Iris Leal (c.1985) in my rats alley flat living room.
It was the most bizarre coincidence. The acclaimed Israeli writer Iris Leal had somehow found her way into my flat. Walking into the living room, where I was hammering away at a typewriter, she asked
“What are you doing?”
“I’m writing a novel!” I declared excitedly, wondering who on earth this stranger was, standing with her hands on her hips, red corkscrew curls swishing around an impatient face.
That was 1985, when after sofa surfing around London aeons before the term was invented, I’d finally found a home. The year before I’d left a lucrative career in marketing to travel the world on a shoestring, all the while scribbling into a notebook the first draft of my first novel.
Despite earning wads of green folding in marketing, I’d felt empty. Life seemed pointless; days wasted.
All I wanted to do was to write.
By the time Iris entered my life, I was well into the second draft of that novel, blissfully unaware that I had no idea what I was doing. Her second question seemed reasonable enough, but it immediately exposed the screwed-up state of my book.
“What is it about?”
“Well, there’s this bloke and this girl but they’ve split up and she’s pregnant and he’s a cocaine addict and they’re in the Bahamas and she goes to Washington DC to fight for womens’ rights and he gets into drug smuggling and then there’s a sub-plot with the CIA and some incompetent Russians, but really it’s about female empowerment and she ends up in a refuge and he ends up a pop star, but it all goes wrong and at the end there’s a third bit that’s written completely differently and, well, look here...” I said, grabbing a pen and paper and frantically drawing interconnecting circles like Venn diagrams, with arrows flying all over the place, as I tried to explain the structure of my novel.
The memory of it is still embarrassing!
Since then I’ve increasingly come to appreciate what Iris did for me in the ensuing two years. As our friendship has grown, I also realise how unlikely it was that she’d take on such an ignorant and arrogant pupil.
At the time our relationship wasn’t pretty. She was as fiery a mentor as I was a resistant student. Each day I’d leave home clutching freshly-typed sheets, stomp along the back streets of Golders Green, stand in her kitchen and shout.
On some points we still disagree. She belongs in the world of high Literature, with a capital ‘L’ while my aspiration is to use language to be understood. She wanted to be Dostoevsky and I wanted to be Stephen King, or Woody Guthrie, depending on the day of the week. However, even then, I understood that as a writer I had to learn the skills and master the tools of the trade.
Iris demanded the highest of standards, asking enigmatic and quite possibly insane questions like “Is it the best you can write it, or is the best it can be written?” at which point I’d guffaw, throw my arms around and use words like ‘pretentious’, ‘claptrap’ and ‘bloody’ in various sequences.
Yet what she taught me in two painful, argumentative, friendship-cementing years saved me ten years of trying to learn the craft myself.
Had we approached writing from similar standpoints, my learning process would have been a lot faster. Instead she’d scream at me that if this book was not my masterpiece, she had no idea why I was writing it.
In response I’d yell back that while my masterpiece may be out there, this was just my first novel. I was simply discovering if I could start and finish a book, that’s all. No Catcher in The Rye yet. No Anna Karenina in the making. Just trying to write a bloody book: beginning, middle, end. Er, well, beginning, middle lost in circles and loops, an end and then another end. What was it you said again, Iris?
I finished that novel and three more, refusing to see their lack of publication as a setback because thanks to my marketing experience, I understand that publishers make decisions based purely on what they believe will make the most money at that moment.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I’m choosing to ignore the possibility that they felt I had no talent, as I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living from my writing for over 20 years.
If we strive for our dreams, we’ll attain something slightly different, yet equally as fine. I couldn’t have a better job, being paid to give my opinion writing features and columns, with well in excess of a million words published in Irish and UK media. Three of my plays have been performed (one of which won a prize) and yes, I still and always will love to write.
Even though I’m professionally successful, I’m driven more by my vocational desire to become a better writer.
I love this course, as we all write together, teacher and students, through eight fun and creative lessons.
Each week I’ll show you how to use one of the tools of the writing trade, and you’ll leave the course with your confidence boosted, ready and able to write what you want, in the way you’ve always wished.
If you've ever fancied yourself as a writer, or want to improve your writing skills for business or pleasure, I very much hope to meet you at the Galway Arts Centre.
Charlie Adley’s Craft of Writing Course runs 7:30 - 9:00 pm, starting Wednesday April 23rd, for 8 weeks. €100/90 concessions.
Numbers are strictly limited, so to book your place, please contact:
The Galway Arts Centre: