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Winning the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition changed my life. It's like I'm floating outside myself

I had no money or backup plan when I started writing. That’s why the call from RTE meant so much, writes Colin Walsh.

Colin Walsh

I REMEMBER GETTING the news that I’d won the RTE Francis MacManus Short Story Competition.

I was hovering above my body, watching it fall through a trapdoor in the Earth and barrel into the planet’s hot core.

In the distance I heard a voice – my voice – breathlessly repeat ‘Are you serious?’ over the laughter of the RTE producer on my phone, saying she wished she was recording our conversation.

I’d been writing fiction for just over a year. But I’d spent a much longer time thinking about writing. And I was very good at thinking about writing, because it didn’t involve doing any actual writing whatsoever. I spent years moving between odd jobs, cities, countries, continents. Playing music, teaching TEFL, hitch-hiking, almost getting eaten by coyotes, by bears, by self-doubt. I was also hoovering up books and experience, working up an ability to read, to see, to both have my own point of view and to be deeply suspicious of my own point of view.

I was hammering at every brittle certainty I’d grown up believing. Getting bamboozled by the knotty ambivalences of things. Becoming plural. Without realising it, I was cultivating skills I needed to write.

I started writing my first short story in March 2016, on the day I turned down the PhD offer I’d been working towards for two years. The PhD promised money and a career path in the States. But if I’d accepted it, I would never write fiction. Ever. People talk about epiphanies like they only happen in Joyce’s short stories. They don’t. I knew with absolute conviction that I was no longer going to ‘think’ about writing. I was going to absolutely hurl myself into it.

My first year writing was spent cobbling several jobs together, week-by-week, barely affording rent and food, against the gnawing sense I might have actually set my life on fire. I had no money or backup plan. I spent most nights staring at the ceiling, belly twisted with cash worries and a dread that I was scribbling words into a void. It’s not cool to crave acknowledgement for your writing. But so what, I’ve never been cool. I desperately needed a sign from the world. Something – anything – to say I wasn’t delusional.

That’s when I got the call from RTE.

Ever since that moment, I’ve been pinballing from one mad turning point to another: getting an agent; reading my fiction onstage for the first time (at an event curated by Anne Enright); winning the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Flash Fiction Competition; getting a short story commissioned by BBC Radio 4; having my fiction published in the Irish Times; and, a couple of weeks ago, being named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. Even now, listing the post-Francis MacManus lunacy of the past 18 months, it’s like I’m floating outside myself, writing about someone else.

Now I’m waist-deep in the guts of a novel-in-progress, trying to write around the job I’m lucky to have. It’s all early mornings and late evenings, and the more I know, the less I know; the better I get, the worse I get. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Which is why it’s important to recognise every time you reach a new threshold. Finding an idea is its own threshold. Completing a draft is another. Discovering the hidden pulse within an old draft. Teasing that out. Sharing material with someone you trust. Revising. Submitting. Getting rejected. Getting accepted. Entering competitions. Being longlisted. Shortlisted. At every point in writing, you’re meeting different thresholds. And each threshold – in real life, just like in short stories – brings the possibility of some shift, some revelation, some quirk in your orientation to the world, the work and yourself which can challenge what you think is possible both on the page and beyond it.

If any of this resonates with you, I’d urge you to send a short story into the Francis MacManus Competition. No matter what, you’ll learn loads on the way. You might even find yourself like I did, getting a call from an unknown number, clutching your phone with white knuckles, suddenly levitating and going all cosmic in the belly. This is the type of intensity that fiction, and writing fiction, can offer. I cannot recommend that sort of intensity highly enough.

The RTÉ Radio 1 Francis MacManus Short Story Competition 2019 is now open for entries. You’ll find more details here

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Colin Walsh

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