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Where does drafting really happen? On the screen or page – or in the head? Jamesy, the eponymous character in OCA creative writing student Guy Barriscale’s story ‘Jamesy’, presented himself ready-made and needing very little development, according to the writer. Is such easy creation the mark of a writer experienced in the genre? Not in Guy’s case; ‘Jamesy’ is his first short story – and one that has been commended in an Irish literary competition.
The story’s roots lie in an incident that took place about 20 years ago, when Guy was in his late 20s. Returning to the family home in England for a visit one weekend, he found that his father had sold the 410 shotgun Guy had shot rabbits with as a boy in Warwickshire. Perfect for its purpose, the 410 is a quiet gun so doesn’t scare rabbits off. The gun had been given to Guy by his grandfather, who knew the gamekeeper at Warwick Castle. His father didn’t want to renew the licence for a 12-bore shotgun he owned, so the 410 had to go too. The practical reason for its disposal took no account of the emotional value the gun had for Guy, and created a charge of resentment from son to father.
‘Jamesy’ was the character Guy created for the character study assignment in the level 1 OCA course ‘Writing Skills’. With the character written, the story started to take shape in Guy’s mind one afternoon as he was driving to the cottage he and his wife own just outside the village of Ballinamore in County Leitrim in the north west of Ireland. Out of the car window, he caught sight of an elderly man in Wellingtons, pushing his bike up the hill. The stranger, seen by chance, instantly became the trigger for the series of events that form the narrative of the story.
This part of central County Leitrim, just south of the Northern Ireland border, is one of abandoned bungalows, the traces of their last inhabitants lingering in a pile of empty Paddy whiskey bottles on the road opposite a doorway, a framed picture of an old man seen through a broken window, mouldy bedclothes covering a bed not slept in for years. Life is lived in the shadow of the Iron Mountain, its rituals and routines measured out by the Catholic church and the weather. ‘All of human life is there, but few humans,’ says Guy.
Three brothers share an old farmhouse close to the cottage. Bachelor farmers, one tall, one cross-eyed one and one silent, they live the poor and isolated rural life described by the Irish writer John McGahern in his earlier books http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2006/mar/31/guardianobituaries.books. Guy had wondered before the glimpse of the stranger on the road about the lives the brothers had had, each unmarried, without children and with a few cattle between them.
The dying culture of this community found its way into ‘Jamesy’, determining the story’s steady pace. Guy wrote the first draft at one sitting in May last year, starting to put words to his ideas. By then, the ideas had been germinating in his mind for two or three weeks and Guy felt he had already met the characters as he sat down to write. 3,500 words later, the draft of the story was finished. His sense that he had written something that worked was reinforced by the reactions of his wife and sister-in-law, who were the first people to read it: both of them cried.
With no redrafting or revising, Guy sent the story to his tutor Nina Milton  as an assignment. By then, he had had the idea of entering it for the Seán Ó Faoláin competition, which has been sponsored each year since 2002 by the Munster Literature Centre . Nina suggested changes only to the second paragraph, which she thought ‘a bit clunky’, and the story was submitted, taking its chance with around 700 others.
Just how unusual is it for a story or a poem to form in the mind and translate itself into written words with such apparent ease? Could it be that writers develop the faculty of self-criticism as they become more experienced at working in a particular genre? Or is Guy’s experience one that all writers enjoy from time to time?
OCA creative writing student Guy Barriscale’s short story ‘Jamesy’ has just been published in ‘Southword’, which features new writing from Ireland. The story was commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin competition.

Posted by author: Elizabeth Underwood
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4 thoughts on “Non-writing

  • I wrote the above comment before I read the story (I’d missed the link first time round). It’s so sad! I didn’t want it to end that way. Guy’s writing is meticulously descriptive and I was imagining every colour, texture and object as if seeing it through Jamesy’s eyes. ‘Barbed wire hair’ – wonderful prose.

  • First of all congratulations to Guy for his story: I enjoyed it immensely.
    But to respond to the issues raised by Elizabeth, I think sometimes first drafts don’t need much changing when the writer has done alot of thinking and possibly note-taking beforehand. At the same time, I wouldn’t want students to come away from reading Guy’s story thinking that drafting is unnecessary. I’m sure Guy wouldn’t mind my saying that he has been writing for nine years and working in the theatre, a place that deals with narrative, for even longer, so although this is his first short story, he is not a beginner writer.
    Writers work in different ways: some plan carefully in their heads or on paper before they actually start the story. Some start writing from an initial image or event and discover the story-line as they write. Both methods are valid and might or might not lead to a need to re-draft. Sometimes it’s worth while playing around with a text even if you return to your original draft: at least it confirms that the original is the one you want. I think too we have to remember that an academic course requires the writer to analyse their writing process, while submitting to a competition does not.

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