Louise O'Neill: 'Writing a novel is like being lost in a forest. You can never know how long it will take to see the light'

I’m at the Tyrone Guthrie centre in Annaghmakerrig again, starting work on a new ‘New Novel’.

Louise O'Neill: 'Writing a novel is like being lost in a forest. You can never know how long it will take to see the light'

I’m at the Tyrone Guthrie centre in Annaghmakerrig again, starting work on a new ‘New Novel’.

(The next ‘New Novel’ has already been written and is due for publication in August of this year, I must not get confused between the two.)

My boyfriend teases me that I’m becoming too reliant on the place, that I have begun to believe I am only capable of great creativity once I cross the magical doorway of the Big House.

He also says the main reason I return, time and again, is because the food is so delicious — he’s not wrong about that, I think, biting into the first of many scones I will eat over the next two weeks.

I’ve never stayed here for this long before and I am half-nervous I will turn feral, fall apart without the scaffolding of my usual life — therapy, gym classes, friends, my parents — to hold me upright.

I arrive at the centre on the Monday and settle into my new room, organising my laptop and collection of pens, just so, looking at the various art works and paintings, books and antiques that I will be living amongst for the foreseeable future.

I am here at Annaghmakerrig to break the spine on this book, to figure out what story it is I want to tell. To remember how to tell a story in the first place.

It’s a lovely group, this time, interesting people from all creative paths — composers, visual artists, dancers, actors, theatre directors — and the conversation is easy around the dinner table.

A woman my age, a playwright from London, tells me about her afternoon walk around the lake, how awe-inspiring it was, and I am determined to follow suit.

The next day, in my leggings and sleeveless gilet, I set off on my adventure.

I meet another woman on my way, a writer from Connemara, and she says that she hasn’t done that particular walk but she’s heard it’s difficult to get through in certain sections.

“Never mind,” she says kindly. “You can always turn back, can’t you?”

I take a sharp right into the woods. The ground is soft, squishy in parts, but it’s manageable.

I keep going. It begins to get muddier, and I try to find a hodgepodge way of jumping from one patch of grass to the other, ignoring the stinging of nettles and the scratching of briars as they rebound in my way.

I feel like the Prince, I think, fighting an enchanted forest of thorns, on my way to rescue Sleeping Beauty.

(Then I think about how that fairytale offers a strange message about consent because I am nothing if not a buzzkill.)

The path before me is getting more tricky, the branches knitting together thickly, the ground beneath me liquefying.

There is no way pass it but through, I remind myself, my feet sinking into pure muck, ankle deep, making a sucking sound as I attempt to pull them out.

“You can always turn back,” I hear the kind woman saying, but I can’t, I think, I’ve come too far at this point.

I reach a small bump, the end of the road guarded by three strips of barbed wire, so I track back, attempt two other ways to cross, but each brings me to a dead end.

It’s getting darker now and I don’t have my phone with me and my feet are soaked. I leave out a scream of frustration, having a mini tantrum a toddler would be proud of.

I remember saying something like ‘my god, why have you forsaken me?’ because I am rather dramatic, and getting lost in the woods isn’t quite as bad as being literally crucified.

Then I hear another voice. “Hello?” it says.

“Who is that?” It’s the playwright, wearing a large green anorak, proper hiking boots and thick woollen socks, like a sensible human being. “Louise,” she says, a look of confusion on her face.

“I thought it was a wounded animal when I heard the moaning.” I tried to style it out – lol, amn’t I gas? — but there’s no dignified way of coming back from that, to be honest.

She commiserates with me about my runners, sopping, leads me back onto the path, and explains to me that you have to go under the barbed wire.

“You were right the first time,” she says, as we walk into a clearing, and I can see the Big House on the other side of the lake.

“I’ve never seen it from this perspective,” I say quietly and the playwright smiles, and says it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

She says she thinks that all of this is probably a metaphor for my writing — where have I been getting stuck?

Where have I turned back when I should have kept moving forward — and like a flash, I remember something very strange.

Earlier in the week, as I had been inspecting all the objet d’arts in my new bedroom, there had been a watercolour print on vellum, a painting of the Virgin and Child in a gilt frame.

When I had turned it around (and I swear to you, I’m not making this up), there had been a yellow post-it note stuck to the back.

And it said, “Writing a novel is like being lost in a forest. You can never know how long it will take to see the light.”

Louise Says

WATCH: Queen & Slim.

This beautiful take on the Bonnie & Clyde story is directed by Melina Matsoukas, right, best known for her work on Beyoncé’s visual albums.

It’s about a young, black couple whose first date takes an unexpected turn when they’re pulled over by a cop.

LISTEN: As you may have guessed with the debut of my new column, Dear Louise, I am a huge fan of giving advice.

For that reason, I really enjoy the podcast What’s Your Drama?, where two Canadian women, Sasha and Lainey, answer questions about sex, relationships, work, and much more

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