Award-winning writer ER Murray – whose novel for young readers, The Book of Learning, has been optioned for film – explains why living in West Cork has inspired her to make a career out of writing
It’s 6am and the sea fog has finally lifted, a deluge of rain in its place. As I pull on my walking boots, I consider my day’s workload: a commissioned short story to finish, a novel chapter to write, three freelance articles to edit, a new event to pitch, and a reader report to complete. That’s before tackling the flood of emails regarding event bookings, invoices, garda vetting, and potential freelance contracts. The vegetables need weeding and there’s firewood to chop. But first, I have a 12km walk from Colla Pier to Ballydehob to complete.
This may seem like a strange approach with so many deadlines looming, and to be honest, changing my routine like this came as a shock to me, too. I’ve always believed in working smart rather than hard, and this mantra worked perfectly when I had an employer. But in 2010, I followed my dream and moved to West Cork to concentrate on my books.
The move was a success – I secured contracts for four books and also met my husband – but combined with freelance, the workload was overwhelming and never seemed to end. Then, in 2015 my neck locked from repetitive strain and I realised I had to make some drastic changes if I was to avoid permanently damaging my skeleton.
Writing is not about waiting for inspiration to hit. It’s about sitting down, being focused and getting the job done. Yes, you need ideas and yes, you need time to ruminate, but a book will not write itself. My books contain around 80,000 words, and each had more than ten drafts. If I waited for inspiration, I’d still be on my first ever chapter. Being a writer means motivating and reinventing yourself in solitude every day. It requires immense energy as well as faith, whether you’re under pressure with deadlines or you’re out of contract – my current situation – and you have no idea whether you’ll sell another book ever again.
Novel writing is also tricky in that until you have a finished product, it’s difficult to see any progress. We’re used to progress being measurable – in daily life, education, business – and when it isn’t, it feels like failure. Day to day, writers have little to go on except instinct. There are no hard and fast rules. The writer’s journey is not linear; it’s as meandering as the West Cork landscape that has, over time, worked its way into my psyche and shown me a way to cope with uncertainty, reduce stress and enjoy a work-life balance.
Lured by the wild Atlantic and the lush hills, I originally began taking daily walks to get away from the computer, to give my neck ease and help prevent further injury. But the walks grew longer and have transformed into a staple part of my routine. When I don’t write, I feel anxious, irritable and unfulfilled. When I don’t walk, I feel restless, agitated and self-critical. Together, they create balance, enabling me to perform at my best.
Immersing myself in nature is an antidote to doubts and fears. Watching the changes in light, the seasonal flowers switching from flag iris to fuchsia to monbretia, experiencing sudden changes in weather and getting caught in a downpour; all this reminds you to be grateful. To be more accepting. Less self-critical. There is a sense of camaraderie with other walkers, and covering long distances boosts energy levels and becomes meditative. I often figure out plot issues or character flaws along the way, recording ideas and answers in notebooks or voice memos on my phone. So when I eventually sit at the desk, I feel less isolated, free of earlier concerns and I can begin with a clear head.
And I bring this approach with me wherever I go. Change of environment is a vital part of my creative process and so residencies play a huge part in my writing life. I schedule them during extremely pressured times so that I can work without distraction. Last year, I spent three weeks in the Black Mountains outside Carcassonne, hiking in pine forests and valleys while writing The Book of Shadows. Earlier this year, I spent a month in the Blue Mountains in Australia, exploring rainforest paths and steep ravines as I edited The Book of Revenge (out February 2018). I also spent a month in the beautiful lakeside village of Laugarvatn in Iceland, hiking the volcanic landscape as I researched a new novel.
Yet residencies cannot provide enough time to write an entire novel. They allow you to focus, evaluate and recharge, but it’s the every day where the real work happens. Landscape features heavily in my books and The Nine Lives Trilogy (Mercier Press) pays homage to West Cork, because I don’t believe my books would have been so successful if I hadn’t moved here.
The peaceful setting enables continuous output and the support I’ve received from the local community has been outstanding. But even more importantly, I’ve salvaged my health and found a way to make the very best of every day, no matter how stressful. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
See also ermurray.com.