The Writing Job and the Thoughtful Obsessive

I’m not really working on my thesis at the moment. I’m back in Northern Ireland for Christmas and since I’ve handed in a chapter draft, and my suitcase can’t fit many books, I’m taking a break… sort of.

I found this quote on writing (fiction), which struck a lot of chords with me since most of the past term has been spent thinking about writing.

“Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.”— Sarah Waters.

Writing may be a job, but in many ways it is more than simply producing 500/1000/5000 words a day. Even though I’m technically on a break, I’m reading some Irish women’s fiction (because god forbid I should allow my mind to stray or become polluted). I’m also reading a critical book for review. And I’ve been floating some thoughts around in my head both for my next chapter plan and noted some changes I need to make to the draft I’ve just submitted. I’m making notes on one book I did bring home, and before I get back I’ll need to make a start on a conference paper, plus possibly submit an abstract for something else. I’ve also been finalizing the CFP for an event I’m running on contemporary women’s poetry in Oxford in 2012.

If writing is a job, thesis writing is more like an obsession.

Building Up, Digging Down and Bringing it Forward

Much of my thinking for my doctoral thesis centres around the unstable concepts of tradition and gender. Yet since my writers are all so contemporary, I’ve been wondering recently about new ways to consider the purpose of my work in building, consolidating or interrupting the traditions the work presumes.

Much of the work available in Irish studies (and elsewhere else) in recent decades focuses on recovering dismissed writers. One critic puts it like this:

‘In the final quarter of the twentieth century […] the literary canon has itself been transformed, with the (formerly) non-canonical at times acquiring a greater cachet than the canonical.’

David Johnson, The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature, 1940-2000 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 201.

I don’t disagree with this, and no one could argue that this kind of work is not stimulating, challenging and necessary. Another work I was reading recently set out a mission statement from the outset;

‘It is the occulted comic voices of women that this work represents, bringing them back to disturb and interrupt the writing of the Irish canon’.

Theresa O’Connor, The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers (Gainsville: The University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 2.

Which again, is all very well and good. However, as someone who works on contemporary literature I feel my own work is set apart from this kind of study. My work isn’t about bringing them back, really, if anything it is about bringing them forward.

Perhaps that is a way of thinking about contemporary literary criticism; excavation of literary tradition is of course very important but that sticking your head in the sands of time would only ignore the new literature currently being built around us and perhaps permit it to perpetuate the problems we are only now recognizing in the past. We need to build up as well as dig down.

Why Influence?

As I’ve noted before, my thesis plan in the my first year of research has come to circle almost obsessively round the ideas of ‘tradition’, and the inter-related term ‘influence’. These two quotes below are useful to me in that they indicate some of the reasons why the study of inter-generational poetic influence in Northern Irish writing is so fascinating and fruitful.

‘No word comes easier of oftener to the critic’s pen than the word influence, and no vaguer notion can be found among all vague notions that compose the phantom armory of aesthetics. Yet there is nothing in the critical field that should be of greater philosophical interest or prove more rewarding to analysis than the progressive modification of one mind by the work of another’

Paul Valéry, ‘Letter about Mallarme’ in Leonardo, Poe, Mallarme trans. by Malcolm Cowley and James R. Lawler (1972), 241-2.

‘applications [of the term “influence”] include the impact of climate, locale, historical events, literary movements and conventions, social and cultural traditions, and individual writers or works; its forms include borrowings, forgeries, debts, and literary aftermaths, side-effects, and residues of many other kinds.’

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3.

Tradition, Patriarchy and Irish Poetry

More and more, my thesis is coming circling around the issue of tradition and influence for women poets coming from a well established male lineage. There are lots of debates in there – do I take Harold Bloom’s (patriarchal) framework for intra-poetic relationships or Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist (but in places a little flimsy) framework? Can the two differing views be applied together?

Yeats is the poster boy for every other study of influence. After all, he preempted it himself by writing ‘Irish poets, learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’. Yet, I can’t say I really see the generational transmission so clearly for women poets.

Where I find useful direction in Irish studies, I find the feminist critical view isn’t compatible. For example one text states:

‘In a small country as Ireland with what must necessarily be a tiny literary culture, individual voices are bound to crowd upon one another and the issue of influence may be more immediate than in the broader and more heterogeneous literary circles of Britain and America’
Terence Brown and Gerald Dawe, Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry (1989)

This point is fair, yet nowhere in the text is gender considered. No women poets are looked at and their absence isn’t noted. It is implied that the question of influence and tradition are very male affairs. The question, then, is how to address it now.

Yeats is where tradition comes from, apparently.

Gnomes with cousins

I’ve finished The Anxiety of Influence, with a bit of relief because I need to be getting on with my writing sample. However, to prove how entertaining/bonkers/bewildering literary criticism at its best can be, here is a short excerpt.

The God of poets is not Apollo, who lives in the rhythm of recurrence, but the bald gnome Error, who lives at the back of a cave; and skulks forth only at irregular intervals, to feast upon the mighty dead, in the dark of the moon. Error’s little cousins, Swerve and Completion, never come into his cave, but they harbor dim memories of having been born there, and they live in the half-apprehension that they will rest at last by coming home to the cave to die.

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, p. 78.

In other news, I’ve had an abstract accepted for the Oxford postgraduate conference, ‘The Famed and the Forgotten’, in June. I’ll be speaking female absence in Northern Irish poetry pre-1995, which was the subject I spent most of last term working on.


This is apparently the cover of a book about gnomes by Wil Huygen.

What We Look Like

‘it is ourselves we want to express, and the truth in us; and a glance at the shape of Ulster writing over the past fifty years can help us to discover what we look like.’

Barbara Hunter and Roy McFadden, ‘Introduction’, Rann, 20 (1953), p. 1.

Where are the women poets?

‘”Where are the women poets?” asks […] Frank Ormsby, “Reviewers will latch on to that and repeat it ad nauseam. In my more splenetic moments I think: ‘If you think there are all these women poets, then you do an anthology of women’s poetry and see how far you get. If you get to 10 pages you’d be lucky.”‘

John O’Mahony, ‘Troubles In Mind; Literary life in Northern Ireland seems to be flourishing as never before’, The Guardian, 7 July 1993, p. 4.

‘”be a soldier!” says the nun / To the woman after giving birth’

Padraic Fiacc is probably the most under-rated of the Heaney generation of Northern Irish poets. To prove my point, this is the first few lines of ‘Soldiers’:

The altar boy marches up the altar steps.
The priest marches down. ‘Get up now
And be a solider!’ says the nun
To the woman after giving birth, ‘Get up now
And march, march: Be a man!’

And the men are men and the women are men
And the children are men!


Tonight I emailed my draft of chapter two off – so now I can sit tight and wait for comments on that.

Something I touched on this chapter is the use of place names – and this is something that provokes a lot of notice in criticism of Welsh writing. It leads me nicely to my next chapter which is provisionally titled ‘Beyond Wales’ – where I hope to stop chasing the tail of language politics at last.

Craig Y Foelallt, Llandewi BrefiCraig Y Foelallt

‘From Craig y Foelallt I can see it all’
Gwyneth Lewis, ‘Welsh Espionage X’

Bangor Pier, Wales

Bangor Pier, Wales

‘The wind on Bangor Pier draws tears
to my eyes as I tread out along each plank’
Gwyneth Lewis, ‘The Pier’

Why minority languages are important to people other than those who speak them

As usual, Lewis clarifies my thoughts better than I can.

I’ve been conscious throughout my research that a Northern Irish person who doesn’t speak Welsh and is thus incapable of accessing half the influences and inferences in Welsh writing in English may be an inadequate critic. This has been exacerbated by my bewilderment in reading signs around Aberystwyth which are in Welsh, then English – a momentary feeling of foreignness in a town that doesn’t feel far removed from my coastal upbringing in Bangor, Co. Down.

‘Well, we’re all obsessed with language. But what I have been trying to do is explore why minority languages are important to people other than those who speak them. Because I think they show us the nature of language in an extreme situation. I think what can be learned from the decline of the Welsh language is not a minority issue, it’s actually a language issue.’
Kathryn Gray, ‘Gwyneth Lewis in America’, New Welsh Review, 70 (2005), pp. 8-13 (p. 12).[Emphasis mine]

Very true.

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