Interview Series #3: Meaghan Delahunt

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Meaghan Delahunt is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melbourne, she has lived for many years in Edinburgh. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and is also a qualified yoga teacher. I was trying to work out when we first met and think it must have been around 15 years ago, when she won a Saltire First Book Award for her first novel, In The Blue House, which is centred on the extraordinary true life story of Frida Kahlo’s friendship with Leon Trotsky. Meaghan’s most recent book is Greta Garbo’s Feet & Other Stories – see here for details, or her own website here.

This is the third interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Meaghan: When I first started writing creatively, I was a small child. Later, in my twenties, I started writing ‘with intent’.  There were no courses or university degrees, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them.  I just read and wrote and read and re-wrote. Lived and tried to pay attention to living.  I still think this is the only way, fundamentally, that you become a writer. The advice that would have been most helpful to me, if there had been someone to give me advice would have been this:  Persevere, learn to become resilient, try to learn and be positive in the face of set-backs. Often your ‘failures’ are the springboard for something new.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m a little suspicious of  ‘writer’s block.’ It always seems so melodramatic and Hollywood and far too neat a term for something much more complex.  It seems to me that ‘writer’s block’ takes different forms depending on the writer. Mostly, I think it is depression, fear and anxiety in the face of writing.  A blank page will easily conjure up all of these feelings, at some point. Often in the middle of a long piece of work you wonder if you will ever make your way out, you feel overwhelmed. Or at the beginning. Or at the end of a long piece of work, you wonder if you will have the energy and stamina for another one. You feel emptied out.  You need to feel these things, and let them go.  For me, knowing that these states of mind are ‘normal’ and that they also pass is helpful. Yoga and meditation have always been helpful to me in this regard,  in coming to know the rhythms of my own mind.  Acknowledging and making peace with ‘negative’ states of mind is the most helpful thing.  Even writing down how you are feeling on  a piece of paper and throwing this away before you start writing can be helpful. And trusting that these states are transient and that you will find your way back, towards, into the work, in your own time.

Do you write every day?

I write something most days in my journal. When I’m working on a story or a novel I would definitely write most days. When you are in the flow of something, it’s delicious, you don’t want to be anywhere else!  But when I’m between projects, or lying fallow at the end of a long project, I give myself permission not to write. I know then that I need to read and rest and do other things.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I have so many rituals, it’s ridiculous.   I must have two cups of tea in order to even kick-start the process. I have to meditate and do yoga.  I have to light incense.  I have to wear an ear plug in my good right ear ( I’ve had complete nerve deafness in my left ear since childhood)  so that the only thing I can hear is my thoughts. I like to face a blank wall.  No matter how early I get up, and unless I am really in the flow of something, by the time I get all this done it always seems to be either 11am or 4pm in the afternoon. It’s a mystery.  I seem to work best late morning and then late afternoon or evening.  I tend to create first drafts  at my desk, or on trains, planes or buses.  But then I like to edit in cafes and other places to give me a different perspective on what I’ve done. Fortunately, apart from the blank wall, my rituals can be performed anywhere.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I kept a little exercise book as a child. My mother found this and presented it to me one day, years ago. It had all my 10-year old yearnings and poems and also some grandiose stuff from when I was 16.  I don’t know where that journal is now. But it was an eye-opener to me, that this thing had been going on a long time – the desire to write. Also, that my voice was pretty much there, from the beginning.  In my mid-20’s I decided to start writing  in a journal. I now have nearly three decades worth of journals. I never look at them, unless I need  something for a story or a novel, and can remember that I wrote something useful down. But it is a way of offloading my emotions, fears, thoughts, things overheard, scraps of dialogue, ideas and so on.  A way of processing thoughts and dreams. Especially dreams.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

In life as in art, I am not a planner.  As a child I was always told that I was vague and dreamy.  I am not naturally organised or punctual – it takes a great deal of psychic effort for me to be either of those things.   I can’t  possibly outline a book in advance and am hopeless at writing a synopsis and I could never ‘pitch’ an idea – I don’t believe in that kind of process anyway.  When I am forced to ‘outline’ something in advance – for agents, publishers or funding bodies – I keep it as general as possible. I’m not at all interested in plot. I’m much more interested in interwoven stories, in layering, in patterns, digressions, in rhythm and counterpoint.  In the ‘mystery of personality’ as Flannery O’Connor put it.  I get an image, then some language coheres to the image, along with colours and a sense of place. It’s very visual. I start writing towards this and find out what I’m doing as I go along. I do a lot of drafts and start with what I call ‘draftlets.’  So, the first ‘draft’ of a novel, could be twenty pages or five pages.  And later those  pages could end up in the middle of the novel, or towards the end, or not at all. It’s a totally intuitive, organic process. It takes years for me to get a full first draft. I always start by handwriting, then transfer to the computer, then print everything out, read it, make handwritten comments, throw the pages on the floor,take scissors, sticky tape and post-it notes,  cut-and-paste, then back to the computer.  I do this over and over again. At each ‘draft’ I have to ‘see’ it all on the floor. It’s a very messy process, not at all efficient, but it’s my own process, worked through over decades, and there’s a comfort in that.

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