Science and beer and stuff

One of my essays was on RTÉ Arena on Monday. It’s just below this paragraph if ye want to have a read…a smidgen past that blurred square graphic…

More of a fan of the old wireless? Have a listen here instead

Creativity and home brewing


The Sciences is not an area that’s been kind to me. Dependant on exact conditions, it might put some in mind of failed laboratory experiments in school. Bi-metal strips refusing to bend, blurred microscopes, cheap prisms dispersing limited colours. For the unenthusiastic student, each fruitless experiment pushes science ever closer to alchemy. This is probably why I wasn’t overly confident when I decided to tackle home-brewing. Thermometers, hydrometers, siphons and paddles, it is a game of patience, often days before there are any signs of movement. It does give time to think about other sciences, such as the science of writing.

But I’m not talking mathematical papers or industrial reports. More along the lines of technological advances, those online programmes which can edit a novel, tools that highlight clichés. If it takes your fancy, you could publish a shopping list, sell it online and even buy a few good reviews while you’re at it. Recently, in Japan, a novel that was co-written by a computer programme made it past the first round of a literary contest. It would be nice to think that people would fail to relate to an algorithm driven literary work. But, alas, we are only too willing to apply human characteristics to the inanimate or the automated, whether that is to fall in love with a car or yearn for a house. I once saw a TV programme about a woman who married a Ferris wheel called Bruce.

Besides, there can be some advantages to working with computer programmes. Algorithms don’t fail to meet a deadline. They don’t argue with their editors or turn up drunk at a reading. But in order to claim that art can be artificially replicated, the question of why someone engages in art must be asked.  Perhaps what makes art true is that behind it all, you do it for yourself.  There is the satisfaction of working on the piece, the patience, the sense of achievement when finished. Whether you believe this is a literary novel, a mural on your Granny’s back wall or even the careful fermentation of a gallon of beer, at some point there is the Victor Frankenstein moment of bringing something to life. That metaphorical first breath. The bubble in the airlock. It’s alive!

So many aspects of technology involve relinquishing menial, physical tasks, the things that give us time to contemplate, that require movement and effort, that keep the little old ticker ticking away. Perhaps someday a programmer might create an algorithm which proves that contentment doesn’t always lie in the things we give up, but also in the things we take on.




My latest essay on RTÉ Arena is about the writer stereotype.  Have a listen here or gander on for the full text…

Making it as a successful writer




I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Not all writers have a cat. They don’t all drink coffee either. There’s the odd turtleneck but that’s a shame most of us carry at some stage in our life. The domain of the writer can be soupy with stereotype and myth. The classic underdog tale is a popular one, bestselling author initially rejected by umpteen publishers, out of work when the news of publishing finally came, possibly living under a motorway bypass. Often, the stories surrounding the writer can become as fictional as the work they produce.

There is the overnight success article that fails to mention the fruitless years of learning the craft. The author who doesn’t believe in editing.  The tale of the classic novel completed in less than a month minus the boring details of all the failed drafts that went before.

Anybody who has ever signed up for a writing course or workshop will have encountered the famous six word story – For sale: baby shoes, never worn. One of Hemmingway’s finest works we are told. But the truth is Hemmingway never wrote the work at all. It seems to have started out as an advertisement in a Brooklyn newspaper in 1921, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used’, only to make several appearances in altered states before being attributed to Hemmingway in the 1990s, thirty years after his death. In reality, you could say it took multiple writers a number of decades to write the piece.

I suppose there is romance in the legend of the genius writer. As there is in the idea of the writer as an adventurer. Certainly, a lot of scribes still reel off a list of exotic places they’ve travelled to on their Bio. But there is a financial cost to the act of discovering oneself in Kathmandu or writing poetry naked on an island in the Mediterranean. The image of well educated, comfortable writer has formed a large part of the stereotype.  It’s pretty difficult for most to aspire to a career in writing when the finances are not there to back them up.  Besides, aspirations can be collective and based on experiences or the perceived experiences of those of a similar background.

The online environment can be a more economical tool for writers to reach larger audiences, the likes of blogs and online journals bringing a diverse blend of people into the literary mix. It would be nice to think that this will naturally bring varied writers and stories into the mainstream. Because In arenas where diversity is not contrived or over-emphasised, it doesn’t need to be constantly defended or debated. It works as a challenge to stereotype merely by existing as fact.