Edna O’Brien on writing

A woman who is a literary titan and a magician with words was born on December 15th, 1930. Edna O’Brien. A woman who writes about female inner worlds and hidden desires. An author who writes about victims so vividly that you feel their pain. But Edna’s victims become victorious in the end, even though her novels don’t have an unconvincing, sappy happy end.

So, Happy Birthday, Mrs. O’Brien. And, please, gift us with another novel soon!

In an interview with Alec Russell, Edna said, “I’m very proud of having stayed the course. And if a young writer came up to me and said give me one piece of advice, I’d say: ʻStay the course’.”

What else does this literary giant have to say about writing?

“I work hard at the words, rewriting, finding the right words, the ones where no other word would suit, only those words. And that makes you a little bit mad.”

“Writing is the product of a deeply disturbed psyche, and by no means therapeutic.”

In an interview with Shusha Guppy, Edna reveals, “But any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions; and although style and narrative are crucial, the bulwark, emotion, is what finally matters. With luck, talent, and studiousness, one manages to make a little pearl, or egg, or something. . . But what gives birth to it is what happens inside the soul and the mind, and that has almost always to do with conflict. And loss—an innate sense of tragedy.”

That made her think, “So writing, I think, is an interestingly perverse occupation. It is quite sick in the sense of normal human enjoyment of life, because the writer is always removed, the way an actor never is. An actor is with the audience, a writer is not with his readers, and by the time the work appears, he or she is again incarcerated in the next book‒ or in barrenness. So for both men and women writers, writing is an eminently masochistic exercise ‒ though I wonder what Norman Mailer would say to that!”

In the same interview, she muses about talent and gives more priceless advice in her unique style, “When a writer, or an artist, has the feeling that he can’t do it anymore, he descends into hell. So you must keep in mind that although it may stop, it can come back. When I was a child in Ireland, a spring would suddenly appear and yield forth buckets of beautiful clear water, then just as suddenly it would dry up. The water-diviners would come with their rods and sometimes another spring would be found. One has to be one’s own water-diviner. It is hard, especially as writers are always anxious, always on the run ‒ from the telephone, from people, from responsibilities, from the distractions of this world. The other thing that can destroy talent is too much grief. Yeats said, ‘Too much sorrow can make a stone of the heart’.”

In another interview with Justine Kenin and Courtney Dorning, Edna concludes, “Writing has been my whole life. It has been as essential to me, I think, as breathing. If I couldn’t write I would be ‒ I’m anxious as a writer, and I can’t say that I find it easy, because I rewrite very extensively and worry when I’m writing, which is more or less all the time… Writing is my inner world. It’s my inner chamber.”

With only a few words, she summed up what some creative writing lecturers teach for months. Interestingly, O’Brien didn’t have a literary education, having graduated from the Pharmaceutical College of Dublin. Yet, education doesn’t have anything to do with it. One is either born as a writer or isn’t. And a writer’s talent is worthless without the ability to listen, learn, and rewrite until your head almost explodes.

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