Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Minute As A Cloud

An hour or so ago, I was sitting in my desk, gazing out of the attic window, when I noticed a very strange thing in the sky. I should have been writing, of course, head down, fingertips dancing back and forth across the keyboard, mind consumed with thoughts of a story yet to be told, but I had already put in a pretty decent morning's work and, I have to admit, I was feeling good about myself.
My window-gazing was part of what I felt was a well-earned mini-break, and I was luxuriating in one of those oh-so-comfortable brain-freeze moments that mottle only the very best days, when my eyes happened upon it.
It's just a cloud, I told myself, but in my suddenly racing heart I knew that it was not just a cloud.
It was me. What I mean is, it was a cloud carved into the exact shape of my head in profile. Seriously. I stared at it and tried my best to laugh, but there was nothing funny about it. This cloud had the shape of my head just right, and it had the details of my nose, my chin, everything. I know my profile well, or as well as anyone can ever really know their own profile, and I had no doubt in my mind that this was me.
I can't say exactly how long I sat there staring at this miraculous freak of nature hovering above me like some kind of spun-sugar balloon, but it must have been at least a minute or so. Cloud formations aren't permanent, but for the greater part of that minute the image still kept up the resemblance, even as some stata gust nipped and tucked, worked on skimming my nose and adjusting my overbite, on rounding my chin and taking off a little excess flab here and there, until just prior to the moment of total breakup, I had become a cloud-rendition of a made-over Hollywood movie star. I was Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford or Cary Grant, and then, just like that, I was gone, torn asunder by a single knowing breeze.
No one believes me. Just like nobody believed me when I said I saw Elvis buying a trolley full of Clonakilty black pudding in Tesco's a couple of years ago. It seems that I make a habit of missing the Kodak Moments. The camera battery is always flat when most needed, and the mobile phone in my pocket is of a model so prehistoric that it can barely comprehend the concept of texting. To be honest, though, I am past caring what people think. I know what I saw, and that's all that matters. I don't need the reassurance of a photograph.
Thinking about it, I suppose there are far worse ways of spending a minute of my day. Life as a cloud probably wouldn't be so bad. I will admit, though, that I'm troubled by the fact that I saw this only because I happened to have been in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. I could have been doing any of a hundred other things at that precise moment, but I wasn't. I was at my attic window, gazing upwards. I suppose I just got lucky.
Still, this whole business does beg an important question: how many other people every day drift by as clouds in the sky and are never even noticed? That's a little worrying, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Small Damascus Moment

I listen to Bob Dylan when I write. He's always there, and he always seems to know exactly what to say. Today I spent five hours working on a section of my novel-in-progress, with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", the breathtakingly beautiful closing track on Bob's sublime 'Blonde On Blonde' album, locked in a continuous loop. Like so many of Dylan's lyrical masterpieces, this song astonishes me, more so with every listen, in fact. I adore the way I never fully feel as if I have a full understanding of his songs, even though I have lived with them virtually my entire life. It is their mystery that intrigues, I think.
There are plenty who dispute Dylan's status as a poet. I would never claim to be an authority on poetry but I have to say that no other writer's words have ever moved me quite as much as Bob's do. So maybe he is not a poet, but if not then he is something deeper than that.
It has long been my experience that when it comes to appreciating his songs slow ingestion is best. He writes them and sings them, and they are out there for us, to grow into when we are ready.
I remember when his late-90s masterpiece, 'Time Out Of Mind', was released. I listened to the album incessantly, and I remember thrilling over so many of the songs, such as "Not Dark Yet", "Standing In The Doorway" and "Trying To Get To Heaven". Lost in the mix, or somehow overlooked by me, was what had seems a lightweight number, "To Make You Feel My Love". Cover versions of the song were getting some heavy airplay, by big hitters such as Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, but for some reason I just didn't get it. That was my failing, of course, not the song's. And then, about three years ago, I was listening to the album for the umpteenth thousand time, and suddenly it was as if the noise of the whole world stopped. It's rarely anything tangible, just some inner shifting of rusty cogs, and there it is, the magic, unfurling in all its mysterious glory. More than words, more than melody, the entire thing just gets into your bloodstream. I think I didn't get the song because I wasn't yet ready to get it, my life hadn't yet reached the necessary point in its trails. It was a small Damascus moment, and one that left me wondering what other songs in Bob's vast pantheon of work have yet to properly reveal themselves to me.
A new album is always an event. Since 1997's 'Time Out Of Mind', critical acclaim for Dylan has been absolute, with 'Love and Theft' and 'Modern Times' both receiving lavish praise. Now we have another album of new material, 'Together Through Life', to ingest. The reflex action is always to love the latest work or to be disappointed that, in your mind, it falls some way short of his best stuff, 'Blood On The Tracks' or 'Bringing It All Back Home' or 'Freewheelin', or whichever album it is that turns your wheels. I try to be more cautious. For me, 'Love and Theft', initially, was a letdown, but now I understand that the weakness was mine, not the songs. So when Amazon (finally) delivers to my door, I will sit and listen, over and over and probably over again, and I'll take what Bob has chosen, for now, to give. But I won't rush anything, because I'll know that there are years worth of detail waiting to be discovered, in these songs and in all the others, but only when the time is right.
I can't help it if I'm lucky...

Friday, April 24, 2009


I received a cheque in this morning's post, for 'Sygygy', a story of mine that appeared in the Vernal Equinox edition of the wonderful Cezanne's Carrot (which you can read at if you should feel so inclined). 'Syzygy' was a story was one that I really enjoyed writing, and I was very pleased with the result. Last year, it received an honourable mention in Glimmer Train's Open Fiction contest, and the good people at Cezanne's Carrot have named it an Editor's Choice story. Mercier Press, my publishers, must like it too because it is scheduled for inclusion in my forthcoming collection, 'In Too Deep'.
To be honest, I've never been too enamoured with trying to publish stories online. With a print copy you have something tangible, you know? Online stuff doesn't really offer the same sense of satisfaction, at least in my opinion. But I have a lot of stories written, and at the moment all I really want is to get the stuff out there. Beggars can't be choosers, and all that.
I must admit, thought, that I am slowly changing my mind about online submissions. Cezanne's Carrot is one of my favourites. I also enjoy (and have published stories with) Underground Voices, and of course the likes of Eclectica and Narrative Magazine has some incredible content. Anyway, this morning's cheque amounted to the princely sum of twenty five dollars. It allows me to buy a ream of paper, and it will pay for a few stamps. The encouragement is the real prize, though, and the way things are at the moment I'll take and lap up all that comes my way.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Snakes and Ladders Days...

This year's Francis McManus Award shortlist is up on RTE's website. I had submitted a story back in September, entitled, 'More Than One Way To Skin A Cat,' and I had been harbouring high hopes that it would turn up trumps for me. Unfortunately, there is no sign of my name (or my story) on the shortlist. To say that I am disappointed would be one of the understatements of the year so far, but it's not as if I haven't been through this before. I submit a story for this award every year and I have only ever been shortlisted once, with a story called 'War Song', back in 2005. Perhaps my stories are just not suited to radio. Well, that is yet another thing for me to work on.
Oddly, my writing is flowing really well at the moment. I have the novel in my sights, I'm putting in the hours and I know exactly what I want to do with the story. I am only at the beginning, of course, and I have to force myself to stop fantasising about the finish, but unlike some of the other false-start novels I have attempted, the finish seems genuinely attainable. Whether or not the book will actually be any good is another matter, but for now the writing is coming easily, and I am happy. So, despite the latest disappointment my head is in a good state, and that's a golden feeling.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Starting Work on a Novel ...

This week I've started work on a novel. Well, when I say started, what I mean to say is that I have committed myself to doing it. The idea is in place, and I know the story that I want to tell, so the rest should be easy, right? Right?
The problem is that I have been down this road before. And I know that the idea is the least of it. I already have a 90,000 word novel wallowing in rejection in a box under the bed, a novel that I was certain the world was going to love. Unfortunately, the publishers didn't. At least, not enough to publish it. They say you learn something from everything you write but 90,000 words worth of learning makes for an awfully long and harsh lesson. Now, if it was just the one book tucked away with the dust bunnies then I suppose that wouldn't be so bad. Call it an apprenticeship, and move on, right? Except, also hidden away are a couple of aborted 100-plus page manuscripts and a short (60,000 word) Western novel of the almost-but-not-quite-pulp variety that I have since discovered doesn't really interest too many people in the publishing game anymore.
What I take from such previous efforts (doing my best Eric Idle and looking on the bright side ...) is the knowledge that I can actually complete a full-length work. A full-length publishable work might be another matter, though.
So, I am in the research stage. Set a millennia in the past, I am hoping to tell the story of a semi-historical (or should that be pseudo-historical) but much overlooked Irish figure. In my dreams, I see the book as a James Michener crossed with Morgan Llywelyn. The bones of a story are in place, typically full of contradictions, which I hope will allow me the freedom to embellish to beat the band. I'm equal parts nervous and excited to be starting on such a venture but I feel that with the publication, this coming June, of my short story collection, 'In Too Deep', I have bought myself a few months or so to at least give it a try.
Discipline will be the key to getting finished. Daily word count targets are my way of getting a workable first draft, 1000 words, limited tea breaks, no excuses. The difficult part is actually getting started. For now, the research part of this game is enjoyable, and necessary, but I know that after a while I'll probably start using it as an excuse. The sooner I can actually start writing, the better ...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mornin', y'awll!

Okay, here we go...
First of all, I suppose an introduction is in order. So, here it is:
My name is Billy O'Callaghan, I live in an attic in Cork (in Ireland, for those in distant lands) and am trying hard to write my way to sanity. Apparently, I still have quite a distance to go.
Last year, I received the boost that all us poor misguided creatures (writers...) crave, when a collection of my short stories, entitled 'In Exile', was published by Mercier Press, Ireland's oldest independent publishing house. Not that very many people noticed, of course (check the Amazon sales rankings if you require confirmation). There was no juggernaut promotional campaign, not for a small first printing (something like 2000 copies, still not sold through). The book scored a few pleasant reviews, not exactly cloud nine stuff but enough to set the pulses fluttering, and then that was more or less it.
Mercier, though, must have liked something about the book, because they have decided to gamble on me again. Sometime this coming June, a second collection, 'In Too Deep', will appear in bookshops up and down the country, and across the world (well, I can dream ...). I'm not expecting miracles, but hey, you never know, do you?
Getting published might sound like I've got it made but the reality, unfortunately, is very, VERY different. Still, it has been a struggle almost beyond words to get even this far. I might be merely a minnow in a great unfriendly ocean but at least I'm out there, and trying my damnedest to swim.
This blog will be my attempt at describing life here on my lowly rung of the writing ladder, far away from the highs of bestsellers lists and appearances on Oprah, Tuburdy's Book Club, or Richard and Judy (or whatever it might be that they call themselves, these days). My world (like that of the majority of struggling writers) is a world of multiple rejections, of having to cope with the painful belly-kick that comes from not making the shortlist of whichever short story competition has held my hopes and dreams in its grasp for the past several months. The occasional successes, when they bother to come, tend to be paid in pittances at best but more likely in a solitary contributor's copy of some nice-looking magazine or journal that perhaps a hundred people will ever bother to read. A hundred if I'm lucky.
What you will find here probably won't be pretty, but it will be reality. We can't all be Dave Eggers or Jhumpa Lahiri, we can only be ourselves.

Now, it's sherbet time ...