A Writer's Process: Barbara O Donnell

Writing started out as a way of processing my teenage world. 

I’ve been keeping a journal off and on since, and find it useful.

These days, writing is imperative. I work full time, running two operating theatres, at a major London teaching hospital. Since I no longer work unsocial hours, I’m able to schedule writing time somewhat more, though I don’t necessarily write every day.

I used to think that you had to be struck with a flash of inspiration in order to write anything worthwhile.

Now, I’ve learned that the flash is only about the initial idea and it doesn’t always come.

When it does, I get it onto paper or the notepad app on my mobile.  At first it appears like a lot of scraps, but they can often become something cohesive if you can find the patience to sit with them, by leaving them aside for a while. I have found missing verses to a poem this way.

Initially, I use paper to brainstorm ideas, especially for poetry. Lots of notes in margins, redrafting using numbered drafts. Words and punctuation appear and sometimes sound different on a piece of paper in your hand versus read off the computer screen.  The space around the words can be as important as the words themselves, especially in poetry.  A computer screen can dull the edges.

In 2015, I made the exciting jump from poetry and journal to non-fiction, interviews, flash fiction, opinion pieces and editing. The next task is learning to distinguish what form would best fit a piece that I’m brewing. 

Working as an editor on the alternative Irish Arts website, The Bogman’s Cannon, has been invaluable both for creative community and learning.  

Another helpful strategy, has been finding a friendly mentor, someone you can bounce ideas around with and who may agree to look at your work, paid of course.  A good editor will see your internal narrative and help guide both individual pieces and work as a whole, in the right direction.

When looking for inspiration, I try not to restrict myself to any one medium. The Artist’s Date is another layered idea that can bring many rewards.  See a textile exhibition or a play. If you are a traditional form writer, see some slam poetry.  Do the opposite of what you might normally do.  I don’t have any formal tertiary education in writing, but this is no barrier. 

Do workshops, make friends, carve out time where you can to be creative and find your voice.