Permission to write

Online life, the abstraction of self and the role of the writer in engaging with our changing relationship with time and space: D. Joyce-Ahearne speaks to Trinity’s Writer Fellow Gavin Corbett.


“I loved those occasions in school when you’d be punished by having to write some story that the teacher thought was an ordeal but was actually great fun, like write six pages on the inside of a table tennis ball. I’d do that sort of thing for my own amusement anyway.” You believe him then when Gavin Corbett says that he wanted to write from a very young age. Writing, he says, was the only thing that really engaged him in school. When he came to study History in Trinity, Corbett continued to write stories though never sought to get anything published in student publications and his first serious attempt at creative writing, which he always intended on being a novel, only came after leaving Trinity.

His first novel Innocence (“a terrible name, given to it by the publisher” says Corbett) came out in 2003 with Townhouse, a Dublin affiliate of Simon & Schuster. Corbett signed a two book deal with the publisher but ended up breaking the contract: “I didn’t deliberately decide to break it I just couldn’t do it, I just didn’t have a second novel in me. I did submit a really bad second attempt at a novel and I just became despondent about writing.”

The contract with Townhouse lapsed and Corbett began working as a sub-editor with the Sunday Tribune, which he believes was very useful training for him as a writer: “To be fussy about language to that level. I learned grammar for the first time. It conditions you to privilege clarity and to tighten language. You develop a sense of it through sheer dint of practise.”

During this time Corbett also signed up to the Faber Academy, a once a week writing course, which he saw as a vehicle to allow himself the time to write again. He credits the course with giving him a space to “get in the frame of mind of being a writer again, meet other writers, feel happy about being a writer, feel I had permission to be a writer.” Corbett acknowledges the difficulties in self-motivation for writers when faced with the thought of the struggle that goes with the territory: “It’s very hard to motivate yourself to write again when you have that nagging sense that it’s all going to end in nothing, that it’s a waste of time when you could be doing more economically productive pursuits, let’s just say.” Through the Faber course he met other writers and relished the opportunity to meet others in the same boat.

The Sunday Tribune went under in early 2011 and shortly after Corbett completed his second novel, This is the Way, which came out in early 2013 and won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award that year. His third book Green Glowing Skull came out in May of 2015. Last November it was announced that Corbett would be the Trinity Irish Writer Fellow for 2016, a position he will hold until July.

Back to Trinity

The position of writer-in-resident is a patronage that allows writers to concentrate on their work. Corbett says that Gerald Dawe, who runs College’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, told him that, with regard the position, “The priority is you. You take this opportunity to write. Use this time well for yourself. Make sure you get a lot written.” Having said that, Corbett feels an obligation to make the most of the teaching opportunities that come with the role and to “share what I know, what I’ve learned through hard, sometimes bitter, experience.” Corbett teaches on the masters in creative writing, as well as teaching students who take the creative writing module of the masters in Irish Writing, available through the Oscar Wilde Centre. He is also running an undergraduate workshop in creative writing, set to begin in the next few weeks.

Corbett sees the classes as being there to offer young writers what he found in the Faber course: the gift of space in time to write, the “permission to write” as he calls it. Corbett sees his role in these classes as that of facilitator, offering a space in which writers can meet and discuss their work and craft with each other, as much as work under the eye of the Writer Fellow: “There’s a huge benefit to a bunch of writers getting together and exchanging thoughts on writing, on the ups and down on trying to actually get writing done, the frustrations of trying to get something to work. Just getting your prose unstuck.”

Though he recognises the prerequisite of inherent talent, Corbett believes that, just as you can learn to play an instrument, you can learn to “write better”: “Rewiring the brain to be sensitive to the power of language, the power of sentence construction. To condition the ear to better attuned to the sonic quality of words. That’s all something that can be improved through practise and immersion.”

Corbett also has strong ideas on the responsibility that writers have in “engaging with the now”. That now, for Corbett’s generation of writers, is, he believes, defined by “the end of the industrial revolution in the west and the beginning of age of data and abstraction”. Online living, says Corbett, is facilitating the “devolution of self into further and further abstraction”. But engaging with the present doesn’t necessarily mean that the focus must be explicitly and solely concerned with virtual reality: “Our novels don’t have to all resemble somebody standing in the middle of the information superhighway with words and images flashing by them.”

Rather, Corbett seeks the energy that underpins the “the rhythm or the texture of our life today”, lived as it is increasingly online, and utilising that energy in his prose to produce something more crafted than much of the output we consume online: “Let’s use what’s around us, at what makes the world today, at the basis of our interactions but let’s not just slap it onto a page. I mean the traditional skills of craft: of the judicious eye for aesthetics and the ear for sound are still necessary and relevant.”

Time as a symptom

Corbett is currently working on his fourth novel and continuing the experiment of time and space seen in Green Glowing Skull:  “Time seems to have a kind of concreteness to it, a solidity, and I like the idea of engaging with other times within a timeframe, but not just flashback. I’m very interested in the chronotope [how time and space are portrayed in literature], in the idea of all time and space in flux and how it’s achieved in fiction, in how temporalities emerge and crash into each other. I think that’s a very honest and apt method to use for today, given how we live our lives. The textual ecosystem online is a kind of merging of time and space.”

At a time when the student body of Trinity is becoming more and more aware of the growing ties between College and private industry, and amid the mounting commodification of education and an increasingly economic emphasis being placed on degrees, the position of Writer Fellow seems to be one of the few positives in the other direction. The existence of the position is a concrete investment in the arts and a legitimate valuing of creativity, something hugely lacking in College’s agenda when it comes to cultural engagement.

For Corbett, and for all writers who secure such a placement, the position allows him to fully invest himself in his craft and do his talent and drive justice, something that is exceptionally difficult to do when it’s done a side project or in spare moments. It’s clear that being able to devote himself entirely to his work will be a huge positive:

“I don’t feel properly engaged if I’m not doing writing. It’s a way for me to engage my brain: to engage every part of me, draw on my memory, my knowledge, my reading. Otherwise I’m walking around in a daze, I’m just a flossy-headed zombie. When I write every part of me that makes up my non-solid parts, I feel is drawn into focus and I just need that.

That’s what I missed when I wasn’t writing, when I had those ten years of pricking around trying to earn money to pay a mortgage. That’s what frustrated me, I left writing by the wayside and I was unhappy. And when I wasn’t writing I wasn’t really living I was just drifting. Writing makes me understand myself.”

Photo by William Foley.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.