Article: Extract from Professional Writing by Dr Paul Breen

Cover for Professional Writing
Professional Writing by Dr Paul Breen

CASE STUDY – ME, DYLAN, AND THE DESIRE TO WRITE

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When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in autumn 2016, I was taken aback at first. Many established authors and critics condemned the choice as being one shaped by sentiment and populism rather than literary achievement. Others such as Salman Rushdie applauded the decision. Then I thought back to my own formative days of writing, and wondered what my teenage self would make of this decision. The answer, on reflection, is a positive one. Having spent many teenage days scribbling in notebooks, while listening to music, this reminded of the power of words, whether written, spoken, or thought out in silence.

From as early as I can remember, I have had a vocation to write and tell stories. Even before learning to read I was making up stories in my head, narrating them to myself. As a child I spent a lot of time alone at my grandparents, in a red-roofed farmhouse in the rambling Irish countryside.

When outside I wandered the fields, buried in my own world like the strange child from Graham Greene’s Under the Garden short story. Back inside the farmhouse, I read from a great oak press stacked full of adult books such as Robinson Crusoe and Gone With the Wind, alongside those my grandmother ordered specially for me.

The house at this time had no electricity, just gas and a Tilley lamp. By a table, in this light, I devoured the contents of encyclopaedias, children’s storybooks, and the Disney Wonderful World of Knowledge series of hardback books offering glimpses of oceans, rainforests and species of animals from great cats to elephants. And it was not just words that fascinated me, but images too.

Every week I’d get comic books; Beano and Dandy. But other forms of text attracted my attention too. This included a New Elizabethan Reference Dictionary from the 1950s; providing explicit detail of the meaning, grammar, and origin of every word imaginable, including those long since out of fashion, antique as the pages in which they resided.

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This love of words that began in childhood lasted through to my teenage years when I began to write stories and articles myself. I spent a week’s placement in a regional newspaper named The Fermanagh Herald, though found that I was not cut out to be a journalist at this stage.

I preferred books to newspapers and fiction to facts, and thus embarked on an English Literature degree at university in Belfast. Unfortunately, in this era of education, the 1990s, we received no career advice unless we went looking for it.
This meant that I left university drifting between jobs, including a spell in Amsterdam, dreaming of becoming a professional writer but having none of the required qualifications or contacts. Despite this, I wrote with a fury – sending off badly packaged drafts of works in progress to literary agents and publishers, and always ending up with inevitable rejection letters months later. Foolishly, after each rejection, instead of reviewing and revising my work, I would move on to the next major project, and the next big idea. I believed that if I could just get one book out there, it would launch my literary career, and so I focused on writing 70,000 words at a time when I had barely managed to get 700 published.

Eventually I drifted into newspaper advertising, still secretly dreaming of writing The Great Irish Novel one day in the future. But still the rejection letters flowed fast as each new and abandoned project. Seeing my creative efforts come to nothing,
I followed a well-trodden path for the Irish and crossed the water to England to embark upon a teaching degree in English and Media Studies.
Perhaps there I found my sense of ‘inner émigré’ as referred to in the work of both Seamus Heaney and Louis MacNeice. I learned to teach and travelled the world, trying to write about it at the same time. In the end, my most successful spell of writing came about upon my return to London after teaching English overseas, and embarking on a Ph.D in Education. I found that the skills I developed as an academic writer could be transferred to other contexts. Therefore I began to apply the same underlying principles to everything that I wrote – planning, reading, researching, mapping out, and then structuring my work around a clear thesis. In doing this, I began to get more articles published in newspapers and magazines, and finally to have my first work of fiction released in 2014.

My work became more professional and also showed prospective editors and publishers that I was serious about my craft.
This allowed me to build up my portfolio of work even further, with much of my writing done without any form of direct payment. Instead of money, the professional reward was often to enhance career prospects such as boosting my academic profile by writing for newspapers and blogs in the public domain. This is why I have come to believe that there is a deeper meaning to professional writing than simply the fact of earning a living directly from the publication of particular books or articles.
This deepened sense of what it means to be a professional writer has also been beneficial to my career. It has given me a sense of how important it is to apply the same principles and standards of professionalism to everything that I write.

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I have also stopped thinking of books as being the most valuable form of output. The age that we live in, so heavily influenced by the here and now, is one in which there is no hierarchy of output. The words of a blogger on Huffington Post or poet on YouTube can have as much power as the many novels papering the walls of book stores. These days, the message matters as much as the medium, and it is essential to embrace the tools of the digital age.

I’m different now to the teenager scribbling on a bed beside the radio, but the same desire to write scorches my mind every day. Much of this I attribute to those early days of reading books and making up stories in the Irish countryside and teenage nights of scribbling poems in notebooks, listening to the radio.

Perhaps back then, the words flowed easier, but in a less refined manner. Growing up as a person, I have also grown as a writer and taught myself to become more professional along the way.

I don’t have a voice like Dylan and I can’t play guitar, but there’s a part of his story that is mine too, because we share the same vocation.

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