On Becoming a Writer in Korea.
I am a writer. I write a lot. From as early as primary school I can recall being praised for being a good writer, but I was never the kind that curled up and wrote desperate prose or poetry about the dismal, misspent youth I had. No, none of that. I think I was too clouded for that. Much of my literary success was heralded by me being invited to stand up in front of the class and to read my story out loud, usually with a heckle or two from people who never read their story out loud. I think this happened about twice in secondary school. But, aside from this, there really was never any encouragement that I can recall.
I was actually more of an artist, for want of a better word, and won a few local competitions. I would draw and doodle all the time whilst chewing on the corner of my book in a cosmic daydream. But writing? No.
Recently, I have found that people are also saying I’m a good writer. I reckon that, at best, I’m a writer who has come on a lot over the past few years and one who is looking forward to improving more in the future.
This week, I started a distance learning journalism course with the London School of Journalism. I suppose it’s a way looking in the right direction for becoming a real writer, as opposed to an unreal writer. It was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, as journalism is probably the most realistic and recognisable way of making a living out of writing, which is actually a, ahem, dream of mine.
When I was in secondary school I wanted to be a writer. I think. I can’t really work out where this notion came from because I remember doing work experience in an architect’s office, and then after realising that I was too lazy to study hard enough or prepare the portfolio required for admission, so I must have given up on this notion.
Don’t ask me where writing came from. Maybe it was from one of those awful aptitude tests they force on you where you find out that you are actually incapable of being good at maths so why bother trying? In fact, I know I was good at spatial relations, but that’s nothing to do with writing (although I do like my page to look neat and organised…)
I know that when I was applying for college my first choice was a journalism course in DIT, and then my second choice would be Orts in UCD where I planned to study Politics and History – I wouldn’t need to do English as I was already really good at that with consistent Bs throughout my run up to Leaving Cert. If I didn’t get the journalism course, my subject choices would be supplemented by the obvious avenue of practical development, writing for one of Belfield’s student newspapers. It was going to be great; I’d be writing for the Irish Times by the time I was twenty five. And then I did my Leaving Cert.
I won’t go into the few ups and many downs of the next few years in too much detail, but I will give you a brief run down on how my idealistic future got shipwrecked. 370 points in the Leaving Cert and a whopping D3 (any lower and I would have failed) in English. The minimum needed was at least 375 for Orts, while the journalism course jumped from 450 to 465. When you’re 18 and you’ve pretty much decided that your future will be as you have decided, it can be pretty desperate when the old final result doesn’t turn out as designed. I ended up working in a sports shop selling runners for a year only to reapply for Orts in UCD and to forget my plans for taking the journalism course forever, but at least I still had the newspaper in UCD.
When I got to UCD I found it very hard to apply to write for The University Observer, or the other paper whose name evades me at the moment… I did manage to fill in the application form, but I do also remember that it was still in my bag a good two or three months after I had filled it out. Still neatly folded and clean in preparation for the day I would eventually manage to submit it. The same application may very well be still neatly folded in a desk drawer of my old bedroom.
You can sympathise with me when you consider the restrictions I faced. Belfield campus is very famous for having a large number of bars. Notably the Student Bar, which became a sort of home-from-home, and a staging point for most, if not all, of my one and half hour bus journeys home in my first year alone. In fact I found the atmosphere and camaraderie in UCD’s most famous and popular club that I knew there could be no comparison with any of the university’s newsrooms on campus. It was either that or the sticky lino floor and the crowd control barriers around the actual bar. I found it much more appropriate to smoke Benson & Hedges, drink putrid black coffee, and sneer at the scandals the University Observer was revealing at a rate of knots during the winter of 2001, all whilst nursing a Fosters induced hangover.
And then I graduated with no experience at doing anything suitable for employment. It would make plenty of people wonder how I ever managed a job at all, me and my BA.
I half hoped that I could help out my friends who had just started an online magazine reviewing unsigned music acts in Dublin and Belfast, but by the time they decided to allow people to contribute I was already in Korea, and less than six months later the three lads’ full-time jobs took over and the magazine stopped.
I suppose they had to make the decision to end it, and who’s to say where they’d be now if they’d focus it. They probably did make the right decision; one is the CTO of the award winning Distilled Media, the largest online company in Ireland, another is some form of an accountant and complains regularly on twitter about the Irish economy, and the other is a producer and engineer with U2. I’m still in Korea teaching English.
My writing odyssey did take a turn for the better in Korea because, for the first time, I actually started to write and talked to people who wrote and started to pay attention to what it means to write. The thing is I never really met anyone before who said they wrote as a hobby or as a passion. When I first mentioned this to my future mentors they were shocked. How could the Irish guy not know any Irish writers in person?
There is a stereotype of Ireland being full of writers, and it is one which has followed me around ever since I started writing in Korea. I get the impression that some people expect there to be poets and novelists falling out of the trees as soon as you leave departures in Dublin Airport, and for everyone to be quoting Joyce as they discuss the day’s events over their cornflakes and Barry’s tea.
The thing about the writers of Ireland is that the few who have put Ireland on the map happen to be, arguably, some of the finest users of the English language in their particular craft. Then there are the rest of us.
Now, before I get decried, I do think that Irish people are the wittiest you will find, and we are wonderful story tellers with a natural, built in empathy and disgust for our neighbours. If this helps Irish people be better writers than any other nationality, then that’s great. But believe me, the vast majority of the population are like I was when I came to Korea first; useless at grammar, clueless of punctuation, and desperate to insist that their story is better than the fella sitting next to them.
So anyway, one day I decided I’d give it a shot. I bought a pen and a notebook and decided to scribble down a few things I saw, and I even attempted a poem. I got a lot of satisfaction from this and basically continued on with it.
One drunken night, I spoke with my friend Keith and showed him my notebook. Keith, a bit of poet himself, was more than impressed and encouraged me to keep writing and to keep trying. Then word got around to another friend of mine, Jeremy, who was even more of a poet, and next thing I knew I believe I was being taken under their wings and essentially became some form of an apprentice.
They told me I had good instincts and I had a good way with words. I just needed to practice as much as possible. Using open mics as my testing ground, I set to work.
Over the next year, I wrote prolifically. I didn’t stop. I pulled my notebook out on the train, at home, between classes, in the pub, and anywhere else I could find five minutes to force some lines out. I don’t think I have ever tried so hard at something without having to think about it in my whole life. I don’t know if any of it was any good. I do know that I still have the overwhelming majority of those first things I wrote, all crammed into a blue zip-up folder and buried in the bookshelf next to the desk I’m sitting at how writing. I wish I could be as prolific as I was then, now.
I think then I became a writer, because a writer writes. The poems I wrote then were pretty basic and I hasten to argue that they were pretty ordinary and packed full of cliché. I think I’m better than that now. I never really said I was a poet, even though at the time I was only writing poetry, but I did say I was a writer.
Maybe it’s the Irishman in me, liking to beat myself up and be afraid of admitting to the fact that I do something unfashionable like write poetry. Because, in fairness, who ever heard of a cool poet?