I feel an utter fraud, talking about myself as a writer or pretending to have a writing life. After much upheaval I can at last concentrate on writing, but it seems I haven’t yet stretched myself into the space available. I need outside stimulation for inspiration, but lots of solitude to do any proper work. Physically isolated from others writing in English, I’m a bit of a Groucho Marx about clubs anyway. Of what might be called the ‘Elizabeth Strout school’ of writing, I tend to write bits and pieces and put them aside. Sometimes they coalesce into a longer story, sometimes a whole series suggests a book. I started with very short fiction, decades ago, so am comfortable in the new universe of flash fiction. It is not that I’m incapable of writing a long book from start to finish, it’s that I prefer to proceed by indirection. Lately the urge to invent stories has been perhaps less strong than the urge to understand… Perhaps I should have been a poet? A friend once told me he wasn’t able to read for ten years after we graduated. Maybe that’s what happened to poetry for me. I may try prose poems soon, but although I read lots of them, I’m still not sure what they are.
I can’t say my days are structured around writing, with the equivalent of a wife somewhere doing the cooking and shopping (my late husband loved to do all that), although writing is the ultimate goal of all my days, which non-writing and non-painting friends just don’t get. I try to eat and sleep at regular times, but if things are going well I occasionally find myself drawn back to work in the evening. Usually that means the following day is a ‘write-off’. Anticipation anxiety means any kind of appointment or disturbance can ruin the day for writing: I work best when I can see a stretch of weeks ahead without commitments. This tends to make me bearish about activities with even good friends, although I’m sometimes enticed out for a hike on the hills or the coast. I walk daily. City life is good for solitary observation of people. A brisk walk in Montpellier’s old town or outskirts works wonders: my local park has a herd of sheep. The shepherd lives in a caravan nearby. We passers-by stop and listen to the sheep bells. I read somewhere that these serve no other purpose than to keep the shepherd company.
This is the first time I’ve lived alone since I was a student, so I find myself ploughing around in the murk of my then Self for things that got left behind then and may need picking up again. Or not. It’s the first time I’m definitively rid of timetables and deadlines, so there is still no routine as such. I like getting an advance on the world at 5 a.m. Although this is the first time I’ve had a workroom that wasn’t also a bedroom to be vacated for visitors, I can work in bed on a laptop while drinking tea. Stage 2 involves ablutions and breakfast, after which everything could go wrong. When the day doesn’t feel right I go straight into admin activities, e.g. submissions. Current affairs in France and elsewhere swallow reading time too. When it gets to 40 degrees in summer, a siesta will be essential.
The short stories in my first collection (Plugging the Causal Breach, due in June from Regal House Publishing), set in France, were written in spaces stolen during years of teaching, translating, editing. There was no ‘writing habit’: I grabbed a story when I saw one floating by. Many floated away due to lack of time. I was shocked to find recently a tiny notebook I’d kept in primary school (I’m a hoarder too) which announced that writing would be my life. Now that it seems to have become my life, I’m still learning how I might create, have, organise, live with, a ‘writing day’. I realise I’m lucky and need to buck up, but decades of habit have left their traces.
So here I am, surrounded by potential: the books that survived culls donated to local libraries in Paris; dozens of notebooks I haven’t dared open; boxes of family, school, academic material kept for inspiration and still unexploited; cyber-files containing a long (Irish) novel, another written from the point of view of a political prisoner in Morocco (abandoned when Tahar Ben Jelloun came out with one of those); several abandoned novels and a monograph on the writing of Lawrence Durrell. Not to mention cyberfiles of scraps and fragments and ideas and scenes. These days I’m happier working on short fiction: I’ve always loved it. The time investment is lighter, especially later in life and far from the English-speaking world of publishing, agents, support groups. I have a collection of short fiction set in Morocco currently doing the rounds. If that found a home I might find it easier to embark on collating the Irish collection – who knows what protean monster that might become. An entirely different project may present itself. But first I must agonise about making a website, so more procrastination in view. Even writing these words has helped concentrate the mind a little.
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Postscript: No writing day is without its surprises, if today was anything to go by. I lost several hours due to a neighbour’s blocked drains: first bringing her down from orbit, then holding her hand with plumbers, manager, etc. Without intending it, I obviously give off the vibe of someone who’s good in a crisis…]
Mary Byrne [photo credit Didier BARTHÉLÉMY]: Grew up in Ireland, now lives in France. Short fiction published/broadcast in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand. Awards include Kore Press, Fiction International. Appeared in anthologies such as The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories and publications like The Irish Times, Prairie Schooner, Dalhousie Review, Transnational Literature. Debut short story collection set in France, upcoming mid-2019. Currently submitting a short fiction collection set in Morocco and embarking on another centred in Ireland. Loves philosophy, art, anything baroque. Tweets @BrigitteLOignon