Michelle lives in Dublin, Ireland. She began writing in 2017. Her work has been published in newspapers, magazines and two anthologies: Teachers Who Write and A Page from My Life, which was number one on Irish bestseller lists in 2020. Her work is online at Writing.ie, Skelligmichael.com, Athensinsider.com, IrishExaminer.com, CabinetofHeed.com, and IrishTimes.com. Her short stories, memoir, and flash fiction have been shortlisted and won prizes in literary competitions. She has won residencies to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and Greywood Arts, scholarships to Aurora Writing Retreats and the Pat Conroy Centre, and bursaries to the John Hewitt and Stinging Fly Summer Schools, The Bronte Parsonage Festival of Women’s Writing, and the Iceland Writers Retreat. She volunteers at Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words and at literary festivals in Ireland. Her memoir is out on submission, and she is working on a children’s book. All her published work can be found on her website www.thesparklyshell.com.
WOW: Congratulations, Michelle, on winning runner up in our creative nonfiction essay contest with your essay, “The Shape of Loneliness.” This essay really captures your feelings during the pandemic and shutdown of “regular” life that occurred for everyone–worldwide. You start with comparing your feelings and a lot of what happened to a square. How did you come up with this symbolism/metaphor?
Michelle: Thank you. I am delighted this piece is out in the world! This essay fell out of me almost fully formed, so I think it must have been swimming around inside my head for some time before I put pen to paper. To me the words confinement, contraction, containment, restriction, reduction, imprisonment, isolation, all conjure images in my mind of angles and walls, shapes that hinder and constrict, that weigh down upon freedom of movement, unlike circles which are open or triangles that point upwards or downwards but ultimately outwards, or spheres that roll and move. Squares are solid, blocky, stubborn things. They are the shape of so many vessels of containment – think of waiting rooms, prison cells, shipping containers, or cages. Squares scream enclosure. Then there is the technology angle – the Zooms, the Teams, and the Hangouts – more squares – lives reduced to box shapes on a screen. And the name of the platform Squarespace – squares are everywhere! The term self-isolation – the first of so many words to learn in the new pandemic lexicon – made me think of people all over the world, sitting alone in bedrooms or living rooms, which are, for the most part, square in design. The world is going through a hard time and a square is a hard shape. That was the genesis of the idea.
WOW: I never really thought about all that before, but now that you mention it, I can see how a square is the most perfect shape for what you were doing with your essay. How did you feel writing about a subject that you are so close to? What I mean by this is: often writers have trouble capturing their emotions in the middle of the event, but you did it so well. How did you manage to write about this topic while most likely also experiencing it?
Michelle: Yes, that is true. Normally a significant period of time needs to elapse to absorb and process an event before it can be expressed in writing. However, I had been living this way since March 2020, so I had a year of it under my belt before I wrote this piece. So in a way, I did have some distance from the event even though everyone is still going through it. Like any profound change, you soon adapt and get used to it; you have no other choice. So things that had been terrifying in March 2020, like going to the supermarket, are no longer quite so frightening and maybe a certain level of acclimatisation to the new world order allowed me to write about it.
WOW: This is true, for sure. I’m glad that you were able to put it into words for us to read. In one section, you take the time to describe four corners of your life. What made you stop the way the essay was going and include this section, which I found extremely powerful?
Michelle: Thanks, I’m glad you found it powerful. I’m really happy to know this piece of writing resonated with readers. During lockdown, I took a writing course online at the University of Glasgow with Dr. Tawnya Renelle, on Experimental and Hybrid Forms. That gave me the courage to experiment with form and structure, something I have always been reluctant to try, mainly because I didn’t know how. It is interesting to me to see how a lot of the essays in this quarter play with form. But it is also the way the essay formed in my head. I was writing about squares, and it seemed a natural thing to do to place something in each corner to emphasize the shape and expose the middle. That was the idea I was trying to express – the hollow middle, empty, like an open box.
WOW: Yes, playing with form and structure in creative nonfiction writing is becoming a popular trend because, in my opinion, it makes the work strong and really stick with the reader. In your bio, it states that you have been writing since 2017–and then you have a very long list of accomplishments! So, what made you “start” writing in 2017, and what do you attribute to all this success–publications, awards, residencies, etc?
Michelle: In 2017, I decided to stop talking about wanting to write a book and start writing instead. While I have always written and always wanted to be a writer – I have kept a diary since childhood – loved English as a subject in school, wrote academic essays in university, but in 2017, I decided it was time to see if I could make a go of writing, if anyone would read what I wrote, if I could get published. And yes, there is now a long list of accomplishments, awards, and prizes but there is no secret to impart. They are the result of persistent, unrelenting focus, and hard work. I’ve taken courses, gone on residencies, met other writers, workshopped my work, read hundreds of books, spent a lot of time in my local library, researched opportunities, and spent hours on application forms. I’ve sacrificed weekends, evenings, holidays, and events to spend time writing. Every win is hard won. There is a lot of competition out there, especially in Ireland, where it often feels like every single person on the island is writing! The flip side of that is there are lots of writing events, a vibrant and supportive literary scene, and plenty of competitions, journals, and opportunities for submitting work. I won a bursary to the John Hewitt Society Summer School in 2018, and that gave me the confidence to keep writing. I won a bursary to the Stinging Fly Summer School in 2019, and that transformed my book from a collection of essays into a memoir. I attended the University of Limerick Winter School in Doolin in 2019 and was lucky to have Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon, Penguin, 2016) as a mentor who helped me to structure the book. I’ve had to carve out time to focus on writing, but, as with most things in life, persistence and patience yields results.
WOW: I love to see that your hard work is paying off and that you are taking a chance on your writing–jumping in with both feet to perfect your craft. I think you will be inspiring and motivating to other writers! Your bio also states you have a memoir out on submission, and you are working on a picture book. Can you tell us a bit more about those?
Michelle: I have written a memoir about a twelve-year period of my life from the age of twenty-eight to forty. This time period is bookended by illness and grief. It is a story of resilience and hope and is one I hope would resonate with readers, especially women. While it has universal themes, it is ultimately a woman’s story of struggle and survival. It is set in Morocco, where I moved to in 2014 and where I lived for two years, and it flashes back to events in Ireland. The colours and vibrancy of Morocco act as a potent foil for the traumatic events I revisit. I wrote part of the book on a month-long residency in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. It has taken me two years to write. But now it is finished, and I am looking for an agent. The picture book is the story of an angry elephant trying to cope with and manage his difficult emotions. I didn’t set out to write a picture book; it is just the way the story emerged. I haven’t illustrated it. I don’t draw. I have written the text – 700 words on anger management techniques! It is out on submission too.
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