I’m happy at my work, that rubs off on my children. They see my contentment but, because I work from home, also my disappointments and concerns about the creative life. I doubt they have any illusions about it. That’s maybe why my boys are determined to become computer programmers and engineers. My daughter (at the moment) wants be a crazy cat lady/writer. She didn’t pick that off the stones 😉
When I write, I’m happy, so it’s important to me to write every day or, at least, five days a week.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

You have a responsibility to what you’re writing and the people you write about. The artist should shine a torch down the well of time, to help people understand various eras, including our own. It’s not necessarily the artist’s role to wave placards on the street but we can if we want. We can be subversive and political in what we write but that’s up to the individual. As a feminist I write from that perspective but I’m way more interested in story.

Creativity: Poet Paddy Bushe

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Born in Dublin in 1948, Paddy Bushe lives in Kerry and is a poet, editor and translator in both Irish and English. His collections include Poems With Amergin (1989), Digging Towards The Light (1994), In Ainneoin na gCloch (2001), Hopkins on Skellig Michael (2001), The Nitpicking of Cranes (2004), To Ring in Silence: New and Selected Poems (2008), My Lord Buddha of Carraig Éanna (2012) and On A Turning Wing (2016). He edited the anthology Voices at the World’s Edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael (Dedalus, 2010). The recipient of the Oireachtas prize for poetry in 2006, he also received the 2006 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award and the 2017 Irish Times Poetry Now Award. Two new books, Peripheral Vision, a collection in English, and Second Sight, a selection of his poems in Irish with his own translations, will be published by Dedalus in 2020. He is a member of Aosdána.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

I think the motivation is quite simple, really: it’s the creation of what Keats called “a thing of beauty”. It’s hard to identify my own forte. I would like to think that it’s an ability to listen to place and to hear the stories it tells. I react to place – its history, archaeology, folklore, songs and so forth. My poems often interact with these, even when they disappear out of the resulting poem. I tend not to react directly to the busy present – and perhaps that’s more of a weakness than anything else.
What I admire above all in writing – poetry or prose – is the ability to be intensely real and material, while at the same time being able to take off into extremely lyrical and imaginative territory. The prose of Sebastian Barry and the poetry of Seamus Heaney are wonderful exemplars of this.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I think the most important thing to refill the well is not to wait for the rain, especially in dry weather. Of course, that’s a simplification, but the artist must be active in the pursuit of creativity; otherwise creativity may lose interest. You can be busy in all sorts of ways, but making time and space for your creative self is often an act of will rather being struck by inspiration. You can decide for yourself how to stimulate the creative antennae – music, walking, reading etc., but you must make yourself actively receptive.
On a practical and personal level I find that translating the poetry of others can stimulate the creative juices. For me, this usually means translating from Irish to English. Serious translating means trying to access the creative imagination of others and to carry that creative imagination into a different language. So it has much in common with original writing, but the translator is relieved of the task of finding subjects, ideas, images and other stimuli. At the same time, s/he must use all their verbal and technical skill to recreate the original poem.
Even the reading of the original poem must be at an intensely receptive level. You’d have to refill your well to do it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I don’t really think about myself or my voice when writing, and issues around what is an authentic voice I think are best left to others to decide. For me – and I speak only for myself, having a strong aversion to generalised artistic theory – the job is to create a poem from whatever the stimulus has been. The voice of that poem may be very different from the voice of the poem I will write next week. I would find it a distraction and an imposition were I to impose preconditions about voice or authenticity on myself.
I’m afraid social media are rather unknown territory to me, and likely to remain so. But in relation to media in general, and the question of comparison therein, the media taking an interest in the arts is a good thing. But media interest is by nature selective and can be very open to manipulation. It’s salutary to remember that most writers are ignored by most media most of the time. Expending a lot of time and mental energy trying to “put yourself out there” is more likely to stifle an authentic creative voice than to stimulate one. Most artists, of course, naturally want their voice to be heard as widely as possible. But the primary focus must be the work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I first began to write poems in my teens, when I also began to read poetry for pleasure. Yes, my family were supportive, but in a passive rather than an active way. Then from about the age of 21 I stopped writing altogether. Looking back, I think it was because of a loss of confidence, perhaps arising from an unrecognised tendency to depression. Who knows? In any case, I started to write again in my mid-30’s. and my family have been greatly supportive of me – again, not in a particularly active way, but in allowing to feel that my writing is a worthwhile and valid activity. This is something about which, even now, I need reassurance.
I am certainly influenced by my national identity, and very willingly so. But I have spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to unlearn the nationalism – cultural and political – which was the discourse within which I grew up and for a long time willingly embraced.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I tend to get depressed, and of course this can lead to greater aridity, a chicken-and-egg scenario. If you believe in yourself as a writer – and I do, although it took me a long time before I would say so, even to myself – then not to write is in a way a denial of yourself, or at least of a very important aspect of yourself. And this becomes crucial in relation to the earlier question about public recognition: it can be important, but getting the work done is the true creative fulfilment, and antecedent to that recognition.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

It sounds like a self-help manual, but I think you must evaluate the failure, or the negative feedback (which isn’t necessarily the same thing, of course), and see what you can learn from it. It’s not always that easy, but it is that simple.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Yes, I did a book called To Make the Stone Sing with the painter Catriona O’Connor. This was an exploration in poetry and painting of some archaeological monuments in the Iveragh Peninsula. I think we both found it very stimulating and worthwhile. It was interesting to see how the same monuments elicited our varying responses: hers descriptive, discovering shape and light; mine, inevitably perhaps, more narrative and explicatory.
I also worked with the composer Ciaran Farrel when he set my long poem Hopkins on Skellig Michael to music, which was commissioned by RTÉ Lyric FM and performed by the RTÉ Orchestra, with the poem being read by the actor Barry McGovern. Again this was a fascinating collaboration, especially when it came to the recording.
And of course, I do a lot of translating. And while translating doesn’t necessarily involve direct or active collaboration, the very fact of translating is itself a collaboration with another poet, and requires an intensity of engagement which goes far beyond what you might call “close reading”. Of course, if you are not fluent in the original language, you may also be collaborating with an intermediary literal translator.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I am lucky enough to be a member of Aosdána and to receive its support. I think such governmental support for the arts, through many possible channels, is absolutely necessary.
I also think you must be prepared to commit to creative work without necessarily expecting that you will earn a living from it, at least for some time. Of course there is no doubt that being able to make a living from your art is enormously liberating and can be very important, depending on the person. But is by no means a precondition for the production of good creative work. So I would advise anyone starting out not to make a precondition of it, and to look for a lifestyle that allows them to find their artistic feet. Without this, I would question the seriousness of their commitment to their art.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being creative creates at least the illusion of pattern and meaning. And it is undoubtedly very gratifying when people tell you a poem has touched them. Even if it happens only sometimes, and with some poems, it feels like a validation. I’m afraid it seems to be part of the artistic temperament that we like to have our egos massaged!

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

It seems to me that the arts have a fundamental role in enhancing the life of any society, especially now that religious belief, at least in the conventional sense, is in decline. The arts can serve a moral purpose, but this is not necessarily inherent, and must be consciously injected by the artist. But what they can do is intensify and refine opinions, emotions and so forth. They will enhance social and individual experience, for good or for evil. And hasn’t that been essentially how religious faith has functioned?
As for the artist’s specific role or responsibility, I find it immensely irritating when various theorists try to define this, especially in the political sphere. It seems as if it’s sometimes thought the artist’s role is essentially subversive, and always externalised from “ordinary” social viewpoints. This seems lazy and rather obsolete. I think if the arts are in a healthy state, they will encompass all sorts of attitudes. I believe the artist as a citizen has a duty to society, just as carpenters, computer technicians, athletes and nurses do. The artist as an artist has a duty to him/herself to practice their
art as best they can.

Image from The Irish Times.

Creativity: Irish Writers Centre Director Valerie Bistany

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Valerie Bistany is a professional arts manager, producer & events coordinator with over 25 years of international experience in Ireland, England and the USA working with organisations such as Dance Ireland, Dublin Youth Theatre, the Abbey and Pavilion Theatres. She is currently the Director/CEO of the Irish Writers Centre where she has worked since 2013.

For the best part of her career prior to this, she worked in a freelance capacity in programming, strategic vision planning, as an independent evaluator and as a creative mentor in the professional arts and voluntary sectors with The Ark, Tivoli Training Centre, DIT and with various artists and arts offices, amongst others.

Also a certified mediator, Valerie began mediating as part of a political dialogue facilitation team working with Northern and Southern Irish politicians at Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and has since worked family, community, workplace and elder mediation, both on a professional and a voluntary basis. She was a founder member of Facing Forward, a restorative justice NGO that promotes and offers training in victim-offender mediation.

Originally from Lebanon, she has lived and worked in England, Italy, Spain and the USA, but has made Dublin her home these last 28 years.

What about your work motivates you? What is your forte and what do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strengths do you admire in others?

I’ve been lucky enough to work in the arts for my entire career. My roles have always been in a supportive capacity to artists – this has included stage management for touring drama and dance,  a variety of administrative and production roles, and in the last decade or so working as a creative consultant to arts boards and arts offices, and a creative mentor with individual artists.

What I love about the arts is how an idea can manifest into a creative work through a collaborative process – even the ‘solitary’ arts of literature or visual arts cannot stand alone once they are created – they need to be born into the world and that requires connecting with others to bring them to an audience. This is where someone like me comes in. What I can bring is an experience about many areas of the arts and pragmatic yet ‘arty’ approach to guide a work to fruition. I think I have a strong sense of vision and a facility in being able to define a suitable process which is unique to the project, while also holding the big picture.

Of course, none of this can happen without the right team of people, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with incredibly talented and committed practitioners: artists, producers, administrators, actors, dancers, artists, the list is long. I think that those who have chosen to work in the arts have (that overused, bland word) a passion, but one which goes beyond the call of duty, one that has become an existential condition. (In 1990s artspeak it was coined as the “hidden subsidy” in the Irish arts sector.) The insecurity, the low irregular fees for such long hours would not be tolerated in any other profession, so what is it that sustains artists? It requires a kind of resilience bordering on stubbornness, a self-conviction in spite of the knock-backs, hardship and loneliness, and yes, a love for doing the work. This is the kind of courage that I admire in artists. To quote Erica Jong’s famous book, they “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

When your creative well runs dry, how do you refill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I am not a practicing artist, but even as a producer/facilitator, creativity is important for visualisation and I have needed to persuade others that my ideas could help them. In my current role as director of the Irish Writers Centre, I would say that at least 95% of my work is administrative and about 5% is creative. Ironically, it occurs best when the pressure is on (say, when I have a funding deadline) that I really need to think fast and flesh out a project or idea so that it is comprehensible to others. That inspiration comes ‘off-piste’ on a daily basis, often when I’m not at work. For instance, I was watching the Late Late Show one Friday when they had someone on who I thought would be a great speaker for one of our collaborative cross-border programmes aimed at emerging writers. We didn’t contact her in the end, but her interview honed my thinking about suitable speakers, and indeed, we may try to get her again, down the line. In this job, you are never really off duty – and this is the kind of vocational quality that is required in working in the arts – but it comes easily if you are interested in your work.

Personally, I find that my own (non-work) creative ideas come to me when I’m an audience member – often in the theatre – when whatever is going on onstage sparks off a chain of thought which leads to an artistic idea. It can also happen when reading or hearing interviews, particularly with writers and activists.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I have always found it easy to be my authentic self, and while I may not always be everybody’s cup of tea, in the main, the person I am has connected positively with others and I have made a reasonable success of myself as an arts practitioner. I am not an aficionado of social media, though I do keep an eye on it in respect of my job. As a resource organisation, sometimes the IWC can be criticised for doing something or not doing something, and oftentimes, our intentions are misinterpreted or misunderstood. It can be said heedlessly, which is hurtful, but I am trying to develop a thick skin about these things. People forget that there are other humans running institutions and that it is not a faceless entity.

However, if I were a professional writer, I would be answering the question differently, because I would be referring to my artistic voice. Artistic voice is any artist’s life study. In Spanish, “dar a luz” translates to “to give to light” – a poetic construct for what we call giving birth – the image it evokes is the crowning of a baby’s head as it emerges from the mother’s body. This is how I see the artistic voice – it emerges from the deepest core of oneself it is a hugely precious and fragile thing, which needs much loving nurturing if it is to emerge and thrive.

What inspires you to work with artists and in a creative field?

There is no doubt that much art that is created is a bit hit and miss. But when it is good it brings us out of the mundane day to day by connecting us to meaning, and when it is really good, it connects us at a deeper core level. You know when a piece of art connects because it communicates itself intuitively with a truth and integrity told in a way which you have never experienced. Exposure to multitude of artistic works creates many acts of truth which increases our sense of belonging to one another. Belonging to one another on this planet, which is incredible, and our existence in it quasi-unfathomable.

Do you think an artist’s national identity influences them?

Yes, I do. Invariably, an artist’s individual realm of existence is the pallet from which their art is created. There is the old adage “write what you know”, which has much truth and merit.
However, I would be equally encouraging of writing what you don’t know, for how else can you learn and grow to expand your horizons? When I was working in youth theatre, a leading playwright and screenwriter asked me why I was so keen in providing opportunities to bring young people abroad. I found it an incredible question to be asked – surely, I thought, there was everything to be gained from travelling: the act of getting there, negotiating being away from home (perhaps for the first time), being in a group setting, experiencing a new culture and language, and most importantly, seeing and feeling the impact of all of this on oneself.
I’ve continued to ponder the question, and now I can also see that he may have been saying, surely there is so much to see, hear and learn right here in Ireland. Yes, that is also true, if you can take the cultural lens off, but it is only by going away that you can get some distance from your national identity, get to understand it by holding a mirror up from across the waters, and seeing which parts of the reflection you believe hold true.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Difficult question. I get depressed, like everyone else! But I find keeping physically active a great help – I cycle to work every day and teach Ballet-lates, a hybrid form of pilates and ballet. I also sing in a choir with a great bunch of people. Staying active and connected are important to getting through bad times. But if I’m lucky enough to get constructive feedback, that really softens the blow and shows a path towards improvement. In my job, I often have to send out rejection emails to applicants of various residencies or programmes, and, remembering the many times I’ve received impersonal rejections, I take great care to try to explain (even in a general way) why their application didn’t succeed this time, encouraging them to try again.

What do you think is the value of collaborations, artistic and otherwise?

I have said much about this already. A fulfilled life includes other people.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What do you think artists can do to help overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Again, I have described this above in respect of the commitment and courage required. In this respect, one often hears: ‘don’t give up the day job’ and ‘don’t marry another artist’, and while this may seem flippant, there is truth in not being financially rash. Everyone has a different level of tolerance in respect of their financial needs and I would advise anyone transitioning to becoming a full-time artist (or freelance anything for that matter) to cast a cold eye at what the future might look like without the financial security of a regular salary.
The other thing that often gets overlooked is the loneliness of being an artist, the lack of routine and potential isolation. If you don’t have the personality, self-discipline and drive to lead that sort of life, and you think you can continue with a ‘day-job’ while also creating art, then for goodness sake, do that.

Many artists work best when they continue to have other daily stimuli which may feed their art. Think Flann O’Brien (journalist), Anton Chekhov (doctor), Philip Glass (plumber), Bram Stoker (theatre manager), performance artist Amanda Coogan is a professional signer for the deaf and most remarkably, one of our Novel Fair winners Catriona Lally (also winner of the Rooney Prize) continues as a cleaner in Trinity College because it not only pays the bills, but the physical act of cleaning is part of her mental preparation before she writes in the afternoon.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

To put it simply, I think a life without creativity is a life half-lived. Luckily, creativity is a very broad concept which can interpreted in many ways, and most people do engage in some level of creativity, as defined by them. It provides an avenue for curiosity and fun – ideally, it is about finding a way back to our younger selves, as children before self-awareness kicked in, and connecting in with authentic self.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do they have a “responsibility” as an artist?

In this age where, increasingly, entire sociology, history and philosophy departments in universities are being axed, where, with the advent of coding as a new subject, history is being dropped, where critical journalism is an endangered species, where social media and fake news make a mockery of truth and history as we have known it heretofore, there is a crying and urgent need for those who can reflect our world back to us in a way that we can make sense of it. There is also a need for those who can act as a barometer for ethical standards and to express our humanity to ourselves in a variety of modes. In all the bad news that assaults us daily, there is also a need for those who can see and show us the beauty in our world and the love and kindness. That, I believe, is what artists can do in a way that no others can, by doing it though their own sense of truth and authentic voice. In reflecting the world back to us, warts and all, artists make a powerful contribution to keeping us human.

Creativity: Translator Lori Hetherington

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Translator Lori Hetherington loves knowing a little bit about a lot of things and that craving spills over into the projects she works on, which could easily be termed eclectic: historical fiction and nonfiction, 19th century fairytales, literary fiction, scientific and technical, mystery, visionary fiction, and a dash of romance, a pinch of ghostwriting and editing, and a handful of her own short stories and essays to keep things interesting.

A long-time Florence resident she does her best to straddle the English-language and Italian literary scenes. She’s co-organizer of the Florence Writers annual Publishing Day, an avid writers group participant, a frequent face at the Open Mic events at Tasso Hostel, and on the board of directors of the European Writing Women Association (an association born in Italy for women who revolve around the written word).

When she’s not tethered to her pc, she can be found riding her bike across town, walking the streets of Florence or hiking in the countryside, or talking about the subtleties that can be expressed through language and the importance of human connections with whoever will listen.

What about your work motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

I consider myself to be strongly guided by my intuition, whether it’s in my work as a translator or as a writer. And perhaps it’s that professional duality combined with strong intuition that’s my greatest strength. I tend to approach challenges in a circular fashion: I go around and around, guided by intuition, until I find an entry point. And even after I’ve gotten past the entry point I tend to hover and flitter around a project and engage with it as inspiration (and deadlines) require, until I’ve reached what feels like the conclusion. I’m not the bulldozer type, although I often have periods when I’m very focused. For me, an approach that is fluid and changeable works best. However, I often admire how other people set their eye on a goal and then go straight for it, without distractions.

When the creative well runs dry, how do you refill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I think working as a translator often feeds my creative side. I get the chance to facilitate the creativity of others without having to heave buckets up from my own well. When I’m translating a novel, the characters are already drawn, the plot has been constructed and my job is to render them fluently in my own language. Sure, it often takes creativity to build a bridge between feelings and expressions in different languages but it generally takes less, or maybe a different type of creative energy. At least it’s that way for me.

Instead, when I’m trying to solidify characters or work out plot I like to travel by motorcycle. I know that sounds odd, but as a passenger on a motorcycle I’m forced to stay centred, I can let my imagination wander, and absorb whatever strikes my senses. It’s a sort of meditation. I also tend to pour over photos that have some link—timeframe, place, topic—to the story I’m working on so that I have visual cues dancing in my head.

l.hetherington
How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

A translator has to be a chameleon when it comes to voice so the challenge lies in turning my translator brain off when I’m writing my own pieces. When I’ve spent the day working on a translation and can feel one of my own stories creeping into my head, elbowing the translated story out of the way, I have to do something physical to shift into the new space and voice. It might be as simple as taking a walk, unloading the dishwasher, or playing with my cat but it has to be there in order for me shift gears. Reading lots of different kinds of material also helps clear my head—I might read a short story, some newspaper or magazine articles, or jump briefly into a novel. I mentally need well-written pieces as a sort of reset.

What inspires you to work with artists and in a creative field?

For about twenty years I worked almost exclusively translating and revising scientific texts. Sometimes I worked on innovative discoveries and exciting new ideas but I really missed stories, whether they were someone else’s or my own. But what I did get from all those scientific articles and textbook chapters was confidence. Especially in the early years, every time the authors had their contributions accepted for publication I got a little boost. And any time you create something—artistic or not—having a pinch of confidence allows you to dare, it nudges you to show people what you’ve got, and helps you weather rejection a little better. I love the variety of projects and opportunities that are part of my work, and getting the chance to revel in the creative production of others. I’d say that the thrill of taking one thing—a memory, a rough outline, a text in one language—and turning it into something else is what feeds my fire.

Do you think an artist’s national identity influences them?

Oh, definitely, although I wouldn’t say that it defines an artist. Each country a person lives in, or sometimes just visits, adds a piece to a person’s personal baggage. When we create something, it comes from that imaginary suitcase full of our life experiences and our national identity is just one part.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I think being a translator helps a person develop a thick skin. Feedback and constructive criticism are part of the translating process and I’ve learned to not take them personally. It’s sometimes a bit more difficult for me when it’s my own writing but I’m getting better! A person can have a fantastic idea or write an amazing novel but they may be rejected not for merit but for timing. I know it doesn’t change the outcome (rejection), but if you want to keep producing and sharing what you do, you can’t take the hard times personally.

What do you think is the value of collaborations, artistic and otherwise?

I don’t think I could do what I do without collaborations! I’m a team player by nature and therefore I seek out others—whether it’s the living author of the novel I’m translating, other writers for feedback on what I’m writing myself, or another creative person who wants to brainstorm about a project.

I studied geography at university which intensified my natural inclinations toward seeing interconnections and reinforced, in my mind, the importance of interactions, systems and subsystems, and collaborations. In this sense, creative endeavours are, for me, no different from other undertakings: there’s an objective and through observation, reflection, discussion and sharing of opinions and experiences I aim to reach my goal. I know that there are some people who shy away from collaborations especially during the creative process–if that’s how they like to work, more power to them—but I honesty couldn’t live without creative exchange.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What do you think artists can do to help overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Diversify and be open to opportunities—I think it’s good advice in lots of different fields. For example, writing and literary translations are not very lucrative but other types of translations can pay more, or I know other translators who teach, or writers who write advertising copy. It makes me mad that creative output is seen as having a lower value than other sorts of production, or that because an artist is passionate about what they do then that should be payment in itself. However, I prefer to be creative about getting around the obstacles rather than sulking about them.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I like to think that I live creatively. By that I mean that I approach challenges with an open mind, I welcome new or unexpected solutions, and can adapt to what the world throws at me. Which really is not all that different from translating a novel or writing a short story…

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do they have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I think everyone has a responsibility to be true to themselves: some people are driven to manifest their sense of responsibility in a more public way, and others are more comfortable impacting in a much smaller sphere. Both are equally respectable. Artists, in the traditional and broadest sense, have the task of exploring and communicating emotions and helping people make sense of the world that surrounds us. Translators have the task of bridging two languages and cultures in such a way that they become somehow closer. The beauty of it all is that one person’s way of interpreting (as artist, translator, or what have you) is destined to connect with someone else’s sensitivities, either on a large or small scale.

Creativity: Musician & Composer Mario Evangelista

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Musician and Composer Mario Evangelista graduated in Musicology from Università degli Studi di Firenze, with particular interest in 20th century music. In 2013 he wrote ‘Teatri Nascosti – gesto, segno e drammaturgia nell’opera di Sylvano Bussotti‘ published by LoGisma about the composer Sylvano Bussotti. He was journalist for Music Jazz, an Italian monthly magazine specialising in Jazz, and Il Giornale della Musica, an Italian music magazine, among other publications. As a musician he has collaborated with many major Italian Jazz musicians such as Mauro Ottolini, Paolo FresuZeno De Rossi, Danilo Gallo, Dan Kinzelman, Enrico Terragnoli, and Peo Alfonsi, to name a few. He is founding member of music groups Riserva Moac and The Gutbuckets.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

The possibility of discovering new things is essentially what I like the most about being a musician, in particular that really beautiful moment in which everything seems to be aligned in a perfect situation and what you are playing or creating seems to be not done by you but just by superior forces. In a certain way you are not creating anything, you are a vehicle.
Thinking about that I don’t know if I have a forte. Maybe I can say it’s the ability to listen and incorporate different things and languages, like a sponge. A friend of mine said to me that my music is like boiling water, as soon as you can recognize something all of a sudden it disappears and you are watching many other things. That’s one of the best compliments that I’ve received in my life. Being fascinated by so many musical languages is a point of strength for me and also represents very well the world we are living in.
During the past years I played a lot of rock, ancient blues, traditional Irish music, jazz, post rock, fusion, southern rock, and also music from my personal heritage, the southern Italian tradition, which brings my interest into zampogna, the most famous Italian reed pipe. Now everything is well mixed inside my music, and I’m very proud of it.
What I’m searching for in other musicians is their ability to communicate. That simply don’t have nothing to do with technique, virtuosity or stuff like that. What I’m searching for is emotions communicated by a personal language. Obviously that implies a strong ethic sense when you play or compose. Everything as to be as real and pure as you can get.

AGO_0242 tones_1_1Photo by photographer Paolo Scarano.
When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

First of all the best thing to do is not to worry about that. Things can get really complicated if you feel the pressure. Usually these kind of moments are normal for musicians and artists of any kind. I try to not be too hard with myself because you are already in a very bad situation when you’re not achieving what you want, in terms of sound, technique or composition. On the other hand I try to listen to different things and put myself into different situations or even read different things or go for a little travel. Obviously seeing different things and put myself outside the comfort zone is the best remedy for me.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

The best way to maintain your self voice is not thinking about it. Simply you have to play and compose without pay attention about influences or stuff like that. You need to do a favour to yourself and free your mind by that kind of processes. Doing this I discovered that my music it’s been there since the first moment of my musician’s life but I was concentrated to much on recognising styles and influences that I was completely unaware of it. Social networks like Instagram for example are really good for me, because they push me every day to work on new ideas, styles and also push the endless research of sound that is one of the favourite parts of the job for me.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I never know how and when to use my creativity because I am my creativity! In a certain way I never imagined a life without the possibility of playing and studying music. Since I was 11, when I started, I decided to be a professional musician. Fortunately my family has been so supportive that I never felt uncomfortable with my ideas. They’ve always been like a strong fan club and they also keep me doing more and more, even if times are not suitable for a music career, especially in Italy. For sure the Italian approach to music is different from other places. Italian melodies and songs, especially traditional ones from the South, are all inside my brain but I like to think about myself as a musician not necessarily related to a tradition.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I can try to handle it but I fail every time. I start to feel really bad, I also start to judge myself in a very unkind way. Obviously it affects all my life, including family, friends or whatever. I have a physical need, and it’s practicing, composing, listening to music and thinking about it every day, every time. That’s no way to get out of this madness!

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

You have to think that everything you make can be loved or hated by everyone. The key about creating is being sure about the quality of your work. If you have done your best everyday is more difficult to be disappointed by negative feedbacks. It also depends on what’s the object of the critic, because every work, song, composition, album or project has different meanings.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Collaboration is the best thing you can do to enhance your creativity because other artists can really take you to the next level, because they have different point of views. Usually one of the best part of being a musician is to collaborate with other musicians and also to be involved in projects with different kind of persons. Personally I really like to create with filmmakers, because for me pictures and sounds have a strong relationship. Actually many of my composition are intended as movie for the ears, as Frank Zappa written inside the cover of his album Hot Rats, or simply as soundtracks with no shooting budget.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

For me it’s been an everyday problem, but I’ve tried to select every job that I’ve done with a close attention to quality, even if for a long time I was barely able to pay rent, bills or whatever. For many years I’ve travelled everywhere to play, I’ve also teached a lot, reaching the insane number of 25 students per week, but without being comfortable at all with the low amount of money that I was earning. Right now I started to teach in the Italian school. I choose the compromise. You are not free to get into a van and start to travel all over Europe for months but now with the school and the gigs I’m simply more relaxed. I am still running into a van going all over Italy and beyond but only in a specific period of the year.
Doing that means that I don’t have to worry about my bank account? If someone wants to start a musical career in Italy unfortunately I have to say that is quite impossible, unless your father is a very famous lawyer or you own a couple of houses for rent (and Firenze is a very good example about that topic). If you want to remain here just find yourself a regular job and play in your spare time. The best solution is to leave Italy and play in other countries. Here in Europe, Germany and Holland are really kind, respectful places for musicians.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being a musician preserve yourself from everything. It creates a sort of protective shield against all the bad things that you can experience. It also enriches your life in different kind of ways: you are always thinking about things and that make your brain strongly trained; it can be a very effective vehicle of socialization, being a solid instrument for building relationships with other human beings, at every level; it also makes you happier because you have goals, you have always different kind of projects to develop. For sure music helps you to be free from any preconception or any form of racism and prejudice, because music is only a matter of how, not a matter of what, and is also strongly meritocratic and democratic.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

Every human being havs a responsibility, that is obvious. As an artist you are even more responsible because your work is a constant message about your relationship with the world. Essentially your art form is a sort of representation of what the world should be or should work. If every artist could be as true as possible with people this will help everyone to create strong critical thinking, which is the best thing to decode the world. That is Art for me, in is purest incarnation. If you are thinking about how many seconds you need for a chorus and how many for your verse that’s not art for me, is simply the use of a technique that implies sounds. I feel like that every day, even if I can’t reach millions of people with my message but is really important to do the best.

Main photo by photographer Paolo Scarano.