Lecture given by June Duffy at the Kenny/Naughton Autumn School
October 27th 2012
Firstly, I would like to welcome everyone here and say thank you to Paul Rogers for inviting me to be a guest speaker at this prestigious event. It really is an honour to be here tonight…and so unexpected. I came along this afternoon and listened as the children read out their short stories and poems. They were the winners of this year’s short story/poem competition, and it was a real privilege to share in the celebration of their creative achievement. It wasn’t just the warmth of the log fire that I felt as I stood in the room, but also the family pride…and rightly so. Creative achievement is at the heart of this festival.
Tonight, I am here by request and I would like to celebrate my creative achievement with you. This is not as easy as it might seem because in discussing the end product i.e. achievement I feel that it is important to also discuss the process i.e. the creative spirit. Now, in many ways, I find it hard to define what the creative spirit is. I know that when we use it we want to “awaken” , “evoke”, “stimulate” and “inspire” . In reality the creative spirit emerges when we are required to use imagination or invention. Exactly how this works is a mystery that not even a crime writer could solve. Logically it has to start with sensory data delivered to the brain, which is then either stored or used. But, to understand how this data is then transformed by a creative force or impulse has proven to be a challenge even to scientists. It is very much a “work in progress”. In short we really do not know the answer, but there is a suggestion of union between the two key words “creative” and “spirit”.
It was Sir Charles Sherrington, considered by many to be the grandfather of neurophysiology, who once said,” The human brain isan enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one, a shifting harmony of sub patterns. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon a cosmic dance”.
I wonder if either Patrick Dermot Kenny or Bill Naughton ever analysed their creative ability in this way. I certainly didn’t. But I do believe that it is the ability to record and notate these patterns that takes every writer on a journey of infinite outcomes. Staying with the scientific analogy for just a moment it is widely recognized that we all have an estimated one million million brain cells (The Mind Map Book by Tony & Barry Buzan) but that, at any given moment, we only use a maximum of 5% of them. Being an ex teacher that , to me, explains a lot! It does beg the question, however, “What are the other 95% doing?” They must be whizzing all over the brain weaving endless patterns. Patterns that are transient by nature, never staying with us on a permanent basis, but constantly coming and going.
This is where the human species has a remarkable ability that, in my mind, sets it apart from every other species on earth. It is the ability to take these mental patterns or images and transfer them by making marks, and by giving these marks meaning. This ability to transfer images and thoughts has been demonstrated by diverse cultures in a variety of ways; cave paintings , Egyptian hieroglyphs, runes, tweets and texts to name but a few. It starts from the very first time that a young child is given a crayon . The child usually does one of two things; puts the crayon into his/her mouth or discovers the ability to make marks. From that one discovery each and every one of us has taken a giant step forward. We become “recorders”. Further down the road in our personal development we discover another ability , and that is the ability to give meaning to the marks that we make. This is nothing short of a cosmic leap for mankind because now we become “creative recorders”. Were you to look up the word “creative” in the dictionary, you would find that it means imaginative or inventive: two key words in the beginning of a creative writer’s career. Although I must admit I never dreamed of writing as my chosen career path.
When I was a young child, before I even attended Nursery School, I learned about stories and story -telling. At first, I heard the oral family stories from my Grandmother and the bedtime stories from my Father. Every night my Father would tell me about “Peter, the rabbit” and all the adventures he had with his friends the ducks and geese. Although they were invariably short stories, they would fill my head with pictures. At some point after that I developed an interest in books, and I can clearly remember the first book I ever “read”. The reading scheme was colour co-ordinated and the starter books were in red. So my first ever book was called “The Little Red Lorry”. It was exciting stuff, and it went like this. “The little red lorry went up and up and up the hill. The little red lorry went down and down and down the hill.” I must have read that book at least a hundred times. I knew it off by heart. At some stage someone, I believe my Mother, showed me how to point under the words when I was reading and the rest, as they say, is history. I had become a “reader.” I joined the local library at the age of six and discovered the magical world of books. Little did I realize then that reading would become a life- long pleasure.
When I started school , like everyone here, I had to learn the mechanics of reading and writing. Story writing would involve being given a blank sheet of paper and a theme/topic to write about. Inevitably my mind would go blank at the prospect of creativity. In those instances I would dig deep into my reading repertoire for inspiration, and it usually came from the writers of children’s classic stories. Attending Grammar School I continued to study the great writers and poets. At this stage I was preparing for a teaching career, and I was convinced that I was going to revolutionize teaching methods . I was going to motivate each child to achieve their full potential. In reality, something unexpected happened along the way. Somehow every child that I have ever taught has managed to motivate ME to achieve MY full potential. Every “creative” lesson, every drama session, every story setting has helped me to hone and perfect my story telling techniques. In preparing to teach the child, I was able to develop skills in delivery, presentation and content. I now realize that all my personal development was to bring me to this point in time. Every step of the way was preparing me to become a creative writer.
I must have been something of a slow learner though, or at least a thorough researcher, because it has taken me fifty years to get round to writing my first in a series of children’s story books. I had been asked over many years to do so: initially by parents and then by my husband, Tony. So I guessed there would be some interest out there. But nothing could have prepared me for the response I have received over the past three months since publication.
Story poem writing had been a passion of mine for many years but in coming to Ireland this passion was infused by the spirit of the countryside and the local people. In particular, it was during the many visits with newfound friends that I finally found my “eureka” moment. Listenening to their family stories I was taken straight back to my own childhood and it struck me that my family stories were never written down. They had been passed on orally from generation to generation. So I took a decision to get one of my stories published. I had retired from teaching so, in many respects, it was a now or never decision. But, as I had written so many stories, I was faced with the dilemma of which one to choose.
One night as I was settling down to sleep, in between the state of consciousness and unconsciousness, I had a vision of my main character, Séan bursting through the front door of his house saying “I’ve Seen Granddad”. I sat bolt upright in bed much to the concern of my husband who asked “Are you alright?”. My response was “I’m O.K. I’ve just had an idea for a story”. I went straight into the study to write down the ideas as they flowed. These initial notes were edited and re-edited over the next few months until I was happy with the final product.
Now technically, I don’t know what word to use to describe that particular moment when everything seemed to gel together. But I do know that in that instant I was at one with my creative spirit. I felt a burst of activity as phrases, words and ideas came tumbling one after another. I could visualize the story playing out in my mind’s eye. Instinctively, I also knew that these images and ideas were transient, and if I didn’t get them written down they would be lost forever. Amazingly , what I have found since is that the creative spirit itself is not transient. I have gone on to write more stories about Séan and his family. Each story has been created whilst being in what I can only describe as a state of grace. And I now wonder if this was what the famous authors used to describe as their “muse”. All I know is that for me it is like a portal opening into a world of endless stories. As I enter through this portal it’s as if an invisible hand places the mantel of creative story teller onto my shoulders, and the magic begins.
Although I find the creative process a solitary exercise, I am not alone. There are thousands of story tellers in the world today, millions, maybe even one million million.; each one telling stories that are unique . But, I am the only person who can tell my stories. As Frank Sinatra once sang, “I did it my way”. I didn’t achieve my goals alone either. So many people have helped, guided and suggested along the way. In particular the IRD in Kitimagh, Design West in Kiltimagh, Ollie Sweetman, the award winning illustrator who has agreed to illustrate all my books and the printers in Kiltimagh , who agreed to stitch bind my book. Above all I take pleasure in receiving the comments and feedback from readers young and old. I have shared in their stories that have been prompted by my story. Now I never second guessed that would happen. But it does go to prove that when you release your story, it can take on a whole new life of its own. I have enjoyed taking the important decisions too. The most important of all was whether to self publish or not. In the end I decided to self publish because I wanted to have editorial control over the size, characterization, colouring, quality and to ensure that my book was as locally produced as I could get it. I am a local girl now, after all. It has been, and continues to be, a learning experience for me, and I have found a freedom in following the path that creative writing has shown me.
It was Gustave Flaubert who once wrote “ You must write for yourself, above all. That is your only hope of creating something beautiful”. I don’t know if that is what I have achieved with my first book. I certainly hope so.Standing here this afternoon , I was fully aware that the young writers are the beautiful creators of the future .They are the true stars and they fully deserved the accolade and the awards they received. They are now very much part of the story writing tradition that the Kenny/Naughton Autumn School seeks to promote and celebrate.
In conclusion, I have found that Education, one way or another, has been a huge part of my life. It has helped me to continually grow and develop .If it has taught me anything, it has taught me to be passionate about imagination and invention. It has also taught me that learning doesn’t stop at the end of schooling…that life is the greatest teacher of all…and that you can never second guess what lies just around the corner. And, just when you think there can’t possibly be anything else in life to discover, you’ll find another story to tell. Why write at all? Well, we are a social species and we have a basic need to communicate, to share, to “friend”. Modern technology helps us to do this at lightning speed all over the world. We are able to interact in ways our ancestors could never dream of. It is as instant as a click of the Enter button. Who knows where technology will take us in the future? At the moment technology plays the part of assistant in the communication process. It is not the process itself. We still hold that important rôle. And, whether we like it or not, it is an active rôle. In plain terms , from the time we are born until the time we die, the brain never stops functioning. Recalling the words of Sir Charles Sherrington, it is an “ enchanted loom” So, we continue to imagine, to invent, to muse, to dream, to create stories and poems , and in doing so we become one with our creative spirit. When we engage that creative spirit :
“It is as if the Milky Way entered upon a cosmic dance”.