LOUISE O'NEILL: I was half human child and half sea creature, salt running through my veins

I was adamant that I was not going to be one of those writers who constantly drones on about their ‘process’ — don’t mind me, I don’t have any notions! I promise! — but when I made the decision to take this summer to refill the creative well before starting a new book in the autumn, I found myself becoming the very thing which I despise. (I’m so sorry.)

You might be wondering what all this talk of refilling the creative well means. My sports psychologist/father would liken it to taking a rest day between workout sessions. Letting a field lay fallow, my grandfather would have said, giving the soil a chance to regain lost nutrients.

A few years ago, I thought I had an endless supply of creativity and imagination; that I didn’t need to tend to either in order to replenish their stocks. Since then, I have come to realise that in order to create art, you have to be consuming art as well. This is an idea that is reinforced in The Artist’s Way, a book by Julia Cameron which aims to help aspiring artists work through any mental blocks around their work. 

While I would highly recommend reading the text itself, the basic tenants of the 12-week programme for ‘creative recovery’ lie in the Morning Pages and the Artist’s Date. You commit to three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing as soon as you wake (mine usually consist of variations on ‘I am so tired’ and ‘I really need to improve my handwriting, why has the school system failed me so?’) and then, once a week, you take a solo expedition to explore something that interests you. In the last two weeks, I went to an art exhibition, a play, and a pottery class by myself, but you could visit an antique shop or bake a cake or plant a herb pot, if so inclined. (Please don’t make me plant a herb garden.)

I kept finding myself choosing activities that I deemed ‘worthy’ enough until the day that I decided to make a list of things I loved to do when I was a child.

Lying in bed all morning with a good book, eating a 99, sitting outside and staring at the stars. Spinning as fast as I could until I fell to the ground, clinging to an earth that was suddenly tilting sideways. When was the last time I had allowed myself to do any of this? I could hardly remember.

Later that day, I drove past a signpost to Barley Cove, a beach near Mizen Head in West Cork. “Swimming in the sea” had been top of that list of childhood pastimes, I remembered. All those summers spent on Inchydoney Island — sandwiches made gritty from grains of sand, 7up turned lukewarm in the sun.

My mother having to drag me out of the water when my teeth were chattering and my fingertips shrivelled up. I was half human child and half sea creature, salt running through my veins.

I had loved it so much, and yet I hadn’t swum in the sea in Ireland since I was a teenager, maybe longer. I had stopped when I began to feel self-conscious about my body. I would swim again when I was thinner, I told myself, I would go when I was at the perfect weight.

What I didn’t realise then was that there would be no perfect weight, that such a thing didn’t exist. I would never feel thin enough, not even when my skin became so wafer fine that I counted the bones of my rib-cage to help me sleep.

So I gave up on the sea, as easily as I gave up on all the other things I once loved.

I sacrificed it on the altar of an addiction that needed constant attention, screaming fierce in my lungs if it felt it was being ignored, even for a moment. I lost my sea legs. The water was still beautiful to walk by, of course. Better in winter, perhaps, when I could wrap my traitorous body in jumpers and hats and scarves, layers upon layers of clothing as if to protect myself. But it was not for me. Not anymore.

The summer of 2018 had other ideas. That particular day had burned hot and savage, and I’d been stuck in my car for an hour.

Sweat was trickling down my spine and I was convinced my skin was burning through the glass. It was almost unbearable.

Barley Cove, the letters spelled. And it seemed like a sign.

I turned the steering wheel. I had a swimsuit in my gym bag, I knew, it must have been fate.

After shuffling awkwardly into my togs underneath my sundress, I stood, staring at the Atlantic Ocean. Pulling my dress over my head, throwing off one sandal, than the other, I began to walk.

Ankle deep, waves crashing, then to the knee, the water creeping up my legs, inch by inch. I held my breath and I dived under, the blood rushing to my head, and I re-emerged gasping, laughing. Crying, too, with frustration that it had taken me so long to come back.

I turned around and faced the cloudless sky. And I floated, the water holding me up as it always had done.


READ: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Katherine Webber. This novel for young adults is a brilliant and moving portrayal of how loss can devastate a family. It also deals with toxic love and consent in a smart, deft manner without ever feeling heavy handed.

VISIT: The Hugh Lane Gallery to see Just Be Yourself. This is Rachel Maclean’s first solo exhibition in Ireland, and it is bizarre and thought-provoking and deeply disturbing. Make sure to watch her short film, It’s What’s Inside That Counts, a dystopian horror that skewers consumer desire.


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