Colm Tóibín workshop – Melbourne Writers Festival 2013

Colm toibin 2006.jpg

UPDATE: It was announced yesterday that Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I haven’t read it but it’s ‘on the list.’


It’s a writing day today. I’m lucky to have taught my last session for term last Wednesday and so have been burrowing into my manuscript, wrangling with application of form. Now I’m going through and doing a macro edit (stripping out redundancies, making sure all scenes move the story forwards) before printing out to do a closer micro edit.

Then it will go to my two readers. My mum, whose comments are always insightful, and a reader/writer comrade who knows about the toil and pain involved, Christina.

Christina was with me in the Colm Tóibín session for Melbourne Writers Festival, held on Friday 30 August. It’s been almost two weeks since then, and I’ve deliberately left it so I could digest my impressions. I took 16 pages of notes but that was probably to give myself something to do other than try to stay alert as we listened to the World According to Colm. It was a real privilege, an amazing opening of his process and his world in front of us, but at the same time, no matter how shambolic and circular it all seemed to be, there was never a moment when he revealed something unintended. He was always in control.

That sounds unfair but I have to say it wasn’t a workshop. It was a lecture, or a salon-style gathering at the feet of a master to hear him speak. There were fourteen of us acolytes in the end and we sat in a horseshoe arrangement, Tóibín came in and we waited a little while longer for more people to come. There were several people not there yet (Oh people of the world. A little punctuality?)

A couple of snippets:

If there was to be a ‘rule’ Tóibín maybe it should be to finish everything you start. Don’t stop half way and read and think ‘this is awful.’ Often it takes ‘a while to get going’ and if you are always starting, it’s no good. Sometimes you circle something.It’s so hard to start so if you manage a start, just go with it. The start may be with an image and often it won’t be clear why it’s important.


For prose, you need a very clear mind. One drink will affect you. A second coffee (for CT) triggers something emotion-wise. (I read later that in his In Conversation session he had someone tell him that to experience what cocaine feels like, have a double espresso topped up with bubbling cola. He said he was ‘flying’ afterwards.)


On flashbacks: no flashback.


Morning writing is colder, more efficient. Read over from previous day. Night, there are more emotions that go in (for him anyway.)


I know what I’m doing now and I work in a way that’s very deliberate… I have a friend, Anne Enright, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she just writes on a WP and goes over it. You become your own reader, editor.


‘Leave it alone, let it come to you naturally, if you let it come to you it’ll come much more forcefully than if you try to ‘decide.’ And ‘the more you write, the more you live in language, and the better you will write.’


It was a privilege to be in the room with him, and just listen to what he had to say.

Virtual chat between Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin

5 thoughts on “Colm Tóibín workshop – Melbourne Writers Festival 2013

  1. That was excellent….. I missed this talk and you made me feel like I was there….. now I’m going off to remove all the flashbacks from my manuscript which will halve the word count……… just kidding but his comments did make me nervous….. I learned heaps.
    Thank you.

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