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On making the same choice second time around by Niamh O’Connor

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Photo on the right features Niamh O'Connor and screenwriter Jeb Stuart.

At the age of 14, I decided I wanted to be a writer. My dad brought home an old office typewriter and a book of instructions about how to touch-type. My mum got me a poster of Irish writers, which I taped up proudly to my bedroom door. For the next ten years, until I moved out of home, the faces staring back at me every time I sat down to practice were: John Millington Synge, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Flann O’Brien, Sean O’Casey, Oliver Goldsmith and Patrick Kavanagh. 

Why Ireland’s incredibly rich female literary heritage was being suppressed in the 1980s is another article altogether. For now, suffice to say, that at that point in the timeline of our culture Mother and Baby Homes were still a thing.

But back to me bashing away at that old Remington with keys stiff enough to shorten fingers. My kids would have dubbed me an ‘emo’. I was overly sensitive, driven and obsessive. I was reading The Face of Dorian Gray for fun. For fun! 

The faces of the men looking down on me from the pantheon poster gave mixed messages about what the writing life might actually be like: privileged for Synge, fabulous for Wilde, impoverished for Joyce, chaotic for Behan, fun for Shaw and lonely for Kavanagh.

But I digress.

Every story needs a set-up, conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution. To the conflict next. Previous Artists Connect blogs have already set the scene: 

  • Award winning novelist, Olivia Fitzsimons described the feeling of creative “failure” that motivated her first novel. 
  • Prize winning short story writer, Robert Barrett talked about becoming a full-time writer following a lifetime of having “dabbled” after being made redundant during the pandemic.
  • Produced playwright Philip St John talked about being racked with self-doubt in his mid-50s and the “bruising” workshops he attended.
  • Internationally acclaimed harpist Aisling Ennis highlighted the battle between the artistic inner voice and the guilt that it was taking her away from time with her baby.
  • Internationally published novelist and theatre maker Emily Gillmor Murphy discussed the concept of one defining moment of success after the years spent in the arts following the publishing deal she secured at the age of 21.
  • Writer, filmmaker and podcast producer Conor Dowling evoked the metaphor of a train ride that been abandoned by too many of his talented friends, wondering if the pace of progress was worth it. 
  • Multi-talented actor and filmmaker Brian Matthews Murphy wrote about how when he quit his job to devote his life to the arts, “I was no longer working. I was no longer employed. I was an actor!”

Equally, when I was a teenager, becoming a writer was not a career choice. Not if you wanted a life, by which I mean to earn a regular income so as to sustain an independent existence.

Except there were close alternatives. The journalism of Nell McCafferty was breaking the mould. Nell was writing court reports from the Bridewell District Court, shining a light on a hidden Ireland. Her coverage of a case like Ann Lovett, in which a 15 year old schoolgirl from Granard, Co. Longford died in childbirth in front of a grotto to the Virgin Mary, was causing the kind of cultural shift that would ultimately break the death grip of theocracy. 

So I became a print journalist, a career sustained for over 20 years.

During all this time, I “wrote” on the side and had seven books — fiction and nonfiction — published. 

Cue the crisis: By 2014 it was pretty clear that it was all over for print journalism, because the internet had changed everything. 

People didn’t want to pay for newspapers when they could get the information free on social media. Advertisers realised they could target their audience with much more precision in the digital world. Content was old by the time it hit the streets, unable to compete with the instantaneousness of the web.  

The time had come to find some other means to support my ‘real’ writing. Except since books were technically part of the print industry and therein lay the rub.

It is true that writing skills are transferable to the digital world. Except there aren’t many occasions in your life when you get to revisit the choices you made as a teenager and decide, with the benefit of hindsight, if you’d do it all over again. 

In midlife, I had hit my midpoint moment of truth. I decided that I still wanted to tell stories, just in a different way… 

How had Love/Hate catapulted organised crime into the national conversation when newspaper pages about actual cases and characters are regularly flicked over, unread? 

I decided to go back to college to study screenwriting because, out of all the storytelling disciplines, the analysis of the structure of narrative was so extensive (probably because of the amount of money involved in producing anything).

It was a big decision. Like Aisling Ennis, I had young children. Like Robert Barrett and Brian Matthews Murphy, I had no job anymore. I had never had that clipboard moment that Emily Gillmor Murphy so humorously described either.

It was a TED talk by the Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert that helped me take the plunge.

Elizabeth’s 2006 memoir about travelling across Italy, India and Indonesia after her divorce was turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Julia Roberts.

The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 187 weeks. Oprah Winfrey devoted two episodes of her show to talk about it. Elizabeth sold 12 million books.

She felt validated. She was finally a success. She also knew that it would never happen again. Knowing she was bound to fail with her next book, made her consider quitting the game while she was still at the top. Except her creativity had survived all the years when she was getting rejection letters and couldn’t break through. 

Why shouldn’t it also survive the fact that she had been a publishing sensation after the event?  

Elizabeth realised that writing was her vocation. That was the thing that sustained her when her next novel “tanked”. It had nothing to do with success or failure. She simply couldn’t walk away.

To the resolution now when nothing will be tied up in a neat bow because this is real life.

It’s going well at the moment. I’ve screen projects in development with some great companies. Maybe that will change tomorrow. I’ll still have my vocation. 

Artist Biography

Niamh has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and history from UCD and Master of Arts degrees in journalism from DCU, screenwriting from IADT and creative writing from University of East Anglia.

She started her writing life as a crime journalist and worked as the true crime editor of the Sunday World for 12 years. She is the author of seven novels and nonfiction books and  has been nominated three times for an Irish Book Award. In recent years, Niamh has been working as a full-time screenwriter. Her crime dramas have been optioned by O’Sullivan Productions, Danú Media and Treasure Entertainment. Her books are represented by David Higham Associates and her screenwriting by Independent Talent Group. She was made a Lord David Puttnam scholar in 2021.

Twitter: @crackingcrime | Website: