Friday 12 January 2024


 “Any Irish person who’s not writing a memoir is a feckin’ eejit.” Frank McCourt was heard to proclaim when Angela’s Ashes became a bestseller.

But how to begin, says you.

Anywhere but the beginning! “My name is Paddy Murphy and I was born in Ballydehob…” has been done to death.

However, if you insist on first things first, then try something like, “If the midwife back in Ballydehob hadn’t dropped me on me bloody head, then this would be a far different story.”

In any literary effort, be it memoir, play, novel, short story or even some scabrous lines scribbled on a bathroom wall, it’s not how or where you start that matters, but that you begin at all.

Many years ago, after an abysmal attempt at writing a first novel, I read a simple statement by an anonymous Greek dramatist. “Out of character comes story!”

Thus was I saved from the ignominy of typing Chapter One at the top of an empty page and praying like hell for a way forward.

No, instead I wrote down the first thing that came to mind about the hero of my next epic - nothing had to be in sequence, just a litany of facts, musings, observations, the majority of which I never used. It didn’t matter – the more I shoveled from my brain onto the page, the clearer my character became.

I began to see this person in ways I had never imagined. Soon other characters appeared, and I devoted the same granular attention to each. 

The sharper their outlines became, the more I realized I had never put much thought into those around me. Oh, I noticed their obvious attributes and foibles, but being a callow youth, I’d never delved much below the surface. 

And although I’d grown up around strong women and admired their grace and courage, it was as if they inhabited a world of their own. Suddenly, the women characters in my story came much more into focus, and life in general became richer.

The DNA of my story slowly began to emerge. Don’t rush this process - stories need time to marinate. Keep your eyes locked on your characters and before you know it, they’ll be interacting like old friends – or bitter enemies.

When that happens, it’s time to take a long warm bath in the darkness to allow your story to wash over you. Assuming you don’t drown, the hour has come to get the main events of your epic down on paper.

Number and name them. These ideas will provide the seeds of your chapters and a road map, as it were.

Then decide which of your characters’ aspirations and actions fit within these chapters. 

Don’t worry if some character resists your placement; this rebel may cause a surprise twist in a later chapter - a valuable asset in any story.

Take heart!  Although, you have much wrestling and desperate days ahead of you, you’re definitely on your way.

Remember that writing has much to do with rewrites and editing. Don’t become too attached to old ideas, for better ones may be on the way; and, for God’s sake, be careful about soliciting, or even worse taking advice. 

This is your story; you need to make your own mistakes – that’s the only way you’ll really learn. In other words, you Paddy Murphy are a star in the making, and the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue! 

This might sound egotistical – and it’s better you don’t trumpet it about - but it’s one of the keys to survival and ultimate growth.

By all means read your story aloud to some empathetic people – Irish American Writers & Artists salons are a wonderful, non-competitive resource in New York City where you can meet and chew the fat with fellow workers of the word.

But writing is a solitary business, paranoia and despair are always lurking.

On the other hand, you’ll never be bored or lonely again. Your characters will soon be teeming around in your brain driving you to drink and distraction. 

Your friends may worry about the new faraway look in your eyes, but as you belly-up to the bar, rest assured you and your characters will take up the same amount of space as a James Joyce, an Edna O’Brien or even the dashing, debonair Frank McCourt who continues to inspire.

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