Cape Clear Diaries (6): A Fond Farewell

south harbour, cape clear, leavng on the ferry

Leaving South Harbour, homeward bound

I’ve been home for a few days now; enough time has passed to reflect on the two weeks that I spent there. So what is the overriding feeling that I’m left with? What has my time on Cape Clear taught me?

I guess the overriding feeling is of joy and calm. My trip to Cape enabled me to reset the clock, revaluate my goals and rejig my workload to create a more harmonious work/life. In short, I recharged. But Cape also left me with a few important reminders…

1) A sense of place is important

The beauty of the island, the change of pace, the proud nature of the inhabitants, their determination to preserve island life through a mix of tradition and innovation, all fed into a vivid image of what encapsulates ‘Cape Clear’. As I heard said on the island… “You may leave Cape Clear, but Cape Clear won’t leave you.”

In your fiction, you need to make sure that the sense of place is as deeply rooted in the characters as it is in your descriptions. It’s not enough to describe a place to make it believable; you have to convince your reader, seduce them by making the character inextricable from the landscape (unless of course you’re trying to show them as an outsider. Then the reverse is required).

Consider the wild moorlands of Wuthering Heights, the harsh, unwelcoming sidewalks of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, or the unyielding, barren landscape of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Childwhen it comes to your setting, not just your characters, it’s a serious case of ‘show, don’t tell’.

2) It’s OK to give up

Despite the strong winds and lashing rain at the start of the week, I got it into my head to take the cliff walk. The exposed route involves some incredibly steep hills and boggy terrain, but even with the weather against me, I was determined. Why? Because I’d planned it before even arriving. And I’m stubborn.

However, after hiking for over half an hour without even being able to see the cliff edge or the path ahead, staggering against the wind and sinking my foot ankle deep into a delicious mix of cow pat and bog, I decided to pause. I had another ten days to go. Was it really worth it? For once, I concluded that the sensible decision was to turn back.

Likewise, with writing, it’s important to realise that sometimes an idea just isn’t working. Like a film or book you find dull, the world will not end if you abandon it. The guilt (if you’re prone to such a thing) may linger for a day or two, but if you distract yourself with a completely different project – something fresh, something exciting – you’ll get over it. Trust me. You’re much better putting your energies into something worthwhile.

Now, I don’t mean give up at the first hurdle – you have to give something a good run first. But as writers, we need to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. A story can be perfectly crafted but lack the ‘oomph’ to maintain its reader’s attention. An idea can be brilliant – but not suited to your voice. You have to learn to spot the difference between a great idea and a great piece of writing.

puppy leaving cape clear on ferry

Franklyn the seadog, running low on oomph

Which brings me to my next point…

3)  But sometimes it’s even better to try again

Not to be beaten, I returned to the same cliff walk a few days later, in glorious sunshine, and was rewarded with spectacular views. The waves crashed against the cliff, I had a wonderfully clear view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the gorse glowed against the blue sky and I was surrounded with birdsong. The bog was less boggy and with better visibility, I managed to avoid the cow pat.

If I hadn’t returned to the cliffs, I would have been left wondering – what if? Make sure you give your writing a solid chance before abandoning it completely. Try rewriting in a different tense or person, or starting at a different point in the story. Tell the tale through the eyes of a different character or experiment with alternating viewpoints. You never know, this is when the magic ‘oomph’ could happen.

4)  Take time out

I think one of the main things that Cape Clear reminded me was the importance of shutting off for a while and just seeing what happens. We’re used to being flexible in terms of shifting deadlines and juggling projects – but what about being flexible about relaxation? It’s OK to set rigid times to write and set regular goals, but if you don’t have any issues when it comes to being disciplined, then sometimes it’s a good idea to let things just take their course.

Consider, for instance, when you’re writing a first draft of a novel; my advice is to forget editing altogether. Continue with the word count and let the ideas and characters take over without any revision. Some writers like a carefully planned outline before they start to formulate a draft, but I find it liberating, and certainly more enjoyable, to just keep going and let the ideas and characters run amuck.

clear atlantic, cape to baltimore ferry

A fine day for sailing (not like the journey there – must be a karma thing)

The main character’s name may change from Mary to Tania to Ermentrude as you stumble through this initial draft, but you can easily sort that out later once you have a big body of work. The way I see it, you only get to play at the outset – after that, it’s down to editing. Separate the two to get the most out of your writing time.

And remember, it’s often during the non-writing activities that our best ideas hit. Taking a walk, having a shower, cooking dinner, train rides, chatting with friends – these are the times when your relaxed brain

As I think back to Cape Clear, I’m thankful for many things;

  • time spent enjoying the island
  • people I met there
  • important reminders relevant to both my life and my writing…

But most of all, I have the island to thank for another ten thousand words of a first draft and an absolutely cracking new novel idea – the novel I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how that I can’t wait to explore.

Thank you Cape Clear!

Cape Clear Diaries (4): Changing Pace

South harbour, Cape Clear, a favourite spot to sit and dream

Gorgeous views – imagine the smells!

A change of pace was the reason I booked our out-of-season accommodation on Cape Clear at the end of last year. I had predicted that around this time, I would be starting a new novel and that I would need a clear mind and a change of scenery, away from the usual distractions, to make a solid start.

I find that switching from one major project to another is only difficult if you try to make the switch in your everyday environment. Some people thrive on routine but for me, it brings a certain level of ennui that makes the ideas sluggish and the writing process less joyous. I don’t need to be in the same spot at the same time to write. In fact, I prefer the complete opposite.

But why choose Cape Clear?

Firstly, it’s just across the water from home – I gaze upon its two towers every day from the mainland – and it’s easily accessible by ferry. Then, of course, the island is beautiful, with plenty of character, lovely walks and stunning views. Visiting out of season is advantageous, as you’re completely free to work to your own timescales, uninterrupted. And even more importantly, the incredibly strong sense of pride, identity and community that prevails here helps you focus.

Being on Cape Clear has certainly provided the change of pace I needed to kickstart this new novel. Island life is lived at a slower pace during this time of year and for me, there has been no routine to speak of over the last two weeks, other than several walks to various favourite views and locations across the island. And that means concentrated productivity.

strange little jellyfish found in ireland

If I hadn’t gone exploring, I never would have found this beautiful creature (known as sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail or velella)

My first week was mainly spent writing, exploring at unusual hours and switching from the juggling mode of thought to pure creative freedom. There was a non-structure to my day which I found really fired my imagination and my desire to create. This last week has been much more about enjoying the company of my husband and dog, taking longer walks and socialising. I’ve still been writing, but the tempo has changed again.

The other night, I wasted almost an hour debating whether to join my husband in the pub for a music session. I’d written my daily goal of 2000 words, but even though I’d achieved my aim, guilt began to gnaw at my conscience. It sounded something like this:

‘I’m here to write so that’s what I should be doing, if I can. If there’s still an iota of possibility that more words could flow, then I should stay put and carry on. Especially since I’ve relaxed more now my husband has joined me on shore.’

The peaceful, uninterrupted writing time I’ve garnered since my husband’s arrival has been pretty irregular, so accompanying him for some fun rather than using the time effectively like I usually would felt like I was cheating myself in some way, deviating from my aim. But then my husband made a very good point.

“A change of pace. A different approach. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

So despite the random attack of guilt, I abandoned my extra writing session and went to the club. And guess what? It was a great night. The world didn’t explode, my typing fingers didn’t drop off and my ideas didn’t dry up. I got to spend some time with some really lovely, really interesting folk, full of stories, information and talent. I also learned a French jig and heard a rendition of Spancil HIll translated into Spanish.

The next day, I wrote another 2000 words without issue. Good, solid prose that probably won’t need much editing.

Some say that an island is a microcosm and I consider this statement to be true, especially if Cape Clear is anything to go by. Living in West Cork I’ve discovered that everything is magnified in rural conditions – from insecurities to weather dependency to community spirit – but an island emphasises things even further. There’s nowhere to hide. It opens you up and lays you bare.

end of cape clear, overlooking sherkin, west cork

An incredible view of Sherkin Island from the end of Cape Clear

Being here, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve realised that perhaps my initial search for a change of place to create a different tempo was unnecessary. It’s the head space that I’m fighting for and against. And that can be achieved anywhere.

Now, I know I’m lucky to live so close to a wonderful island like Cape Clear but being on the island has taught me that whatever you’re into – learning a language, playing instruments, sports, writing – if you’re serious enough, you’ll be disciplined and you’ll adapt. Because it’s part of who you are. It’s as simple as that.