Finding time to find the right tools

Final-year English students have the opportunity to develop their writing under the tutelage of novelist Deirdre Madden. One student talks to TN about taking his writing to new places.

indepth1It takes Callum and I quite some time to find a suitable spot for our interview. We make our way across the third floor of the Arts Building, finding most of the choicer nooks and crannies already occupied. We finally settle at a table facing onto the Nassau Street railings. We are here to discuss the creative writing module currently available to Senior Sophister English students. The module is co-ordinated by celebrated author and former Trinity student Deirdre Madden.

Once we have made ourselves comfortable, Callum offers a response to an exploratory opening question: “It is more about description of place rather than plot, I guess…” Does our interpretation of place affect the way that we write? Callum thinks it may well have some influence. Will our location on the third floor have any effect on the outcome of this interview? Almost definitely: the recent disappearance of the fuzzy cubes from the upper floors is particularly hard to ignore. 


Callum is still taking the module and is therefore somewhat reticent when defining its exact workings. One thing he does make clear at the outset, however, is that the module is hard work. “Many people see it as a nice module, which it is. But it isn’t an easy one. Its a proper module.” The class meet once a week for two hours but it is the preparation for these meetings that is significant. The class send in a piece of writing each week, two of which are selected to be read aloud in class and then critiqued by the group, alongside other pieces of published fiction. The temptation to cut corners with reading and assignments is, of course, to be avoided in all classes, but particularly when it comes to one’s own work: Callum feels that people will only get back what they put in. “If you present unedited work the criticism will often centre around details you could have corrected yourself,” he says.

The way in which students are encouraged to engage with texts is very different to anything they may have encountered elsewhere in their studies. It’s a lot more technical.

The class is explicitly designed for students who are already producing their own work. The way in which students are encouraged to engage with texts is very different to anything they may have encountered elsewhere in their studies. “It’s a lot more technical,” Callum says. “We’re more focused on trying to learn the tools of the trade.” According to a description on the English Department’s website, the module’s focus is ” the craft of fiction and the skills required to create work that is engaging and artistically satisfying.” The budding creative writers are referred to Andrew Cowan’s practical guide, The Art of Writing Fiction, an approach Callum initially found strange.

Importance of method

He now feels he appreciates the importance of method in honing one’s ability. The class do practical exercises that provide an invaluable starting point: asking yourself twenty questions to be answered from the perspective of your character is a good way to build their biography, for instance. At the very least practical elements of the classes provide something to kick against. Another exercise sees students create and resolve conflict between characters, which may initially seem prescriptive but actually demonstrates how narrative progresses. At any rate Callum feels his writing is being improved significantly and brought to a level where he could pursue it seriously in the future. While he still identifies his own writing as more of a hobby, there is an expectation that some of the class will go on to write full time, though he believes post-graduate study in the area would be the next step.

According to Callum, the most beneficial aspect of the course is how the module helps those embarking on larger projects to carve out the time necessary to engage with their work and set goals for themselves. The acquaintances he has outside of college who are working creatively must balance their writing with what they are doing to support themselves. The module offers an opportunity to incorporate writing into one’s academic schedule. Having a class each week where one is expected to submit original work forces him to write regularly.

The module offers an opportunity to incorporate writing into one’s academic schedule. Having a class each week where he is expected to submit original work forces Callum to write regularly.

Callum also points to some more abstract aspects of the module. He muses on whether tastes convert into a certain style, in relation to a particular member of the class who does not identify with many of the selections from the Granta Book of Irish Short Stories. The variety of styles is definitely valuable. “You pretty much never get to see other peoples’ creative writing,” he says. “There are a lot of American students in the class and it is interesting to see the different ways that they represent place.”

Several references are made to what Callum defines as a “sense of place”, something he feels is linked to the particular genre the module focuses on: thus far this term the class has analysed the work of Colm Toibín and Donal Ryan, among others. With regards his own work, he is finding himself drawn to post-recessionary narratives set in the West of Ireland. He can’t quite decide whether this is down to the influence of the course. Alternately, it could be the same impulses that have led him to take “pretty much every Irish writing module available” in what has been a formative period in his intellectual development.

Emerging voice

Though he has experimented with other forms of fiction in the past, Callum believes that the leaning towards one particular style or genre in such a course is inevitable and that there is still room for the different narrative voices within his class. The question of whether these voices were really there to begin with or if they have emerged over the course of the module remains, however, as Callum only gets to read two of his peers’ pieces a week.

Madden herself had her first short stories published in the Irish Press when she was still at Trinity and is now a member of Aosdána. The English Department’s website also tells us that the M. Phil programme in Creative Writing on offer in the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing (in Trinity) is for “practicing, or prospective authors who wish to develop their writing… in the context of an Irish writing milieu.” When asked if he felt this also applied to the undergraduate module, Callum was unsure. Much of the material on the reading list for the module is the work of Trinity graduates, such as Donal Ryan, and Callum can remember one instance where the class were referred to a book by one of Madden’s former students.  However, the material read in class is never an exhaustive list of Trinity graduates, he points out. For example Beckett is seldom mentioned, and even then, more as an example of what not to do.

Callum was quick to recommend the module to others interested in developing their creative writing. As for his musings about the origin of his style, one of the module’s Learning Outcomes points inwards: on successful completion of the module, students will be able to ” translate lived experience into fiction.” I wonder, as I turn off the dictaphone, whether Callum’s next piece will stumble upon the source of its style and identity, or focus on the ongoing search for this source. As we head off toward the places on campus we identify with, this last question of my own also remains unanswered, but only for the time being.