The Play It Forward Experience

It was Friday, 16 July 2021. We were temporarily residing in a first-floor apartment in Tullamore while waiting for some much-needed renovations to be completed in our house. I remember that it was the middle of the heatwave, because I was watching Alison, our daughter, playing outside from the apartment window. Suddenly, my phone rang. I saw Damien Walshe’s name, the CEO of Independent Living Movement Ireland, flashing on the screen. My mind was cast back to the occasions where I’d applied for jobs with ILMI and he had the unenviable duty of ringing me, telling me that I hadn’t been successful.

So when I answered, and Damien asked, “Can you talk?” I’d already played out the spiel in my head: Don’t lose hope. Keep writing. You are good at what you do. In fact, I was so busy steeling myself against disappointment that I almost missed what he was actually saying to me.

“Did you just say that I’ve been chosen?”

“Yes! Well done, Sarah!”

I was flabbergasted. “Are you sure it’s not a mistake?”

This went on for quite some time, much to Damien’s exasperation I’m sure, but later that evening, an email from the gorgeous Nidhi confirmed the good news: I was an official Play It Forward fellow. More significantly in my head, I was a writer who had been awarded a bursary, a real bursary.

I’m sure many artists who apply for bursaries feel the same way I do. It wasn’t about financial gain for me (although I’ve never been known to refuse a few quid). Writers, like other artists, don’t pursue this kind of work because they have visions of rolling around in mountains of cash like J.K. Rowling. In terms of money, I don’t earn enough to keep food on the table or to afford anything remotely luxurious. Most people write alongside their day jobs. 

What being awarded a place on the inaugural “Play It Forward” programme did for me was it validated what I do on a daily basis. I’ve always been reluctant to use the word “writer” to describe myself. It feels a bit arrogant to be putting myself in the same category as the likes of Marian Keyes and Margaret Atwood. Yet, when I was awarded the place on the programme, suddenly I felt that I had permission to identify as a writer. 

It was strange, because in reality, my creative process has remained largely the same. I still endeavour to spend three to four hours at my laptop a day, churning out words, as I have done for the last seven years. The difference was now there was accountability. Suddenly there was no time to sit around daydreaming, because my mentor David Butler would be expecting to see approximately ten thousand words of my novel every couple of months. This forced me to pay closer attention to the words I put on the page, meaning that I have to produce the best quality work I can. Being on the Programme allowed me to write a small piece for the prestigious literary magazine, The Stinging Fly. It also enabled me to avail of a number of one-day online courses, as well as two longer ones: “Novel Writing” facilitated by David Butler and “The Confidence Booster” by Anne Tannam. I learned so much on these courses, and in fact we all enjoyed the Novel Writing one so much that when David’s teaching ended, we all came together and so the group continues to meet to discuss and critique each other’s work every two weeks under our new name “People’s Republic of Writing.”

Perhaps the most significant part of being a Play It Forward fellow was having the opportunity to read our works-in-progress at the West Cork Literary Festival. I remember when I was sent an overview of the programme last July and saw that we would be reading to a real-life audience, my first thought was “Okay Sarah, you have a year to try and think of an excuse to get out of this.” I’d never been to the Festival, but I’ve followed it on social media since I first started writing and thought of it as somewhere for established writers. Real writers. You know, writers who actually know what they’re doing. Published writers. Before I knew it, the day was upon me and instead of making excuses, I found myself in the car beside my husband, navigating our way to the beautiful Bantry.

We’d been holidaying in Trabolgan in East Cork, but it was still a two-hour drive. When we arrived in the hotel on Wednesday evening, we were both fit to collapse into bed. I was unpacking my bag when a white envelope caught my eye. It was sitting on the table and it had my name on it. Inside was a bookmark, a lanyard with “artist” written on it, and a copy of the programme for the week. My photograph was in it, alongside my other Play It Forward fellows, Gonchigkhand Byambaa, Neo Gilson, Sara Chudzik and Majed Mujed. There were also details of other events featuring authors including Lucy Caldwell, Louise O’Neill, E.R. Murray and Marianne Lee. The name dropping could go on and on. I only wished I could’ve stayed for the week!

A photo of a map of Bantry, a West Cork Literary Festival bookmark, a lanyard saying “West Cork Literary Festival – Artist” and the West Cork Literary Festival Programme Brochure

Finally, on Thursday 14 July 2022, almost a year to the day that I was offered my place on the Play It Forward programme, I was preparing to introduce “Rachel” to the world. Gráinne from Skein Press told me not to be nervous, that I was reading to friends. Usually I would have someone read on my behalf because of my speech impairment, but that wasn’t going to be accepted as an excuse to weasel out of reading! The words were behind me on the screen. As I read, I became Rachel. People laughed, which was such a relief. It was such a pleasure to hear my fellow writers read about their experiences of marginalisation and belonging. Stories of cultures combining, memories of home and family members, themes of difference and trying to fit in. I was in awe of the talent of my fellow writers, and I hope to see more of their work in the future.

In five months, the Play It Forward Programme will come to an end, but I will always be grateful for this wonderful journey. I would like to thank all at Skein Press, particularly Nidhi, Mahito, Grainne and Fionnuala; the Stinging Fly, particularly Declan Meade; my outstanding mentor David Butler; the Irish Writer’s Centre; Independent Living Movement Ireland and the West Cork Literary Festival for affording me this unique opportunity. I will never forget it as long as I live.


The Innocence of Anna

Yesterday, my dad called in and delivered an unexpected surprise: an old newspaper article from 2001, written by two of my Transition Year classmates about the performance of my play, Waiting for Anna, in the Sacred Heart School. The paper itself is now tatty, dog-eared and smells damp, but the memory of that period of my life is as clear and fresh as if I were seventeen years old again.


waiting for anna 30007

Aforementioned Article published in the Offaly Express, 5 May 2001


A year before, I was sixteen, getting ready  to sit my Junior Cert with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I hated study at the time (yes, believe it or not) and the prospect of going into fifth year made me feel sick.  So, in spite of the fact that I would be nineteen leaving school, a year older than 90% of my peers, I decided to do Transition Year and chill out. Little did I know that there’d be little chilling involved!

To get into Transition Year, there was an interview process. I was nervous and when it came to my turn, I was asked what skills I had to offer either by way of the Mini Company or other projects. Before the thought of writing a play had crossed my mind, the idea fell out of my mouth into the thoughts of Ms F, who was interviewing me to determine if I was a suitable TY candidate. Within twenty-four hours Ms H, the drama teacher, had sought me out and congratulated me on committing to write the TY play. It was madness. The only play I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, and I suppose Waiting for Anna does share similar themes: two teenagers falling in love against their parents’ wishes, running away to be together. Thankfully nobody dies; that’d be a tad extreme.

I set to work in the summer of 2000, spending all my time at the computer typing, composing, tittering to myself. I decided to have fun because I didn’t think anyone was ever going to actually read it, let alone play it out on stage. I got to know all the characters individually, each one based (and named after) someone I knew and loved. I laughed out loud, I sobbed into my chest. The first draft was completed on the 13 September 2000, at twenty pages long.

Writing Waiting for Anna was the most pure writing experience I’ve ever had. I had no perception of myself as a writer; it was just something I wrote. I never thought to edit or censor myself either, and all in all Ms H took very little out. Handing it over to be read by my classmates is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In the beginning, they  didn’t know I’d written it and felt free to pull parts of  the dialogue apart and make it their own, although these occurrences were rare. As the writer I was more than happy to walk away and leave my friends to their  own interpretations, but then Ms H insisted that I co-produce the play as well.

Anna consumed me. In many ways I became her. She was the unwitting victim of psychological and financial abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Tom, but this wasn’t a straightforward ‘good vs evil’ story. Tom’s life had been hard, whereas Anna came from a privileged background. Tom wasn’t evil; in fact he had a lot to be angry about: having to leave school early, losing his mother and bound to support his hapless, unemployed father. All he wanted was control over his life. And believe it or not, even though I wrote the bloody play, I can only understand Tom now, nearly sixteen years later.

And here I am, sixteen years later. trying to forge a career for myself in writing and finding myself envious of that confident seventeen year old who didn’t know any better. I miss her. She wasn’t self-conscious about every little thing that she wrote. She didn’t care who she offended as long as her message got out there. She would’ve had the confidence  to throw herself out there at the mercy of an unreliable audience.

She wouldn’t have hordes of short stories hidden away on her laptop, never to be read by anyone.

She would have finished her novel months ago without giving two flying figs how it would be received, if it made sense or if people would relate to the main character.

Some people become less self-conscious as they get older, but I seem to have become more so. A lot of it has to do with being a disabled parent, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve been told, both by people who know me and people who don’t, that their favourite blogs and stories of mine are ones where I share my own experiences. I do believe that the best writing has passion and personality and reveals a bit about the author, and yet doing so makes me nervous. Every time I press that ‘publish’ button up there, for a second I feel physically sick. Why do I do this to myself? What if I’m being annoying, repetitive, or coming across as self-righteous? Is it time to revisit the idea of getting a normal office job, and ignore the little voice that says I’m happier as a writer?

Obviously, owing to a lack of time-travel facilities, I’ll never be seventeen again, but hopefully that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn how to write again without the burden of self-consciousness.

As my friend used to say ‘what other people think of you is none of your business.’ Maybe, one day, I might fully agree with her.