I Made You Up

Donal Ryan is an author from Tipperary with an accent like a beautifully played reel on the fiddle and an engaging smile that suggests he is not entirely sure of anything, but that he’s content not knowing.  I heard him speak in County Carlow this weekend. His candour was endearing.  He told us that every act of writing is, for him, an extreme act of empathy and that every attempt at empathy (although we should not give up on it) is doomed to failure, as we can never truly know how another person feels or what it is like to be inside their head.  I find it an interesting thought, a simple but startling idea, one that scrapes the, ‘I know just how you feel’ line straight into the bin.  And I think he’s right.  The stories we tell about ourselves, the stories pilfered from others, or the stories pieced together like an ill-fitting jigsaw from dozens of different lives that have intersected over the years: how can we ever know how they feel, how can we ever get any of them just right?

Ryan forced me to think about story as an audacious, uninvited invasion into someone else’s head, that creating fictional characters can never fully be a work of imagination.  Instead, every story, whether written down or spoken, is an attempt to tap someone’s mind, listen to the cogs turning, and somehow come to know what they are thinking, and (even more impossible) how they’re feeling.  We snip that turn of phrase overheard from the woman in airport queue.  We pocket the deep sigh of the girl on the bus who unfolds a letter, glances at it and pushes it back into her bag, shaking her head.  We file away the nods, folded arms and furrowed brows of a knot of men looking down a hole on a construction site.  Mostly they will never know they have gifted tiny rays of inspiration.  They will carry on with their lives, ignorant their movements, actions, words, frowns, laughter have been stolen and filed away in a mental photo album, ‘resources’ for another day.  Whatever one takes from such encounters or observations can never be the truth – probably the truth would be too boring, or maybe too outlandish – it can only be one slant on many possible truths.

All of which sets me wondering further: how can we get someone else’s story right (imagined or otherwise) when we cannot agree upon our own?  For example, has someone ever recounted a story from your past leaving you shaking your head doubtfully with a, ‘no, no, that’s not how it happened,’ correction.  Or more bewildering still, have you ever read back over your old diaries or letters and felt startled by what you’d written?  I have.  I’ve recognised the handwriting but not the words.  The feelings had gone.  The memory of ever possessing them (and this I find fascinating as well as heartening) totally dried up.  Like Loughareema, the vanishing lake on the high road outside Ballycastle in North Antrim, where the eerily water comes and goes, our feelings rise and fall and fade to nothing, then surge and fill and empty once more.

Allowing ourselves to write our own stories, to tell those of others, to make things up from inside our head, allows us to shape and corral feelings before they sink back into the earth, inaccessible.  Yes, all acts of empathy might well be doomed to failure, but in channelling empathy into writing we can tame wild thoughts and feelings that might otherwise drive one mad.  Now that’s hardly a failure, is it?

Mad Girl’s Love Song,By Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)


The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary blackness gallops in:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.


I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)


God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:

Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.


I fancied you’d return the way you said,

But I grow old and I forget your name.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)


I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

5 thoughts on “I Made You Up

  1. ‘corralling feelings before they sink back into the earth’ …that’s it, thats why I write! Perfect description for me! Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am now officially an Edinburgh press fan Eimear! What’s interesting is reading this as a non- and never likely to be writer… my head doesn’t work that way – I must see and hear the same things but they don’t work their magic of giving me “tiny rays of inspiration”. So what’s lovely about that piece for a non-writer is to get a feel for standing in a writer’s shoes and seeing things through your eyes. Does that not mean you have achieved what he said you was doomed to failure? The first time a book read really gave me that feeling was I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice- definitely worth a read


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