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.
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.