Clicks (or how flowers fought for life in the graveyard)

I’ve decided to write a follow-up piece to How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war, a blog post I made recently about the current state of journalism in this alternative-fact, clickbait era. In the post, I argued the evolution of journalism can be compared to the landmarks moments of 20th-century military history. Today, inspired by a number of polls I ran on twitter about my own writing, I want to show you the graveyard those wars have left us.

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Perhaps the most liberating thing about writing in the 21st-century is that we have a platform to do it from. The most restrictive thing, on the other hand, is that we’re all struggling to share it. The metrics of running a blog are views, visitors, followers, numbers reached across social media platforms etc. The eyes of the reader become a sort of currency, a few gold coins that we’ll draw swords and pour blood over if needs be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say blogging is cut-throat, but there’s no room in the graveyard for names easily forgotten, no space in its garden for flowers afraid to bloom. It’s a bit Shawshank in that respect.

Get busy living or get busy dying

You might consider that quote a bit of a paradox. After all, a cemetery is home to a great many dead things. Even so, there’s life in these worn headstones, breath in these knotted grasses. A graveyard is a place where people are remembered, not forgotten, and nothing remembered can ever truly die. Writing, as a craft, is broadly similar.

Much of the day in, day out blogging you see from your smartphones is an homage to the words of those gone before us, a silent prayer to the greats buried deep. Their work has fed ours, as sure as soil feeds a garden, and we slender flowers rise to guard their final resting place. If that joyous sentiment was all there was to it, then blogging would be ever-spring. The problem, however, is that we’re not the only ones here in the grasses.

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Part of running a blog is acknowledging its limitations, the cap the world places on its growth. The first flower rising is often cut by the wind. Many blogs bring a new concept to the world only to see those behind, watching and learning from their mistakes, shoot past them and reap summer glory. It’s the risk that comes with innovation, with trying to punch through the frost.

Many more blogs, latching onto the light, fall into the trap of the seasons, the belief in the eternity of the high-shining sun. But reader taste is as fickle as the hand that flicks the pages of summer, and if ill-equipped come the whisper of autumn, even the most beautiful blogs are laid to rest with a shrug of the shoulders. Often, a few words are read at their graveside about the nature of fads.

Life in the garden also means growing under the shadow of trees, those blogs so dizzyingly tall that they must dare to scrape at the sky. In Ireland, these branched giants ply their trade in areas such as fashion, makeup artistry, activism, and tech. They are the “influencers”, the writers whose words seemingly matter so much that those visiting the graveyard will stake claims on their survival. And whether or not us flowers beneath them think their evergreen coats impressive, these aged trees are affecting us, tunneling their roots deep into the earth of society, determining the extent of our growth.

The battleground at the surface is so pock-marked and close-quarter that at first, we do not notice the weeds.

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The greatest threat life faces in the graveyard is the economics of life itself. Food, water, sunlight. Perhaps a scrap of land to call home. That’s all anything really needs here to take root among the crumbling stones. But while flowers juggle these requirements with great difficulty, weeds have mastered the art of it. Their aim is not to flourish, of course, just to grow. But in life, growth is enough. These are the blogs, facebook pages etc that know traffic is what counts (if your entire revenue is ads especially), and are only too happy to sacrifice quality on the altar they’ve fashioned from a headstone. These blogs add nothing to the conversation, to the diversity of life in the garden. They simply want a click, to draw you to their page as a spider does a fly to its web. People rarely leave these sites satisfied with what they’ve read, but unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to pull the weeds up once they’ve gripped firm. LadBible, Benchwarmers, TheLiberal.ie. There are many species of weeds, their tactics all roughly the same.

I, like many other bloggers, hope they’re a flower in the garden, though that is no easy task. It means the hard road to summer, and oftentimes the sure hand of death in the winter. It means contending with the swift-choking weeds and the long-reaching trees, even if only to one day feel the light slip through the branches, warm our face for only a moment.

But it’s honest. It’s head-down, hone-your-craft honest. It’s giving readers what they deserve, not what a clickbait headline sells them.

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Above all, it’s honouring those in the garden. We flowers are the watchfires, the timid little things that shiver against the onrushing night. But instead of dying, we continue to burn, to stand guard, to remember. We continue to live among the fallen.

And if the names faded from these gravestones could whisper, perhaps that’s what they’d ask for.

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Mist Rock-Chapter 1-At Summer’s End (excerpt)

I’ve decided to post more details about Mist Rock and the world I’ve been working on here on this blog, feeding you pieces of the project for the foreseeable future. Today, that comes in the form of an excerpt.

Writing a novel can be a little daunting, not least because it has to start somewhere. For me, I tried several openings. Some of them started with action, others with lengthy narrative, others again with simple dialogue. Each of these had their merits, the only common ground between them the immediate introduction of the main character. I settled on a Prologue/Chapter 1 combination in the end. I felt it gave the reader the best chance to fall into the story, to wake up in the world of Mist Rock as though it were normal. Below, I’ve pasted a portion of Chapter 1, which follows Marke Calin on the last day of summer. Hope you enjoy!

A fresh breeze breathed life into the red banners hung limp over the gatehouse of Mist Rock. In the Frost Garden, petals drifted to the dirt, leaving the last of the summer growth naked in the dawn. The final patrons of the Long Shadow Inn stumbled out into the morning while beyond, the first rays of light slipped over the east wall and licked up the streets, kicking the city from its slumber. The sound of distant birdsong, the smell of roasting meat and the feel of late summer heat on the skin.

Marke sensed it all from his doorstep on Winden Street and sighed. The early embers of the fire, a sight he’d quick become used to. He’d spent weeks now wrestling with his decision about the academy. But today summer came to an end. By the time the last flame went out tonight, he would need an answer.

One of his fingers picked at a patch of old paint on the doorframe, the crust giving way with ease. He gazed out over the terraces towards the west wall, where far-off spear tips propped up and down on the battlements, guards shaking off the blue blood of the night’s cold. Raising an arm, he shielded his eyes from the red-gold light on the rooftops, saw only shadows where once there’d been men.

And I have to decide whether I’ll become one of them.

In the yard alongside his house, a horse snorted, stamped its hooves in the dirt.

“I’m coming,” he said, grabbing the sack at his feet. “Can’t I enjoy one last sunrise in peace?”

Marke circled round to the back of the house, edged open the gate into the yard. It was nothing more than a small patch of earth between their home and Ms. Redmin’s, a dusty field where they kept their horses. He smiled as Dawnbreaker trudged out of the barn to meet him, the white socks of her feet brown from where her hooves had sprayed dirt. Bowing her head, breathing warm on his face, she rubbed her nose at his shoulder.

“Yeah it’s good to see you again too,” Marke said, emptying the sack of grain into a trough. “Now go on,” he added. “At least one of us should eat a good breakfast.”

Dawnbreaker neighed and stooped to her meal, as idly Marke brushed his hand down her flank. Across the yard, the rope that used to hold Ms. Redmin’s horse lay loose in the dirt. It had been sitting like that for weeks, its charge presumably still returning from Greatbay. He frowned. The horse’s saddle would now be empty.

Alongside him, Dawnbreaker lapped up water, her muscles flexing as she quenched her thirst. He stared at the liquid sloshing about in the trough. It had been a long, quiet summer in the capital. The heat had been nothing short of relentless, the air as dry as the Sarsaril Desert-if the traders were to be believed, of course. And with no storms in the Mistlands, Marke struggled to remember the taste after rain, the shake of his bones from the cold. He’d nearly started to believe it would continue forever, but those who worshipped the stars pointed to signs in the sky, warned that soon winter would be upon them.

Marke risked another glance at the house opposite. Trembling on a plate on the windowsill, a single red light waved back at him, a candle exhausted from its work overnight. He was pulling his gaze away, when from out of the corner of his eye, the smallest sign of movement stopped him. He gulped.

“Good morning Ms. Redmin,” he called, peering into the shadows at his neighbour, his heart sinking low in his chest. The thin woman in the window ignored him, pinched the wick of the failing candle then with a shaky hand slid another one to take its place. Meeting his eyes for the briefest moment, she pursed her lips and vanished into the depths of the house. At his side, Marke felt Dawnbreaker nudge him.

“I didn’t mean to upset her,” he whispered, his eyes fixed on the white slender candle.

The horse threw back her head and snorted.

“Yeah. I worry about her too,” he said.

In the window, the little yellow flame bounced on its wick, swelled against the crisp morning air.

I wish just this once hope like that could mean something, Marke thought, pulling his cloak fast round his shoulders.

It had been nearly two moons since the news of Erek’s death, yet each day the hurt only pressed nearer, a thorn sliding into his heart. Marke had been returning from the market with his mother when he saw Ms. Redmin collapse into the arms of a guardsman, who stood speechless clutching a letter. That had been the last time she’d left the house, only opening the door to let in close friends since. Letting few people in had always been in her nature. Her husband had abandoned her before Marke was born; Erek had been their only child. And so as the visits of Winden Street residents died out, Ms. Redmin was left alone, her last remaining company her grief.

Marke stirred from his thoughts as the gate knocked behind him. He turned to see his sister trudging towards him, her dark hair tied in a plait down her back, her blue dress hanging low at her ankles. She placed her hands on her hips when she reached him.

“Mother said I’d find you out here. You know, it’s not normal to whisper to horses.”

Marke shrugged. “In the Narelands it is. I heard they can talk to them as though they were men.”

Nadia arched an eyebrow, “Slowly then,” she said, grinning as she crossed her arms. Her smile faded as she followed his gaze to the window. “I’m sorry. I know Dawnbreaker’s been there for you since Erek passed. Maybe more than your own sister has been.”

Marke’s hand instinctively found her shoulder. “You know that’s not true. Even when I’m out in the fields beyond the wall, my heart is here at home. I think it always will be.”

Nadia regarded him curiously. “I thought you made your decision last night.”

Marke turned away from her. “I did. Then…..I unmade it. I just-I just need time.” He swallowed.

Time was the one thing Marke didn’t have. The days had slipped by since Erek had left, weeks melting away after word of his death. And when he’d heard they hadn’t recovered a body, years seemed lost in a heartbeat. Marke’s mother told him Ms. Redmin took that especially hard. In the Mistlands, burials were an ancient rite, a custom those in the south hadn’t observed for centuries. But Greatbay was now Erek’s grave, the waters off of Amarin his final resting place. The letter said he was killed in a sea battle near the coast, saptor ships falling on them before they could muster. Raids out of Varen weren’t uncommon, but Erek had sailed with the Kraken fleet, making his murder a declaration of war, another threat to their empty throne.

“Why are you up so early anyway?” Marke said, pushing thoughts of the decision from his mind.

Nadia tapped the bag slung round her shoulder. “I have classes in the Arches again. I like to get there early so I get a good seat.”

Marke sighed. “You know, they’re only compulsory until you’re eleven.”

Nadia narrowed her eyes. Scarce thirteen years to her name, his younger sister carried herself as though she were a queen.

“It might surprise you to learn I like those classes. It’s not often someone from Winden Street does. Some teachers begged me to continue. Even Mr. Overs says I’m the brightest pupil he has, and he doesn’t like anybody. Besides, mother said she’s going to put my name in again for work in the citadel.”

Marke forced a smile. His sister had applied twice already to practice as a scribe. Both times she’d been denied. The last rejection letter had come in spring, filled with the same vague excuses as the first one.

“How can I be too young?” Nadia had shouted as she tore up the parchment.

Marke’s mother offered her a sympathetic smile. “It’s the way of the courts, little bird. One day you’ll understand. Lord Christopher said to apply again next year.”

“What’s the point?” Nadia said, her eyes filling with tears. “In a few moons I’ll still be young, poor and worse off because I’m a girl.”

Her father had been in the room at the time. He’d slammed the door as he returned to his workshop, and for a whole moon, Marke had never seen him work so hard.

“Well we all can’t be great heroes, can we?” Nadia teased, easing Marke’s hand off her shoulder. “That being said, this time of mid-morning is ever so dangerous. If only I had a brave knight to escort me to my classes,” she said in a faint voice, passing a hand to her forehead.

Marke watched Dawnbreaker return to her stall.  He rolled his eyes as he turned to his sister. “Fine. I’m heading uphill anyway.”

The pair of them shuffled out of the yard, Marke fixing the gate shut as they left. “You know, that tongue of yours is going to get you into trouble one of these days,” he said.

Nadia took a deep breath. “Funny. I always imagine it getting me out of it.”

Mist Rock

When I was eighteen, I stood on a hill above the town of Ballyheigue, Kerry, and paused to look through a hedgerow. Far-off below there were houses, a beach, a row of mountains and a dark ocean meeting them. It was august; there was a cold wind pressed hard against me. Above, the clouds struggled across the sky, bloated with the promise of rain.

I stared at the mountains yawning over me and thought of the crown that they wore. Their peaks, so mysterious, knifed the blue-grey ceiling, disappeared from view as though to another world. And there, for a moment, that world was all my mind saw. A pale woman. A bright sword. Snow, blood, poison. A winter storm and a cloaked figure in it. A fortress ruined by time. 

To stop short of melodramatic, I kinda ran home to write it down. I didn’t even know what the idea was but thousands of words came with it. I kept them all, stored them, tried in vain to make some sense of them. It would be another two years before I sat down with it again, finding it by chance on an old laptop. That same night, I decided to start this very blog. Perhaps it’s fitting they one day met again.

The scene I saw in the hedgerow later became the first chapter of this novel, which for now is called Rise of the Exiles. It’s the first installment of Mist Rock, a fantasy series that all spiraled out of those five seconds on that hill in North Kerry. Of course that vision, six years old this summer, now has words to run with it.

Yet here he was now, his eyes as distant as a white winter sun, his smile as foreign as a strange summer flower. She could nearly pretend they were elsewhere and those features might have made sense, might have drawn her to kiss him, to love him, to know him as she knew herself. But they weren’t. They were in the depths of the forsaken mountains, breathing blue cold, waiting for her to die.

Over the next year or so, I’m hoping to edit the completed first draft, sending it out for feedback with the aim of deriving something worth publication. Yes, that is obviously a big ask, but the dreams we chase probably should be. Regardless of how it turns out, I’m currently just very excited to share this with you!

I’ll leave you with a map of this new world, a synopsis of the story and a quote from it that you can take with you 🙂

An empty throne is the best time for a war, they say.

 Farelia Aelia, Queen of Kraken, has been dead for nearly twenty years. The country she left behind, ruled by a council in Mist Rock, teeters on the brink of destruction. Saptors, a reptilian race long banished, look hungrily to their borders, as armies of Varen gather with them. Among these rebels, two claim a right to the crown.

 In Mist Rock, Marke Calin has his eyes set on a place in the Golden Lance Academy, a school that trains guards of the realm. His father was once a student there, though half the city now thinks he’s a murderer. But soon tension with classmates and exam struggles are the least of his worries; it seems the enemy has far greater plans for him.

 The dark corridors of the academy are not as empty as they look. Shadows are growing longer, students are being stalked, guards are sleeping in fear.  Something was lost with Farelia Aelia seventeen years ago.

 It appears the Exiles have come to find it.

You believe in a cause. Now give people cause to believe in you.

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How journalism lost the battle, how journalism lost the war

William never really liked the term “British Intelligence”.

He sits at his desk and watches the monitor flicker. On a field of blue, two red dots are edging closer, the little lights certain to meet. Around him, the Yanks are shouting, pressing alarms as they slam down their phones. He turns back to his computer and tries to ignore them-tries to forget why the whole room is in chaos. Blinking, it seems as though the Russian ship has stopped moving. William rubs his eyes, pushes himself close to the screen. The ship, one bright drop in a dark ocean, freezes for only a moment, just long enough for a sigh of relief.  But then, even as that breath comes, it’s off again, knifing through the water towards Cuba. At this rate, it will be less than an hour until they’re forced to take counter-measures. War games, much like chess, tend to happen with such sobering speed.

William looks at the picture on his desk, a black-and-white shot taken twenty years previous. The three men are sitting there: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. The last had his hat off, his legs crossed, his eyes pressed to the floor. The Tehran Conference. Hadn’t they decided to storm France that day? William feels they had. In fact, he’s sure they made a great many decisions, determined what pawns would be sacrificed.

He brings his attention back to the screen and frowns. Yes, he really did hate the term “British Intelligence”.

I’ve decided to write about journalism today, more specifically about the death of it. Even so, I’d like to start by focusing on the positives, acknowledging that it’s not all quite doom and gloom just yet. We’re at a cliff-edge, to be sure, but we might still be able to climb down, remember the precipice as only a reality-check. After all, the top of the mountain is what we aspired to, and if this is indeed the summit, there’s no use only dreading the fall.

Journalism has come a long way from the few-copy newspapers of the 1700s. Recently, its transition to the digital landscape has made for some amazing strides forward. Now, journalism is not only instant, it’s ubiquitous. Anybody with a smartphone can break a story, debate world issues, be a voice for the people around them. Where before our interpretation of events was filtered, stirred and flavoured as to how we might like it, now we’re brewing coffee ourselves, sipping-happy before “big media” has even pulled out a cup. When bombs rained down on Palestine, the world knew. The evidence was all over Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. It came right from the very source, live, and when the heart of that story beat we listened. With the internet, the news is always pumping, a constant lub-dub tap of fingers. We’re taking pictures at every angle, analysing, debating future history on a scale of millions. Digital journalism has become the great equaliser, a platform for professionals and journeymen alike. The online community is now our ultimate conversation, the great pinnacle of human interaction. We’re talking, we’re shouting, we’re screaming. Marching on Washington online. Interestingly, we’re still being heard. Because now businesses and governments both can’t ignore us. There’s money in this new journalism. And whether or not it’s healthy-whether or not you like it, this journalism is shaping public opinion.

William looks at the only other photo on his desk. In it, his eyes, fixed in a younger face, stare back at him unmoving. Perhaps they don’t recognise him. Alongside his younger self stands Peter. Well, not Peter-Piotr. Simple, smiling Polish Peter. In the background are a pair of Spitfires, their brilliant colours lost to the camera, the heat of that British summer day gone with them. That’s our only photo together, William realises. The Few. That’s what they called us. The room grows as loud as an engine, voices roaring in his ear.

Two weeks after the happy little moment in the photo was captured, they’d gone up against the germans again. The Luftwaffe: Hitler’s well-behaved boys, who’d gotten bored of lighting up ships and factories and instead turned their attention to cities, to people. Break their moral. Hit them where it hurts”. That was what the high-command wanted, and so day and night the waves of bombers lapped up over the British coast.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. William had those words in his ears when he climbed into the cockpit. Shakespeare-at a time like this! Mad. Fitting.

They met the Messers and those Jabos just outside of London, English fighters screaming across the sky, lions leaping at their prey. Black clouds and black wind. When the lions bore their teeth, they chewed off a wing or two, sent metal drops of fire into the countryside below. They must have looked awfully funny from the ground, the RAF, flying in V’s like King George’s ducks. Was that what the children thought the Blitz was-a squabble, a great mess? Those of them that weren’t in tunnels pointed to the wrecks, listened for bombs, watched tracer fire light up the sky. Guy Fawke’s every night of the summer.

The morning after the dogfight, William found out Peter had gone down with his ship. Almost British of him. A boy had found him in a field, face down, maybe still smiling. “Look Mummy, that Pole got covered in Red.”

In London, William tried to find Betty. Maybe she wasn’t at home, he thought, when he saw her house had blown half way into the street. They’d been courting for a year: dinners, walks, the occasional trip to the cinema. And oh-my was there talk of marriage. Now he saw her mouse-brown shoes sticking out of the rubble, a scene like the Wizard of Oz. She’d loved that one, talked about the fields of poppies all the way home.

William later found out Hitler liked it too.

‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’

Perhaps the first sign of the shift in the world of journalism was the tabloid. It isn’t a modern phenomenon. Not really. They’ve been around for quite some time. A condensed version of the news, often geared for the masses. Is that really such a dangerous concept?

The battle began in earnest when these papers challenged the grip broadsheets had on the news. After all, they’d already conceded to radio, television etc. If they were to lose on their own soil, were they really a news empire to be reckoned with at all? Tabloids, outside of their physical and read-easy convenience, gave people a side of the news broadsheets had for decades shunned away from. There’s a lot of money to be made in gossip, scandal and the shiny world of celebrity culture. Tabloids fed off that, made an arsenal out of human emotion. It wasn’t long until they felt bold enough to challenge the status quo. They cast the first stone, moved before broadsheets could stop them. It came to a head about twenty years ago, one great battle to establish a victor. For broadsheets, it may have been their Waterloo. Instead, it was their Trafalgar. Their Kursk, their Midway. Their Stalingrad.

The movement of news to online platforms gave broadsheets the much-needed jolt they were looking for. They might not have had a copy in everyone’s hands, but their words were getting out there nonetheless. They were surviving, making key moves to close out the war. Enigma broken, tabloids followed but lost all their ground. They certainly looked feeble on D-Day.

On the screen, William watches the dot come to a halt. Is it stopping, or is the computer slow to keep up? He thinks of the cogs turning in the Russian war machine and wonders can they match the pace. Once, he’d hoped the wheels would turn faster, back when the USSR had been allies, back when they’d been friends. You come from the east, we’ll come from the west. Hadn’t that been the way of it?

He remembers that day in the boat, his stomach rolling inside of him. The nausea of flying had never been that bad. They were off the French coast, backs to the white walls of England, bobbing towards Normandy. William the Conquerer, come again, sent back the other way to France-that was how he felt as he sat there. They must have made quite a sight for a German boy with his binoculars. A thousand ships, the ghost of a fleet setting sail for Troy. Wilhelm would have a Luger in his shaky hand. Which way would he point it?

They hit the beach with dawn, landing on the Gold sand, sweeping over the German lines as though they were high tide. They had at least expected a welcome party. Over at Omaha, the Yanks were damming up the English Channel with their dead. The Germans there must have had British ancestors. A proper good way to greet guests.

William sat on the beach after with the others. From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.

More Henry V.

William remembered smiling about it. Shakespeare, his namesake, must have known a thing or two about writing.

Once the move to an online platform had been made, journalism lost a run of itself. Now that everyone had access, whole armies of writers swarmed over the internet with blogs and forums and start-up magazines. I’m counted among them. The sad reality of being a part of it is that it’s hard to be heard anymore, one voice lost among thousands. Very few people at all will ever read this, too busy with the rest of the noise. The more dilute our information becomes, the less impact it has. Perhaps the integrity associated with journalism is gone. It’s drowning in a sea of click-bait articles, viral videos and facebook-rants-of-that-fella-down-the-road-who-thinks-he-knows-Enda-Kenny’s-thought-process. The amount journalists invest in pieces nowadays is measured in puddles, not oceans. It’s not about what you write; it’s about how you promote it, how you get a response out of as many people as possible. You want their likes, their views, their retweets. Their emotions are sort of desirable, so long as you get the traffic.

But in a world of political instability, increasing levels of hatred, declining mental health, melting ice caps and “alternative facts”, the importance of clear, accurate information is paramount. We don’t have the luxury of wasting away a day on LadBible anymore. The time to stand up and be counted is upon us. The hallmark moments of our generation are here.

*sigh*

Perhaps I’m just afraid we’re moving too fast, generating information that we just can’t handle anymore.

After all, if too few of us reach the enemy lines, we’ll hardly make an impression at all.

William smiles. The Russian ship is turning around, heading home, leaving them safe for another day. Perhaps they aren’t all that bad, those communists. He keeps that thought to himself. He feels an outsider enough as it is.

His father said in the First World War the Commies gave the Germans a lesson. Meanwhile, he added, they were stuck in French fields, going nowhere.

“I lost my hearing very early on”, he said. A howitzer blew a hole in the ground next to him, left a constant ringing in his ears. He hadn’t been able to mark the whistle after that. When they were going over the top, he saw the men around him stand up-that’s how he knew it was time. One day his friend George climbed up ahead of him. When William’s father followed, he found George had fallen, face pressed to the mud, almost kissing it.

“Come on George,” he said. “You won’t kill Kaiser from down there.”

For years after, he told William about the Somme: the rain, the explosions, the way men would trudge to their doom. The clouds never left those fields, he said. It was always dark on the Somme.

Near the end, he woke up screaming in his sleep and William had to run to his bedside.

“Turn off that damn typewriter,” he shouted, crying, rolling about in William’s arms. His son, terrified, waited until he calmed down, thought of the typewriter kept in the attic. Nobody had touched it in years.

On the morning of his father’s funeral, they passed the fields of flowers by their house, the bright petals waving to them in the breeze. And William thought of the memorial in France, where the names of the dead were engraved, the list running into thousands. He imagined that soon they would fade. He imagined that soon they too would be forgotten.

Later, after all was said and done, he took the typewriter out of its dusty home in the attic, thought of the simpler times it must have seen.

He pressed a single key, heard its sound and realised that his father, deaf, must have dreamt of the chatter of machine guns.

The words I spoke to Autumn

Autumn, without any great effort, is my favourite time of the year.

It has taken me twenty-three years on this earth to decide that, but more than any other season I look forward to these modest few months, watching as the heavy scream of summer fades and the blasted fury of winter takes hold. By comparison, autumn is relatively quiet-happy to talk to you of course, but only if you’d take a few moments to listen.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with the colour of autumn’s skin. Indeed, it is perhaps the only thing about the season that’s celebrated. Deep red, burning orange and matted yellow; it’s a palette nature strangely reserves for rotting and death. Even the boldest purples, whites and greens of re-birth in spring are jaded by the subtlety of autumn’s beauty. And they should be.

For all the love I have for summer, there is something unsettling about its perfection, as though silver light would perhaps be easier to live with if only it would allow itself grey from time to time. Summer is an ideal, not a reality, and while we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t pretty, there is in a way a grander beauty about something scarred. Maybe true beauty is revealed by adversity, showing stronger with the shadow of death yawning over it. And that is what autumn is after all; it’s one last breath before the great shroud of winter comes down, an empty word of defiance. Somehow, even that empty word holds more weight than all the idle ones spent in the summer, which is, in many ways, ignorant of how it lets itself slip by. Buoyed by the ferocity of life in spring, it’s all too happy to continue the dance as though the music will never stop playing. Who am I to blame it? Nobody ever thinks it’s the last song until it’s over.

For me, autumn is dancing even after the music has stopped. It knows full well that the swift hand of winter approaches, and yet it puts on its finest and shows up all the same. Autumn might be quiet, but there’s a hidden resolve there I’ve come to admire. It doesn’t go down without a fight; it perhaps just knows that it’s not a contest that it can win. How brave of it to keep swinging anyway, even as we look on with indifference.

I think it’s safe to say I’ve finally arrived in autumn. The last few posts here were, in many respects, the setting sun of summer. They still had that damn innocence of thinking youth was something immortal, that we’d only come to look at winter’s void for fun and not as a means to prepare. And though I might move with the breeze of summer, I have felt the fresh autumn chill, pricking the hairs of my skin with its warning.

“Youth is not wasted on the young,” it says. “It is the young who are wasted on youth.”

It is peculiar to find yourself trying to make a difference in the world when you feel like a lamb in the spring. This time in my life and in the lives of my friends is an awkward transition from contributing to only your growth to furthering the growth of the world as we find it. Most of us have spent the last twenty or so years focused on getting by at school, playing in the evening and more recently, organising the next night out. It’s the great party of summer. Now, on the threshold of autumn, we are asked what exactly we’re going to give to the world. The world wants to know our price, our ability, our plan. Most of us haven’t seen it coming; most of us look unprepared.

At least, that is if we believe we’re still the flowers of summer.

Nobody wants to call time on being young. We think of it like rust biting into us, making us ugly and corroded. But rust is not underneath metal; it’s a layer that has grown on top of it. It’s a sign of our time in the world-a testament to our braving the elements. Eventually, we’ll all crumble, but that doesn’t mean we’ve always been winter.

Autumn is a time of learning and a time of preparation, and that is the greatest thing we do not appreciate. We sense the quiet October air and think that nothing is happening, even as all around us life takes stock and begins to make moves to defend itself. Summer is arrogant about being idle; autumn says barely a word about keeping itself busy. But now us summer flowers have arrived in autumn, I think it’s time we join in the good fight.

There’s a world out there that is changing, changing like the growth in the fall. It’s a world we can contribute to, but that means realising that summer is over. It isn’t quite accepting the words of House Stark, who warn us that Winter is coming, but it does allow us to ready ourselves for when those winds first try knock us from the branches.

That is why autumn is my favourite time of the year. With very little said, it continues to work, to go on and to look beautiful. It prepares, it perseveres and it regards the winter with a shake of the head, embracing change with gentle laughter.

And all the while it continues its fight-a fight it thinks it can’t win.

It’s funny. I haven’t told it yet, but a part of me thinks that it can.

autumn

 

 

 

Late one evening in the city

What makes a raindrop hold to a line?

I stood this evening in my back garden, feeling the mist come down all around me. A million drops slipped right by the wires of my clothes line, content to go down to the darkness below. A small few didn’t, hanging on to the grey wire like light bulbs, making it sag in the chill autumn air. Bathed in yellow porch-light, they were a thousand captured stars-a great testament to the sad beauty of holding on, of refusing to let go like the rest did.

In life, we all fall from the sky, drifting from the clouds in a haze. Our destiny-our doom-is that at some stage we’ll all hit the floor. We can’t decide what we’ll meet along the way, but we can choose what we hold onto. A chimney, a branch, the clean wires of an empty clothes line. No two things in this world reach out to us the same. Small wonder that when we fall, we scatter, grabbing hold of what a thousand others pass by, cherishing the everyday as though it were perfect. In truth, it’s hard to find anything more perfect than the thing so blatantly not so.

I often wonder about choice and the implications it has. I once wrote that the concept of finality is scary, and months later I still feel the same. After all, in life we’d all like to believe we can circle back, returning to moments where we made the wrong decision with the surety of hindsight. But we can’t; it’s simply not the nature of falling. For the most part, you have a half-second to grab onto something before it disappears into the night, fading away into the distance behind you to become a haunting memory. That is, if you let it.

Bad decisions are as much a part of life and learning as good ones are. In fact, I’d wager they are even bigger, considering no raindrop ever wet anything without first getting shaken itself.

And so, you really have to ask yourself whether holding on is brave or stupid or just another way to stop yourself falling. In some ways it’s all of them, and in many ways that’s okay, but you should ask yourself the question all the same. Because while there is a safety in holding on, there is a fault in not moving forward. There will come a time-a time five seconds before you hit the cold stone with a pat, and when all you can do is look back on the journey behind you, you’ll want to see that the things you held onto were worth it. You’ll want to know that you clung onto the clothes lines that mattered.

Perhaps the hardest part of letting go is wondering whether something ahead is going to catch you. It’s a sort of top-of-rollercoaster-moment, where edging over the crest you pray to see the tracks line up underneath. You look me in the eye and tell me you’ve never once considered them not being there. But they always have been, and so maybe it’s time you trust yourself to open your grip.

And though while reading this you may picture a particular line that you hang to, the truth is that you hang to a thousand wires a day. And each time you fall, letting go only gets easier, until all you know is the uncertainty of empty sky-the great unknown you were convinced to be scared of.

Tonight, you too hang on a clothes line in a quiet garden in suburbia, weighing up the risk of letting go, calculating it as though it’ll make sense.

But it won’t.

And like everything imperfect, that’s what makes it so beautiful.

Sometimes we hold on. Sometimes we let go, and if the latter, we may remind ourselves of the peculiar thrill of falling.

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About a half-mile from where I left you

It’s been a busy month of writing.

You don’t always get to type that sentence. If you do, generally you breathe a sigh of relief, maybe mouth thank fuck or something like that, and hope that the next month is gonna be the same. It rarely is.

I’ve been doing a lot of these “think out loud” pieces lately (find them all here if you’re curious), mostly because they’re enjoyable to write. A part of me also likes the feedback I get, and if anything, most of that comes from within. Sometimes, when the compass doesn’t make sense anymore, you just have to stop, twirl about for a second, and realise exactly where you’re going. I guess you could say these posts provide something similar. After all, thoughts only survive as long as they’re in your head. They’re thoughts; you think them. But sometimes they need to be more than that. They need to be ideas. That means getting them outside, and for me nothing does that like an hour or so on in front of my blog.

As the title of this post hopefully implies, I’m writing this to give a sort of snapshot of where a month hard at it has brought me to.

The first thing I noticed going into June was that I didn’t really know whether the writing goal I was setting myself was realistic. Was it too little? Was it too much? I decided I wanted another 10,000 words by June 30th, along with at least some other work elsewhere. That could have been a blog, a short story, a poem-it didn’t matter. It just needed to be there. You have to understand, for me working on one project alone for any great length of time is terrifying. Without somewhere else to direct my attention, everything just becomes muddled, like TV static or the dwarves in the Hobbit movies. Worse again, the project begins to feel like a chore or a day-job. Even if it’s just one night off to write a blog, or a couple hours put into another story, it makes the whole project feel fresh when I re-visit it. It’s much like taking a shower after lying on the couch for a few hours. You step out your bathroom door and whooosh, when did the world get so fresh? When did it get so cold and energetic and alive and other words commonly used on men’s shower gels? Returning to a project like that is like going IV caffeine before the big race (well, that would see you disqualified so it’s actually a terrible example and a serious risk to your health, but you get my point). Devoting yourself to other work besides your main projects has a lot of other benefits too.

Perhaps the number one has been consistency. For years, I felt like my writing was Tottenham Hotspur. Bare with me. Much like Tottenham, I would have long periods of nothing, where my output on a word processor was about as good as their performances in the premier league. The odd day, without reasonable explanation, I would play a blinder. I’d smash 5,000 words out in a day, and make it look easy. In the background, Tottenham would rage to a 4-0 win over a top side, despite their record having more draws than a Mexican stand off. By and large though, for several years both myself and the London club would trundle to a respectable finish in the table, pat ourselves on the back, and then roll out the following year to do it all over again. What this month has given me, if anything, is an ability to say things when I didn’t feel there was anything left to say. Before, if the going got tough like that, I’d slam down the lid of my laptop, beg the Gods of Amateur Writing for inspiration, and hope that in maybe a week or two I’d do better. Hmm, I’m sure Tottenham used to do something similar. If you want to be a champion though, that just won’t cut it. If history has taught us anything, it’s that a champion’s worst day might actually be their best. When you’re lying on the canvas and cameras are flashing, those ten seconds might be the difference between who you want to be, and who you’re going to be. It may be a little hard to see, but writing is similar. If you can’t drag the words out of you when you’re at your worst, then do you even really deserve to have them flow out of you at your best? I’d wager that if you’re going to build characters, best start with your own.

This June has been exactly three years since I sat down, wrote one sentence on Microsoft Word, and quietly resolved to myself I was gonna write a novel. How hard can it be, I must have thought. The ideas are all there; I’ll just tip away on the weekends after college. Looking back now though, it’s embarrassingly obvious it was never going to get finished like that. I had a passion, but I didn’t have drive. I poured all my grit into college. By the time I got around to writing, I didn’t have a sharp tooth left to bite with. Now that there’s a bit of consistency to work with, the heart of this journey has suddenly quickened. The 10,000 word goal I had set (which works out to maybe 300 words a day after work) has been wiped away in favour of something much larger. It might just be a good month, as I alluded to earlier, but a part of me wants to believe it’s something more than that.

However, before you think I’m going to ride off into the sunset, you have to understand that June has been as full of setbacks as it has been surges forward. Perhaps the biggest of them was rejection. Rejection, or simply, No, is one of the hardest things a writer has to face, even if it’s one of the more common. Perhaps writer’s block outdoes it in terms of which shows up more often, but while you can dismiss that as a passing, silent frustration, rejection is the ghost that’s never banished. If anyone who submits their work anywhere was being honest, they’d say the sting hurts less every time, but it’s still called a sting for a reason. Rejection is like a ship sinking far from port without lifeboats. You just have to wait and go down with it, and hope that the next time you brave the waters you’ll get to the promised land. What makes rejection worse in a lot of cases is knowing it was completely valid. Again, I digress to Tottenham. I’m sure those players had many occasions where they could have said “Oi Ref, yous are bang out of order” or such, but by and large they probably had to hold their hands up, admit the other side was better and wonder how on earth they were ever going to compete.

I mentioned the idea of laying on the canvas, and if rejection is anything, it’s like being a boxer waiting for the count and watching your opponent already celebrating around you. Getting knocked down is bad; not being able to get back up is worse. And so, I suppose getting emails back saying that your piece won’t be considered is all part of those ten seconds. And with writing, it’s a very long twelve rounds, and chances are you’ll be knocked down a thousand times before you even land a punch on that fucker in front of you. That’s the nature of it though, and if you didn’t want it so bad, you wouldn’t be in the ring in the first place.

At the end of it all, June has been a 17K turn around on the project. That’s far better than I could have ever imagined. I doubt Tottenham could have foreseen actually playing well this year, but there they are battling it out with the best of them. And so I think I will continue being them, even if just because they’re no champions yet.

Even if just because they’re still dreaming.

 

The Forge

The last time I wrote here I talked about finishing college and going out into the real world. There was a gate on the edge of town, and passing through it I went out into the fields beyond. I haven’t a notion where the road goes, but it goes somewhere after all doesn’t it, and that’s all the comfort I need for now.

There’s something about a journey starting in the summer that gives you vigour. The evenings are long and lazy, and even the night that draws in has a sort of freshness about it. The days are all yellow and blue and the sunset is that soft orange glow that fades on the horizon. Insects are droning in the grasses, water is trickling over hot stones and I’m humming some idle tune. Yes, summer is a great time to get started.

Another day on the road passes, and weary from travel I stray from the path to find refuge. It’s twilight, when the sky is that sort of confused blue half way between the sun and starlight. Nothing is stirring really, but far off in the woods I hear a quiet ring trying to rise over the treetop. And then, peering deep into the black in front of me, I see the smallest flecks of red. I creep closer, and now the clash of sight and sound register with me. I’ve seen such a place before, and though I thought I’d set aside the life I’d had there, perhaps this is where the road was leading me. The last of the daylight falters, I shake off the dust from the trail and shielding my eyes I enter the forge.

I’ve been back writing about 3 years now. It all started in June of 2013, when an idea I’d abandoned when I was 17 started weighing on my mind again. You see, in the summer after fifth year I had decided to take up writing again. It was after all a huge part of my childhood, when I would sit for hours on my bedroom floor filling copybook after copybook with stories of heroes, wars and kingdoms. This was the net effect of the release of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and years spent in front of the TV soaking up documentaries about romans, greeks etc. That’s not to say I thought what I was writing was any good. Hardly. But an active imagination yearns to be channeled into something, and it doesn’t exactly demand that the result is anything other than my own personal satisfaction.

School was the great dampener on all of that. I had to weigh the joy I got out of my own stories against the grades they were likely to garner. I even started secondary school submitting essays like the tales you could have pulled out of those copybooks, but it was very quickly apparent they weren’t going to cut it at that level.

When I was 17, like I said, I tried to wire up my imagination to a defibrillator and jump-start the process again. But then, before I’d even got it stable, the leaving cert rolled around and knocked it right back into flat-line again.

And so when I picked up the proverbial paddles in the summer of 2013 one more time, I was resigned to the fact this next resuscitation might fail too. I started what has become a sprawling plan for what you might, in layman’s terms, call a book. The idea I had when I was 17 survived as a single file on an old laptop, which when I discovered at midnight on a quiet summer’s night I nearly fainted. It had survived, buried somewhere I never remembered dumping it in the first place. But it was there. It was old, it was rusted, but it was a start. And so then, I went to the forge.

The art of the blacksmith is a tricky one. They know after all, what they consider good steel. But at the end of the it all, when the furnaces stop roaring, somebody has to find that steel worthwhile. So worthy they’d pay good money for it. Writing fiction feels kind of the same. Here on my blog I write for me, and if the content doesn’t measure up then the work of this smithy keeps going. When you are hoping to one day submit fiction to an agent or a publisher, it’s a different crafting process.

The steel I’m making now has to be good enough. If it isn’t, then one day the lights in the furnace go out, and never come on again. And so every belt of the hammer has to find the mark. The anvil has to hold firm, and the fires have to burn like their lives depended on it, because they do depend on it. That’s a scary way to write really.

But that is the way of it now. Tonight, like I said, I stepped from the road and found myself back in the heat of the forge. It may have been months since I last gripped steel, but when the bellows start blowing and the steam comes rising from that fiery kiss I have to pray there’ll be something inside me to control it.

If there’s steel to be made, I want it to be hard and unrelenting. And so I must be too.

 

 

The gate on the edge of town

“You’re in the great game now, and the great game is terrifying”- Tyrion Lannister

In life, we are all members of the great audience. Every single person reading this has at one time or another acted as a witness. We don’t acknowledge it of course, not really, but it’s still happening every second of the day.

A first kiss, a failed exam, an accident on the road: all are part of the ongoing show. And of course, it’s actually quite easy to imagine your role in the audience. What is perhaps slightly less clear is where you fit in the overall spectacle. Who has seen you at your worst? Who has watched you at your best? More importantly, could they tell the difference?

Memories are a funny thing, constantly changing depending on how we feel, and never sitting still for long enough to be truly appreciated. We all remember, let’s say, opening our Leaving Cert results. But do we really? To me, everything that was ever anything is in many ways a serving of blur with a little dash of clarity.

Both of these concepts, witnesses and memories, have been whirling around in my head since I finished college. There was after all a moment where suddenly it all ended, and overwhelmed by emotion I doubt I was thinking “take a breath and appreciate this little snapshot; it’s a picture you’ll only take once.” But that is the truth of it nonetheless. This was the end, and I can’t just go back and ask for a little more time there now.

Putting my pen down, closing the exam booklet and walking out of that last exam are all part of my story, but who knows who was secretly watching? Those who care, those who don’t, or those indifferent. My story, but their spectacle.

Trapped in the little bubble of college, not sharp to the world moving around me, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought much about being in the spectacle. In a crowded library you can be lost in your own notes, but looking up now and again you realise everything is getting on without you. Now, there are no more notes, and it’s time to join the ranks of those making the world go round.

In that respect college is a bit like your bedroom. There are an infinite number of things you can accomplish there, but outside those walls other things are in motion the scale of which you can’t start to imagine cooked up in there. It’s not that you’re out of touch, more so you’re kept within the confines of something measurable. It’s all happening in a lecture theatre, in a library, on campus etc.

And so now that I’m leaving, the outside world feels a little alien again. It’s very much in the title of this blog. There’s a gate at the edge of town, and inside it you know everything and everyone. You’ve been to the gate of course. I mean, you can even tell me what it’s made of and what it feels like to run your hand over. But you’ve never been outside it. Sometimes at dusk, you’ve sat on it for hours and thought about the fields beyond or the next town over. And never once did you really believe that the day was coming when you’d finally pass through it. That was a dream-a notion. Notions weren’t tolerated in this town.

And yet, that day does come. You feel about a stone lighter, and rather than skip up to the gate like you usually do you sort of wander there half in a haze of your own thoughts and emotions. The sun is going down in the west but there’s enough light to see the first few steps on the road. And then quite suddenly there is the moment, and before you’ve even thought to mark it you’re on the other side. And then there’s a panic and the sudden want to turn round. It isn’t a desire to go back, and even if it is you’ve long resigned yourself to the fact that that isn’t happening. You just realise you wanted it to be memorable though, and a part of you isn’t sure that it was.

Should’t there have been someone there to say goodbye, or give a little cheer as you passed over the threshold?

And yet maybe there was, and not turning to see their face you press on with your journey.

After all, they are the witness, and right there and then you were at either your best or worst. Perhaps they know the difference.

 

Here now, at the fork in the road

Robert Frost, the great American poet, lived through an interesting time. He was witness to the turn of the century, two world wars, the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, the flight of the first airplane and just before he went out, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Somewhere in there, he must have sat down, turned a phrase over in his mind and wrote

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but effective nonetheless, as the “fork in the road” exists for just about everyone. After all, life is a journey, and the damn road is littered with choices. Some of these “forks” are easy. Going right is much the same as going left, in terms of destination at least. Yes, what happens along the way might be different, but at some point the woods thin out and you find the paths join up again. And a part of you will think back to that choice in the road and surmise it never really mattered, while another part will look back along “the road not taken” and wonder what might have been, for better or for worse. Yet still, these are the routine decisions, and finding yourself exactly where you thought you’d be, your journey goes on.

The more difficult “forks” are the ones for which we cannot see beyond the first few steps on either road. Out there in the mist, only one thing is certain; these paths will never cross again.

No matter how confident you are in a choice, that fact can still haunt you. The concept of finality is daunting, but for most people it only becomes an issue when we feel it’s going to throw us off track. We all have a journey’s end in mind, a kind of hidden cottage, and though we’re happy to enjoy whatever the road has to offer us along the way, at some point we all want to turn a corner, see little puffs of smoke rising over the treetop and realize “I made it”.

Luckily for us, we have a rough map to guide us. Tracing our fingers over it, we can see a fork at age five, a fork at age twelve, a big fork at age eighteen and somewhere further along, a fork at twenty-two.

That last fork, the end of my college years, is where I find myself now. I think back to some smug lecturer saying “these years will fly”and now I, only one week away from finishing lectures, sigh and admit they were right. It’s like coming upon a crossroads long before the map says it was due. Now it’s there, and regardless of what that piece of paper says, you’re going to have to pick a lot sooner than you’d imagined.

In these situations us travellers often find comfort in “making camp for the night”, which is to say, sitting down with a decision and thinking about it. It’s a fairly good call. Taking the wrong road is bad; taking it in the dark is another matter entirely.

Unfortunately, the dawn waits for nobody, and soon we have to get up, put out our fires, throw on our packs and take that first wobbly step in what we hope is the right direction.

This particular fork, which I long thought of as nothing more than “that bit before my pre-reg year” is shaping up to be more climactic than I’d given it credit for. After all, it’s not often you move job, finish education, sit exams, say somewhat of a goodbye to friends and try figure out where you’re going all in one month. Taken one by one, these are all fairly benign. It’s together that they start to weigh more, and feel like one of those transition periods where you kind of watch yourself from the outside hoping you don’t fuck up.

And quite likely I, or you a person reading this in a similar situation, will fuck up. That’s not the end of the world, and it definitely isn’t the end to the journey.

What is perhaps more disturbing for me than the notion of failure is, as I’ve alluded to, the concept of finality. I’d like to think if I had a few shots at the start of what is basically my adult life that at least one time things would turn out like I want them to. But I definitely don’t have a “few shots”. This isn’t a Thursday for God’s sake.

And so the time I spend “making camp” over these next few months is likely going to be very important. The next year of my life is there for the taking, in so much as its routine contents are fairly set in stone and all I have to do is turn up and keep breathing. After that, the tent is going to have to come down, and I’m going to have to step out onto the road. A part of me sees myself back in UCC, edging forward into the vast forest of a PhD and taking comfort in the fact that though the road is long and arduous, it is still on the map. Depending on what day you ask me I might also muse that UCC isn’t the only college known to man, and though I’m a Cork City boy at heart, there’s a wide world about us. That would certainly be uncharted territory, where many a brave or foolhardy traveller has been lured by the promise of treasure.

Quite plainly, this next year might also stray me from the path, into a part of the profession I’ve always admired but never imagined myself at home. Community pharmacy isn’t where I see myself, but Christ knows I never saw myself learning about drugs when I was fifteen either.

Lastly, arguably least importantly, but most selfishly, I wonder about where this journey takes my writing. It will be a long night staring into the dying embers of the fire, and before the sun comes up this may be the only question I answer, or the only one that I don’t. However, if four years of college have thought me anything, it’s that at some point, I’ll have to answer it.

You can set up camp, but the dark is only fleeting.

You can stop to rest, but you are young, and you have no need of it.

You can dither, dawdle, pause and even doubt, but you cannot turn back.

The Journey’s End is far away yet, and there are many things on the road you have to see if you’re to reach it.

Many people, myself included, know that in many ways the journey is what matters, but though I can afford to get lost in it, I can’t forget that out there little puffs of smoke rise over the treetop.

And that in itself is why the journey matters.

As Robert Frost once quoted

I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.