SWB on The John Hewitt Festival

This year The John Hewitt Summer School had to be shifted on-line as Covid continues to wreak havoc. I thought I’d take the opportunity to post up a blog I wrote about my experience two years ago when I was lucky enough to receive a bursary and head down for a week WITHOUT THE CHILDREN. (You know I love them dearly but flip me it was great to get away for a bit).

August 2018

If I had to use one word to describe The John Hewitt Summer School, it would be this, possibility. ‘Why don’t you apply for a bursary?’ suggested my friend, but I didn’t think that I would be eligible. I write a blog, and tell a few stories, I didn’t think of myself as a ‘writer’. But it turned out that that was enough, and I was thrilled when I received confirmation from the Community Relations Council to say that I had been awarded a place. On the table was the chance to attend a full week of events and a 3 day workshop of my choice. As a busy mother I don’t get the opportunity to indulge my creative and literary side in this way: to say I was excited was an understatement.

Upon arrival at the Market Place, I met a few people who read my blog, and had heard me tell my stories at the Tenx9 events in Belfast. ‘It’s you!’ they said, ‘It’s Sour Wee Bastard!’ I have found my people, I thought.

I had been thinking about writing a memoir, and have been for some time. The Mothership was less keen. ‘Write what you like dear,’ she said, ‘But just wait til we’re all dead before you consider publishing it.’ I think when it comes to memoir writing many share the same anxiety. The material is so raw, and there is always the chance someone will be offended, possibly someone to whom you are close. ‘Write your story,’ said Ferdia Mac Anna. ‘It is yours to tell.  Do what you like with it afterwards, but write it, for you at least.’

I felt so fortunate to have managed to get a place in Ferdia’s memoir workshop. In the group, we took turns to share, and Ferdia gave each one of us the full weight of his attention and experience. He honed in exactly to what was relevant; what sentence to keep, what to omit; what said too much, and what didn’t quite say enough. Under his gentle but incisive direction, I felt myself grow as a writer. It felt part tutorial, part therapy session. People opened up and shared. There was a palpable sense of connection in the room, and when Ferdia said ‘You all have stories worth writing, and I would want to read all of them,’ we believed him.

I was daunted by the possibility if reading at the Creative Showcase on the final Friday of the week. In the run-up to the Hewitt I thought I probably wouldn’t do it; especially because it was memoir, especially because I knew the story I wanted to share. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But when Ferdia asked for readers I was one of the first to volunteer; such was the confidence that he, and the rest of the group, had given me.

When I read my piece, after paring it down to its essentials, the words chimed so it sounded more poetry than poetry. I’m no poet, but reading my story I felt I could be. As a writer I have always put restrictions on myself and what I’ve learnt over the past year is to at least give myself permission to try, and my time at the Hewitt encouraged this further.

When thinking about the week, I keep coming back to the word ‘connection’ too. At the opening lecture I spied Richard O’Leary, another regular at the story telling event, Tenx9. He was also staying at the Armagh Royal School, and had a similar sense of direction to myself. Together we wandered round, deep in chat, only to realize we’d no clue where we were. ‘I can just imagine having to ring your husband’ he tells me. ‘She was last seen looking disorientated on Scotch Street.’

When Michael Longley and Imtiaz Dharker  read on the first evening, I sat, rapt by their performances. After I bought their books and waited to have them signed. ‘The last time I saw you read I was incubating a child within,’ I tell Michael Longley. ‘It was 2013 In the Ulster Museum.’ He smiles and I take my copy and make to leave. ‘What did you have?’ he asks. ‘Tell me their names.’ He tells me how lucky I am to have two little girls, and says my hands must be full. I am amazed and touched, that this Titan of verse genuinely wants to know about my children.

I tell Imtiaz Dharker that I found her poetry about her late husband profoundly moving. She smiles and thanks me. ‘I’ve lost someone too,’ I say. ‘I want to start writing about it now.’ ‘Do it,’ she says, emphatically.

What I feel at the Summer School is a sense of validation of myself as a writer. I mingle, chatting to novelists and poets without a sense of inhabiting a different world. The generosity and the willingness to of the other writers to share theoir knowledge and experience is is immense. Angeline King advises me how to use my time more effectively, and along with Byddi Lee warmly welcomes me into the Women’s Aloud group.

I tell Maria McManus how inspiring and pertinent I find her poetry, in which she shares my concern for the environment. She lives near me in Belfast. ‘Let’s meet up,’ I say. ‘I’d like that,’ she smiles. I chat with Michael Hughes and tell him how I re-read The Iliad last year and how excited I am to read Country. I devour his novel in great greedy gulps and in a blog post later that week I imitate his style to show the Fury that is bath night in a home with two small children.

One of the sessions that resonated with me most was Malachi O’Doherty in conversation with David Park. Together, they encapsulated the importance of art in helping one transcend the everyday and tap into something more profound. Exposure to art, in whatever medium, affords us a glimpse into something luminous, and it is this which made me so very grateful to spend this week away in Armagh.

It is too easy as a mother to lose oneself in daily tasks, and to stop tending to oneself. This is why writing has been such a solace to me and has helped me redefine a sense of ‘me’. At the John Hewitt, I was utterly myself, for a solid week. I write and that feels enough.





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