Dispatches from Ireland by Tracey Waddleton, Part Two

St. Patrick's Park, Dublin, site of the 2022 Max Margles Writing Residency.

Posted on: 11 November, 2022

Category: Dispatches from Ireland, Max Margles Writing Residency, QWF News

On August 4, 2022, Tracey Waddleton boarded a plane to take up QWF’s inaugural Max Margles Writing Residency in Dublin.
Click here for Part One.

Writing a novel isn’t straightforward. Well, not for me, at least. I’m used to short stories. I can kick out one a day if I’m motivated, and even if most of them end up in the trash, I get enough workable material to feel confident I’m getting something right. But a novel? It’s a complex puzzle of your own creation–a puzzle only you can solve using tools that you, too, must invent. It can be tricky, tricky business.

Looking back, August 2022 was a whirlwind. I flew and cabbed and bussed and trammed. I taught two evening workshops at the Irish Writers Centre, took part in a panel discussion on their Autumn Open Day. I was invited to tours at the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Museum of Literature Ireland, and the Dublin City Library & Archives Reading Room (where I feel compelled to note I got an up-close visit with some of their rarest first edition books: Joyce’s Ulysses; Stoker’s Dracula; a stunning red-suede-bound edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination illustrated by Dublin stained-glass artist Harry Clarke). Irish Writers Centre Director Valerie Bistany brought me to the Irish sea, cooked me supper, took me out on the town with some other new friends to celebrate my birthday. I wandered museums, explored the length of the Liffey, slipped home through the grounds of Dublin Castle after evenings in Temple Bar. I made it to Limerick to see Paolo Nutini. It all sounds very social, in retrospect. But most days of the month that I spent in Ireland, I spent alone in St. Patrick’s Lodge. Writing. Trying to write. Some evenings at 9 p.m. when I would hear the iron gates of the park clang shut and the rustling of the chains that were locked in its rungs to keep the others out and me in, I would often realize I hadn’t stepped outside all day, not even for a second.

I once read an interview with Junot Diaz where he described the last moments before The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was picked up for publication. How he’d almost given up on the book and on writing altogether. He’d enrolled in a course at a community college he felt was too embarrassing to name and was just weeks away from shifting his entire life trajectory. He’d lay on his office floor staring at the ceiling hoping, begging for some shift in inspiration—knowing, I suppose, that he had something there but not sure it would ever make it out of his own mind and into the world. I think about that when I feel frustrated, about how many books have almost died in home offices. Indeed, about how many have died, too, never to be read or seen or experienced. I think about how in those final moments, Diaz somehow found his way off the floor and went back to the project. He never made it to his community college course and Oscar Wao went on to be read by millions. It even won the Pulitzer.

When I arrived in Dublin for the Max Margles Residency, I had in my possession what you might refer to as large swaths of novel, the majority of which had been pulled into a patchwork document that had little form. It was a haphazard union of hundreds of Word files that had accumulated from years of dreaming the project. Wanting to keep myself in the flow, I had written and written without any kind of organization, saving various ideas and bits of story in folders to be read later, and when I did go back to read them sometime in the midst of the pandemic, I discovered I’d written the same scene sometimes three and four times, often years apart. It felt monumental to unravel. But there was new stuff to be written, too. Obvious missing parts. That potential, that promise of creative indulgence, motivated me to push forward. I had been at St. Patrick’s Lodge maybe a week or so when I put my foot down and said that’s enough and bent fully into the work.

I took a lot of walks. I wrote and drank coffee and paced around the house and stared at walls. I stood outside in the garden amid the tall flowers, watching the people in the park below, drank in the fresh air, then dragged myself back in the house. I showed up to work and willed the work to show up for me. Then at some point, it happened. At some point, something kicked in, the muse, that thing we all seek, and the gaps in the novel started to bridge and then there came revelations, eureka moments. Clarity. And in those final days, just as the Residency was winding down in early September, I had the feeling at a certain moment that I had done it, that I had solved the puzzle. And it was true. Looking back through my work I discovered I had a real, sequential first draft of an actual novel and that was the moment that I sighed, relieved, and St. Patrick’s Lodge sighed, too, and the Cathedral rang its bells in celebration of the hour and I closed my overworked laptop and slept and slept and slept.

A lot of writers dream about a cabin in the woods, a quiet oasis cut off from the demands of daily life. As it turns out, a quiet old warden’s house in a public park in Dublin will do just fine.

On September 3rd, I closed my umbrella and climbed the steps to the top level of a double-decker bus heading for Dublin Airport. My father’s flight had been delayed and the city mowed by in a dull blur, obscured by heavy sheets of rain. We had a ten-day plan for the end of my Residency – Dublin, North Ireland, Cork & Cobh, Athenry, Galway – but the way Air Canada was operating, I’d had my doubts he’d get out of Toronto. Yet there he was, tall and smiling in Arrivals, his carry-on in tow. The queue for a taxi was an hour long.

Back at the Lodge, I washed clothes and towels and arranged them on the plastic drying rack I’d set up in the artist’s studio, the room with the most sun. I scrubbed the little Moka pot I’d used for coffee then cleaned the bathrooms and kitchen while Dad, tired of doing nothing after a long nap, hauled the old vacuum out from the cupboard under the stairs and started on the carpets. I stacked up all the books I’d accumulated, closed the documents that held the final pieces of my novel, then slid my computer into its protective sleeve.

After a nice supper out, I dropped dad at his hotel then walked back through the park for my last night there, surprised to be feeling nostalgic. I would miss the garden, the little café under the stairs, the Sunday pop-up book markets. And as I tried to sleep, the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral framed perfectly in my bedroom window, I was already grieving for the solitude the little house had afforded me.

The walls of St. Patrick’s Lodge are adorned with prints of famous Dublin paintings. The bookshelf in the dining room still has the rental agreement for a former resident, some books on photography someone left behind. There’s a paintbrush on the windowsill in the downstairs bathroom just off the paint-splattered artist’s studio with its many windows and massive skylights. There’s a half-melted candle on the mantle of the living room fireplace that I never did get around to lighting. Artists have been living there since 2012. Me, I turned the TV on once, just to hear the lilt of Irish accents while I was puttering around one evening, but otherwise I sat in the silence of the house and dreamed the rest of my book.

Sometimes I’m not sure where I live anymore: Montréal, St. John’s, Trepassey, or the little warden’s house in St. Patrick’s Park, Dublin 8. My memory reaches out to various places when it searches for belonging. Maybe it’s all the traveling I’ve been doing. Or maybe it’s the price of writing, of continually imagining yourself someplace other than where you physically are. Certainly there were long stretches in Dublin where I was operating in the fictional somewhere else. There, but not really.

On September 13th, after luggage tags and lineups and escalators and security, I walk my father to his gate then make my way to mine. I sit with my coffee and wait, the backpack that holds my laptop clutched tightly to my chest. Compared to the bustle of tourist-drenched Dublin, Trepassey, Newfoundland will be snail’s pace, dead quiet—a haven of forest and fog circling a large, still harbour some two-hours’ drive south of St. John’s. We’ll arrive home late night, jet lagged, and my elderly cat will greet me at the door. In two weeks, I’ll head to airports again, destined for my other home in Montréal. It’s okay. I’ve got a thousand pictures, a suitcase full of Connemara-marble worry stones and a first draft of my debut novel. The sun glistens on the tarmac. It’s my zone’s turn to board.

Thanks to Roslyn Margles, Rachel McCrum, Lori Schubert and everyone at the Quebec Writers’ Federation for making this residency a reality; and to Valerie Bistany, Betty Stenson and the wonderful staff of the Irish Writers Centre for their careful planning and warm hospitality on the ground in Dublin.

Shoutout to Anne-Marie Kelly, Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, and Tara Doyle, Senior Librarian at Dublin City Library & Archives, for the wonderful Reading Room Tour and rare book fun; to Margaret Kelleher, Professor and Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin (UCD), for the lovely introduction to and tour of the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI); and to Paula Farrell at the Dublin City Council Arts Office and everyone at the City of Dublin for the gift of St. Patrick’s Lodge and for always making themselves available.

With eternal gratitude to Roslyn Margles and to her late husband, Max Margles, whose love and support of literature inspired this wonderful opportunity for Quebec writers.