Cathy Heffernan is a Deaf journalist from Dublin, who has written and worked for the Guardian and has extensive experience directing and producing in television and documentaries.
What kind of writing do you do?
Right now, briefs and scripts for Hands On, a TV programme for deaf people in Ireland.
But my regular job is news subediting for the Guardian newspaper. Before that I was a trainee reporter for a year and wrote articles mainly for news but also for features, society and comment.
In the last few years I’ve made some documentaries and this has led me to start doing a different kind of writing: pitches and treatments, scripts and paper edits. It’s not writing for the public domain but it’s still writing to tell a story.
How did you get started writing? What or who inspired you to start?
I wasn’t one of those budding writers who wrote diaries and pestered publishers or editors in their teens – in fact I was very undecided about what I wanted to do career-wise (I still am at times!) but in university I was asked by friend of a friend to edit the college news section of Trinity News, our on-campus newspaper and it probably started from there. Before that it wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t be a journalist, but there weren’t any deaf role models working in the media in Ireland where I grew up so I think without realising I didn’t allow myself to dream that I could do it. I had to ask a friend to “interpret” for me at editorial meetings on the college paper and it was all pretty daunting but when it came to editing itself I realised I was pretty good at it. I didn’t rush into journalism after university – taking what you might call the scenic route via writing for an e-software company, social research, editing the British Deaf Association magazine and TV research. But all these jobs involved writing and editing so it was good preparation.
What has been the biggest obstacle for you?
Using interpreters! While I can use BSL socially, I switch to a more English mind-set when with hearing people, which affects how I sign and consequently many interpreters can’t understand me in work meetings. In a workplace full of journalists, the words you choose to express yourself become more significant so it’s frustrating when an interpreter doesn’t relay the words you want to say. But there are some fantastic ones out there who understand this and the difference it makes is huge.
Do you write full time or do you have a day job?
My day job is news subediting – so I work full-time as a journalist. I don’t write articles though – I sub them, write headlines, standfirsts (those little intros) and other “furniture” that accompanies an article. The internet has also changed subediting in that we upload articles and edit web pages.
How do you network?
I don’t network very consciously but when I meet people who work in the industry and if I like them, I ask them about their jobs and tell them about myself. If we click, I ask to exchange contact details. Afterwards, I drop them a line to keep the conversation going… even if it doesn’t lead to anything right then, it might do in a few months or even years’ time.
I haven’t used it to great effect in terms of making new contacts but Twitter is a really useful tool for keeping in touch in an informal way.
What inspires you? How do you find inspiration or ideas?
Usually from people whose lives make you stop and think twice. I’ve made two documentaries – one was about a girl who was thinking of converting to Islam – she and the Muslim community she met made me stop and think about the assumptions I had about the religion. The other was about the Deaf community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – while the conflict caused society to splinter, deaf people of different religions and backgrounds continued to meet across the divide which offered a very different perspective to the Northern Ireland of the period. One thing that’s important to me is that I have my own views and assumptions challenged and I learn something new.
Has your deaf identity helped your writing?
Definitely. The deaf community is bursting at the seams with material waiting to be turned into articles, stories, documentaries – we really are quite lucky! When I was in my traineeship at the Guardian, the editor of G2, the features supplement, asked if I would do a column. In a very PC way typical of the Guardian he indicated he’d like me to do something on being deaf. So I went off and did something on deaf travellers which got a great response and was reprinted in the Daily Mail’s magazine some months later.
Do you have a special memory connected to writing?
When I was backpacking around the world I kept a handwritten diary plus a blog to keep people back home in the loop. I loved how writing allowed me to reflect on what we’d seen and done, consolidating good memories of what was a whirlwind of a year.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Turning ideas for articles into articles. I’m good at the ideas bit – I’m not so good at the action bit! That’s where routine comes in – and with my job and my ventures into documentary making I haven’t prioritised setting regular time aside to write.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
It’s when I’ve done my research, had time to mull it over, I finally set some time aside, I get the ball rolling and find myself in that coveted zone when I’m clear sighted, my creative juices are pumping and I’m producing an article that says what I want to say and more. It’s the best feeling!
What advice would you give to an emerging deaf writer or young writer?
Before my interview for the reporter traineeship at the Guardian, a friend told me to emphasise anything “different” I had to offer – he’d nearly got a job there himself, was down to the last two and was told while they liked him a lot, the other interviewee had something they didn’t already have. So I went in and told them my perspective as a deaf person would offer them something new. Next thing I knew I was being offered a job I really didn’t expect to get! So turn being deaf into a positive thing and never say “despite being deaf, I can….” Instead, say “because I am deaf, I can….”
Also don’t overlook all those jobs that involve some element of writing. Yes, you might want to be a star reporter or a published novelist but no one starts at the top. My first job was as a scriptwriter in an e-software company – it wasn’t exciting, creative or inspiring but it was good practice in writing and editing for a very specific market. While a TV researcher’s background notes will never be read by anyone other than some of the production crew, its good practice in shaping facts, information and interview notes into a story.
What is next for you? What are you looking forward to in the future?
I did a documentary making course earlier in 2012 and right now getting into this field is top of my list. The goal is to become a documentary maker who also writes.
How can we contact you?