A Real Life Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite movies, following the adventures of Will Hunting, a self-taught mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT. While there are many subplots to the movie, to me the key takeaway is that genius can be found anywhere, and that we can’t judge someone simply by the type of work they do.

Fast forward 20 years since the movie was in theaters, and we have a real-life scenario that is quite similar to the one depicted in the movie.

This one is set at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and involves a young woman who works as a janitor at the college. Caitriona Lally is the latest winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, awarded annually to one of Ireland’s most promising young writers.

Lally also studied at Trinity, having graduated in 2004 with a degree in English literature. While she was attending college, she also worked as a cleaner for the university during pre-spring and summer breaks.

According to the Washington Post, after graduating in 2004, Lally worked as an English teacher in Japan for a year and then traveled a lot. Back in Ireland, she held various jobs, including as a copywriter, and she went to New York for a time as a home helper. She found herself unemployed in 2011, which was when she got the idea for “Eggshells.”

“ ‘Eggshells’ is about a socially isolated misfit who walks around Dublin searching for patterns and meaning in graffiti or magical-sounding place names or small doors that could lead to another world,” Lally wrote to The Post.

Lally finally got a job in data entry and decided to develop Vivian’s character and write her book. Once she finished it, she entered it in a competition and won, with her prize being a day pitching her novel to agents and publishers. She got an agent and a book deal.

“There were many, many rejections, but after hundreds of job rejections, I think I’d gotten used to being told ‘no,’ ” she said.

Her book was published in 2015, the same year she found herself out of a job again. She had stayed friends with some of her old cleaning buddies from Trinity, and they told her the school was hiring housekeepers. “I went back,” she said.

She said she finds cleaning large empty rooms, especially beautiful libraries at the college, to be peaceful.

Lally said her janitor job works for her schedule as a mother and is a great fit for writing. She’s finishing up her second novel, and she’s not planning on giving up her morning work.

In an interview with Quartz at Work, Lally notes “I started work as a cleaner in 2015, just before my novel, Eggshells, was published. It was a conscious decision to do a physical job that would be finished early in the day and would leave me time to write. Also, being physically active for my work means that I look forward to sitting at the computer to write after work.

Before my daughter was born, I would spend my afternoons writing. But now that she’s here, I have her in daycare three mornings a week, and those three mornings are my writing time. I finish work at 9.30 am and I have two and a half hours to write until I pick her up from creche, so it’s important those hours are productively spent; that time is so precious.

My daughter is 15 months old, a very active age, and she has an aversion to napping, so there is no writing done in the afternoons, only playing, which is a lovely way to spend your afternoons!”

And in an ironic twist, Lally also notes that her work as a cleaner has directly affected her writing in that one of the main characters in her second novel works as a cleaner.

It’s a great story, and certainly provides one approach to creating a work of art while holding down a full-time job.

It also shows the value of consistency, the drip-drip-drip approach of Seth Godin. It’s part of why I post something every day. It’s not with the hope of winning a literature prize, but just the habit that is formed as part of trying to be creative.

I wish Caitriona Lally the best in her work as both a cleaner and a writer, and thank her for being a role model to many aspiring writers.


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