Life Learning

Monday 1 September 2014

Donal Ryan: Happy school day memories

Published 25/03/2014 | 02:30

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Author Donal Ryan actually managed to enjoy himself in school. Photo: Patrick Bolger.
Author Donal Ryan actually managed to enjoy himself in school. Photo: Patrick Bolger.

I was lucky when it came to school. I managed mostly to sidestep violence and cruelty and to actually enjoy myself. Some people are brutalised in school: ignored, abused, taunted – sometimes to death.

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Some people are marked indelibly, their wonder quenched, their way darkened. Some people cruise, some falter, some come to a full stop. Some people have a flame ignited and fuelled there, and are given the tools to succeed in all aspects of their lives.

My parents, Anne and Donie Ryan, were my first teachers. I learned to read very early. I was encouraged and praised at home and in school, and my bit of a thing for words was noticed and fostered. Youghalarra National School in Newtown, Co Tipperary, was where I was first told I was a writer; St Joseph's Christian Brothers School in Nenagh was where I was told I'd be a waster if I didn't use the talent God gave me. Home was where my light was lit; school was where I first got a sense of myself and what my place in the world could be.

I laughed my way through secondary school. I thought I was a howl. I thought everything was hilarious. I loved writing essays for English and spent most of my study time working on them, pacing and mumbling, testing the sounds of sentences in a contrivance of creative torment, drafting and re-drafting in a painstaking cursive. My Leaving Cert English teacher would read them out and photocopy them for the other English classes and the lads would slag me good-naturedly in the corridors. Damian Lawlor was in the year ahead of me. He stopped me one day at a classroom door and told me I was a writer. I knew for sure then. He was already writing for the Nenagh Guardian; he was already famous in our eyes. The same people who taught me taught Vincent Hogan and Julian Gough. That's the kind of school it was.

I saw myself as a wild, quixotic mix of WB Yeats and John B Keane and Norman Mailer and John Steinbeck and Brendan Behan and Stephen King – only better, of course, and cooler. I managed somehow to simultaneously lug around a hubristic conviction in my own genius and an inordinate burden of shyness. I wrote poetry in my bedroom and read book after book and mimed to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and the Pixies with my stringless guitar and I grew my hair long and I couldn't figure out for the life of me why girls weren't flinging themselves at me. I thought I was the bee's knees. I must have looked like a right wally.

I didn't do much extra for the Leaving. I thought I'd sail through it. I saw no stormy waters ahead. I didn't think I knew everything, but there was very little I didn't think I knew. I'd had some amazing teachers: Martin Slattery, Deirdre Cahill, Martin Scully, Danny Grace, Paul Dolan, among others. Sometimes some of them frightened the life out of us, but they were mostly kind and intuitive and boy did they know their stuff. They could teach pigs to fly. But still I didn't listen closely enough and thought I knew a lot more than I actually did. I did okay, but nowhere near as well as I could have. I went back to repeat and had a row with a teacher in the first week who was incensed that I'd joined his class without asking his permission – just waltzed back in, I did, as bould as you like. All the other teachers had welcomed me, I'd applied to the principal, my parents had paid. I let myself feel humiliated and I sulked and I went home and I never went back.

I worked for a vet and a fruit wholesaler and a meat factory and an electronics factory and a salon supplier and two hotels and I studied civil engineering and marketing and law and landed finally in the civil service where I work still and I regret not one moment of the time that led me to here.

My main memories are more of a series of impressions, of how much craic I had. I'm married now, to Anne Marie. She's my muse, she's a scream, she's perfect for me. I have two beautiful children. I have a wonderful family and fantastic friends. When I write, I do so at the kitchen table from 9pm when Thomas and Lucy have been tucked up with their own books. I finish around midnight.

I run twice a week in the early mornings. I try to always eat fruit and not to smoke. I work all day every day and I'm never sick, touch wood, and I love every part of my life. I'm thankful and terrified in equal measure. What if it all goes horribly wrong? Anne Marie asks this question jokingly all the time. Things do go wrong, but nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Love and laughter straighten everything out. I have to tell myself all the time to stop worrying. And to stay off the internet. Looking for trouble is all that is. I'm way too sensitive, I'm a big baby; my walls fall easily.

I've been a few places and known a few people and done a few things. I'm proud of most things and ashamed of some. Here's the most worthwhile thing I've learnt in my first (nearly) 38 years of life: always check your motives. Before you do a thing, or say a thing, or write a thing, ask yourself why you're doing it or saying it or writing it. Be honest with yourself. If you realise that your motive is to cause pain to another person, then don't do it. Turn around, walk away, hang up, stay quiet, log off. Why make the world a darker place? Ask yourself all the time why you're doing what you're doing. Try to never hurt anyone.

I was always writing: poems that you wouldn't recite to an animal; short stories that led nowhere and said nothing; plays with no structure or timing. I rarely hit a sweet spot and when I did I was blind to it. I started novel after novel all through my 20s and always tripped myself up. No sentence I wrote pleased me. There's a box in my parents' attic, sentinelled by spiders, full of the wretched fruits of my formative years. I'd say I wrote a half-million words before I wrote one sentence I was happy with. If happy is the right word. Still I read parts of my own books and no sentence pleases me. But I've come to terms with this.

There are, officially, just over one million words in the English language. There's a number somewhere in the theoretical part of the universe that expresses the extent to which those words can be combined. But we mortals might as well say there's an infinite number of ways to say anything. So there is no perfect sentence. Perfection exists only as a fleeting sense of something, an ephemeral impression, a feeling in one's gut.

For years I thought this was the most perfect sentence possible: "on his wise shoulders through a checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins". I read it in 'Ulysses' as a teenager and my breath caught in my throat. The sun flung spangles. My heart skipped. Dancing coins. I've never forgotten it. It's a sentence that says very little and I have the impression that it was a bit throwaway for Joyce, written at full flow. But it's so beautiful it broke my heart. I'd never be a writer. I could never do that. Forget Joyce, young writers, forget all your heroes, read them and love them and leave them behind, just for the time you're creating your own sentences. Tell the truth, even while you're making things up. Keep it simple, be yourself, be happy. Donal Ryan is the award-winning author of 'The Spinning Heart' and 'The Thing About December' (Doubleday Ireland)

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