At the West Cork literary festival


That was one of the best weeks of my life. I went to Bantry for the Short Story Workshop with David Means. It’s hard to summarise the five two-hour sessions in a few words. David is a great writer and it was worth the journey just to get a sense of what makes him tick, what he looks for in writing, and to spend time going over issues around short story writing and reading. His great enthusiasm for vivacity in language was a recurring theme, just the way that words can transport the reader, and referring to “Dreaming by the Book” (Elaine Scarey) how words can give us more of a three-dimensional image than we can achieve by sheer imagination. (Try to imagine the face of someone you know – it tends to be a two-dimensional image.) Primal words (chair, bed, sky… etc) have colossal power. We read and talked about the following stories: “Popular Mechanics” by Raymond Carver, “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov, “Steady Hands at Seattle General” by Denis Johnson, “The Bucket Rider” by Franz Kafka, and “Pretty mouth and green my eyes” by J. D. Salinger. David was generous with his time, agreeing to read whatever any of us wanted him to look at overnight and gave us individual feedback. Each participant brought copies of one story that they wished to work on during the week, and we discussed a couple of them each day. The one I put forward was called The Silver Circle, and I got a load of interesting ideas to help solve what I felt were the problems with it. I have a couple of handouts here that we got, but I guess those are really David’s copyright stuff, but I will quote a little bit from one of them titled, “English 205 [David lectures at Vassar] A Few Things”:

9) Bring to the story your own moral and political agenda; your own sociological biases and of course your own tastes and desires in your reading habits (do not discard these things but allow them to strengthen in your reading; on the other hand–and this is somewhat paradoxical and certainly contradictory in that wonderful way we must have to approach art–discard everything you believe, take the opposite side.)

10) Always be aware of the evocation, the power of words, and the way tone produces feeling in you (the reader); never forget the power of primal words, and the abiding power that often arises from simplicity (or complexity that has been pared down to its simplest form.) ….


13) Never forget where you’re from, who you are, and what you will eventually stand for as a human.

14) Forget about the above (13), be dark, forget who you are, attempt to find some central truth in what you describe.

Over the five days, I recall (with the aid of some sketchy notes) we looked at:

– The process of writing – how different writers go about it – pre-writing, writing and revision. The place of the short story between the panorama of the novel and the moments of the poem. When writing feels impossible, maybe narrow the window, look at something smaller.

– Characterisation – writing in the voice of a teenager for example. That was an exercise we were given. How characters come to life when action is added, as opposed to purely descriptive writing. Describing somebody without introducing any actions produces a lifeless, uninteresting scene when compared to describing the same person performing some action.

– Setting – conjuring the sense of place, that is central to the sense of vivacity particularly in David Means’s own stories. Another exercise, to describe a place and somebody in some sort of a situation, probably dramatic. How the same place looks different depending on who is looking, and in what circumstances.

– The power of primal words, and the mythic, folk tales and the silence that speaks volumes. You don’t have to say much, the reader is drawn in by the power of words, as in The Bucket-Rider by Kafka for example. We hardly question the fact that the the narrator in The Bucket-Rider bounces down the stairs on an empty bucket, holding it by the handle and that it is so light it then floats up into the air, carrying him to the merchant to beg for coal. The words take us there without much ado by the writer. Rather more elaboration would merely detract from the evocation.

– Allowing ourselves to write and not holding back. On several occasions, David commented that some of us were “holding back.” He cautioned against holding back information in an attempt to create mystery for example.

In his own writing he has taken this to the extreme of adding parentethic explanations and footnotes, clarifying what the narrative is saying. In his interview with Powell’s (link above) he says that he is not fond of the post-modern games that some writers play, “except perhaps Borges.” He was able to pinpoint the part of a story for some of us, where he felt we “really started writing.” Sadly for me – or rather usefully for me – this was not until several pages into “Joseph” – a draft I gave him of the opening of a story in the first person. The part where he felt I started writing was a section starting with I hate the noise of drills in the morning. How are we supposed to sleep?. The rest he felt was in a non-fiction style, and he “wanted his fiction.” That is just a part of the feedback during the week.

The group in the workshop comprised several Americans, one English, and the rest Irish. There were 15 of us. Three of the group were shortlisted for the Fish Publishing short story prize, and had their stories in the anthology this year. Some of the work was of a high standard, and some of the participants were experienced writers.

As well as the short story and other workshops, there were free readings every day in the town library, from the likes of Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Johnston, David Means too, Paul Williams (author of The General), Malachy Doyle (children’s author), Tony Curtis (there is more than one, but this is the Dublin one with four books of poetry and a load of credits to his name), Mick Delap, and Ian Wild (has to be heard to be believed, a very funny writer and reader with a loud dramatic style.) I attended Roddy Doyle’s seminar on the novel too, and asked him what drove him, as he hardly needed the money – I guessed, he denied – was it to leave a legacy, or a historical document? We’d already heard that he was an atheist and did not believe in any afterlife. He said he was a socialist, former member of the short-lived Socialist Labour Party splinter from the Irish Labour Party, and that what drove him was the possibility of improving conditions for people, such as battered wives and others.

He said that people in America and other places tended to be disappointed when they met him and discovered that he was not a drunken Irish writer on the lines of a Brendan Behan, and while they were out being Irish and getting drunk, he was busily being German and writing efficiently. He said he once tried writing after coming in from a night out drinking, and it didn’t work. One gathered that he has a very stern opinion of drunkenness generally, and that might go some way to explaining his work in The Woman who Walked into Doors, etc. In his reading he read ten chapters without seeming to pause for breath, and held people’s interest all the way, and really had us banjaxed with laughter in the end. He read from a work-in-progress that is being written in 800-word sections (a serial) in a Dublin periodical. He said he doesn’t know in advance what’s going to happen, and that in one episode a character went upstairs to get a tennis racket and completely disappeared – he’d forgotten about him. It’s a science-fiction piece – his first – set in 2005, and has such funny little aspects as a street in Dublin called Trimble Street, mentioning the collapse of the Euro etc. (Too much use of “etc” – note to myself.) It concerns a test for Irishness that the government of the future wants to introduce. The minister tells the protagonist who is developing the test (which involves putting sensors on people and making them watch videos) that he is being given the task of making it seem easier to become Irish, while actually making it harder. It’s very funny.

As well as readings, there were book launches – a good chance to get free booze and sandwiches, but also very good to meet publishers and authors. For example at the launch of A West Cork Life by Tina Pisco, I met the publisher (or one of the main guys) from Random Animals press, John Noonan. He also designed the cover of the book. It was good fun, and John and another guy got their guitars out and gave us a session. Tina Pisco’s experiences with her bestseller, Paper Moon, were very enlightening. It has been translated into several languages, gone through 11 reprints and all that but she is in litigation trying to get money owed to her. They also put a cover she didn’t like on the book, that fitted it in a genre she felt was too limiting.

The best part of the festival was probably meeting people in the evenings, by the simple device of having a designated bar (in the Bantry Bay Hotel) as the Literary Festival meeting place, and having one or other of the organisers on hand every evening to field any questions, or just for a drink or dinner. On the last evening, David Means was present with his wife and two twin children, and so were Tony Curtis, Paul Williams and attendees from the poetry workshop and others. With the kids, obviously David couldn’t stay too late. He told me to keep working, as we shook hands, and I told him it was much more important that he keep working. His wife indicated that he hadn’t much choice about that. There was some saying of poems, and even a bit of singing later when some of us adjourned to the Hideaway Bar (in another hotel nearby) where we stayed till after 2 a.m. before the bar lady told us she wanted to get some sleep. I inflicted a couple of my masterpieces on the group, but thankfully we were blessed with some real poems from Tony Curtis.

I hope that gives you some flavour of what the week was like. It was my first experience of a literary festival, and it has whetted my appetite for more. Maybe next year I will go to Listowel, a bigger neighbour of the West Cork festival, or Hay on Wye here in Britain. I should not forget the Chamber Music Festival which was also on, and we were able to hear some of the rehearsals distantly from a room not far from the one where our short story workshop was in progress. I went to a late night performance of Gorecki’s 2nd string quartet “quasi una Fantasia” by the Silesian string quartet, which was one of the highlights of my week. I thought, this is it, either everything is meaningless and rubbish, or this is one of the greatest things that life has to offer. You simply could not argue with the piece and the performance – it was brilliant.

Some of the recommended reading from the short story workshop:
The Lonely Voice – by Frank O’Connor
Dreaming by the Book – Elaine Scarry
Bird by Bird – by Anne Lamott
Writers Workshop – by Steven Koch
On Writing – by Stephen King
Island – by Alistair MacLeod

By the way, one of the participants was from Chimera Review (currently seeking submissions.)

As a result of exercises during the week, I got a couple or three new stories started, which I will bore you with another time.