Learning from James Joyce

A look at the life of James Joyce, his writing and personal life through the lens of a beginning writer.

There is a poster of James Joyce that was on the wall of a lot of classrooms in Irish schools. I saw it many times as I sat daydreaming in class. That black and white photograph has imprinted in my brain as the ideal image of a writer. 

The poster of black and white photographs that was meant to inspire young people to become writers

But a photograph and a list of his written works can never show the full story. They definitely never show the struggles Joyce had as a writer. I am going to look at Joyce’s full writing life using the criteria that we use to decide if a modern writer is successful and not just the end point. 

James Joyce’s writing is used as part of the reason why tourists know about Ireland and visit the country to see it. But he left Ireland at 22 and never returned again. So, this idea that he wrote specifically to advertise Ireland has been twisted by the Irish Tourism Board. 

The Writing of James Joyce

I studied his book of short stories The Dubliners because it was a requirement of my degree. I was surprised to find I enjoyed a lot of them. Not only that, but they were accessible. The motivations of the characters were easy to understand. The stories are all set in Dublin at the start of the twentieth century, before the Easter Rising and the civil war. Reading the stories brought that time period alive and it became real. I had only known it before as background to the events that led to Ireland’s independence from Britain. As facts presented during history class instead of the daily life experienced by real people.

He also wrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegan’s wake and Ulysses.

James Joyce research for his writing

To make sure that he got all the details of the building right in his books Joyce would send postcards and letters home to friends in Dublin. He would then have to wait on another letter to be sent back with the right information before he could include it in his writing. Research is something that we take for granted now with easy access to the internet. Our current dilemma is trying not to spend too long researching on the internet. Joyce’s problem was that he was writing about Dublin while he was living somewhere else.

Bloomsday and What we can Learn from Ulysses

Bloomsday is the 16th June every year. It is a celebration of James Joyce’s book Ulysses and it is the day the events of the book take place. James Joyce chose the date because it is the day he met his wife, Nora.

Ulysses is held as one of the great works of literature. The main character Leopold Bloom has many parallels to Homer’s Odyssey

My personal experience with Ulysses is that it was often spoken about as a great example of Irish Literature. As a student in Waterford city I would often go to the pub named after Ulysses. But, like many Irish people, I have never read it.

I am specifically mentioning Ulysses here because there are many sections in Ulysses that break the conventional writing advice given to new writers.

It contains a lot of errors. Many of which Joyce intentionally included.

It famously has a whole section in it with no punctuation. This makes it difficult to read. Punctuation does help with communication. This section has only 2 full stops and 1 comma. So, you can decide if you want to copy Joyce and be hit and miss with punctuation or do you want to communicate your story with your readers without making them work too hard. 

Ulysses was on the list of banned books for a long time. It was not possible to get a copy in America because of ‘obscene materials’ in the story. The New York Society for Suppression of Vice seized and destroyed many copies that were sent to America in 1929. This was challenged in court and Ulysses did become freely available in America in 1934. Interestingly, it was not freely available in Ireland until the 1960’s due to a customs loophole.

This race, this country produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.
Quote from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce Life

Joyce came from a middle class family and was able to finish his secondary education. Something which was not available to every child in Dublin at that time. The average literacy level was lower than it is now and less people had access to books. He did well and was able to continue on to University College Dublin and obtained his B.A. in 1902.  

Joyce did not earn a living from the sale of his books. He worked as a teacher to support his family. He had support from two different people who gave him grants to help him continue writing. Joyce also suffered from many eye problems including cataracts and glaucoma which affected his ability to write. 

Summing it all up . . .

While James Joyce did not have a particularly easy life, he did have advantages when it came to his education. But, he was never able to rely on his writing as a form of income for his writing. He could be described as a part time writer. 

So, if you are being critical of your writing because you are not a full time writer remember that neither was James Joyce. 

While he has critical support there were still people that did not like his writing and burned copies of his book. 

When you are comparing yourself to other writers, remember to take everything into context. The times they were living in and how much of that has been filtered out as their lives are summed up in one paragraph. 

The most important point I want you to take away from this look at James Joyce is that we know all of his life and writing. If you are only starting your writing journey then there is the potential for you to equal or excel James Joyce’s career.

2 Comments on “Learning from James Joyce

  1. Great blog post Claire, thanks, I learned more here than I’d ever known about him. I now identify with James Joyce as a ‘Part Time Writer’ I hope people are not burning my books.
    Thank’s Claire.
    Uncle John