“Seamus Who? (meaning Heaney)”

Everyday counts. There’s nothing that doesn’t matter, or can be discounted. Everything is relevant. And yet: the need to be detached suggests that searching for meaning in the depths of our concerns may be a waste of time, as well as psychologically destabilising. The search for meaning has driven many’s the person stark raving mad.

I realised the other day that a huge amount of my thinking processes are about writing – ideas, threads of ideas, things I hear or read. And the other remaining bit has to do with reading, that’s reading as only a writer reads, if you get my drift. I spend my life testing words and trying them out, a bit like clothes. I observe other writers’ techniques, or I diss the stuff I think is pretentious tripe, and marvel that it ever got into print. But all the time I am observing. I can’t help it at this stage of my life. The great thing with words is that you can afford them, whereas with clothes you sometimes can’t. You can afford all the risky enterprise of thinking about language and the tool of communication most of us utilise so easily, cavalierly, thoughtlessly every single day: words.

So perhaps I’m saying to myself that every day and every moment of every day counts for me, because I’m getting older. There are fewer years than more. But like all fiction writers especially, I believe that the next novel will be one I’ve always wanted to write. There’s something quite Kierkegaardian about this kind of thought pattern. I continue to leap in faith. I am entirely faithful to the notion that within me lies the deep-core construction material – the experience, the skills, and the tools – to build another book. There’s nothing unreliable about this thinking either. For a twelve-book writer like myself, it is built into my core at this stage, it’s part of my blood and being, and really all I know I should be doing.

But that brings me again back to detachment. The reason why? I met a Canadian woman recently who hadn’t ever heard of Alice Munro. LIke, she had not heard of the woman who wrote the luminous “Runaway”, which won the Giller Prize, or the much earlier “Lives of Girls and Women”? And even worse for me as an Irishwoman, last year I met an Irishman who asked me in all seriousness, ‘Seamus Who?’ (meaning Heaney), followed by ‘Who’s he?’.    So the message is, as the French would say, ‘Soit calme’ (verb probably mis-spelt, but you get my drift), rise above it, recognise that all our realities are not so huge as we imagine. Yet despite that recognition, the possibility of completion, wholeness, and the making of the perfect artistic object most artists dream of pursuing, remains valid.

Ignorance is not blissful in the least, despite the adage, and cultural disconnection – which admittedly can’t always be helped for all the usual socio-economic reasons (and yes, I do happen to think the best art happens in ‘middle-class’ or financially secure circumstances, much as one would wish it to be otherwise) – is like a planetary disease that makes people, literally, unwell. If you cannot look at a piece of non-representational art, for example, without proclaiming indignantly, ‘A child could do that!’, or if you can’t read a few lines of a literary story without remarking that it’s ‘too heavy’ and ‘intellectual’, then we’re all in trouble as artists. The artful produce the equivalent of a Big Mac for those who prefer Big Macs, but the artists produce something else, which cannot be taught, or picked up on a weekend course, because artists believe in inspiration and the muse act of entering a different reality, where the usual laws of daily obligation go out the window. Seamus ‘Who?’ Heaney did not win a Nobel Prize for Literature by being a part-time poet. He gave it his all. His life. A life of craft and art dancing together, weightlessly . . .

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