Sometimes (okay, most days if I’m honest), I find myself asking why bother. Why writing? Why not an office job, a nine to five with a steady income and job security? On days when I have to drag the words out of my head kicking and screaming, I end up on job vacancy websites, sobbing into my laptop as once again self-doubt, in all its cruel and soul-destroying glory, sneaks in again and does a happy dance in my stomach.
This happened again last night, when I had so much to do and couldn’t settle. I scrolled through the Word document that will be a novel some day (I’m trying the power of positive thinking starting….now) and I watched helplessly as the words seemed to merge into one big blob. I have to walk away when that happens. The temptation to end the struggle once and for all using just two buttons, delete and enter, is much too great when I’m in a panicky, confused state of mind.
But I digress. I got to thinking why I wanted to write in the first place. Louise O’Neill, award-winning author of Only Ever Yours and Asking for It (and, as far as I remember, sat in a few tutorials with me in Trinity- her and Ken Mooney are my claims to fame) credits Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (now a major TV series) for igniting her need to write. Incidentally, I’m a Louise fan too, and in particular Asking for It raises some serious questions about how we perpetuate rape culture and how we need to exonerate the victim of responsibility. After all, you wouldn’t ever say that a murder victim was partly responsible for their own demise, would you?
I’m an Atwood fan too, though the book that changed my life was Cat’s Eye, a novel detailing the complexity of female friendship, the far-reaching consequences of emotional abuse by a loved one and the struggle of trying to live with regret. Atwood is the master of description, and in Elaine she created a complex character who is a product of her past and her regrets. In fact, if I think about it, this is what I’m trying to portray in my character as well.
Another book that changed my life was the text I read for my Junior Cert, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harpur Lee. I had read widely up to that point, mainly for pleasure, and Mockingbird was the first time that I considered that a novel could be a vehicle of promoting activism. Lee’s depiction of the inherent segregation of people in the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama and the widespread normalisation of discrimination, demonization even, made me feel cold. As a child narrator, Scout is taught both directly and indirectly, to judge people based on their differences, and yet Lee offers hope to the narrator. Yes, the innocent Tom Robinson, convicted of the rape of Mayella Ewell, is wrongfully convicted and later killed for trying to escape prison, but Scout learns to recognise humanity. In the touching scene where she meets the childlike Boo Radley for the first time, we learn that it is our perception of others that creates divide and not our tangible differences.
I still have nightmares about this last book (by no means the last book to have influenced my writing, but nobody will read a 4000-odd word blog about it), George Orwell’s 1984. Like any good dystopian novel, the world of 1984 is not too far from the world we live in now. It’s a world in which the inhabitants’ thoughts are not really their own, where there are cameras everywhere, even in private homes, and where news stories are rewritten to suit the agenda of the State and the real facts are chucked into a ‘memory hole’. Winston, an ordinary working class bloke, starts to question the oppressive regime under which he lives. He lives in a world where he cannot trust anyone, where he is not even allowed the privacy of his own thoughts. The reason why I had nightmares about this book is because Winston is beaten into submission when he is placed in a room of rats. Loyalty means nothing in 1984, and neither does friendship or compassion. You think and do what you are told to think and do.
Sometimes I wonder whether I’d really be able to write a novel that would have the same impact on others as these three have had on me. Yet that little annoying voice inside says that I have to keep trying, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s better to have tried and failed than never tried at all. Right?!