Today on the MFA Director’s Blog we are delighted to feature an interview with Irish memoirist, novelist, and MFA instructor Áine Greaney. Here, Áine talks with Sandy Chmiel about balancing multiple identities, teaching a summer course in health and wellness writing, and the origins of her passionate love for storytelling. She also shares her four top tips for writers – one of which just may surprise you.
You’ve mentioned that you keep a personal journal. How is putting pen to paper in a journal beneficial to you?
I never know what I’m going to write until I write it, so journaling opens up the creative possibilities for me. Journaling also has a great therapeutic benefit in that it lets me put some order on my thoughts and feelings. In times of crisis, when I cannot write anything else, it’s been my solace and way of coping. As a writer, journaling also helps me to stay honest with myself. There really is no pretension, no fooling the blank page.
Can you tell us about your Health and Wellness Writing course? Why is this topic so important to you?
I’m very drawn to this topic for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always liked biology and have been fascinated by the interplay between our bodies and our minds and, indeed, our individual and collective histories. Second, I see illness and recovery (or not) as its own perfect narrative. Sometimes there’s a happy ending to the illness tale; sometimes there isn’t. Finally, I think I came to study and love this field (narrative medicine) because I hate how we in the 21st century have come to devalue the beauty and benefit of narrative. We like bullet points. We love sound bites. We ask people to “bottom-line it for me,” when these approaches can tell us little or nothing about another person’s life or feelings or condition. In some cultures, this approach is also downright insulting. Happily, healthcare is beginning to re-learn the value of story and to cross-train practitioners in the sciences and humanities.
Ireland is steeped in great storytelling traditions. How did growing up there inform your writing sensibilities?
I grew up with two live-in grandparents, both of whom were powerful storytellers—as was my father. All three of them loved to tell tales from their own young days, so the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s were constantly playing out as a sort of background music to our own young lives. I think this is why I love to write about the past and why I love to question and examine and argue with memory. It’s also why I struggle with creating a snappy, forward-moving narrative or plot. I find it hard to ignore what happened off-stage, in the “before.” Maybe this is an immigrant thing.
In addition to your writing and teaching, you have a day job in communications. (In fact, you wrote an advice book on the topic, Writer with a Day Job.) How do you find balance between these three identities, as well as in your personal life?
Excuse me while I chuckle here. Oh, you’re asking about balancing identities, not actual time. O.K., I can deal with that one! Almost everything about our day jobs requires us to keep the “circus animals all on show” (to paraphrase Yeats here). By contrast, the writing life is all about the personal and the introspective. So I meditate a few times per week. I also walk a lot—a key way to feel happier and better and reclaim the real self. I also write first thing in the morning—before all that other daytime “stuff” crowds my brain. All these said, I feel lucky to have a day job that I like and enjoy. There is a great pleasure in having a set of projects to manage and getting those projects advanced or accomplished by the end of the week. There's a business aspect to creative writing, so I’m grateful for the project management and marketing skills I have developed at work. Plus, nobody at work sends me editorial rejection letters!
What advice would you offer to emerging writers?
I have four main pieces of advice:
1. It takes courage to write. So you better have some or go get some. Push yourself to do one daring thing each week, to write beyond your comfort zone and your fears.
2. If you’re serious about being a writer, let it take priority in your life. Or at least place it among the top three things that matter. You will never advance your career if you keep letting other things or people eclipse it.
3. Write what you can. If you can only manage 400 words before work, then that’s what you do. The 12-hour writing marathon is great if you can manage it. But most of us can’t. So write what you can—even if it’s just to doodle some ideas.
4. Run away from your life. I go on writers’ retreats a few times per year, and it never fails to jumpstart my love affair with the written word and gives me that courage I need. Away from distractions, I also get a lot done.
What are you currently at work on?
I just became a naturalized U.S. citizen (last week), so I was busy studying presidents and the number of constitutional amendments. On a related note, I have an immigrant memoir doing the publishing rounds. I tag it as an “immigration memoir” but more important to me, it’s a feminist narrative (it has a health and recovery component, too). So I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that one. Also, I have a number of personal essays in the works—each of them at a different stage of drafting or completion.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think it’s important for us writers to practice good literary citizenship. The irascible, bad-boy or -girl writer is a cliché at best. At worst, it’s directly antithetical to what art and the act of creating are supposed to be all about. Conduct your writing career with kindness, decency, and professionalism and never compromise these standards for the sake of a byline or a paycheck.