How Louise O’Neill found her voice as a young author

Finding the courage to start writing is often the biggest challenge says acclaimed new author, Louise O’Neill, a judge in Eason’s short story competition for secondary school pupils.

WHILE I was writing my debut novel, Only Ever Yours, I was determined to make the voice of the main character, a 16-year old girl, as authentic as possible. So I unearthed a pile of my teenage diaries from a dark corner in the attic, wiping off the dust that was growing on them like furring mould.

The detail in the diary was excruciatingly specific, describing what I wore to this disco, what boy I kissed, what girl I hated and called a ‘slut’. (This was because I felt she was prettier than I was, or had attracted the attention of whatever 14-year-old boy I was lusting after that week.)

Sandwiched between these angst-ridden entries were pages and pages on my diet: how many calories I had consumed that day, how much exercise I had taken, whether the number on the weighing scales had been low enough to justify feeling that I had value. The bleakness ‘bled’ all over the pages, as I wrote about the pain I felt that no-one seemed to see me the way I saw myself and the burden of constantly pretending I was fine because I didn’t know how to say I needed help.

I wrote about death, wondering what it would be like, wondering if it might be easier than merely existing in an airless vacuum. I wrote about living in a small town, how much I wanted to leave, and how, simultaneously, that felt utterly impossible.

Besides the diaries, there were dozens of poems, which were all dreadfully derivative of Sylvia Plath, and a handful of short stories. I don’t remember having ambitions, at that age, to become an author, but I always wrote — it seemed to be the only way I could process my experiences, and make sense of the world around me, and my place in it. I was lucky enough to have a teacher, Ms. Keane, who spotted my enthusiasm for English, and my seemingly insatiable appetite for reading, and who encouraged me to consider studying English literature at third-level. It was she who gave me, when I was 15, a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, the book that introduced me to feminism, and which ultimately inspired me to write Only Ever Yours.

Ms Keane encouraged me to write, and encouragement is akin to oxygen for a teenage writer. Now it is my time to do the same for others. When Easons told about their initiative, ‘Easons Creates’, a short-story-writing competition for secondary schools, I jumped at the chance to become involved.

The competition will be divided into two categories: a junior cycle and a senior cycle. Students can write on whatever subject matter they like, and the closing date for entries is Friday, January 9. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and one I would have loved to have had as a teenager. Of course, I probably would have become obsessed with writing the ‘perfect’ story, paralysing myself through fear of failure, and then writing something last minute, so if I hadn’t won I could have blamed it on lack of preparation rather than a lack of talent. Then, when I inevitably didn’t win, I would berate myself; tell myself that I had no talent, and that I might as well just give up now.

Don’t do that. Start early, so you can give yourself the time to explore the world of your story, and then edit it. Allow yourself to have fun. Don’t get hung up on making the story ‘perfect’.

Don’t copy your favourite author; have the confidence in your work to develop your authentic voice. Don’t feel too disheartened if you don’t win. For all you know, your story could have been in the top five, and narrowly missed out on winning. Above all else, remember that a competition is judged on personal taste. Just because a judge doesn’t ‘get’ your style of writing does not mean your work is without merit. Rejection is an unavoidable part of being a writer, so it’s important for you learn to sustain a strong sense of self-belief, regardless. Write because you love it, because you need to, because it’s the best way for you to express yourself. Trust in your voice, believe that you have something to say, and that it is worthy of being heard.

And isn’t that all that any of us wants?Just to be heard. Just to be seen. Just to say, this is who I am, and for that to be enough.

Eason Creates is open to all second-level students. Junior cycle entrants — first- to third-year students — are asked to submit a maximum of 1,000 words, while senior entrants, encompassing transition-, fifth-year and sixth-year students, are allowed a maximum of 2,000 words. Those interested can submit a short story, on a subject of their choice, to www.easons.com/easoncreates by Friday, January 9. A shortlist of all entrants will be drawn up by a judging panel, including author Louise O’Neill and Eason’s David O’Callaghan. This shortlist will be published online in January, on www.easons.com, and put forward for a public vote. A panel of book experts will judge the shortlist and their scoring, combined with the public vote, will determine the overall winners one each for junior and senior cycles. The shortlisted stories from the combined public vote and judging panel will then be published by Kobo as an e-book. The winning contestants from each category will receive a €500 Eason giftcard and a Kobo Aura HD eReader, along with €1,500 worth of books for their school from Eason.


Lifestyle

Ellie O’Byrne rounds up some of the virtual gigs, films and other eventsArts Noticeboard: Online entertainment options

It’s 25 years since Toy Story first stunned us with its brilliance. Esther McCarthy looks back onJohn Lasseter’s masterpiece and why it’s regarded as a milestone of modern cinemaInfinity and beyond: How Toy Story altered movie history

All the wines recommended this week are available for delivery.Wine with Leslie Williams: Looking for a wine delivery service? Here are a few ...

If I could be reborn for a day I’d be a cat. I love their serenity and independence and how they always manage to find that one shaft of sunlight.This Much I Know: Broadcaster, Mary Kennedy

More From The Irish Examiner