The Magic of Moniack Mhor

I have a new love in my life: 15 miles from Inverness, more than a little easy on the eye, with a generous heart. Love at first sight.

View from my room

View from my room

For the last week, Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, has nurtured, inspired, cajoled and encouraged me, and eight other writers, to put some narrative backbone into our Works in Progress. Anything we could possibly want or need was anticipated and provided and if it wasn’t there already, all we had to do was ask and it appeared the following morning: Christmas every day (though I’m not sure it would stretch to a pony … mind you, neither did Santa in my experience). I even had my own white-washed garret, which, to my utter delight, turned out to be the one in the photograph from my last blog.

The writing workshops were a treat, led by two very different writers; Stephen May and Marilyn Bowering, who each brought their own interpretation on how to structure a novel and drive the narrative forward. The one-to-one tutorials were insightful, from small suggested changes, to seeds of ideas to make us question our direction in order to test the robustness of our approach.

My fellow writers spanned a wide range of both age and experience and shared a love of words in all their forms (including diversionary chatting when the written words were fighting shy). We ate lots – especially cake, and laughed plenty. There was morning yoga (an extra surprise provided by Stephen’s lovely wife), guided and free-range walking and an outdoor storytelling circle with expansive views to the surrounding mountains, the perfect place for contemplation.

Evening entertainment was provided by visiting authors Mikey Cuddihy, whose memoir, A Conversation About Happiness, was among the books I read in preparation for writing my own LPoW, and Moira Forsyth of Sandstone Press, who advised us on what to do and more crucially, what not to do, when sending your manuscript to a publisher. By the time Moira left, I think we all wished she or someone like her, could publish our novels.

Our tutors also gave readings from their Works in Progress and answered questions about their writing journey with honesty and humour.

Book at Moniack MhorFriday fizzled with nervous energy – it was the last night, and our turn to provide the entertainment, with readings of our own. To ease us in (and smooth our frayed edges), liberal drams of Glenmorangie malt whisky found their way into our hands and we were led outside to listen to Hamish, a young lone piper, before following him, crocodile-style, around the house and back inside for haggis, neeps and tatties. And if anyone noticed the tears in the eyes of me and A, at the sound of the pipes, it was just the wind, honest.

The readings took us from Canada to a whole other world; we were dragged to a mental health institution and driven to the doorstep of a posh house on Christmas Eve. We shouted rude words with our pals, cavorted with an over-excited fairy avatar, attended a spiritualist funeral and tripped out of a taxi on our way to a job interview. The variety and breadth of writing was exciting, each reader carrying us through to the end of their extract with skill and passion.

In the evening’s embers, Mr D arrived in Happy, and played his guitar. Those of us left, huddled around the wood-burning stove and sang along to Bob Dylan and Steve Harley.

I arrived home last night; my smile and hips (I didn’t starve) a little wider, my LPoW a few thousand words heavier, my head and heart crammed with memories.

As for Moniack Mhor, I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t take my word for it though, visit and experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.

For those that experienced the week with me and all at Moniack Mhor: thank you, it was made extra special by your support, laughter and generosity of spirit. Until the next time.

Retreating into Writing

Excited. And nervous. Excited and nervous is how I feel at the moment: thanks for asking.  In less than 48 hours I’ll be ensconced on a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor. Just me and my laptop and a couple of books. Well, not quite – me, my laptop, a couple of books, several other writers, a publisher for one of the days, the Moniack Mhor team, I imagine several, no lots, of other books and a huddle of laptops; but you get what I mean. No mobile (no signal), no TV (not that Mr D and I have one), no supermarket at the end of the road (though I doubt I’ll starve) and no Mr D (though there will be company – see above for other writers, etc).

moniack mhor bedroomSince winning the Work In Progress grant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wavering between excitement and nerves. A week to write, that’s exciting, but with a group of people I’ve never met before, that’s nerve-wracking. On more recent days, I’ve even been a wee bit scared: what if my writing isn’t good enough? What if I get there and everyone else is so much better and more confident and –

‘What if it’s absolutely fantastic?’ said Mr D. ‘What if you love every minute? What if you don’t want to come home?’

What if he’s right? I hope he’s right (except for the not wanting to come home). I’m sure he will be.

It’s not my first time on a retreat. I’ve been to several meditation and yoga retreats, particularly during my yoga teacher training – I’ve even been on one which involved fire-walking and a solo one in a hut above Loch Voil. And I’ve loved all of them (and been happy to go home when they ended).

Moniack Mhor viewThere’s something about being allowed the space and time to write (or meditate or do yoga or whatever); the permission to forget about all distractions and concentrate on the thing you love. And Moniack Mhor, just looking at the picture of it draws the tension from my shoulders. How could I fail to be inspired?

And so I’m off. I’ll take lots of pictures and write about it when I get back. Until then …

Now, dungarees or jeans? Walking boots or wellies? Books –

A Sixth Sense for Celebration

I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of confidence as far as my Longer Piece of Work is concerned. I hold responsible all the great writers out there, the ones that tuck me up in bed, curl up with me on the couch or help me relax in the bath.

William Trevor, your brilliance at one line character descriptions makes me want to rip out the pages of my notebooks and set them on fire.

laptop and notebookJanice Galloway, stop with the mesmerising ability to weave an extraordinary story from what to others, are unremarkable occurrences in day-to-day life. Likewise, Lorrie Moore.

AL Kennedy, enough with the sharp, witty dialogue that perfectly encapsulates a moment in time – or I fear my laptop will follow the notebooks into the flames.

And I haven’t even mentioned the new writers on the scene: Kirsty Logan, Anneleise Mackintosh, Sara Baum (whose title for her debut novel is one of my most favourite ever: Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither – in relation to the seasons). All writers with that special something that makes a piece of literature glisten and come alive.

Oh and let’s load on the pressure from those that have tutored and mentored me: Paula Morris, shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Competition, and the tutor who whipped me into shape on the MLitt; and Karen Campbell, my mentor through the WoMentoring Project, who prodded and cajoled me into finding a structure and voice for my LPoW. Both dazzling in their eloquence.

And to add insult to injury, at my lowest ebb, a story submitted to a literary magazine didn’t make the cut.

Now do you see my problem? Ok, I know, I know, it’s been said to me many times that the way forward is not to compare my work with others (and it’s not the first time I’ve been rejected). But, come on…

And yet, in general I’ve been pleased with my writing. My LPoW has a structure, several completed chapters and an outline plan for completion. I’ve been writing much more regularly and even had glimpses of the finish line. So why now? Which, I think, is precisely the point. It’s now because I’m close to the end – because I’m approaching the point where I have to let it go and send it out there to fight for a toehold and dig in.

Terrifying!

I realise that by now you more-than-likely think this post it about a plea for reassurance or worse still, a chance to indulge in self-pity. Here’s the good news: it isn’t.

For those of you who read my last blog, you may remember that I ended with a line about receiving good news. Here it is.

A week before Mr D and I rode off on our honeymoon in Happy, I saw the following on the website of Moniack Mhor:

Work In Progress Grant

… the opportunity of a supported place for one unpublished writer with a work in progress. Application process: Please provide us with a sample of your work of up to 750 words and a short summary outlining your work in progress.

‘You should apply,’ said Mr D. So I did.

Moniack MhorOn the first day of our travels, from out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I’d won the grant.

‘I think I just won the Moniack Mhor grant,’ I said to Mr D.

‘Really? How do you know? Did you get a text?’

‘No, I just know.’

The first chance I got I checked my emails. Nothing. The next time, nothing. Several times during our honeymoon, on the return journey and back home. Nope. Nothing.

‘I don’t know what happened, I was sure I’d won,’ I said.

The evening after we got back, Mr D was cooking and I was systematically checking through my emails. I noticed one entitled Work In Progress Grant. It was dated two days previously and yet I’m sure it wasn’t there when I looked.

I opened it. Screamed. Mr D dropped the stirring spoon and ran, closely followed by A.

‘What’s wrong? Are you alright? What happened?’ Worried faces stacked up in the living room doorway.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘I won.’ They did and I had.

And so my confidence perked a little, straightened its back, cracked its knuckles and started to make its way homeward.

Moniack Mhor offers creative writing courses throughout the year and comes highly recommended from a host of writers.

If you’d like to read a little more from my LPoW, here’s my submission: The Glass Spider_extract

Skye Unplugged

Happy on the roadSince getting married last November, Mr D and I have been trying to go on honeymoon. Our first attempt to spend time with friends in southern France was thwarted by a hospital stay. Several months of biopsies and adjustments to medication and then: all clear, we were good to go. We sent Happy for a wee check-up, booked campsites, contacted friends and family along the way, and tried to contain our excitement.

The plan:

  • Night or two wild-camping in the Dark Skies National Park
  • Two nights at the Lakes
  • A night in Forest of Dean
  • Five nights exploring Cornwall
  • Two nights in Nottingham (with my sister’s family and birthday cake)
  • Home

The reality:

  • Overnight in A&E
  • Four nights in Glasgow (courtesy of NHS)
  • One biopsy
  • One cardioversion (to shock my heart back into rhythm)
  • Three ultrasounds
  • An injection of adrenaline into my neck
  • Home

Not really a honeymoon. Not a honeymoon at all!

The good news; turns out the issue wasn’t as dramatic as it appeared and so Operation Honeymoon turned covert. Stealth-like we packed our bags and loaded Happy. Whistling. Nonchalant. A trickle of activity with regular tea breaks. The H-word unuttered. Nothing to see here.

In a hyphened hippy guise of maxi-dress, cargo-shorts, straw-hats and sun-glasses, we slipped into Happy and wafted out of Stirling in a cloud of patchouli and insect repellent and headed in the direction of T in the Park. So far, so fooled.

We meandered past the festival exit, and with fifteen miles behind us, we looked at each other:

Happy Honeymoon, I said.

Five blissful nights, unplugged and off the grid.

We shared powdered crappuccino with Jack the Munro Hunter (he’s bagging them all for charity) in a layby at Loch Laggan; stopped off a Spean Bridge for fish suppers and the craic with my oldest friend; and survived the hair-raising hair-pin bends through low-cloud to Applecross to wake up to  a serene sea and air corpulent with mountain dew.

Next: over the sea to Skye.

I’ve visited the island many times and it never fails to leave me breathless. It’s in the way it holds itself, aloof from the mainland, swathed in low clouds that, upon parting, reveal mountains of charcoal and sunset, serrating the edges of the slate-grey sky. On a clear day, off its north-western coast, suggestions of other islands smudge the horizon. The rest is green. Every shade. More than fifty. Much more. Expansive. Rippling. Green.

We crossed the bridge, pulled over and gorged on the fresh air. Huge, greedy lungfuls.

Neist PointOur stay was whistle-stop short: two nights, three days. We met up with family – the other newly-wed Mr & Mrs D – to the north of the island and together we braved midgies to spot fairies in the pools at the foot of the Black Cuillin, slithered over rocks at Waternish beach, filled our bellies with food fresh and delicious and lost ourselves in a bottle of local Taliskar whisky.

Before leaving, Mr D and I grabbed home-made carrot cake and apple turnovers from Skye’s oldest bakery in Dunvegan and wound our way north west to Neist Point and the lighthouse casting its shadow across the waters to the Outer Hebrides. Spellbound we edged down the steep path to the cliff-top: Minke whales hugged the shoreline and seabirds gabbled nautical gossip across rocks migrated from Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.

On our way back through Glendale we imagined a different life of calm and writing and art, of sea-fresh fish and baking and sand between our toes. One day. Maybe one day.

We drove home through blackening clouds and arrived in a torrent. A renewed acquaintance with technology brought exciting news (but I’ll leave that for my next blog).

Happy Honeymoon, Mr D said.

When time is tight

There’s a truth, widely acknowledged, that the more time we have at our disposal the less we get done.

time-warpTime is a glorious trickster: look here, it says, holding out minutes, hours, days, this is all for you, time is infinite, an abundance, no need to panic, everything will get done, just sit back, take a load off. Look, here’s sunlight trickling along the windowsill, spilling over the carpet, come on over, lie down, let the warmth ease the creak out of those bones.

Listen, says time, it’s your favourite song on the radio, close your eyes, stretch out your arms, feel the heat. You’re on a beach, or in a meadow running through wildflowers; singing. Feet on grass. Sizzle of wet sand between your toes. Beach. Meadow. The Meadows. University. Ah. Remember – tequilas and dancing on tables? Tequila shots. St Patrick’s Day in Chicago. Green river. Remember? See, no need to rush.

Plenty of ti –

Bugger, bugger, bugger. I’m late. I should be at the hairdresser’s right now. Got to run. Damn you time. Damn you.

And so it goes.

On the flipside, the less time for us to play with, the more we achieve. Or at least it’s been true for me over the last few weeks.

Take your place at the pinball machine, pull back the lever and…

Go.

Glasgow. Frippery of festivals: West End and Mela. Cardamom, cumin, cerulean, crimson. Glasgow put your hands in the air. Hip-flicking, toe-tapping. Burnt sugar taste of summer. Twenty points. Ding.

Ball drops down and off to the right: Edinburgh. Another twenty points. Sun-drenched cocktails, chocolate torte and William Trevor. A gaggle of giggles and espresso. Lights flash. Onoffonoffonoffon.

Quick sideways spin to Dunkeld. New campervan, new friends, new hearts. Art, food, afro-ed dogs and gulls with attitude. Cheeky ten points. Easy.

Rolling south towards Stranraer. Campervan comparisons, wayward chickens, travel envy and warm hugs home from hotter climes. Bonus points: radial heat from a harbour wall with brine-washed seaweed seasoning. Ding. Ding.

Flick of the wrist and bounce back up to the right. Perth and the longest day. Guitar bands and fiddlers – punk trumps trad. Over-priced vegans and under-sold vintage. Blue. Rose. Code. Bang your hand on the machine. Jump around. Fifty points and bonus ball.

Coastward to Elgin. Non-forgotten faces and dogs and beaches and cake; lots of cake. Shared histories of the times of tequilas and table-tops. The other me. Familiarity breeds laughter and unfinished sentences –

Winner!

And here’s the curious thing, I’ve written more in the last few weeks than I have in the preceding year. I now have several completed chapters and lots of descriptions of senses, memories, ideas and characters – vague recollections half remembered. When I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about writing. Or scribbling overhead conversations, observing character traits: that smell, where am I? Where does that song take me? Is the colour of that flower the same as – ?

Jellyfish Janice GallowayWhich takes us to last weekend at the Solas Festival near Perth. Mr D and I, saturated with music, turned our attentions back to literature and Janice Galloway. One of my favourite writers, Janice was at the festival to talk about and read from her new short story collection, Jellyfish. Attention to detail and nuance in everyday life is what, for me, makes a story sparkle: being able to imagine the extraordinary from the ordinary.  Janice, along with my other well-loved writer, William Trevor, has an incredible ability to do just that; and make it seem effortless. Jellyfish is my new bedtime absorption.

The best piece of advice I ever heard on writing was also from Janice Galloway who, on another occasion, said (and I paraphrase): the only person who cares if your book gets written or not, is you. No-one else. Just you.

Over the last month, amidst time’s bag of conjuring tricks, I discovered that I really do care. I care very much indeed.

* Jellyfish by Janice Galloway is published in Glasgow by Freight Books and is sure to be in a book shop near you. If you don’t read it you’re missing out. Trust me.

Opt for Life

This morning, at an hour with which we’re not very familiar, before even the weather had decided on its choice of wardrobe, Mr D and I stumbled into our car and headed south to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. We arrived at the top of the Royal Mile:

‘Shall we park here and walk down or should we try to get a bit closer?’

‘Here’s fine, it can’t be that far, we’ve got plenty of time.’

Turns out it’s called the Royal Mile for a reason. By the time we arrived, our half hour surplus had dwindled to minutes and security took care of those. At least the sun was out.

Brian and BiboWe were there to show our support for a Private Member’s Bill launched by MSP Anne McTaggart – Transplantation (Authorisation of Removal of Organs etc) (Scotland) Bill. The bill proposes that Scotland move from an opt-in system of organ donation to a ‘soft opt-out’ one. In other words, rather than signing up to be a donor, it would assume everyone to be one unless they have specifically registered their wish not to be. The soft opt-out also allows for the family or a registered proxy to object if they know or have reason to believe that their loved one did not want their organs to be donated, or if they themselves are against it.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I received a heart transplant 18 months ago on Christmas Day. I was one of the lucky ones. Every day, people across the UK, die whilst on the list, waiting for a transplant. In Scotland, public consultation suggests that more than three quarters of the population are in favour of organ donation yet less than half are on the donor register. The Transplantation Bill would help bridge that gap.

But for the kindness of a stranger and the courage of their family, I wouldn’t be here. It’s impossible for me to express how grateful I am. My heart transplant didn’t just save my life, it gave me a future that as little as two years ago, I could only have dreamt of. A future where climbing stairs, walking to the shops, sleeping on my back with just one pillow, bending to tie my shoes, getting out of the shower unaided, dancing at my wedding, and all the other things I never believed possible, became a reality.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve met several people who’ve also had heart transplants and all of them not only appreciate the value of the gift they were given, they also treasure every moment of their new life. They know what it cost someone for them to be alive and they have no intention of squandering it.

IMAG0358 (2)I don’t pretend to understand the bureaucracy involved in passing a bill into law. I do know that, at this stage, it’s important that as many MSPs as possible lend their support to it. To help this process along, if you agree with the bill, you could contact your MSP and ask if they have added their name to it and if not, if they would be willing to do so.

It’s a cliché but life really is short. Organ donation not only saves lives it transforms them – the aim of the new bill, if passed, is to improve the chances of a transplant for more people in Scotland. In Wales, the law is in the process of being changed in this way and in countries around the world it already is so. Hopefully, Scotland will soon follow.

Find out more on the Opt for Life campaign, led by the Evening Times, here.

For those interested in reading some of my own writing, The Jungle Rock, is the extract based on my own experience on the urgent transplant list, as published in the Next Review. It forms part of my unfinished LPoW (Longer Piece of Writing).

***  The photos are of my friend Brian with a self-portrait painted from a photo his wife Bibo took whilst he was in ICU immediately after his transplant, and of Bibo with part of one of her sculptures – a bronze cast of her face. Both are part of their exhibition, The Shared Heart, which I wrote about in my last blog.

Friends for Life

The reason, in case you’re wondering, why you haven’t heard from me for a while is that I’ve been writing – yep, you heard correctly, and most days at that! The structure has finally come together and the LPoW now has a shape I can work with. The most recent chapter included a section about friends and that, combined with a recent art exhibition I attended, inspired this blog. Let me explain.

Just over a week ago, Mr D and I travelled to Glasgow to meet one of my fellow transplant patients and visit his art exhibition documenting his remarkable story. ‘The Shared Heart’ features portraits of many of the hospital staff, painted by B from photographs he took whilst still in intensive care. His wife is also an artist and she had, with his permission, photographed his period of recovery beginning immediately after his operation whilst he was still unconscious and ending a month later when he left hospital. In addition, several of her sculptures were on display, representing her own emotions through their difficult time.

I’ve met several people who’ve had heart transplants and each of them has their own incredible story to tell but what has always struck me is the positivity and resilience that radiates from them. Some of them I know a little better than others: P, a woman whose baby was delivered prematurely by emergency caesarean section so that she could be put on the list for an urgent transplant, has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen and never fails to lift my spirits; C, a man who received his new heart just hours after being listed, whose optimism for the future is addictive; and B, whose story includes over 3 months in intensive care, kept alive by an artificial heart, and getting married on what was believed to be his death bed.

untitled (5)These are just outline sketches of their stories because they are their stories and theirs alone to tell. What I have in common with these people (other than our second-hand hearts) is the understanding that were it not for the love and support of our family and friends we would, most likely, not have survived.

In ‘The Shared Heart’ there were two pieces that I found particularly moving. The first was one of the sculptures – a glass bowl filled with water featuring a face looking up from the bottom. It represented the times when B’s wife, so overwhelmed by the situation, would swim in the pool of the hotel attached to the hospital and sing under water to release her emotions. The other was B’s portrait of his wife; the lingering haunted expression behind her eyes, visceral and raw, captured in the way only someone that knows her well could do.

And here’s the reason I wrote this blog. Friends.

The love of family and their concern for your well-being is oftentimes a given; they’re part of you and you of them. Friendships are courted and nurtured; some become something more and, if you’re lucky, some last a long time. And I am lucky. I’ve mentioned them in my blog before but writing about my transplant experience made me really appreciate the value of true friendship. Seamus Heaney, one of my favourite poets, captures it with grace and eloquence in his poem ‘Miracle’.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all along

And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked

In their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable

and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those who had known him all along.

To my friends: thank you.