Yes, you heard that correctly: She’s on the early-morning cleaning crew at Trinity College Dublin, coincidentally the same college that gives out the prize. The Rooney is given annually to an Irish-born writer under the age of 40 “who shows great talent and ‘exceptional promise,'” and who has published only once.
The winning author’s name is Caitríona Lalley, and she received the 2018 Rooney Prize for her 2015 novel, Eggshells. In another coincidence, she’s also a 2004 graduate of Trinity.
The Rooney Prize was created by Dan and Patricia Rooney, and was given for the first time in 1976. (The late Dan Rooney is the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.) An author cannot apply for the prize; both the candidates and the winner are chosen by a selection committee.
Ms. Lalley, who is married with one daughter, was 39 years old when she won the Rooney – the very last year she was qualified to be in the running. Her day begins at Trinity College, scrubbing rooms from 6:00 to 9:30 am, after which she comes home to care for her daughter and to write.
What we can learn from Caitríona
I found Lalley’s story inspiring for many reasons.
She never gave up
Lalley comes across as a typical Humanities graduate who couldn’t seem to find a “real” job right after graduation. However, in her case, there was a difference:
She stuck with the writing, both when she had a job and when she didn’t.
While bouncing from one job to another, Lalley also experienced serious chunks of unemployment. In 2011, she spent a year pounding the Dublin pavement looking for any type of low-level job. She was rejected time and time again. But here’s how her experiences helped when writing and promoting her novel:
1. It gave her the idea for a social misfit protagonist who spends her days walking around Dublin looking for symbols and meaning in everyday objects. This is classic Method Writing, because Lalley used her own daily walks around Dublin only as the jumping-off point for her character; that’s where the similarities end.
It’s obvious that the author herself is not a social misfit, nor was she looking for deeper symbolic meaning in city structures like her protagonist. No doubt she was able to summon the authentic feelings engendered by spending the better part of her day essentially alone and searching, and apply them to the fictional character.
2. Surviving her job rejections enabled her to survive the many rejections from agents and publishers. As quoted in one of the articles, “There were many, many rejections, but after hundreds of [them], I think I’d gotten used to being told “no.'”
Lalley believed in herself and in her book. She wasn’t too proud to clean classrooms, dormitories, and bathrooms. Her writing wasn’t just a passing fancy, an “I want to maybe write a book some day” attitude. She took herself and her dream seriously. She wrote employed and unemployed. Her personal and economic status had nothing to do with the discipline of writing.
One day, Lalley submitted her novel to a contest whose prize was a day of pitching agents and publishers. And she won. And then she pitched. And then she got published.
She has a “day job”
Lalley’s janitorial job is perfect for her “job” as a mother, she says, and is a great fit for writing. She’s finishing up a second novel – and not planning on giving up her morning work:
It works well with my writing life. I’ve had paid copywriting jobs before, but it was hard to motivate myself to sit down at the computer and write my novel once my paid work was done.
I love this! I’ve heard from both other writers and my own subscribers that after a day of writing in their paid positions, they find it difficult to sit down and write what they want. And I, too, find it difficult to write after a day of editing other people’s work.
Granted, not all of us have the “luxury” of a job that doesn’t require us to think, reason, and solve problems. Nevertheless, I’d like to put Lalley’s idea out there. It’s something worth considering for anyone who’s looking for work.
You don’t have to be a janitor, but a job that’s totally different from writing can give you more head space to sit down after work and get your write your own stuff. It reminds me of when I was writing my senior thesis in university (a hundred years ago), and I took a computer science course as a diversion from all the right-brain stuff.
She’s working on her 2nd novel
Lalley was already almost done with her second novel when she won the Rooney Prize for her first one. This is how a true author behaves, and I admire her. After all, writers write, whether what they write will be read or not.
Lest we think Lalley is outputting thousands of words per day, one of the articles pointed out that although she had struggled with her second book, she had nevertheless plugged away at it every day.
Consistency trumps all.
She’s not rich
Lalley used her prize money to pay her bills, provide day care for her daughter, and buy a water tank for her attic. It sounds as if she scrambles like most of us. And this brings us to what should be every author’s bottom line:
Writing doesn’t always pay, but we do it anyway.
Every day, over and over again, whether we’re tired, energetic, sad, happy, hot, cold, under the weather or fit as a fiddle: it’s what we do, and I feel that this is where Caitríona Lalley can have the biggest impact on us.
Lalley’s advice for anyone who wants to write a book? Have a paid job that is not stressful. To quote one of the articles:
It’s very hard to write if you’re emotionally drained after work, or have a job that you dread. I know that cleaning is some people’s vision of hell, but it works for me. The bills must be paid, and until that six-figure sum comes a-knocking, everyone needs a day job.
I would add three other things that I consider good advice from Lalley:
- Process, not product.
- No expectations other than just getting the words down day after day after day.
Let’s hear from you now! Do you agree with Lalley’s advice about day jobs? Does she inspire you or discourage you? Let me know in the Comments. And, as always,