“So this is where the magic happens…”

It was the first thought to pass through my mind in what felt like a very long time.  Even I was taken back by the satirical tone of my subconscious self.

I had just been brought to my senses by a muddy cascade of water, the result of an inconsiderate taxi driver and a large pavement-side puddle.  My already sodden clothes now clung to my skin, and an army of goose pimples began to rise to attention, grizzled by their rude awakening.

It was a grey and damp February morning and I had found myself at a loose end in the backstreets of Dublin.  I had exhausted the city’s Writer’s Museum – or rather, it had exhausted me – and had spent the last hour wandering aimlessly down unknown streets, where redbrick houses huddled together under an opaque veil of drizzle.

I smiled at the song which had begun to play on my iPod:

“Oh I go out for a walk, to see if there’s news,

the rain on the path leaking into me shoes…”

It was a song called ‘Same oul Town’ by Irish band, The Saw Doctors.  I chuckled at the appropriateness of its timing, and yet the moment was also tinged with sadness.  This song had always struck a chord with me.  Mostly, the band are known for their upbeat numbers and cheeky lyrics.  This one was different; it was slower, more heartfelt.  The singer, Davy Carton, takes us on a journey through the village of his childhood, and describes his frustration with small-town life;

 

“Same oul places, same oul streets,

Same oul people is all you meet…

Same oul heartache, lost and found,

Same oul story, same oul town…”

I watched as the Dubliners passed by, their coats buttoned up to their chins, each sharing the same expression of grim determination as they battled against the elements to get to wherever it was they were going.  I wondered if they too were sick and tired of their same oul town.  I wondered if maybe we all were.  After all, I had come here to get away from mine.

So why, you may wonder, had I chosen to visit Ireland in February of all months? On the surface, the answer was simple; I had come here with a friend for a long and somewhat boozy weekend.  Sadly, I had since lost her to the clutches of an Irish man, and I realised as I strolled the edge of the Liffey that I must have cut a fairly sorry figure – my hair a mass of wet ringlets, my skin still grey from the previous night’s alcohol consumption.

In reality though, I was quite enjoying the solitude; it gave me the opportunity to confront the real motive behind my trip.  The truth was, I needed this.  The last couple of months had been frustrating to say the least.  I had found myself at a crossroads in life, rooted to the spot by my own doubts and insecurities, and with a crippling case of writer’s block.

For those of you who don’t write, this might not sound like a genuine affliction.  For those who do, I’m sure you will understand.  As a writer, the ability to get words down on paper is your bread and butter.  It’s your means of income, but it’s more than that; it’s a release.  It’s necessary.  It’s your identity.  Take that away and you’re stuffed.

Nobody really knows why writer’s block occurs.  There have been plenty of studies on the issue over time, and equally plenty of theories which have emerged.  Some say that it’s a medical issue, that the cerebral cortex of the brain stops functioning as it should, meaning that your creative impulses are literally blocked.  Others argue that it’s down to your general happiness and emotional wellbeing.  I suppose it makes sense; if you have things on your mind, it’s hard to be productive at all, let alone creative.

For me it was probably a bit of both.  I had no doubt that my brain was not functioning as it should, yet I was also aware that there were a number of extenuating factors in my life which could be contributing to this.  It had not been the easiest few months.  I had come out of a long term relationship and was only just beginning to come to terms with the emotional complexities that come with being on your own.  My living circumstances were in a state of flux.  My career had reached a hiatus.  I was living in constant fear of the fact that I was twenty five and have had achieved little in my quarter of a century on this planet other than memorising the entire Thriller dance from start to finish which, don’t get me wrong, is still quite an achievement, but not quite the sort of thing that one might win the Nobel prize for.

So yes, I was feeling a little distracted.

The decision to visit Dublin was not just one of convenience or chance.  There was method to my madness.  Yes, I had come here for Guinness; I had also come for inspiration.  The city is known for its literary connections, and was home to some of my favourite writers, from poets like Yeats and Beckett to novelists like Joyce, and of course, the man himself, Oscar Wilde.

I grew up with their literature.  I had studied them at university.  I had followed their tracks through the Parisian Latin Quarter and had come here now with the vain hope that perhaps by walking in their footsteps, I might take some influence from the city they had once called home.  Sadly, my efforts so far had been a little thin on the ground, and I had barely made it further than Temple Bar.  I could practically hear the words of Patrick Kavanagh ringing in my ears:

“Young writers should keep out of the pubs and remember that the cliche way of the artistic life is a lie.”

Today, alone and adrift, I was determined to visit some of the city’s literary sights.  I had ambled through the cobbled lanes of Trinity College.  I had sipped coffee in Davy Byrne’s bar, where James Joyce was once a regular.  I had stood outside the gates of the Gate Theatre, where Orson Welles once trod the boards and had read private letters between the city’s great poets, encased forever behind the glass displays of the Writer’s Museum.  And still, I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated.

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It wasn’t that I was disappointed with the city’s literary treasures.  Anything but.  What it had done, however, was stir up feelings of my own inadequacy. 

The truth is, it’s hard to make money as a freelance writer, and it’s exhausting.  You pour your heart and soul into an article, spend days – perhaps weeks – researching and preparing it, and have to resign yourself to the fact that it may never be read beyond your own (very supportive) friends and family.  You put all your energy into pitches, then send them on to ten editors only to hear back from one if you’re lucky.  When you do get commissioned for a piece, it can take months before you see it in print and twice as long before you get paid.  You look for feedback that few have time to give and apply for positions that you’re always just that little bit too inexperienced for.  You learn to accept silence as rejection and rejection as the norm.  You learn very quickly that the odds are against you.

So why bother?  It’s a question I began to ponder that very day as I walked what felt like the entire length of the river.

Gazing into the cold grey water of the Liffey, I was taken back to a day two years before, when I had found myself in similar spirits as I walked the Water of Leith in my home city of Edinburgh.  That day marked a pretty significant moment in my life; it was the day I decided to quit teaching.

Not many people are even aware that I trained to become a teacher.  It’s not something I talk about often.  To cut a long story short, it was the wrong path for me.  I was 23, newly graduated, and had placed enormous pressure on myself to have a ‘proper’ career.  I felt that after four years of funded study, followed by an amazing but albeit rather cushy gap year travelling the world, I owed it to myself and to society to do something productive and meaningful.  Teaching seemed like an obvious choice; I was good with language, creative and loved working with young people.  I felt as though I had a lot to offer.  The only thing missing was the passion.

I tried for the best part of a year to fake it.  I copied others, I studied hard, I listened to the advice I was given.  I got most of the way through my PGDE and worked hard over two placements to get the best possible feedback and still it wasn’t enough.  I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an imposter.  There I was, trying to instil a love of literature into a new generation, when all I wanted was to be out there creating that literature myself. I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to write, and yet that terrified me.  I was so close to achieving financial stability, and here I was, wanting to gamble it all on a profession that had no guarantees and a very slim success rate.

And so I worked, and I studied, and I did my best to maintain my composure until one day I just couldn’t.  During my final placement the cracks began to show.  I was emotionally and physically drained and had been unable to sleep for weeks.  I had developed a twitch in my right eye and was suffering from regular and prolonged panic attacks.  I spent every day going back and forth in my mind about what I should do, my thoughts playing a vicious game of ping-pong inside my skull.  I flitted between wanting to quit and not wanting to quit, hating myself for not being content, but also for not having the courage to follow my ambitions.

In the end, all it took was a simple question from my mentor, a mere “How are you finding things?”, to tip me over the edge.  I broke down and told her everything.

The following week, I quit.

On the day that I made my final decision, I simply didn’t turn up to my placement.  I had prepared all my teaching materials for the week, had put on my smart work clothes, and never made it out of my front door.

“Fuck protocol”, I decided, as I fired off an email to my course director, effectively handing in my withdrawal.  Immediately, she tried to get me to reconsider.  Naturally, I told her where to go.

That afternoon, instead of delivering my s2 lesson on metaphors and similes, I switched off my phone and headed to the furthest point of my city to a part I had never been, and began a walk I had never done before.

I learned two things that day:

One, the Water of Leith is beautiful.  You should go there.

Two, courage feels good.

1978727_10152003802901347_268403905_nI can distinctly remember it being the beginning of Spring in Edinburgh, and feeling a new sense of life in the city as Scotland began to wake up from its long, wintry slumber.  The snowdrops had begun to emerge along the river banks and the sun splintered across the water like thousands of golden shards.  I had never felt so free.

Though the weather may not have been the same that day in Dublin, the walk along the river had brought those feelings back.  I remembered what I had given up to write.  I remembered why it was important not to stop.  The wind was biting and it stung my cheeks.  It snagged upon the surface of the water, which in turn began to swirl and dance.  Suddenly the Liffey was alive, and so was I.

Around me, the people of Dublin passed by, completely unaware of what their city had awoken in me.  They stared straight ahead, their surroundings so familiar that they barely warranted a second look.  I thought back to the Saw Doctors song, and wondered why it was that we become so disillusioned with the everyday world around us.  Did these people even notice the beauty of their own city?  Probably not.

I looked across the water to the townhouses and remembered a passage from Joyce’s A Little Cloud, where the central character (a man named Little Chandler, who, conveniently enough, wants to be a writer too) looks out across the town:

“There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away.  You could do nothing in Dublin…he looked down the river towards the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses.  They seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the river banks, their old coats covered with dust and soot, stupefied by the panorama of sunset and waiting for the first chill of night to bid them arise, shake themselves and be gone.”

It’s only a wee excerpt, but I think it’s amazing how in so few words Joyce manages not only to capture the character of the townhouses, but also to make something beautiful out of something so ordinary.  It gives me hope.  It reminds me that I don’t have to travel to the furthest corners of the world and back to find stories (though, of course, that can be fun too!).  It reminds me that you can take inspiration from even the simplest of things, be it a view across a canyon or a moment of epiphany on the banks of a foreign river.

I’m going to be a little less hard on myself.  It’s not always easy to write, but the words are there.  They’ll come out eventually (I say this with confidence – it’s taken me two months to write this article).  Sometimes you just have to clear your mind a little, and if all else fails, there’s nothing like a blustery morning in Ireland to blow away the cobwebs.  And your map, if you’re not careful.  True story.

And so ends the story of how a little old city helped me find my words.  In return, I shall leave you with the words of one of its finest;

“We are all in the gutter, 

but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde

 

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About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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