Artisitic Process


From my forthcoming novel:

James McNaughton, Esquire, is how he introduces himself while he holds court on a grimy stool at the bend of the bar; his primary audience a speckled mirror, glazed in the omnipresent smoke of penny cigarettes and cheap tobacco wafting from cracked pipes. He taps his own— "‘twas my granddad’s this was—he’d puff great circles round his head as we bairns sat by the peat fire. He sang of Cathleen ni Houlihan and her four green fields and the lads and men who would rise to her defense when the bloody British violated her shores. He taught us our real history from the days of our great kings and the seanachies singing of the victories and tragedies as the men gathered ‘round turf fires after a hard day’s work. This here"—he lifts his dirty pipe like a priest lifts the sacred chalice—"is a legacy of your people and don’t forget your people, lad, or you will sore grieve it."

Esquire’s dark round glasses keep his ragged brows from his eyes and his black and gray beard, not silver as he claims, but iron gray, smoke gray, dirty gray at that, catches bits of spittle and brown bread. He thinks himself quite the figure in his sagging tweed patched and re-patched by his wife’s—God rest her soul—darning skills and little is left of the original woven in the Donegal mills of his grandfather’s day.

Esquire invented his grandfather since his own two were dead long before his birth. His first hearing of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the old woman and the young queen who is Ireland and her four green fields, was from a fellow passenger who believed his singing such a gift to the world that he bestowed it on every soul shivering across the Atlantic. The peat fire in a hearth in his lovely thatch burned only in Esquire’s florid imagination as he retched into a full bucket on his escape from the home he had to leave, wearing the tweed he took from his father’s back before he was lowered into the mud of one of Cathleen's fields. 

James McNaughton, before he was Esquire, sauntered down the gangplank in New York Harbor in 1864 to be snatched with the other scrawny lads by men in squashed felt caps with a great X of crossed rifles on their forehead. So, he was to be a soldier. Perhaps the High King Brian Boru would be re-born in New York Harbor that day.

The life of a Union soldier wasn’t too bad for the future Esquire. He got his first new set of clothes and food and rough bed. He managed to stay out of the way of any Rebel bullets in the only battle he was part of. Within six months of landing in America the Civil War was over and James had a handful of stories to tell around whatever hearth or bit of smoldering coal he could find.

Esquire thought himself an intellectual, therefore, unsuited to the work available to immigrants shuffling off boats in their tattered rags with tattered children in tow. They banded together in tenements in the Lower East Side of New York and in Brooklyn, and those not able to afford this much American luxury made homes of bits of wood and tin and ragged blankets left as trash that found new purpose as shantytowns. These groups of human refuse forced their lean-to’s on patches of ground that pigs and dogs and smaller creatures condescended to, but would not cede, as their natural turf.  

When he was released from the Union Army with a mouthful of stories ready to spill, young James had to find work. He managed to get a job as a street sweeper by chatting up the ward boss in his squat. He was a jolly fella with a mouth that never shut, which was acceptable as long as he kept the broom moving, but after too many corner stone conversations on what’s wrong with the world, the future esquire found himself at liberty with empty pockets.

More to come…

The Pebble

If you watch TV at all (and I watch it all too much) you cannot help but see the jewelry store ad with the penguins. Oh, it's so sweet when the cute boy penguin waddles over to a girl he's been working up the courage to talk to and drops a pebble at her feet. We anticipate a cozy cuddle and the two of them waddling off to happily ever after.

Alas, she waddles away. Poor guy. We were rooting for you.

In this world of penguin wooing, there is a clever fellow who dazzles his sweetie with gold and diamonds and she snuggles up with him. That's how you find true love, kiddos!

Wow and Merry Christmas to you too, you jaded cold hearted, well, you can fill in the adjective.

I know the jewelry store is trying to make a buck or two. I know that the 'Holiday Season' is their make or break time of year. I know that shiny jewelry at Christmas has become part of our mythos. Heck, I got a lovely shiny ring at Christmas many years ago from my honey and we've been happily ever after for several decades.

We in our house agree that the schlub with the pebble is cuter and more lovable than the slick haired piece of poultry who dazzles his honey with a rock that refracts sunlight and blinds the silly hen to his shallow heart.

Yes, I know I am super-imposing my own take on the birds in this thirty second romance. I do that sort of thing.

The humble full-hearted gift of love (see, I am granting the pebble penguin sincerity and not stinginess) resonates true considering the original Christmas presents were given to a boy tucked in to a bale of hay and kept warm by donkeys and sheep. 

Would the parum-pa-pa-pumming of The Little Drummer Boy be covered by crooners and rock stars all these years if it didn't resonate as true?


Did you ever get caught by a phrase? A few words that wrap around you, pull you in and let you know you have companions in your sensibilities, in the things that call and bid you over? Scrolling through Facebook, an excerpt from Wild Irish Poet ( caught me enough that I downloaded his book on my iPad. (Naked in New York, Alan Cooke)

... I walked to the edge and the water was a mirror to my heart.. I could almost see the old ghosts beneath the surface talking to me.. echoing my longing for it is a longing that is beyond time.. beyond the barriers of life and death.... to awaken the deep buried wildness within..

To awaken the deep buried wildness within...

I used the word 'wildness' in The Narrow Gate when Rose is at her brother's burial:

Did I do this? Did I kill my brother? The questions echo in Rosés head. Did I ask too much of him?

The wildness in her! Standing here while the deacon reads from the Gospels and they make the sign of the cross, even now, she makes the sign of the cross  in unison with everyone while beneath these gestures the real Rose is accused, tried and condemned because of her selfishness.  (p. 281)

I used the word wildness, though I have no adequate definition. An image comes to mind, a dark, mute fury wrangling within the confines of my character, Rose, but bigger, stronger, a force twisting its own logic into her. Something primal, untamed, of the earth and sky. Something of an impolite truth.

And this phrase, echoing my longing for it is a longing that is beyond time...beyond the barriers of life and death, is something I have written of over the years, often with a wry wonder of how such language is received.

These phrases of wildness and longing beyond barriers of life and death have long been attributed to the Irish and their tendency toward poetics. But I contend that they are universal, common to every tribe and gathering of people, a loneliness in their longing, a magnetic pull toward mystery beyond words.

For it is beyond words, the deep silence, that all poets and lovers of words pour their syllables.



My dear good friend Bill Marvel used a word in a sentence at our Salon the other day. Neither of us remember clearly what he was referring to, but the word, bromeliad, struck a chord with me.

What's that? I asked.

One of those little plants that seem to exist unconnected to any roots, he replied, perhaps. (Both of us indulge in memoir from time to time, so I say 'perhaps' because we don't feel the great need to quote exactly, as long as we are true to the gist of things.  which, of course, comes with its own set of problems, memories being what they are, but I digress)

So, I had to look up bromeliads, natch.  I discovered that bromeliad is the larger group that contains the free floating untethered bits of greenery called Tillandsias.  Since bromeliad has a much stouter ring, evoking Jonathan Swift, that satirical Irishman, and his inventions of sounds such as Brobdignagian and Lilliputian, we shall throw all the bromeliads in the same bag and watch it float away.

I had, indépendant of Salon, been thinking about the concept of being untethered for a while. This nagged at me because of a conversation I had with someone dear to me who politely declined my suggestion of 'tethering" her family through a religious rite I hold dear.

Years ago, when part of my job was to teach Baptism classes, the fashion was to de-emphazize Original Sin (sorry St. Augustine) and to emphasize community and heritage and family lore and connectedness to the Big Story, our overarching Christian mythos that binds us one to the other and to God.

I asked the class to bring with them some token from their family history that they held dear. Some brought photographs, coin collections, medals, bits of jewelry, that sort of thing. I brought a potato peeler. Not because the Irish ate a lot of potatoes, but because this peeler was used in countless family meals, both great and small. And so, it held a bit of our family history.

A stretch? Maybe.

But, it stands in place as (shall I say it?) a sacramental. One of the greatest things for a Catholic writer, or a writer who is Catholic, is the abundance of ordinary, everyday objects and physical, rough, elegant, oily, watery, things that evoke the holy by the manner in which they are used and remembered. The ordinary holy burlap and silk of the way we are tethered, one to another, and personally, communally to God.

Untethered is a fiction, for even Tillandsia Bromeliads need water and air and a place to hover.

Digging for Apples

Sure then I'm here! Digging for apples, yer honour!' `Digging for apples, indeed!' said the Rabbit angrily. `Here! Come and help me out of this!'  (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

I'm looking for a scene.  I started my first novel with a writing prompt at a seminar-- I don't remember the prompt but what popped to my brain was a woman holding tight to a miraculous medal and praying for a miracle.

That little scene of desperation, of pleading, of praying for a miracle, was the beginning of something. Since there is no story without a problem, something to conquer or work through, something to change, that is, I needed to discover what was upsetting her.

That woman clutching her miraculous medal stayed with me, moved in with me, so to speak.

Soon I had her walking against the wind in lower Manhattan, waiting for a train on a lonely subway platform and arguing with God.  Bit by bit her struggles revealed themselves to me.  Soon I had a name, more scenes,  more characters and a few subplots. Soon is not really the right word, it took a long time for things to shape up and a story to develop. But it started with a scene that promised a conflict.

That's what I'm looking for now.

You might tell me that the world is full of conflict, problems, characters with something to solve. And you would be right. Various characters offer themselves up, but so far nothing has stuck to start my next novel.

So I'm digging for apples.

I thought NaNoWriMo (November is National Novel Writing Month) would be a good place to get my engine going.  I needed to produce  more that 1600 words a day to finish the 50,000 by the end of November.  Last year the challenge was a great help to me in moving my novel forward.  This year I hoped  the discipline of churning out that many letters on a page each day would help me find my next character or scene.

I started the month out with  more words than the daily goal, a tiny bit of insurance against the slacker days. But, I petered out. Not a surprise. I am a slow writer. I dip and dabble. Try out this and that. Ramble on  typing all sorts of stuff that makes little sense. That, after many years of trying to discover my rhythm as a writer, is how I work.

In one of my many 'how to write' books, a bestselling author said she never began a novel without having first figured it all out in her head and written an extensive outline. If I waited for that I'd never get anything done, and that includes writing out a grocery list.

I'm the kind of writer who discovers the story as it is being revealed to me. I don't know how it's going to end or who is going to show up. I don't know what my characters are going to say until I see the words pop out on the screen  from the tips of my fingers.

As I was making my attempt at the daily word count for NaNo, I discovered something. Sometimes writing gets in the way of writing. I was digging for apples, but I was digging in an empty field. (Really, I do know that apples don't grow in the ground, but that Lewis Carroll was never restricted by mere facts).

Boy, oh boy, I'd really like a nice juicy apple to bite into. Hey, isn't that what got Adam and Eve into all that trouble?