There were nine of us - Deirdre, a teacher, who had always dreamt of being an investigative journalist but now wrote poetry long-hand in bed at night. She was running out of storage space for her notebooks. Katie was more into filmmaking and costume design but had come as moral support for her mum, Alison. “Mum tells great stories about her childhood,” she said, “she needs to write them down”. John had been given a ‘record your own life story’ book as a present. He had to keep a journal every week and eventually he’d get a hard-bound copy of himself. Ellen had travelled by bus from Cookstown. She kept checking the return timetable. She was interested in processing what made her tick. Frank had completed 57 open learning courses since 2017. This was the only one he hadn’t tried yet. He was an expert on where to find coffee on campus and wanted to produce better essays for his latest MA. Tom was a former sales rep who had turned his passion for sailing into nautical fiction. His experience of self-publishing made him incredibly talented in everyone else’s eyes. Hazel had entered a few writing competitions but hadn’t won any prizes yet. She was on the verge of giving up. And then there was me.
“Why are you here?” the man who was taking the class had asked. According to Google, he was ‘an award-winning Belfast-based author and journalist’. I couldn’t find a Wikipedia entry for him. I reckoned he deserved one after fifty years of organising words into sentences. Some days, dealing with paragraphs can be quite exhausting. Why was I there? I had absolutely no idea. It was a Saturday in mid-October, it wasn’t raining and I was in a clinical, meeting room¹, over-looking a quad, on a deserted University campus, in a building I’d last set foot in well over twenty years ago. I was old now, maybe too old to be anything more than middle-aged. It was my daughter’s turn to excel in this seat of learning. I appreciated the directions she had WhatsApped me as I struggled to locate the Peter Froggatt Centre. “What a legacy,” I thought, “to have a Wikipedia entry and a building named after you”. I had booked the course at the end of the summer when life seemed brighter, and we lived in ignorant bliss of what would unfold in September. I’d deliberated over whether to go, when I realised late on Friday evening, that it didn’t finish at lunchtime. I’d even considered an escape plan, an urgent phone call, a request to get home as soon as possible to assist with the laundry.
Like every good facilitator, he’d adopted the ‘no-one knows who’s next’ system for our ‘why are you heres?’. The room was palpitating with anxiety. “Lady with the red glasses,” he said, “man with the checked jacket”, “woman with the blonde ponytail”, “you there with the scarf”. I pondered how he would describe me. “Young girl with the blue trousers” would have been lovely. In the end, I came last. “I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer,” I said when he pointed at me. I could tell he thought I was mad, rising well above my station. I’d only been published twice. As I reflected on my pigeon-holing fear and he ticked off his list of names, mine at the very bottom, we were informed that Barbara and Bill hadn’t turned up. I wondered about them, what value they might have added, whether they’d had a sudden success and no longer needed the course. I also wondered about choosing to label myself as something which has the capacity to leave me forever feeling like a failure, forever questioning what value I am adding. “I’m not a fan of academics,” he said, “they’re not very creative”. I decided not to admit to being one in a former life.
“Would you like a tea break?” he asked. This wasn’t going to be fast paced. We’d only done the introductions. “Could someone bring me back an extra-hot, large latte?” he said. I considered my motives as we wandered en masse to the Students’ Union, Frank leading the way. Was I brazenly trying to win favour when I volunteered to be in charge of the latte? I knew he wrote a ‘religious’ column in the local newspaper. I quite fancied one - a column. Surely his retirement was imminent. “I’m not religious,” he would repeat regularly throughout the day, “but I have a faith”. I wanted to explore this more, that tension between religion and faith. Despite my best efforts to focus on other topics, I find myself continually propelled to write about the church. There is danger in popping my head above the parapet yet something addictive about my underground readership. They will never like, comment on or share anything but they are there. I call them ‘my stats’. I wasn’t sure I could cope much longer though with the covert appreciation, the odd whisper, nudge or secret endorsement. Maybe it was time for a real audience, people that actually existed, a few Belfast Telegraph readers.
The title of the course was genius - ‘Writing for profit or pleasure?’. “You won’t make any money from writing,” he said, “none of you are Seamus Heaney”. It was good to get that cleared up. Pleasure was the only option.
“What does every writer need?” he asked. “Solitude, peace, space, no children, gin, an editor,” I thought. “Give you a clue,” he said, “begins with c”. ‘Curiosity’, ‘compassion’, ‘confidence’, ‘clarity’ were among the guesses. “Has two m’s,” he said, “Communication,” we all shouted at once. “No sorry, doesn’t have two m’s,” he corrected himself. We gave up. “Compulsion,” he announced. It was obvious really. He wasn’t wrong. “Complete the sentence - when I am not writing, I am….” was a recent discussion on Twitter. “Thinking about writing,” was the most common answer. When I found myself a couple of hours later in a room staring at a clock, under exam conditions, writing on a topic chosen by someone else, to be critiqued by everyone else, I remembered that word. I was resistant. “This is not how I write,” I thought, “I have to be inspired, angry, really angry, or so moved emotionally that I can’t do anything other than write, compelled”. “And besides,” I thought, “I don’t do criticism. When I say, ‘get in touch’, I mean to say something nice”.
We had an hour to produce our masterpieces, sell our writing abilities, establish if we had a future. I had wasted half of it looking for lunch. I simply cannot create on an empty stomach. I’d trekked back to the Students’ Union on the search for sustenance, only to find Tom and Ellen had paired up and snaffled the last sandwich. I tried not to brood on their sabotage of my creativity. Getting a smoked salmon bröd toasted in Botanic Avenue was time-consuming but it sure did make me feel like a writer. I resisted the urge to pop into No Alibis bookshop to picture my novel on the shelves. Time was of the essence and I needed to produce something, anything. And here it is - ‘The Time Of My Life’, a piece within a piece, a chicken stuffed in a turkey or a ballotine, or something like that.
(But don’t click on this yet, read to the end and come back …. https://dj-sloan.medium.com/the-time-of-my-life-726471897c1c\)
“Being a writer is a mindset,” said the man who was taking the class. “Other people can’t do it,” he said. “Life got much easier,” he said, “when I realised not everyone is observing the world the way I am”. We all nodded. It resonated, we felt understood. Many times, I have asked my husband why other people are so thick.
I read out my piece. Frank said it was the perfect length, he smiled throughout. There was a round of applause. I didn’t get carried away. John got one too and I can’t remember anything about what he wrote. Alison had written about her birth, her mother’s concern that she might have red hair. She had wanted a boy. Alison had spent her whole life feeling like she had disappointed her. Now, her mother had dementia and she couldn’t ask her if she had disappointed her. Katie’s piece was philosophical, she was only 23, she hadn’t lived enough life yet to have had a ‘time of her life’ but the important thing was she wanted to live it, and live it well. They were a team, the two of them. “When Katie’s dad left me, he left her too,” said Alison. Ellen and Tom both had stories of surviving cancer, reliving that devastating moment when they were given bad news. They had much more in common than sharing a sandwich. Hazel turned out to be a comedian, her tale of taking a short-cut during a 5k fun run, revealed her comedic timing and desire to make people laugh. She kept the certificate in a bottom drawer. She was told she needed to bring it out, frame it, put it on the wall. She deserved it. Deirdre’s poem focused on breathing, of gasping for breath during the early days of the Covid pandemic, of being hospitalised, oxygenated, of feasting on fresh air when she was released into the arms of her husband. She wept as she recalled her experience. We all wept when Frank revealed that that he had lost his only daughter just eighteen months ago. He wanted to honour her memory. She had always told him he could write, had believed in him, encouraged him. As Northern Ireland endured the worst of ‘The Troubles’ in 1972, he was protesting in Paris, a teenage revolutionary, cold, hungry in a top-floor flat near the Sorbonne.
There were nine of us and there was so much more to each of us.
“What is your main take-away from today?” said the man taking the class. “That I could do your column when you’re on holiday,” I thought. But, I simply repeated back what he had told us. “Writing won’t make you rich, but it will make you feel rich”. Despite my cynicism, my back-up escape plan, I couldn’t have left that room. I was enthralled, enriched by hearing the stories of my fellow writers, by seeing how much it mattered to them to be able to tell their stories, by realising just how powerful words can be, by understanding how we all need to write stuff down, both for ourselves and to leave for others. That is our legacy. We don’t need a Wikipedia entry or a building named after us.
A few days later, I would receive an email from him, the man who had taken the class. “Don’t worry about being pigeon-holed,” he said. “Write for people across the board, especially if they pay you to do so”.
 Frank explained that we were in a meeting room.