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Finding The Craic

When writing comes alive

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Years ago, on a day trip to a small island off the west coast of Ireland, a fellow passenger announced that he was off in search of the craic on the island. I love that expression. I think of the craic as ‘where it’s happening; where the life is.’ When I am working to lift my own writing, or when I am acting as a mentor to another writer, I often find myself looking for the craic.

When it comes to reading and writing, the craic, in my experience, is often to be found in moments that seem to interrupt an established regularity: they insist on their presence and inclusion despite not fitting into any preconceived pattern or expectation. In my own work I have often been drawn to working with stories from pre-existing texts, such as Homer’s Iliad, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Testament. There is a moment in 1 Samuel 6 when the Ark of the Covenant, drawn behind a cart, pulled by two cows who have had their new calves left at home, arrives in Beth-shemesh: ‘The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went […] Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it’ (v13). It is such a vivid scene. We hear the lowing cows and, like the people of Beth-shemesh working in the fields, look up to take notice.

In Book X of the Iliad Diomedes and Odysseus steal the famous horses of Rhesus. When Odysseus has loosened the horses, he whistles to Diomedes (ll 500–3). He wants his friend to look up so that he will not miss this breathtaking, unrepeatable moment. Odysseus’ impulse to alert Diomedes to this wonderful sight (‘You don’t want to miss this, mate’) makes us see it too, all those hundreds of years on. At least that’s how I read it. Both these texts show us moments that quickened the interest of people from the Bronze Age, over three thousand years ago, claiming their attention and thereby claiming ours. Reading about the attention of others sharpens our own.

An instance from the New Testament which stands out for its circumstantial and particular nature involves a young man whose name we do not know: a follower of Jesus, he appears in Mark 14 (v 51). Jesus’ pursuers attempt to arrest him and grab hold of the linen cloth he has presumably wrapped himself in when woken by the clamour. But the man gets away and runs off naked, leaving only the cloth in his pursuers’ hands. Symbolism can, and has been, read into this moment (in the Passion libretto I wrote, there is a chorale in which the sheet anticipates the shroud that is soon to wrap Jesus) but this event is first and foremost a piece of irregular experience: it is as if we hold in our own hands a piece of cloth from two millennia ago and see the naked body running off.

You could say it’s a matter of texture. It is as if we were blindfold and running our hands against the smooth surface of a past that has been polished and packaged into the coherent narratives of history and come across something rough and angular; something that doesn’t quite fit. Keats wrote excitedly to his friend Leigh Hunt about a sentence in a review written by William Hazlitt that struck him ‘like a Whale’s back in the Sea of Prose.’ The exciting sentence made its vital presence known by sticking out, like a whale, breaching the waves. Could Keats also have been half-remembering the words of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, describing Antony’s delights as ‘dolphin-like, they showed his back above/ The element they lived in’ (V.ii.89–90)? In both cases, what is vital and exciting somehow presses through to make itself felt.

For a good scientist, something that does not fit a received world view may be the start of a real breakthrough in thought. For a writer an insistent irregularity can be a sign of something worth pursuing. In my own writing there have been moments when an image, a scene, or even an entire character has asserted itself quite unexpectedly, claiming its right to exist, however much it seemed to run counter to any plan I might have had. I have learned to respect and pay attention to these moments. They are almost always life-giving. Sometimes they take a story or a poem to new places and they keep the writing alive by messing up any tendency to generalise or smooth over complexity.

They also, by virtue of their surprising particularity, sound true. Why would we hear about a man who, having hastily wrapped himself in a sheet before fleeing the pursuers of his friend, ended up running away naked because the pursuers caught hold of the sheet, unless it was true? Se non è vero è molto ben trovato (‘if it’s not true, it is very well invented’) because it feels like truth and thus communicates a sense of truth to all the other events recorded around it.

Of course, when it comes to writing, truth and what is queasily called ‘sincerity’ are seldom enough. Sometimes in a writing workshop a writer will defend a piece of work that is not quite succeeding by summoning historical facts in her defence: ‘Well I had to say it was a green shirt because it was green.’ That kind of truth cuts no ice since fact and truth are not the same thing in a poem or a novel as they are in a court of law. The poet Elizabeth Bishop cultivated a reputation for being a scrupulous truth-teller. These lines from her poem, ‘The Fish’, convey a strong sense of veracity:

I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
– if you could call it a lip –
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.

That moment of revision – ‘or four and a wire leader’ – is typical of the careful looking this poem (like so many of Bishop’s poems) communicates. More than twenty years after writing the poem she was to say of ‘The Fish’, ‘That’s exactly how it happened […except that] the poem says he had five hooks hanging from his mouth, but actually he had only three […]. Sometimes a poem makes its own demands.’ Why did she make the change? Perhaps because the long ‘i’ in ‘five’ is more assertively emphatic; it assonates with the long ‘i’ in ‘fish-line’. Perhaps also because five is two more than three, making this fish even more of a splendid old warrior.

There is an episode early on in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers in which Mrs Morel (the mother) manages to beat down the crockery man at her regular market to acquire a little dish with cornflowers on it. When she gets home and shows it to her son Paul, the two of them gloat over it together.

‘I love cornflowers on things,’ said Paul.
‘Yes, and I thought of the teapot you bought me —’
‘One and three,’ said Paul.
‘Fivepence!’
‘It’s not enough, mother.’
‘No. Do you know, I fairly sneaked off with it. But I’d been extravagant, I couldn’t afford any more [...].’
[...]
‘We c’n have stewed fruit in it,’ said Paul.
‘Or custard, or a jelly,’ said his mother.
‘Or radishes and lettuce,’ said he.

What I love about this passage is its specificity. Mrs Morel is shown – and thereby her own nature and the nature of her relationship with her son are shown – through her delight in, and attraction to a particular piece of crockery which catches her eye and catches at her heart so that she feels she must have it, however little she can afford it. There is a whole and delightful adventure in these lines. As is the case with much good fiction, the episode becomes a part of the reader’s experience. It is so fresh with life in the telling, I remember it and feel that I have lived it.

How do we, as writers, find the craic that our work needs if it is to be fully alive? There is no formula; the needed vitality is fugitive and resists method. The only way I know of is to remain open to its surprises and to develop whatever sensors I have to spot and respect its presence. The body can recognise it as it can recognise the difference between flatness and expansion. That palpable expansion can be a sign of something worth pursuing.

Elizabeth Cook has written poetry, fiction, and libretti. She is the author of Achilles (Methuen) and Lux (Scribe). Her most recent poetry collection, When I Kiss the Sky (Worple Press), was published in 2021.

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