“Poets are interested mostly in death and commas.”
‘At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance–that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be–curiosity–to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got it or not.’
– William Faulkner
To compare myself to the writer I was last September, I feel I have come a long way. Before I embarked on the MA in Writing at NUIG, my idea as to what constituted literary success was quite narrow. As William Falkner said, “At one time I thought the most important thing was talent.” I neither knew if I had it, nor did I have the confidence to believe I had it. But I always tried. I had various bits of work published and enjoyed surrounding myself with literary types. I was always writing something or other; always having ideas for poems and embryos of stories; always dreaming and thinking and imagining what it would be like to have “it”.
The minute I discovered the existence of the MA course in Writing at NUIG, that all changed. Here was a chance, I told myself, to train how to write successfully, to learn how to become talented. It was a notion I relished and, from the word go, I was hooked. I gathered everything I had ever written and published, both in Ireland and my native Albania, and with heavy file in hand, I travelled from Castlebar, County Mayo – where I had been living at the time – and knocked at the course director’s door. Despite my limited knowledge of English, our discussion went well. He gave me hope, allowing me to entertain the idea that I could do such an MA. So I applied, successfully, and subsequently started the course in September 2010.
There was a genius and a power in my boldness back then for it was at that time, as if by magic, that things started to change. A whole new world opened up before me. For years, I had been writing things but not finishing them. Embryos of many poems, short stories and plays, almost dying within me, were suddenly thrown a life line, given the oxygen they needed. New articles I wrote started to be published; dozens of them. I approached prestigious literary magazines such as Cyphers, with a view to publishing my work, and succeeded, something I would not have previously thought possible. The publishing house EMAL published my poetry collection, The Death of Night. And NUIG’s student newspaper SIN featured my articles.
But of course it was not ‘magic’ that brought about these achievements. Rather, it was the culmination of a lot of other things: intense creativity; hard work; sheer determination. Attending the workshops improved my editing skills no end. I learnt the importance of continuously drafting, writing, rewriting and editing some more. Or I learnt, as Faulkner said, “to try and to try until it comes right.” The workshops also taught me the value of taking time during this revising process. None of the draft stories I wrote during this course were particularly remarkable, but the final versions of them were.
Poetry is what I mainly write and the writing workshops afforded me the chance to write poems weekly and receive formal ‘poetry training’ and feedback. They also gave me the opportunity to work with other poets, rather than retreating into nature or addictive activities or suicidal despair, as poets are oft known to do. Poets are such rare, lonely creatures, I guess they need excuses to be around one another! Or as Carolyn Kizer puts it, “Poets are interested mostly in death and commas.”
But it wasn’t just poets I met. It was a year spent reading, writing, listening and meeting with many people from the world of literature. I met scores of people with writing degrees and was privileged to meet and talk with other writers fromIreland,America,Germany,FranceandItaly, all the while absorbing their influence and wisdom, as if by osmosis. This exposure enabled me to see how widely literary types differ (and helped me to realise why others sometimes find me annoying and stubborn). It helped me to see, too, that while my own background appears, to me, to be prosaic, it appears quite different to others. What I viewed as ordinary, others regarded as quirky. Once you are around other writers, you see how distinctive (and messy) each person’s rough drafts can be. And you discover it’s perfectly OK to write rubbish, as long as you edit brilliantly.
Editing, in particular, is where my tutors came in. They coaxed the best out of my early drafts, focusing on the kernel of potential and tactfully pointing out what was either unsuitable or unnecessary, without wounding my pride. They trained me to develop the “infinite patience” and “ruthless intolerance” Faulkner spoke about, “to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph”. They were kind in their constructive criticism and I am sincerely grateful to all of them for their skill in this fine art, namely: Eva Bourke (Poetry Workshop); Prof. Adrian Frazier (Non-Fiction, Reviewing Irish Theatre Now and Writers’ Seminar); Dr Riana O’Dwyer (Irish Playwrights Since 60’s); and Joe Woods (Crime Reporting and Feature Writing ). Thanks also to Dearbhla Mooney in her role as Academic Administrator.
And then there were my classmates. Throughout the year, I benefited from their knowledge, their varying styles and their friendship. It was an honour to get to know them all, not forgetting the MA Drama and MA Literature and Publishing students, who also served as a bank of inspiration and editing skill.
So the ‘academic’ side of the course – the training, the tutors, the classmates, the environment – all benefited me immensely. I must admit, too, that being able to say you have a Masters in Writing under your belt helps give you added kudos or credibility as a writer. But all that aside, the main thing I learnt from doing this MA is that, surprisingly, I don’t need an academic structure to force me to write. I can do it on my own.
For me, the urge to write is psychological; it is not something I do because I want to. I neither write for financial gain, nor for any other reason. I write because I have to. That is, simply, my motivation. Novelists may aspire to lavish rewards, but poets never do. At least I don’t; being rich and famous was never my raison d’etre. Studying for this MA has given me this insight, the insight that, according to Faulkner, is the “most important thing.” It has made me see why I do what I do. It has caused me “to wonder, to mull, and to muse.”
To compare myself to the writer I was last September, I feel a lot has changed. Having completed this MA in Writing, my ideas as to what constitutes literary success are more realistic. With my new-found insight, I now realise there is no cookie cutter formula when it comes to successful writing. Everyone has a different opinion; it’s a subjective thing. As Somerset Maugham famously once said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately no one can agree what they are.” Before this course, I often would compare myself to other writers and, in doing so, diminished my own achievements and abilities. But now Ihave grown in confidence and, by the same token, I am more secure in my uniqueness as a writer. I have started to grow my own voice. And because I am now, finally, aware of this, because I have acquired the “insight” Faulker refers to, I am no longer hung up on whether I have the prerequisite “talent” or not. I still don’t know whether I have “it”, or whether I don’t. But, either way, I now know it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.
As for the future, who knows? The personal encouragement and unfailing source of wisdom I have received from my tutors, classmates, friends, and all the literary types I have encountered on this course, will sustain me for some time to come. While it has been an enjoyable, eye-opening and rewarding journey, I understand it may be a difficult path ahead. But there is one thing I do know for certain; I know that, to paraphrase T S Eliot, I started with a bang. And I’m not going to finish on a whimper. As a writer, I have come a long way. And I’m going to keep on going.
(MA in Writing NUI,Galway, Ireland)