I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.
I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.
The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.
Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.
After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.
Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.
I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.
Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.
After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.
Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.
We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.
After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.
Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.
We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.
WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.
Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.
Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”
The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs. There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.
The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.
It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.
His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.
He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.
I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.
I’ll keep you updated, as always.