I’m reading a delightful novel by the Northern Irish writer Seamus Deane called Reading in the Dark.
I say it’s delightful. Told from the point of view of a boy growing up in post-war Northern Ireland, the novel touches on ghosts, a family feud, the IRA, the death by meningitis of the narrator’s baby sister. At a tender age, the narrator is told that his grandfather allegedly murdered a Protestant policeman to avenge the murder of his friend and fellow Catholic. After being seen with a gun, the boy himself is hauled into the police station and beaten with rubber truncheons as he is questioned.
So the novel, like much of the literature (from what I understand) of a land haunted by the Troubles, is a little melancholy. But it is also magical. The writing transforms the tragedy of death into wonder, the confusion of feud into mystery. Grief and horror are strangely beautiful under the deft pen of Seamus Deane. And like all good writing, Reading in the Dark inspires me to write.
One passage in particular reminded me of my own experience writing and my identity as a writer. The narrator remembers a country boy in his class at school whose essay, a simple tale of his mother setting the table for supper, is praised by the teacher.
“Now that,” said the master, “that’s writing. That’s just telling the truth.”
I felt embarrassed because my own essay had been full of long or strange words I had found in the dictionary — “cerulean,” “azure,” “phantasm” and “implacable” — all of them describing skies and seas I had seen only with the Ann of the novel. I’d never thought such stuff was worth writing about. It was ordinary life — no rebellions or love affairs or dangerous flights across the hills at night. And yet I kept remembering that mother and son waiting in the Dutch interior of that essay, with the jug of milk and the butter on the table, while behind and above them were those wispy, shawly figures from the rebellion, sibilant above the great fire and below the aching, high wind.
from page 21 of Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Like the narrator, I have unfortunately attempted to pen works that are flowery, wordy and melodramatic. But lately, “telling the truth” has become my favorite form of writing. I have written poetry, fiction, even a play, and I like different elements of all of them. At heart though, I’m a creative nonfiction writer. Writing about the ordinary events of life, making them breathe through my words, is for me the most magical and meaningful writing. This is part of the value of studying abroad for me: acquiring new experiences to transform into essays and memoirs.
Reading Reading in the Dark feels like sitting by that great fire with a cat on my lap and the wind howling around me. I can’t wait to live in the land where such a novel was written and inspired.