Writing Babies


Woman Writing 14

Perhaps I was feeling a bit contra-suggestive. In our fiction workshop last week we were given an unusually straightforward writing exercise to ease us into the New Year: Write about why you write. This is an age-old question which consumes all writers. Apparently. I’d never given it much thought myself and I certainly didn’t feel any compulsion to answer it last Tuesday when I had a short story floundering around my folder, looking for the nearest available scrap heap.

Unlike my classmates, it seemed. I watched as pens zoomed across page after page, drenching them with as much ink as the time would allow. The room vibrated with a sort of demented passion to give voice to the reason why writers write.

It didn’t infect me, however. I still hadn’t a clue. In the end, I put my head down and wrote about something else instead, hoping our lecturer wouldn’t ask us to read out our pieces when we were finished. (She didn’t.)

As sometimes happens, an answer suggested itself to me when I needed it least, sometime around 03:15 the following morning. It struck me as not being entirely coincidental that I took up writing in early middle age when my children were, well, if not quite reared, then at least old enough to fill in a CAO form, convert to vegetarianism and locate the ON button on the dishwasher. Maybe I decided I wasn’t quite done with baby making.

First Drafts – they’re as exciting as newborn babies, beautiful, unique, bursting with potential. You hover over them as they lie in their cots, you watch their every breath, convinced that soon they will fly and dazzle the world with their brilliance.

What you don’t bargain for is that as you nurture your darlings, they’re becoming changelings. One day you wake up to discover that your precious newborns have metamorphosed into disgruntled toddlers. All of a sudden you are beset by these waddling strangers with their tear-stained faces and mucky clothes, pulling at your skirts, howling for attention, tripping up and refusing to be put to bed. And no matter how often you wash their clothes and faces and nurse their, they still come back grubby and cranky, waking you in the night with their impossible demands.

You look at all the other parents in your writing class with their impeccably behaved offspring who seem to have glided through toddlerhood and adolescence, ready to be sent forth into the world, and you wonder will you ever get yours to grow up and leave home. But they are yours, these mewling, cantankerous urchins. You created them and now you’ve got to stick with them, keep picking them up and nursing them, hoping that something will become of them because right now they’re all you’ve got.


On The Road Again or Why I’m In A Choir

DerryWe’re on the road again. My partner and I are finalising arrangements for our trip to Derry this weekend – my choir partner, I should add, not than my life partner. She will drive. She is quite firm on this point but insists that it has nothing to do with fact that the last time I commandeered the wheel, to the choral festival in Limerick, we ended up in the tunnel to Shannon.

I’m sure Derry is a lovely city. We’re unlikely to see much of it though. We are heading up with other members of our choir, Cantabile Vocal Ensemble, to compete in the inaugural Derry International Choral Festival. From our starting point of Crosshaven, it’s a five and a half hour drive, without stops. When we arrive at our hotel on Friday afternoon we will unwind with a cup of tea before facing the first of the weekend’s rehearsals. Fifteen choristers and one conductor will spill into the bedroom, elbowing for a bit of floor or bed space; vocal exercises will be performed, scales will be ascended, tricky sections of songs will be repeated over and over, the room will vibrate with each crescendo and the shrill of the ringing phone to tell us to keep the noise down will be studiously ignored.

Afterwards we’ll slink past reception on our way out for an early evening meal. We’ll order non-spicy foods (we need a full night’s sleep), shun dairy products (a malign influence on the vocal chords), though we might try and sneak a glass of red wine, perhaps disguised as a mug of tea, past the inquisitory eye of the musical director. By 11:00p.m. we’ll be cocooned in our beds with lights out in preparation for an early start the following day.

Breakfast on Saturday will be early and light, no fried food to clog up the throats. Another bedroom rehearsal (at 8:15a.m. and hopefully in someone else’s room), a quick change into the uniform, and off to St. Columb’s Hall, the competition venue.

There will be a lot of hanging around, listening to other choirs. We’ll nod and sigh in comradely pity as it all falls apart for some groups and clasp our hands and shake our heads as semi-professional choirs give us all a lesson in how it’s done. And then it will be our turn. As we line up there will be the inevitable last minute flurry of nudging and shoving choir members into their appointed positions before, heads held high, we stride across the flood-lit stage. And finally we will sing. We will sing into the terror of the opening bars and out into the body of the piece; falling and rising like birds we’ll glide to the finish and land in unison on that final syllable. And in that moment we’ll remember why. We’ll remember why we spend days travelling, why we hang around for hours in unheated halls or churches, why on long-awaited girls’ weekends away we eschew our favourite foods and alcohol and solemnly troop to our beds by 10:30. And it’s not the camaraderie and the friendships, it’s not the winning, the elation or the laughter. It’s not even because we love to sing. It’s because we have to sing. We have to sing like we have to breathe because if we don’t we’ll die.

And this is what keeps us together as we troop from choral festival to feis, from Derry to Kenmare to Limerick to Cork and maybe beyond, whether we win or lose, whether we soar to eagle heights or flop to murky depths; it’s the primeval compulsion to sing together which binds us together and urges us ever forward.

Skinny Jeans

Skinny JeansSkinny jeans. They swarm past, flashing pastel colours accompanied by long-haired girls with heavy eye-liner and coffee cups swishing their cascading tresses and gesticulating flamboyantly with the free hand. I brush croissant crumbs off my flared trousers and sip from my bottle of still water. An hour and twenty five minutes to my first lecture.

This is student me. I left Mammy me at home, bundled her up, stuffed her into the laundry basket and locked the lid. Here’s student me in the student café about to start my MA in creative writing in UCC.

When I look up one of the skinny jeaned girls has taken a seat opposite me. I give a comradely nod and busy myself with ordering the two sheets of information I have received from the School of English into my freshly purchased 250 page project book with movable subject dividers. I notice that in between sips of coffee she is transferring her timetable into a pocket-sized student notebook. I should have bought one of those. Her chocolate fingers are long, slim and fitted with cream coloured rings. Her Afro hair is streaked with blonde and stands out regally from her head. Her eyebrows are plucked to a gothic arch above her saucer eyes. She is, I think, an Egyptian princess.

I shift my focus back to my project book and copy down the names of the modules I am taking: Writing and Experiment, The Craft and Technique of Fiction, The Business of Writing. I don’t look up because if I do I will have to notice that I am clearly the only person over the age of 40 in the café, that I am probably the only person over the age of 20 in the café.

‘God, this is so scary!’ It’s the princess. ‘I don’t know anyone.’ A tear has blossomed in the corner of her right eye and begins its descent down her cheek. She doesn’t wipe it away. She makes to bring the coffee cup to her mouth but her hands are too unsteady. She lands it with a thud on the table and froth bubbles over the rim and slithers to the table. Mammy me unpicks the lock on the laundry basket, slips out of the house and slinks into the café. She shoves student me out of the seat. She roots around in her bag of Mammy clichés. ‘It takes time to settle in.’ ‘You’ll make new friends.’ ‘It’s natural to be scared.’ ‘I’m scared myself, wondering if at the age of 47 I’m in my right mind at all to be heading back to college to do a course which qualifies me for nothing and is virtually guaranteed to earn me no money whatsoever.’ She considers this for a moment, seems quite cheered up. She holds her head high as she walks away from the table. As for me, I still have more than an hour to kill. I wonder if there’s enough time for student me to pop in town and buy a pair of skinny jeans.

Cork Ghosts

cork ghosts by Fiona WhyteWhat I like most about Cork are the ghosts, the ghosts of the older city, guarded behind the imposing presence of Father Matthew.

Move away from Father, over the bridge, along the quays and up Shandon Street, you leave behind the modern city and its quest for sophistication. Here, in amongst ebony skinned youths and pink-haired girls, the ghosts emerge from steep steps and lane ways.

A man in a long brown coat tips his hat at me as he passes by and I swear it’s Frank O’Connor. Shop fronts cry out Polski. A teenage girl at the bus stop checks out her Facebook updates on her smart phone. But the buildings can’t cover their origins of decades and decades ago and everywhere the music of the Cork accent rings out loud, louder even than the bells at the top of the hill.

Going past the North Cathedral and down Cathedral Walk – my mother still calls it Chapel Lane – children in the school yard are shrieking as they fly from a pig-tailed pursuer.

Girls are whirling ropes and one chants rhymes as the others skip. I think she’s my grandmother. I learned those same rhymes from her, and No. 3, the house where she was born, is just nearby. Its walls have been recently painted white but this cover up of its natural grubbiness is temporary, I’m sure.

What’s more, I’m certain now that if I walk through the front door, beyond the heavy curtain which separates the three foot square alcove from the not much larger living area, I will be greeted with a welcoming if toothless smile from the tiny woman who inhabits the chair in the corner. Her white hair is pulled back in a bun. Her black skirts reach the ground and a heavy black shawl is wrapped tightly around her. She holds court from the corner, though she rarely speaks. But all eyes are trained permanently in her direction, for just above her head, perched on a sloping shelf, is the miracle box, a chest of moving black and white images accompanied by muffled sounds. My grandmother’s mother, she lived to be ninety-six.

Leaving Cathedral Walk, I turn back to town and treat myself to a Moroccan couscous lunch in Cafe Bendec. I look out the window, content that here on Pope’s Quay, amidst the scurry of vehicles and pedestrians, the ghosts continue their eternal patrol.

Fiona Whyte

First Kenmare Choral Festival, Last Chance to Hear Cantabile Perform “America”

Cantabile Vocal Ensemble Cork

This weekend Cantabile are taking to the road to perform in the first Kenmare Choral Festival. Not content with our recent success in Sligo where thirteen of us sang in four part harmony, this time nineteen of us are tackling Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” which is divided into two separate choirs with seven parts in all.

As well as singing in the Sacred Music category, we will also participate in the Chamber Choir competition and in the Light Music section where we will perform “America” for what The Boss assures us will be the final time, after which this song will be put to sleep. Now while some members mourn the untimely demise of this song and mutter bitterly about its unjustifiable euthenasia, there are others who would like to see the piece hung, drawn and quartered with its entrails displayed at the city gates.

Admittedly, our version of “America” has had a chequered past. We stunned audiences (and ourselves) with a magnificent performance in last year’s Cork International Choral festival where we took second place but then there have been times when we have missed our words and forgotten the words, leaving a bewildered accompanist playing an unintended solo. (Funny how this never happens when we sing in Hungarian…)

Whatever happens in Kenmare, don’t miss your final chance to hear us take on this iconic chorus from West Side Story. It will never sound the same again.

Fiona Whyte is a member of the Cantabile Vocal Ensemble Cork