I am a writer. I am a novelist. I write fiction. Three statements of fact.
These facts carry in their wake three questions. Three little questions waiting to be answered.
Question Number One. WHAT do I write?
Anyone who has ever been even slightly interested in the art of writing will have heard a little gem of advice. Write about what you know.
You’ve probably heard it yourself. An oft repeated piece of advice for the aspiring writer. But is it always true? Is it the only approach? What about the use of your imagination? Surely there’s something to be said for allowing the imagination free rein, to go places where no one has gone before.
I’ve seen arguments for and against, the pros and cons. Those who make the case for write what you know will tell you your writing will read authentic when you write about the sort of characters you have come up against during your life plus those places you’ve visited and seen with your own eyes.
Above all you should be able to invest your writing with the emotional experiences you yourself or someone close to you has experienced.
On the other hand there are those who say let your imagination rip. But when you read what they’ve written what do you find? You find there’s a lot of imagination okay but there’s also a lot of real human nature in there as well.
So what’s my own approach?
I like to write about things I know and things that interest me. Matter of fact, I don’t know how I could write anything other than what I know. Plus it’s a lot easier that way. Someone I met or some situation I heard about. In my head I hear their voice. I visualise their mannerisms and listen to the sort of words and phrases they used.
It’s how I try to make my writing believable, authentic. And I’ve no doubt it’s the approach of most other writers.
And yet none of the characters in The Priest’s Wife actually existed. The most that can be said is that each of them is an amalgam of individuals I came across during my lifetime. And strangely, as the novel began to take shape, each of the three main characters took their own creation into their own hands. They took over the job and I was able to sit back and let them at it.
Yes, I wrote about what I knew. With a dose of imagination thrown into the mix. When I described life in a convent for example, or the experiences of Finbarr the young priest, I was drawing heavily on my memories of what it was like to be a seminarian, locked away from the outside world, preparing for the priesthood, something I narrowly avoided.
WHY do I write?
Why do I submit myself to the pain of sitting at my desk struggling to come up with an idea around which I can construct a three thousand word chapter? I could be doing all kinds of enjoyable things in my retirement years. I could be pottering outside in the garden where peace comes dripping slow. I could be immersed in a good novel, the sweat of some other author’s brow. In philosophical mode I could be solving the eternal problems of existence.
It’s hard to explain what it is that drives me to write. I think it’s something to do with the urge to create. Yes, that’s it! Be like God. Bring people into existence in order to make them suffer. Let them beg for deliverance. On the merest whim let them die or maybe spare them to suffer more. What power!
And of course there is always the language. I’ve always had this love affair with the English language. If I manage to bring into existence a phrase or sentence which allows me to sit back and say, yes, that’s good; I love the sound and the feel of that combination of words. When on the rare occasion that happens, then I am happy beyond belief and I think to myself that this is what makes it all worthwhile.
You want to know HOW I write?
I get up at six. The house is quiet. I hate to be interrupted when I’m immersed in that other world. I write for an hour or two before breakfast. Then back to the computer keyboard for another couple of hours.
For me it’s slow work. I have the very bad habit of reading back over what I wrote the previous day. Fatal. I find myself editing and rewriting. The experts tell me I should go all out to finish the first draft. That there’ll be lots of time to rewrite later. And, of course, they are right. I know they are right. It’s just me.
It’s advice I’m determined to follow in the making of the new novel I’ve just started and which is set in the early 1900s. Working title ‘1916.’
Any more questions?
PJ Connolly is author of The Priest’s Wife, a story of the insistent demands of religious devotion versus the weakness of the human spirit faced with the tug of sexual temptation.