Author: Finn Longman

Writer, Irish dancer, and stay-at-home medievalist. I read a lot of books and yell about Cú Chulainn.

Precedented

I’ve been finding myself nostalgic recently.

This isn’t exactly unusual — I’m a nostalgic person, prone to accidentally losing hours scrolling through old pictures and reminiscing. Sometimes I wonder whether I’d be less nostalgic if I had a better memory. Mine’s terrible, so often, looking through photos like that is the only record I have that things happened at all, that versions of me ever existed.

I’m a chronic re-reader, too — again, my terrible memory can make even frequent rereads rewarding, because inevitably I forget plot points and character details, but even the books I’ve read so many times I have sections practically memorised still feel comforting to go back to. I’ve been this way since I was a kid. Sometimes I don’t feel like embarking on something new: I want a familar world, familiar characters, a story with a rhythm that feels like one of those songs you knew as a child but had forgotten entirely until you heard it again.

But recently the nostalgia’s been reaching new heights. I found myself playing RuneScape — a truly desperate state of affairs, considering how many years it’s been since I last did that. If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d have told you my RS days were firmly back in 2007-08, and yet there I found myself, obsessively training my mining and smithing skills and trying to remember the quickest way from Lumbridge to Port Sarim.

And fanfic, always a source of comfort, has reflected this same nostalgia. I still read considerably more published books than fanfics (at least in terms of wordcount, if not in terms of titles), but I’ve been finding myself spending a lot more time on Ao3 recently… reading Les Mis fanfiction primarily published between 2013 and 2015. It’s not that there aren’t newer fics (the Les Mis fandom has been around in various forms since 1862, they’re not going anywhere), but it’s those older fics that I keep going back to, the dynamics and fanon that I remember from sixth form, when I was more active in the Les Mis fandom and was first dipping my toes into transformative work. Why? I don’t know. Because they’re comforting. Because they feel safe, somehow.

Then there’s music. My music taste has always been fairly eclectic, and I’ll give most things Spotify recommends to me a go, which means I often end up getting really into some obscure band that released one album in 2012 and nothing since. So, okay, I would never describe my playlists as up-to-date or engaged with the zeitgeist or whatever. I’m clueless about new releases and charts (are charts still a… thing?), which isn’t a deliberate refusal of the popular or whatever, just a side-effect of how I engage with music.

But recently, I’ve been regressing. Going back to the albums I loved when I was twelve or thirteen. And, okay, I started writing at 13 and I joined Spotify in 2009 and I’ve been making character playlists just as long, so yes, songs from those albums are still on my writing playlists, and it’s not like I ever stopped listening to them. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t listened to The Black Parade on repeat this much since roughly 2008. In my defence, it’s (a) completely full of bangers and (b) perfect for one of my writing projects, so it’s been helping me through my revisions lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that I found myself singing/yelling along to practically the whole album in my living room the other day, and might have ordered myself a MCR t-shirt as a special treat.

It’s a pandemic. That’s my excuse.

But — that is my excuse. Not to psychoanalyse myself (kidding, I love psychoanalysing myself), but I can’t help thinking this nostalgia is a symptom of all the uncertainty we’re experiencing about the future. Without a way to look forward — because we have no idea what the rest of this year will look like, let alone the impact it’ll have on next year — I’ve found myself looking back, seeking comfort in something familiar.

I saw someone on Twitter saying, “Can’t wait to live in precedented times again.” And I think that’s probably a big part of why I’ve been finding comfort in media that reminds me of the world ten or fifteen years ago. While I’d never choose to live 2007 through again — and would be even less keen to re-experience 2013-14, which was one of the worst periods of my life — it’s the familiarity that feels safe. The fics are set in a ‘modern’ world which is safely contained, separate from the drama and change and uncertainty of reality. RuneScape, while it’s changed a lot since 2007, is a way of whiling away the hours that reminds me of being eleven; it’s untouched and separate from adult reality.

And The Black Parade? Is just a really good album, to be honest.

(But it reminds me of home. It reminds me of my 12th birthday, listening to it on repeat via my old Creative Zen V and docking station, accompanied by the model dragon my sister gave me as a gift, which I’d named Máire. It reminds me of half a dozen characters I spent my teenage years writing about, because I have more writing playlists with MCR songs on them than without. It reminds me of being fifteen and afraid to like anything too visibly, making self-conscious jokes about listening to ’emo’ music because I was afraid to admit what I liked. It reminds me of all my teenage angst, which shouldn’t be comforting, except it is, because I’m not a teenager anymore.)

I’m willing to bet I’m not the only person looking to the past right now. Not just looking at Facebook ‘Memories’ of a year ago as lockdown loomed, or the year before with our normal lives untouched by pandemic, or five years ago to our undergrad days, or whatever. But finding comfort in old hobbies, familiar media, well-loved stories. Not exactly regressing to a past version of ourselves, but leaning on them for strength, because in a world where so much is uncertain and unfamiliar, sometimes you need something that feels safe.

Our unprecedented times keep getting more precedented, the longer this goes on. What was strange and unfamiliar a year ago is now a bleak reality from which it can be hard to see any escape in the near future. But the uncertainty remains: the impossibility of making plans, the constant rescheduling of anticipated experiences, the vagueness about the future.

And when the shape of the future is impossible to discern, perhaps it’s inevitable we’d find comfort in nostalgia.

Hosting and Posting

Recently, I found myself in the position of needing to shift to a new blog host. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with my old host — SiteGround has been keeping the site running smoothly since 2017 — but circumstances have changed. Back then, I was getting nearly 30k hits per year, and I felt optimistic it would continue to climb. Last year? 3,000 hits. Suddenly, what had seemed good value for money had become a major expense that I couldn’t justify, and I needed to switch over to something cheaper.

I have a few ideas as to how this might have happened, and a lot of it’s on me. I deleted my entire archive in late 2019, which meant the pop culture-heavy posts from 2013 and 2014 that had been sustaining me with passive hits via Google suddenly stopped making a difference. And, of course, you can’t expect people to read your blog when you rarely post — since the re-start, I’ve only posted 19 times, which is barely once a month for the time that’s elapsed (and nowhere near as regular).

But also, the internet’s changed. It used to be full of small sites — blogs and badly coded personal websites and obscure, niche forums that sustained themselves on the same systems they’d been using for 15 years with no flashy changes to the UI. Now, it feels like everything has become far more dominated by big social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc), and there’s less space for those unpolished little corners.

And, I mean, I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, so I certainly wouldn’t want this to come across as a hypocritical lament or a tirade against social media. But sometimes I miss the world of blogs. I met so many of my teenage writing friends through blog chains like Teens Can Write Too, and some of them I’m still in touch with, all these years later. Blogs were a space that was ours, that we could customise and moderate and shape to fit what we needed. Those spaces are harder to find these days.

Though, of course, blogs self-evidently do still exist, or I wouldn’t be writing this; I don’t want to be like those people who say Tumblr is dead and nobody uses it while there are people like me who’ve been there since 2011 and have no plans to leave. But I think it’s fair to say the world of blogging has changed. Personal blogs are less of a thing, because it’s so much easier to give people updates on your life via Instagram. Professional blogs, expert blogs — those are still around. But let’s be real. I’ve never been professional a day in my life.

Anyway, what point does this musing have? Not much, except as justification for why I hopped hosts again. Since I am generally useless at remembering it exists, this does mean I don’t think I managed to transfer over my associated email account (finn AT finnlongman DOT com), so if you emailed me recently — and by that I mean in the last 3 months — your email might have been yeeted into the void, never to be seen again. I think we’ve all learned not to expect prompt replies from that account, but… well. I usually try to reply eventually. Even if it’s a year late. I’ll try and get it back up and running again, but I may have missed the point at which it was possible to recover existing messages.

Part of me feels the need to justify the continued existence of this site, too, so it’s possible having recently paid money to ensure that, I might be more motivated to post. But as Ireland continues its endless lockdown, I find I have less and less to say that isn’t thoroughly depressing. It’s very uninspiring, to spend your life in the same three small rooms, and never to see another person. Perhaps that’s why I’ve once again forgotten how to write poetry, though late last year it felt like I was remembering.

Those of us who live alone are encouraged to reach out and talk to others online, but — what is there to say? What can we talk about? I bought a different brand of tea this week, maybe. Or, my sleep schedule is now so disastrous that I may as well be living in a different timezone. I’ve heard it’s the same for those who’ve been locked down with their partner — after a while, you’ve had every conversation. There’s no news. Everything you’ve experienced, they’ve witnessed, because neither of you can leave.

Still, I’m British. When in doubt, there’s always the weather. And oh, the weather here in Ireland has been miserable. I know the stereotype is that Ireland rains all the time, but I think maybe as Brits we underestimate that. We think we know rain. We think, It can’t be that much worse than England. But the difference is, I’ve found, that the south of England (the only place I’m qualified to talk about) will rain for an hour, maybe two, during an overcast day; a particularly bad storm might last longer. When Ireland rains? It will rain relentlessly for six hours. The entire day will be lost to the downpour. It’s so persistent, and sometimes it goes on for days at a time.

It has not, as you can imagine, done my seasonal depression much good. Which combined with isolation and Regular Bog-Standard Clinical Depression has resulted in… some not-great mental health days, I will confess.

But today, the sun is shining, and while the signs of spring are few and far between, they’re there. So it’s time for me to turn off the computer and, for once, go outside.

An Early Modern Melancholy

I’ve been working this week on Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Early Modern version of The Death of Cú Chulainn. It’s a fascinating story that pretty much nobody seems to care about, as is often the way with these early modern prose tales — too late for the medievalists, too early for the modernists, or at least that’s how it can feel. This lack of interest means there’s no English translation of it than I can find, so I’ve been translating sections myself, gradually uncovering the story.

I went into it looking for Láeg mac Riangabra. I knew I’d find him — I had, at least, been able to read a summary of the story beforehand, so I knew that his role had grown and developed from the medieval version of the text. As Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, he’s also largely neglected in the scholarship, relegated to footnotes and passing remarks. In one analysis I read that listed the main differences between the two versions of the story, his role wasn’t even mentioned, despite the fact it has changed entirely.

In the medieval story, then, Láeg dies shortly before Cú Chulainn, hit by a spear meant for the hero. It’s poignant enough. There would have been a poem, originally, Láeg’s last words — this is lost, as the redactor of the only surviving copy of the story thought we knew it well enough that abbreviating it to a single line was enough: “Bitterly have I been wounded.” Cú Chulainn draws out the spear, bids him farewell, and goes alone to his death after that. A heroic blaze of glory.

But in this later text, it happens a little differently. Láeg is wounded, not killed, and Cú Chulainn sends him away: begs him to go home, to survive, to tell his story to those left behind. Except Láeg doesn’t go. He takes himself to the edge of the battle and he watches, and when it’s over he goes to bind Cú Chulainn’s wounds and assure him that this isn’t how he dies. Cú Chulainn knows otherwise: he recognises his mortality, the culmination of prophecies, and all that remains is to take some control over the place and manner of his death. He asks Láeg’s help to prop himself against a standing stone, holding his weapons, facing his enemies, and it’s there that he dies. But at least this time, he doesn’t die alone.

For me, the most moving moments of the text are here: as Cú Chulainn begs Láeg to leave, and Láeg refuses. As the hero says, “From the first day we bound our friendship together, we have never before quarrelled or separated, not by day or by night, until this moment.” And this quarrel, this separation, is with the goal of saving Láeg from meeting the same fate. Of saving the charioteer and with him the story.

It seems a very early modern melancholy to me. Of course, I’m a medievalist, and no expert — a piece of A-level coursework on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi back in 2013 does not an early modernist make. Still, it’s Hamlet that this brings to mind: the melancholy, the friendship, the tragedy of the one who survives.

It feels, in these moments, that the redactor is appealing to a very different aesthetic and emotive sensibility than their medieval predecessors. No more the blaze of glory — now the grief. Now the friend. Stay alive, begs the tragic hero, in whatever words he’s given. Stay alive so that you can tell my story. No longer the impartial narrator of myth: instead the story is given to the grieving beloved, who holds the narrative in their trust.

And the hero is proven tragic by his ability to die (as Anne Carson says, immortality defies tragedy). It surprises him too. Cú Chulainn says — “If I had known that my heart was one of flesh and blood, I would never have performed half the feats that I did.” He’s caught out. His mortality is almost a shock. So this is it. Our medieval hero is waiting for the end to his short life; our early modern hero finds his humanity a disruption.

But the friend — the friend is condemned to survive. Horatio and Láeg, made unwilling bards by their endurance. Both would probably have found it easier to die there, and the medieval hero would have let them. But the early modern one bids them live, entrusts to them the precious role of remembrance. It’s a cruel kind of love, that one, to abandon your friends to life.

And then the curtain falls. Then Horatio is left among the dead — no word as to whether Fortinbras believes his tale, or if he’s tried and hanged for treason and the murder of a dynasty. Then Láeg, in his grief, leaves Emer and Conall to their revenge — and goes where? The story doesn’t say. As friend, his part is tied to the hero’s. Perhaps he walks the landscape alone. Perhaps he goes home, to his mother, and weeps with his head in her lap for a young man who was beloved by him. Perhaps she saw this coming, and would have tried to protect him from it, if he had let her.

It’s a melancholy erasure, this fading out. It refuses grief. It gives in to it. It crumbles under the weight of aftermath and then it hides from it. Cowardly, almost. Where does Láeg go? Or Horatio? To another story, one nobody will tell, because that kind of survival is too raw a wound to salt it with words. They go to the gravestone of endpapers.

How early modern of them.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me, a medievalist, caught up in the peculiar, melancholic loss everpresent in this text. “It is then fell the chief of valour and arms, glory and prowess, protection and bravery.” But left behind was Láeg, his most loyal friend. And wounded and grieving, he mounts Cú Chulainn’s one surviving horse and rides home, alone, “and it is slow and spiritless he came,” until Emer spots him from the ramparts of Emain Macha and understands what has been lost.

Maybe Láeg could have had another story — found another hero in need of a charioteer, perhaps, just as Horatio could have stayed at court as an advisor, or perhaps gone back to Wittenberg and his studies. In Horatio’s case, we don’t know that he didn’t. But Láeg tells us clearly: “I will not be the servant of any other person forever after my lord himself.” Still an ending, then, but a messier one than his medieval counterpart, who dies at Cú Chulainn’s side, king of charioteers. This one is a loss of identity, he who has been defined by his counterpart now walking the rest of his story alone.

We aren’t told where it takes him. Of course we aren’t. The text isn’t Merugud Laeig, the Wanderings of Láeg, the Going-Astray of Láeg. The text is Oidheadh Con Culainn, the Violent Death of Cú Chulainn. And so the beats it follows, of prophecy and plot and battle and death and mourning and revenge, are those of the hero’s story.

Láeg is, I think, somewhat genre-savvy, though all he tries for optimism when he kneels at the wounded Cú Chulainn’s side and tells him the end of his life hasn’t yet come. He knows what’s coming. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t beg to stay, to be a part of it, to meet the end as he has lived before now: by Cú Chulainn’s side. “A chomalta inmain,” he says: O beloved companion. Perhaps it makes it easier, to think that it didn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps it makes it worse, the anticipation of tragedy a preemptive grief that never eases the sting when it comes for real.

Either way, the result is the same. He is the story-carrier, the news-bearer, the messenger of grief, who takes word back to Ulster and sets in motion Conall’s vengeful rampage. As such he cannot be allowed to die. Cú Chulainn is genre-savvy too, to recognise that. The closest of companions must be sent away.

How early modern of him. Or so it seems to me.

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
— Hamlet, Act V Scene II


To support me in having ongoing feelings about Láeg mac Riangabra, please consider buying me a coffee.

Learning To Live

For the last few years, I’ve tried to resist the temptation of making New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve pointed out that they’re a lot of pressure to put on an arbitrary date; that change can come at any time; that I’m the kind of overly-ambitious perfectionist who makes unrealistic goals and only sets myself up to fail.

And hey, all of that’s probably true. But we, as humans, like markers, don’t we? We like stories and names and ways of dividing up the world into pieces that feel a little bit more manageable to process. And sometimes we just need an excuse to prompt us to reset the clock and start over again.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want from 2021. I was lucky: though 2020 had its struggles, it wasn’t an especially bad year for me. Personally speaking, I’ve had far worse years, and on some levels, 2020 marked more progress for me than I’ve had in years, a chance to finally break through of the holding pattern I’ve felt trapped in. That’s made it a little weird marking the end of the year, which has been so hard for so many people. Like I’m afraid to admit I didn’t hate it, in case it seems like I’m bragging.

There are some things that have been on my lists of New Year’s goals/resolutions/wishes for years that don’t have to be any more. “This year, I’ll finally query properly” was one I’ve been telling myself for a while. “This year, I want to find an agent.” Don’t need that one on the list anymore. Not sure where I stand with figuring out progress or direction or next steps: I returned to academia, but my MA’s only a year-long programme, so at some point I’m going to have to figure out what I’m doing next, again. But not yet.

There are things I want from this year that aren’t within my power. A vaccine. A book deal. Top surgery. Better health. In some cases, there are steps I can take towards them, and in others, I only have to wait. So I’m trying not to make those sorts of things my resolutions, because they’re not goals or plans, just wishes.

The question, then, is: what do I want from this year, that I can actually control?

I want to get better at Irish, which means nothing so much as putting the time in, day after day and week after week. I’ve made progress, but I’ve got a long way still to go, and always I look for shortcuts and different methods and some kind of magic trick that will just make it happen.

I want to spend less time looking at screens, and especially less time on Twitter, and more time learning what I’m like when I don’t have an audience. It’s hard, when all socialising these days is online, but I’m increasingly convinced that social media doesn’t bring out the best in me, and I want to learn to put it down for once.

I want to play the violin more often. I want to start dancing regularly again, even if I have to change it up a bit to fit in my tiny living room. I want to try and do calligraphy again. I want to remember hobbies that are physical, not digital. I want to let them stay hobbies, and stop trying to feel the need to be the best at everything.

I want to get better at letting go of negative emotions. I want to get better at keeping a check on the ways that I spiral – to stop going to bed at 3am, to start eating real meals on a semi-regular basis, to stop using sugar to convince my brain to function (because it’s wrecking my teeth and my gut).

I want to polish my Bisclavret retelling, finish my Lancelot/Galehaut retelling, maybe write something completely different and new. Maybe come back to another waiting draft or build more of words I’ve already created. I want to keep writing poems, learn to write short stories, and maybe, possibly, remember to blog more regularly.

And with blogging – I don’t want to do it because I feel like I “have” to. But to build a community again, a proper one, not based on outrage and sharp retorts and one-liners the way so much of our internet communities are these days. A chance to go back to building my own online space, instead of being trapped in the currents of big social media.

I want to see more of Cork, as the weather grows warmer and the days grow longer. I want to make the most of the time I have in Ireland, because I don’t know what will happen when I finish my MA. And when we’re allowed: I want to go to the Gaeltacht; I want to visit the places I’ve never visited that are now just a bus-ride away; I want to learn more about this country where I live.

I want to make more videos about medieval Irish lit, not because creating “content” might earn me subscribers and Ko-Fi tips or whatever, but because I want to share the stories I love with people who would never encounter them otherwise.

I want to read books in the same unselfconscious way I did as a kid, where I would reread the same book half a dozen times, where I wasn’t counting how many books I read or trying to keep to a goal or worrying what anybody else thought about my opinions. I plan to keep track of them in a document on my computer, for my own sake (my memory sucks), instead of feeling the need to track every little thing on the internet.

In the end, most of these boil down to the same kind of idea: I want to stop performing my own life, and start living it. (So of course I started by writing a blog post about it…) A challenge, when I’ve lived so much of my life on the internet, and when there are so few other ways to interact with people at the moment. But sometimes I feel like I’m holding my own emotions at arms’ length because I’m so busy worrying about what I’m ‘supposed’ to be feeling, and I want to break free of that.

2020 didn’t completely suck for me. There was loss, and there were a few months of being too depressed to function, and all in all it had some moments I wouldn’t care to relive. But the last couple of years… it’s felt like whatever else happens, I’m still growing into myself. After a few years where I felt like I was only ever falling apart and crumbling and losing pieces of myself, a year where I come out the other end feeling like me is a good year.

And on that level – 2020 was progress. 2020 was taking steps I’d been hovering on the edge of for a long time. 2020 was writing more and finding an agent and moving to Ireland and starting an MA and presenting at a conference and learning how to press ‘Send’ instead of always hesitating at the final barrier. 2020 was healing (even though chronic pain is never entirely gone). Sometimes 2020 was lonely, but mostly it was just about shining a light on all the ways I haven’t yet learned to live with the inside of my own head, making me aware of my insecurities and my doubts.

So that’s one for 2021: I want to learn how to live in my brain and in my skin, instead of always looking for distractions, and though I doubt I’ll be able to rid myself of my insecurities in a year or longer, I want to learn to live with them.

And I want to come out the other end feeling even more like me.

This Year In Writing

For many people, 2020 hasn’t been a particularly productive year, which is entirely understandable. It’s hard to focus on anything when the world’s falling apart around you, and for those with kids suddenly at home 24/7… well, I’m not surprised to see a lot of writers tweeting about how many deadlines they’ve missed this year, and how difficult it’s been to get words on paper.

For me, it was a little different, and that’s not because I was having a great year (I wasn’t) — although I recognise that being furloughed with pay for several months and having no caring responsibilities did put me in a comparatively privileged position. For a few months there I had a taster of what it would be like to be a full-time writer, being paid to stay at home and work on books, and the result was that I wrote 236k in six weeks. But that wasn’t because I was lacking in anxiety — if anything, it’s because I was too anxious to stop. As long as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, wasn’t checking the news, wasn’t seeing the Covid figures tick higher and higher, and it became my best method of preventing myself from endlessly doomscrolling on Twitter. So I just… wrote obsessively.

My seemingly productive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily better ways of dealing with anything — avoidance can only take you so far, and I had a couple of months of doing nothing except lying in bed being a depression slug. (Because it turns out, after you’ve attended the livestreamed funeral of somebody less than a year older than you, it becomes a lot harder to pretend reality doesn’t exist anymore.) But they do look, from the outside, like I’m managing okay. I think that’s why I’ve been finding myself a little reluctant to talk about what I’ve achieved this year, in case it makes others think I’ve been unaffected by the chaos in the world, or gives off the impression that I’m looking down on those for whom quarantine wasn’t a productive experience.

Because I’m not. I’m well aware that everyone copes in their own way, and barring my summer of lying in bed doing nothing except feeling kinda sad and exhausted, this happened to be how I dealt with things. It worked for me, it wouldn’t necessarily work for anyone else, it is what it is.

So, I figured as a kind of recap, I’d tell you what I’ve been working on this year.

April-May 2020: Bard, draft 3

Bard is a YA sci-fi Arthurian retelling that I first wrote in 2016 and rewrote in 2018, set on a former prison colony in space. This third draft was a last-ditch attempt to see if it was salvageable, but after some thought, I’ve concluded that it probably isn’t. It clocked in at 134k and by the end of it, I just wanted it to be over. Don’t get me wrong — this book has potential. It has some characters that I love and some ideas that mean a lot to me, and I particularly enjoyed how strongly the pacifist vibes came through in this draft. But it would need a complete plot overhaul to be a functional book, it requires a level of worldbuilding I don’t think I’m capable of (I do not science), and frankly… I’m not sure I’m invested in it enough to put that work in. There are a lot of YA Arthurian retellings out there. I’m not sure the world needs mine enough to go to the effort of dismantling it and make it something functional. But I might raid parts of it for another book one day.

It’s about friendship and peace and very gentle revolutions and I wish I loved the book itself as much as I love the ideas in it.

May 2020: Moth 2, draft 3

At the start of May, I received an offer of representation for the first book in the Moth Trilogy, Butterfly of Night. During the two weeks that followed, as I attempted to keep my anxiety at bay while I waited for other agents to respond and so on, I wrote a very hasty redraft of its sequel, which I originally wrote in 2014 and haven’t touched since early 2015. It’s not that I thought I would need this any time soon — more that I wanted something to work on that would get my brain back in the right mindset to potentially tackle revisions of BoN. Mostly, this rewrite was intended to bring this sequel in line with book one in terms of continuity and worldbuilding, since major edits to the first book in the last five years meant that the existing draft made no sense. It still needs a bunch of work on a plot level, especially since some of those changes undermined the character motivations and weakened the existing arc, but it’s a vaguely book-shaped thing, and if nothing else, it was a good distraction.

Plus I enjoy this book solely for the fact that we have a deadly assassin working as a library assistant.

June 2020: concerto for two idiots, draft 1 [incomplete]

This is not this book’s actual title, but since it doesn’t have one, I’m referring to it by the joke title I gave its playlist. This book was my first attempt at a proper YA contemporary — a retelling of the story of Lancelot and Galehaut, set in a secondary school orchestra. While I loved writing these gay disasters and it was delightful to dip back into the musical world I inhabited as a teen, this book suffered from poor timing — as my depression got worse throughout June and into July, I found I wasn’t capable of writing what would otherwise have been the happiest book I’ve written so far, and eventually I stopped being able to write at all and put the book indefinitely on hold. I hope I can come back to it at some point, because writing contemporary was a new direction for me and I wanted to see where it could go, but I haven’t been in the right headspace for it. I think it also suffered from lack of planning — I jumped into it without really thinking it through, having already been writing nonstop for a couple of months. So, for now it’s 58k of a messy first draft.

By ‘messy’ I mean multiple characters are known only by initials and there’s a band called “Terrible Band Name”, but I had a lot of fun with it while it lasted.

September 2020: Butterfly of Night, draft 4096

Okay, it’s probably not draft 4096, it’s more like draft 8 (and 8×8 is 64 and 64×64 is 4096, so…). But after six years of working on this book, it feels like it! I revised Butterfly of Night during my 2-week quarantine after moving to Ireland, taking into account some feedback we’d received from editors as well as developing some ideas that would lay the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy. As I’ve said before, this book can stand alone and I’ve worked very hard to ensure that’s the case, but it’s always been a trilogy in my head, and the more I know about the later books, the more I can solidify the worldbuilding in book one to make sure the pieces are in place. These revisions involved changing the ending in a way that I haven’t done since I wrote the first draft in 2014, so that was wild, but now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I let the old ending stand for so long. I did a subsequent round of line edits during October to smooth out some inconsistencies and tighten the prose, but the bulk of the writing happened in September.

Me attempting to plan my revisions: “Why does a book need a plot? Is it not enough for it to be about trauma recovery and friendship? And murder.”

November 2020: To A Candle Flame (Moth 3), draft 1

For NaNoWriMo this year, I wrote a draft of the final book in the Moth Trilogy. It’s a very self-indulgent project intended only for myself — it relies on the latest version of BoN, which only one person has read, and on a non-existent version of the second book, which I have yet to write and so exists only in my head. Which means I can’t ask anybody to read it through. Really, I just wanted to know how it ended, for the sake of my own curiosity. Having this on paper means I have a much clearer sense of the edits I need to do to make book 2 functional, though, and it was nice to write a first draft in this world for the first time since 2014. I did not, however, succeed in following through on this particular note from my planning, mostly because I forgot it existed:

So that’s a note for the next draft. Give Isabel a tiny cat.

(Also, I feel like the juxtaposition of moods in this screenshot really says a lot about how I plan books. It’s just a jumble of every thought and feeling I’ve had about the novel, and I talk to myself on paper until I figure out what I’m trying to say.)

November-December 2020: The Wolf and His King, draft 2

At the very end of November and going into December, I spontaneously decided to rewrite last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a retelling of Bisclavret. This was in some ways a fairly superficial edit: I focused on prose, historical detail, and character development, and didn’t dig deep into plot or pacing. I’ve had some positive feedback from my beta readers and a couple of suggestions for improvements, and probably at some point there’ll be a third draft that involves pulling the book apart a bit more thoroughly, but mostly, I’m solidly proud of this one and it means a lot to me as a book because it feels very personal. It’s also a wildly different kind of book to the Moth Trilogy — it’s an adult literary novel with a strong romance element, so a sharp contrast to my YA thrillers with zero romance, but I like to keep things varied. I’m hoping 2021 will see this book taking a few steps further along the journey to publication, but we’ll have to see.

Beta reader feedback varied in style but I particularly enjoyed Charley’s approach of liveblogging her feelings at me.

Poetry

I’ve also started writing poetry again. I used to write poems constantly and obsessively, but I’ve lost the knack of it these last few years. Most years I manage a small handful, separated by months, but I’ve written around 20 so far in 2020 and the majority of them since the end of October. I’ve started trying to write poems deliberately, following prompts, rather than just when I feel inspired, and I’ve entered a few into competitions, mainly to give me a reason to finish them. It’s been nice, re-learning how to write poems, and I’m enjoying playing around with language. I realised I was using a lot of the same imagery in my novels and I thought maybe if I practised with poems, I would learn to vary those descriptions a bit more.

There’s still some time left in 2020, but I’ve promised to take a break from creative writing for a while. In 2020 I wrote 564,336 words of fiction across those two projects, which doesn’t account for those scenes I wrote two or three times, all the planning and worldbuilding notes I wrote both on paper and in Word docs, or anything academic. (I also wrote the openings for various other projects, which I do quite often, but again, I don’t count those unless they develop into something.) I think I would be right in saying I haven’t done that since my wrist injury in 2013, and what’s even more remarkable is that almost all of those words were typed (not dictated) — a reminder that although during pain flare-ups it doesn’t feel like it, I have recovered a huge amount since then.

Shortest complete novel: 71k. Longest: 133k.

For the rest of the year, barring a couple of oneshots I told myself I’d write as Christmas gifts for friends, the only things I’ll be writing will be my assignments. But it’s nice to close out 2020 knowing that despite this terrible year, I made words. A somewhat alarming number of words. (If I broke down the exact number of days spent writing and tried to work out an average, I suspect it would be the kind of number that makes physiotherapists give me the “not mad, just disappointed” look.) And those words helped me to get through this.

And whether or not you made any words at all this year, I’m glad you, too, got through this, and I’d love to hear more about anything creative that might have come out of this for you.

One Semester, Mastered

This week marked the end of my first semester at UCC studying the MA in Early and Medieval Irish. On the one hand, it feels bizarre that I’ve already been living here in Cork for more than three months. On the other hand, the semester occasionally felt endless, and by the end of it I was very ready for a break…

Of course, inevitably I don’t now have a month to do absolutely nothing — I’ve two assignments due on the eighth of January, an article deadline of the eighteenth, translation to do for my thesis, and a number of personal projects I want to get done. But there’s still a certain freedom that comes from no longer having classes, and knowing that I made it this far, including surviving three in-class tests (one of which is continuing to haunt me with the knowledge of mistakes I probably made).

Returning to academia after two years has been an odd experience — no stranger than I imagined, but still, there’s been a lot of flailing around as I try and figure out what the expectations are and how to meet them. Part of this is that UCC is a wildly different institution to Cambridge, and so how I’d approach things at Cambridge doesn’t necessarily carry over to how they’re done here. (Going from an 8-week term to a 12-week one was rough in itself!) And of course, there’s the fact that I’ve moved to a new country and am living alone during a pandemic that’s seriously curtailing the amount of in-person socialising that’s happening.

But I was expecting that, and honestly, I’ve been lucky — the tiny class sizes on my course have meant we’ve been able to continue with face-to-face teaching for the majority of modules. Without that, I think I’d have struggled a lot more. It’s given me a chance to meet most of my fellow MA students and get to know them on a level that would have been a lot more difficult via online classes, but also, at the most basic level, it’s given me a reason to leave the house and an opportunity to speak to other humans, which I might not otherwise have had.

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Even if some of the rooms on campus are so cold I started bringing a blanket to class.

Still, it’s been a strange semester. At times it felt weirdly easy — without the weekly essays that haunted my undergraduate years, the workload felt a lot more manageable, and without in-person societies, I had a lot more time to myself. That’s probably why I wrote two novels this semester, a first draft of one and a second draft of another, although I’ll admit that was also a desperate attempt to keep reality — and therefore anxiety — at bay. As we accelerated towards the end of term, though, my decision to spend November and early December writing frantically caught up with me, with three assessments and two assignments looming. Turns out that’s the disadvantage (?) of not being constantly stressed throughout the semester: it takes you by surprise when it does come.

I still think I benefited from not feeling like I was constantly drowning, though. Don’t get me wrong: I learned a huge amount in Cambridge, and there are some advantages to the supervision system. But with my health, the non-stop pace of it and the impossibility of taking a few days off here and there to recover always ended up screwing me over.

There are also some things that the Cambridge system didn’t prepare me for, on a more subject-specific level. Yes, we translated a lot of texts in language classes, so to have gone from covering five different texts in the course of a year to spending all semester on two pages of one story felt like a shock. But when it comes to doing things in depth, and specifically, doing grammar in depth… oof.

See, I never really got the hang of Old Irish grammar. The textbooks seemed to be written with the assumption that we’d have done Latin or some other language with a case system; that we’d understand what a preterite was and what a predicate was and why they weren’t the same thing; that we’d know why it mattered for a word to be an o-stem or a u-stem, etc etc. It never clicked. It wasn’t until last year that I found out what those stems even mean and why it was relevant (while studying Modern Irish, and encountering declensions).

But that was okay, because the way our course was structured meant that language and literature exams were combined, and my literature essays were usually good enough to make up for the fact that I don’t really understand verbs and have never memorised a paradigm in my life.

Pain and suffering, in the form of revision for my Old Irish exam.

And even if I had understood it, or learned it in enough depth… well, that’s the kind of thing we’d have done in first year. Which was now six years ago. Not to mention the fact that my mental and physical health were such a disaster — undiagnosed autoimmune conditions will do that to you — that most of 2015 is a blank in my memory, so frankly, if I ever got the hang of the subjunctive, I’d have lost it a long time ago. That’s a fun thing to realise — that you literally have to relearn things from the ground up because it’s not just ordinary forgetfulness that’s done for them, but the result of ongoing brain fog and the effect that has on your brain. Plus, you know, I couldn’t actually read during undergrad: me and my orange glasses are trying to make up for lost time now that I’ve been given the gift of reading slowly.

And the way UCC approaches Quin’s Old Irish Workbook is to nail those grammatical concepts in a lot more depth — and while it’s useful and important and will probably solidify my skills a lot, I’ve sometimes felt I’m scrambling to catch up. Because while I can just about keep on top of the new concepts we’re encountering, anything that was in the first half of the textbook (here covered in beginner’s Old Irish, and in Cambridge, covered more rapidly in the first term of first year) is still, largely, a mystery to me. Thus when the textbook triumphantly proclaims that the long-e future uses the subjunctive endings and so we don’t have to learn new endings, I can only stare at it dismally and wonder if there’s some kind of magic spell I can do that will transform me into the kind of person capable of memorising paradigms.

And I’m trying. In particular, I’m trying not to say that I can’t do grammar. Just that I haven’t yet found a method of learning it that actually works for me. Which, okay, you’d think after six years that if there was one I would have figured it out, but I’m attempting positivity here, go with it.

So yes, I have probably spent a fair amount of this semester staring in despair at my too-pristine copy of Strachan’s Paradigms and sensing that probably, after this many years, it should look somewhat tattier (don’t worry, I’ve managed to mess up the cover a fair bit by now). It’s probably had more use in the past month than it did in the entire four years of my undergrad studies, because it turns out, when you don’t race through the material at a breakneck pace in order to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible… you actually have to learn it properly.

Funny, that.

But, for all it’s shown up what I don’t know, my first semester here has also given me the opportunity to use what I do know — I gave two lectures for an undergrad module about gender in medieval Irish texts, introducing them to gender and queer theory and talking about Cú Chulainn’s unconventional masculinity in the Táin, which is the kind of thing I can talk about until the cows come home. I’m miles ahead with my thesis — and only my thesis, but it’s still a win — as a result of having spent about a year and a half thinking about it before I even got here, and my supervisor keeps warning me that if I’m not careful it’ll turn into a PhD thesis in terms of length/scope, which… yeah. Is anyone surprised?

Plus I’ve had the chance to tackle palaeography, which was completely new to me and which I regretted not having taken it in undergrad. My experiences of rare books as a librarian were handy, but for the most part it was all new info, and in the space of one semester, insular minuscule has gone from an impenetrable code to something I can pretty much read (slowly) (with help from lists of abbreviations). There’s something very satisfying about sharing my screen with my parents on Zoom so I can show them the manuscript I’m working with and explaining the letters to them, like I’ve cracked some kind of cipher.

A glimpse of RIA D.IV.2, the focus of my palaeography assignment

And I guess, most importantly, I’ve survived. Living completely alone (no housemates) for the first time, in a city I’d barely visited, in another country, during a pandemic, when my mental health was rocky to start with — it’s a lot. And there’ve been some darker moments. But for the most part, I’ve been doing a hell of a lot better here than I was earlier this summer when I retreated to my bed in Cambridge and spent weeks as a depression slug. Having a focus has helped. Making new friends has helped. Learning new things has helped. Teaching others has helped.

I miss dance (my tiny one-bed isn’t vastly suited to it). I miss seeing my family and friends back in England. I’m not going home for Christmas because it doesn’t feel safe, and that’s going to be pretty tough, too. But it’s been a much better semester than I feared, and a much more normal one, too, for which I’m very grateful.

So here’s to surviving, and to a few more days of procrastination before I actually sit down and do those assignments — because if one thing hasn’t changed, it’s my approach to deadlines.

Memory, Peace, and New Paths

This Remembrance Sunday marks two years since I attended my first Quaker meeting at Friends’ House, in London.

It wasn’t an entirely typical meeting. There were a number of people there specifically to mark Remembrance, among them several members of Veterans for Peace. While my own attendance was triggered by an interest in Quakerism that had been growing for about six weeks at that point, my choice to attend on that date specifically was related to a growing discomfort with how Remembrance was being celebrated in mainstream society, and a desire to mark the day in a way that centred peace.

Quaker meetings, for those who aren’t aware, are primarily silent, but if people feel moved to speak (‘give ministry’), they stand up and do so. I’ve attended meetings that have had seven pieces of spoken ministry over the course of an hour, but those were definitely the outliers; most I’ve attended have had one or two. This meeting was a particularly quiet one, with no spoken ministry until close to the end, when a visitor stood up to express the peacefulness he’d felt throughout the meeting.

But after the meeting had been brought to a close, visitors were invited to stand up and introduce themselves, and one by one they did. There were conscientious objectors and veterans with stories of how they had stood up for their pacifist ideals. People who had been in prison, or lost their jobs, or otherwise demonstrated their commitment to peace even at personal cost.

When it came to me, I stood up and very quickly said, “Hi. I’m Finn. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.” And sat back down.

It’s the most and least honest I’ve ever been. I don’t have a story. I’m just here.

We all have a story – my journey to Quakers and interest in pacifism didn’t spring spontaneously from nowhere – but in that moment I was struck by a peculiar impostor syndrome about the fact that at the age of twenty-two, as I was then, I had nothing to show for my ideals, no demonstration of what it meant that I was a pacifist.

I still don’t. My pacifism is frequently an academic one: I’ve read books, written blog posts, thought about it a lot, but sometimes I feel calling myself a pacifist, while ideologically true, is a little bit like calling yourself a queer ally just because you don’t call people by homophobic slurs. It’s a title I’ve done nothing to earn.

Because pacifism isn’t opting out of conflict. Pacifism is working to resolve it through transformation, not violence. Pacifism is a commitment, a requirement to work actively to dismantle violence in ourselves, our communities, and our society more broadly. Pacifism requires action. Pacifism can be forceful, defiant, even aggressive.

Pacifism means addressing the roots of conflict: inequality and poverty and greed. It isn’t enough to passively oppose violence – we have to dig down to the roots of what makes people feel it’s necessary, and cut away the rot. We have to create alternatives and empower people to turn to those.

Sometimes it feels I falter at the first hurdle, though – addressing my own instinctual violence. Peace doesn’t come naturally to me; my first instinct is always to lash out when I feel threatened. I’ve struggled a lot with feeling like I’m faking my pacifism, the same way I feel like I’m pretending to be a better person than I am because being kind doesn’t always feel natural either, and has to be a conscious effort.

I believe that good is something you do, that peace is something you choose, that kindness is a decision you make. But that doesn’t free me from the impostor syndrome that I feel. One day, I think, I’ll make my peace with that, too.

I don’t have a story. I’m just here. But one piece of the story I don’t have is that my maternal great-grandfather was a conscientious objector, who spent the First World War imprisoned for his stance. Although many conchies were religious, my understanding is that my great-grandfather’s position was a political one, because of his socialist values. It affected the rest of his life: his educational opportunities, the jobs he could get. It wasn’t about a few years of labour in Dartmoor, but his entire future.

I guess he figured that was a reasonable sacrifice.

It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my family history (although this may be because most of my family history is a mystery to me beyond the vaguest of details), and it’s part of what drew me to the Quakers, when I encountered historical accounts of their involvement with conscientious objectors. The more I learned about my great-grandfather and conscientious objectors, the more I kept stumbling on the Religious Society of Friends, in novels as well as historical material.

Always history, though. Most people’s mental image of Quakers seems to be a 17th century one, but mine was an early 20th century one, caught up with the war and all the political struggles around it. I knew they were still around, in theory, but I had no idea what they were up to these days.

So I googled it, and the next day I was at Friends’ House, trying to learn more.

My relationship with faith is a complicated one. I would be hard pushed to say for sure what I believe, and I’m constantly unlearning and re-evaluating inherited ideas about God. These days, I learn more theology from Twitter than from sermons (and I’ve deeply appreciated the opportunity to hear Jewish perspectives on Biblical stories from the various rabbis I follow).

But when it comes to religion, in the sense of a corporate body of people… I’m glad I found Quakers. Whatever I do or don’t know about my spiritual beliefs, I can find a kind of stability in those testimonies: peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability.

PESTS. Because historically, that’s what Quakers have been, and that’s what we still aim to be – speaking truth to power, making good trouble, and refusing to go with the flow. I’ve got a long way to go before I can count myself as an active contributor to that tradition, just as my pacifism could serve to step out of the moral philosophy section of the library and into the world, but now I’ve got people around me bearing witness to those ideas every day. Though it’s been hard, in lockdown, to feel that connection to others I used to feel in silent meetings (Zoom is not cutting it for me, I’ll be honest), I’m still profoundly grateful to have those threads drawing us together.

My Quaker friends inspire me every time I see them lighting a candle against the vast darkness of the world, making things brighter one small light at a time. And if two years haven’t brought me certainty or peace, at least they’ve brought me a path to follow, to see where it takes me.

So. Two years since I first crept nervously into a meeting with my white poppy on my coat. London and Edinburgh and Cambridge and Liverpool and Cork and Zoom. Thanks for being there, Quakers.

A photo of a light-coloured building with a flat roof. Metallic letters spell out 'Quakers'.
Cork Quaker Meeting House, October 2020

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Alternatively, you may wish to donate to the Peace Pledge Union or the Alternatives To Violence Project.

Writing For Myself

Blogging about NaNoWriMo as though the US election isn’t looming over all of us — yes, even those of us who aren’t American — feels strange. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that there’s absolutely no point waiting for things to be normal again. Because something is always happening, and that something is usually terrible.

(Also, I feel like if we press pause on everything not-terrible while something potentially-terrible is happening, that means everything on the internet is about the potentially-terrible things, and nobody gets a break or a chance to think about anything else. Which doesn’t seem to benefit anybody. I can’t speak for others, but a lot of the time these days I very much want to read about things that don’t matter at all.)

So let’s talk about National Novel Writing Month instead.

My participation in NaNoWriMo every year is beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. This is my twelfth year, and honestly, if I were going to take a break it should’ve been after the tenth, because at least that was a nice round number, but last year‘s queer werewolf novel crept up on me. Now I feel like I’d be betraying something if I skipped a year, despite the fact that literally nobody cares who isn’t me.

Actually, I did consider not participating this year. I mean, I don’t need NaNo to help me get the words on the page — writing fifty thousand words in a month is, if anything, slightly slower than my normal writing speed for first drafts — and I’ve got an MA demanding my attention, a newly rediscovered interest in blogging to feed, and videos to make. But… well. Here we are. I guess I can’t resist.

It’s a strange year for NaNo, because there are no in-person events, though most regions have terrifyingly active Discord servers (if the Ireland regions are anything to go by), so the community continues to thrive. On the plus side, not having any in-person events means less pressure to explain what my book is about, which is good, because describing this book is essentially a huge spoiler for the ones that went before it.

You see, this year my project’s an unusually self-indulgent one. Not that I’m not always first and foremost writing the books I want to read, but I’m usually aiming them at an audience too. This one, though, this one’s for me, because I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else will ever read it. It’s a sequel, you see. Well, actually, the third book in a trilogy.

The first book is Butterfly of Night, which is, with any luck, due to go on sub soon (‘on submission’ — being sent to editors at publishing houses in the hope that they will love it a lot, give me vast amounts of money, and publish it with great fanfare. Or indeed, give me small amounts of money and publish it at all). Most people don’t recommend writing sequels when the first book hasn’t sold, in case it doesn’t sell and you end up shelving multiple books rather than just one, but… that’s not advice I’ve ever listened to.

The thing about Butterfly of Night is that I never conceived of it as a standalone, as I explained in the post linked above. It works well enough as one (I worked hard to make sure of that), but it’s always been a trilogy in my head. Still, while I drafted the first two books back-to-back in the summer of 2014, book three (working title To A Candle Flame) has always… eluded me.

I’m not sure why it’s always proved so difficult to write. I’ve started it multiple times. At one point I had a bunch of disconnected scenes in Scrivener in the hope that eventually I’d figure out how they joined up. I started writing it again earlier this year, but gave up after 14,000 words because I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.

Is it because it’s the last book? Because I’m trying to follow through on promises I made to myself and brings things to a pleasing conclusion? Maybe it’s just that emotionally, it’s a challenging book: I put my protagonist Isabel through a lot in the first two, and book three is when she really deals with the psychological fall-out of that.

Or maybe it’s just because it’s hard to write the third book in a trilogy when the first book hasn’t sold, the second book needs major edits to make it work, and you don’t know whether it will see the light of day.

So this year, what NaNoWriMo means to me is the permission to write something that might not ever see the light of day. That could end up being just for me. A scruffy first draft written not for publication but because I want to see for myself how this story ends. I want to follow my character through to the end of the line. I want to know what happens. She’s lived in my head for six years: I want to complete this obligation I feel to her story.

Like I said, self-indulgent. But I’m a fast writer, so if it gets shelved, it’s okay. At least I got that closure for myself; I haven’t poured years of my life into polishing the prose of a forgotten Word document. Just a rough draft in search of some answers.

And yes, writing an entire novel for the sake of figuring out how things end — especially when I’ve arguably already done that in the outline — is no small amount of work. But my brain needs something creative to distract me, especially when reality is so anxiety-inducing; a way of letting off steam.

Self-indulgent sadly doesn’t mean easy, and now that I’ve already left behind those early chapters that were reworkings of previous attempts and struck out into the brave new world of actually drafting, I immediately hate everything I’ve written. But at least this time I did make an attempt at plotting the book, refining my ideas, so maybe this time it won’t fizzle out so quickly for want of direction.

Self-indulgent also doesn’t mean happy — but unlike those early attempts at the book from 2015 and 2016, this book is no longer as profoundly depressing as it used to be. It starts out sad (it’s very much a story about grief and recovery), but the aim is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Unlike my younger self, who couldn’t see a way out for this character that felt real, I’ve come to realise that happy endings — or at least, optimistic ones — aren’t childish, but brave. It’s easy to write bleak stories, and I’ve sure done it a lot, but trying to find space in those narratives for hope is far more satisfying, in the long run.

This is a book that hopes to reconcile the violence of the earlier books with my own pacifism. It’s a book about culpability and guilt and choices and the idea of forgiveness as a radical act. It’s asking the same question as several other things I’ve written: is there any such thing as beyond redemption?

And it’s about grief. It is very much about grief.

I think that’s why I couldn’t write it earlier this year. Since last week had me sitting on my sofa sobbing uncontrollably with zero warning at the memory of loss, I was worried when November 1st ticked around that I wouldn’t be able to write it now, either. But… I don’t know. So far I’ve been able to. Who knows, maybe it’ll help. At least I can always tell myself that no matter how bad I am at dealing with my feelings, I can’t be as bad as Isabel.

That bar is low, though.

So that’s what I’m writing this year. Because I want to. Writing for the sheer sake of writing, for the love of the story. Feels like a while since I’ve done that.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What are you writing? And if not, what are your go-to ways to distract yourself from reality these days?


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Grief Nonlinear

Content warning: this post is about grief and contains references to suicide.

I am always haunted at Hallowe’en.

Not by ghosts in white sheets or creepy faces at the window. Just the kind of ghosts that live inside your head, half-forgotten until something draws them back to the surface and then all of a sudden you’re haunted again.

I’m not good at letting go of ghosts, in general. I’m not good at death, and I’m worse at mourning. Maybe this is a sign of privilege – that I’ve not had enough practice with it. So small griefs become bigger, burdens I should never have been carrying weighing me down because I never learned how to relinquish them.

And one of my ghosts comes out – appropriately enough – at Hallowe’en.

You know, one of the things I love about the internet is that no matter how niche or specific your interest, somebody out there has a blog about it, runs a website dedicated to it, spends their life researching it. You might be idly googling some lyrics to a traditional ballad and the next thing you know you’re on Tam Lin Balladry, scrolling through dozens and dozens of different versions.

That’s how I found Abigail.

Well, I know, now, that her name was Abigail, but actually, I primarily knew her as ‘tam-nonlinear’, her Tumblr username. She was the author of Tam Lin Balladry, collecting versions and recordings and retellings and compiling them into one site, but she also used to post about it on her blog, along with jokes and memes that referenced the ballad. We crossed paths because I posted something about one of her descriptions and the fact that it had made me laugh, and she reached out to me.

It would be wrong, probably, to say that we were friends – ‘acquaintances’ is a better word, or ‘occasional passers-by on the weird street that is Tumblr’. Different generations, different backgrounds, we fit into that weird in-between space of online coexistence, united by a common interest though we’d never have crossed paths in real life. Still, I’m easy with my online friendship, and tend to refer to anyone I’ve ever talked to as a friend, so that’s how I think of her. Maybe that’s wrong, and I don’t really have a right to that word. That’s one of the things I often wonder about.

Every year, around Hallowe’en, her Tam Lin posts would intensify – the story told in the ballad takes place at Hallowe’en. Every year, I’d reblog them, with the quiet delight that comes from understanding a niche joke. It’s not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated (growing up, my family actively ignored Hallowe’en), but I came to enjoy that particular nerdy celebration.

Almost four years ago, immediately after Trump’s election, Abigail died.

As someone with a lot of internet friends, of course I’ve thought about it – how I’d find out if something bad had happened to them, whether anyone would think to tell us, or whether they’d just disappear from my life and I’d never know what had happened. In this instance, I found out because she’d scheduled two blog posts. The first asked for somebody to take over Tam Lin Balladry, so that it could continue to exist as a living resource and not merely an archive. The second was looking for homes for her cats.

It was the cats that got me, at the time. I didn’t know how to process the idea that she was gone, and I had absolutely no idea – still don’t – what was an acceptable level of grief to feel for someone whose real name I hadn’t known until they died, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats. How they wouldn’t understand that she wasn’t coming back.

Would like to sleep by your side, she wrote about one. Will sneak up on you for a cuddle, about another. And for the rest of the day, the week, the month – even now – I keep coming back to those cats, and how they would be waiting for her, but she wasn’t coming back.

I suspect that some of that initial grief was guilt. Her last post, a few days earlier, had not been a happy one, and there was a part of me that felt I should have seen that something was wrong and done… what? Something. Anything. An ocean away, as a random 20-year-old, I still felt like I should have helped.

Perhaps, considering how little we knew each other, I should have let go of the grief by now. It’s been four years. But I can’t. Because if I think too long about how she wanted Tam Lin Balladry to survive, to outlive her, I have to think about the fact that the site’s last news update was from 2016. Yes, it’s still there on the internet, but it isn’t the active project it used to be. Of course it isn’t. Abigail thought she was replaceable – swap out the parts and the world continues. She wasn’t. The site’s stagnation is a reminder that the world needed her in it.

Instead she has a strange kind of immortality in the form of her Tumblr posts.

That’s the thing about Tumblr, far more than any other social media site – nothing is ever really gone. No matter the fate of the original blog, as long as somebody, somewhere, reblogged a post, it will continue to exist. Posts from eight years ago readily recirculate, accumulating new comments and discourse, and since the dashboard has no timestamps (unless added by a third-party plugin), they might as well have been posted yesterday.

Every Hallowe’en, I see posts from tam-nonlinear circulating again. Jokes, mostly. Snappy references that people familiar with Tam Lin can smile at and move on. Probably, 99% of the notes on those posts come from people who have absolutely no idea that the person who made those jokes is dead.

(Sometimes, I wonder how many ghosts there are on Tumblr. How many conversations are living on like echoes.)

But I know. And we may have hardly know each other, and yes, it’s been four years, but every time I see those posts I think of her. And I’m not the only one, because I’ve seen the way others start posting Tam Lin jokes and references at this time of year, trying to fill a hole we shouldn’t have to fill. Is it how she’d have wanted to be remembered? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the best I’ve got.

An odd immortality. But her memory survives nonetheless.

I think about her every Hallowe’en, but this year I’m thinking about her more, with the election looming. I have so many political keywords muted on Twitter for the sake of my own mental health, and still it’s impossible not to feel the weight of it bearing down on me, even an ocean away. I think about the last four years, and wonder what would have happened if she’d lived. If her worst fears have come to pass or if maybe she could have held out long enough to see things get better.

Perhaps I shouldn’t still miss her – perhaps my grief is presumptuous and unjustified and those who knew her better look on me and wonder how I dare to say that I lost someone. (I went back and forth for days on whether to even post this; was it an act of commemoration or just weird and inappropriate? I hope I made the right call. Maybe I didn’t.) Perhaps it’s strange to grieve for someone with whom my connection was so fleeting. But it was a connection that meant something. In however niche and specific a way our lives overlapped, they did overlap.

Perhaps all of us underestimate how much those connections mean, how much meaning we ascribe to casual interactions, how many people would miss us if we were gone and how long our legacy – even if our legacy is Tumblr posts about Tam Lin – will outlive us.

And that reminds me of the tweets I saw following the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a reminder that Jewish communities don’t use “Rest In Peace” when somebody dies, but “May their memory be a blessing”. I’ve thought about that a lot this year – it has been a year full of loss for so many people. It makes sense to me, brings comfort where rest in peace doesn’t. What does rest in peace even mean? How would we know? What comfort does that bring to those left behind? It seems to me the phrase does little to acknowledge that mourning is the part of the living, not the lost.

But may her memory be a blessing means something, brings some comfort. When faced with grief, all we have is memories – may they bring comfort. May they remind us of the good in the world, may they be a little piece of the departed that stays with us, may their legacy ensure that they’re never really gone.

I will probably never not think about Abigail when I hear or read something about Tam Lin. Probably, this abstract sadness and sense of displaced grief will keep recurring, every Hallowe’en. But what she left with me – us – was not only the loss. It was the information, the enthusiasm, the jokes, the passion, and that legacy survives.

May it be a blessing.

The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.


[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.


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