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Truth To Tell


“If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to hurt somebody,” said Charles McQuaid of ‘The New Yorker’. “And when that time comes, you go ahead and do it.”

I recently completed teaching a fifteen-week creative-writing course in Conway Education Centre and had a really enjoyable time. The students were all mature, from different walks of life and brought their own individual experiences to the discussions and the writing projects.

The class was very intimate and, I hope no one takes offence at the analogy, shared, I imagine, the type of confidentiality of a typical AA meeting. Not that we knew each other’s first names only, but when the door closed we entered our own world where we talked about the source of creativity, where we got our ideas, and how we raided the lives of loved ones and acquaintances, stole identities and dug deep into the wells of our own memories. Any time a visitor called in or a BIFHE representative to monitor progress the atmosphere would subtly change as if we were on our guard against prying strangers.

Not everyone in the class subscribed to the idea that authors were privileged or had the right to serve up their own secret thoughts and fantasies and the indiscretions of family and friends either disguised in fiction or roasted on the spit of biography.

I pointed out that in my last book, ‘Then The Walls Came Down’, I had published personal letters from my partner without her permission. One member of the class, Liam, thought that that was unethical and I don’t think I ever persuaded him of the necessity for a measure of ruthlessness if it meant being honest and getting to the heart of feeling and an understanding of life and what makes us tick.

Over the months we often returned to this subject. Did Frank McCourt really need to say what he said about his family and the people of Limerick in ‘Angela’s Ashes’? Would Alan Clark’s ‘Diaries’ have been as fascinating without his candid comments on the sexuality of power? Was John Mortimer right in revealing in his play the extremely private life of his mother?

Down the ages writers themselves  do not agree on the issue. Goethe wrote: “If one wants to leave something worthwhile to posterity, it must be confessions; one must show oneself as an individual, with all one’s thoughts and opinions.” But Tennyson regarded biography as a violation of the sanctities of private life. Hemingway said, “I did not think that a man should make money out of his father shooting himself nor out of his mother who drove him to it.”

The English novelist David Lodge wrote: “If, gentle reader, you don’t wish the most private moments of your life to become the object of interested scrutiny by future generations, you would do well not to become a great writer, or have anything to do with one.”

Yes, my friends, I have files on everyone of you!

Some of my class have already been published and broadcast and one member is, courageously, writing a very open autobiography and is grappling with those very problems of truth, discretion and privacy.

We had interesting discussions and a great time during the readings. We covered the short story, the novel, biography, play- and screen-writing, criticism and reviewing, journalism (the best of which relies on creative writing) and, of course, poetry. I consider myself lucky to have been surrounded by such talent because I read books for a living and I know how much rubbish gets passed and packaged as ‘outstanding’ work. One of our best poets was Pat McDermott from Springhill whose work was often funny, subversive or enigmatic. But rather than end with one of his lighter pieces (a meditation about a German-speaking, green dog on stilts!) here is a thoughtful piece about the first time.

My Dear Charlene

And did he break the spell my dear Charlene?
While in the grass and flower blooms you lay
And did he take away that fragile dream?
And turn the world a deeper shade of grey
And did you think of all the world you knew
which vanished in the second now just past
And did you see the sky no longer blue
But made blue, by some natural cause or cast
And did you think on walking back again
No longer hand in hand but side by side
That what you lost was more than what you gained
And could you understand why they had lied.

You listened to the story like the rest
But now you see t’was only spoke in jest.