Mairead Willis - MA Creative Writing
How I practice writing
This year I finished a neuroscience degree in Indiana and moved 3500 miles to Cork to pursue a Master’s in Creative Writing. Writing has always been a dream of mine. I took a few fiction electives during my undergraduate studies, but I never had time to focus on developing as a writer. Though I lacked experience, I had a concrete vision of what my year in Cork would look like. I pictured myself sitting in cafés and lounging on hillsides, churning out thousands of words at a time. I drastically overestimated how quickly I would read the books on my self-made reading list. Despite these expectations, learning to write has for me been a process of slowing down rather than speeding up.
It’s a well-worn adage that writing is all about discipline, but writers who say that rarely explain what it means. The discipline I’ve learned over the last four months has been less like doing daily sit-ups and more like yoga. It is a practice of coming to the same place, day after day, and opening myself up a bit more each time. I had to learn to sit in silence and open my notebook no matter what, not to plow through a story, but to listen for the voice that lives somewhere at the bottom of my stomach, saying things I didn’t know I had to say. I learned to ask myself what different leaves looked like as I passed them on the sidewalk. I had never noticed before how many kinds there are: some like shards of flint, some like feathers, some like the palms of hands. One night, I sat in my bedroom, beginning to cry as I listed descriptions of my grandmother, images that have yet to become the poem I meant them to be but have nevertheless changed me for the better.
After a semester studying writing, I don’t read or write quickly. I don’t expect the process I’ve developed to lead to a slew of best-selling detective novels, though a girl can dream. Instead, I’ve gained a more valuable gift. In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver writes “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention.” This year I, too, have learned to pay attention, and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
Picture: A friend (left) and I paying attention to the Kerry coastline after a hailstorm.
A Student’s Guide to Getting Started in Cork
As my time in Cork draws to a close, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experiences that have helped me to build a life here. If you’ve ever moved to a new city, you know it takes a while to settle in, so I’d like to offer what I’ve learned to the new group of international students arriving this fall.
1. Join a society
Better yet, join a few societies and stick with the one you like best. This isn’t a quick fix for making friends—as far as I know, there is none—but odds are that if you spend enough time with a small group of people, you’ll get to know and like some of them. Plus, you’ll discover or rediscover a hobby. I hadn’t been in a choir in four years when I auditioned for the Choral Society’s International Choir, and now I’m planning on joining a choir in the next place I move.
2. Go see live music
There’s a different festival on in Cork every weekend, it seems, and all of them offer affordable, memorable entertainment. The Jazz Festival each fall is famous, and I also saw some amazing acts at the Quarter Block Party. Several pubs in Cork also regularly host musicians. Sin É, near Shandon, has live traditional music every night and a great atmosphere.
3. Check out the green spaces
Cork is small enough that you can walk everywhere you need to go, including some gorgeous parks and river walks. The Cork Lough is a spring fed lake fifteen minutes from campus on foot, and Fitzgerald Park is just across the street from the university. The Mardyke walk is a lovely way to stay close to the river on your way to and from the city centre. The university itself also has some stunning greenery; I recommend leaving home early so you can sit in the quad for a few minutes on your way to class. I also like to choose a desk by a window overlooking the quad when I study in the library.
4. Eat and drink out every once in a while
I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere else with so much amazing food and coffee so close together. Filter, Café Depeche, Three Fools, and Myo are my favourite cafés, although even as I’m writing this, I’m thinking of more I could add. My favourite restaurants are the Quay, Ali’s Kitchen, and Good Day Deli. I could fill an encyclopedia with all of the great places to eat in Cork, so maybe the best advice I can give you is to peek in the window, and if it looks good, go for it.
5. Go to the Butter Museum
I’m about to let you in on a secret. In Cork’s Shandon district there is a small, two-story museum dedicated to the history of the butter industry in Ireland as a whole and in Cork in particular. You can print your own butter labels, watch videos on butter making and marketing, and see a thousand-year-old tub of butter. Every so often, they even have a butter making demonstration. Need I say more? I’ve been three times, and I plan to go again.
For those among you who prefer more traditional tourist experiences, the museum is just down the street from St. Anne’s Church, where a year from now, you can climb the famous bell tower and look out over the city you’ve made your home.