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

Words and Music: A Heady Cocktail

The next instalment of the Aye Write! experience involved a visit to the Highland village Kilmacarra with Karen Campbell (my WoMentoring Project mentor), a conversation about the merits of communism in the former East Germany, a trip to buy hammers with Emily Pankhurst and a peek behind the scenes of a circus in the world after the waters have risen. Mr D and I were moved to tears by a South African poet and writer and delighted to be introduced to a one-eyed dog. We tasted several whiskies (of which I, unsurprisingly, liked the most expensive) and just managed to stay on our seat when Hector Bizerk lived up to his name on the closing night. I also re-lived part of my roller-coaster youth with a member of the Jesus and Mary Chain (all that was missing was L, my brother and a litre of cheap cider).

Barbed Wired KissesWe left Glasgow on Saturday night electrified by the whole experience and drove to Lanarkshire to take a well-known walk with the sun on our faces (thanks E) – in other words, to hang out and make music with the JJs, a collection of friends from around Scotland who get together to share music, food and laughter; the chilled-out antidote to Mr Bizerk.

When we arrived the beat was bouncing along Copperhead Road. We walked into a communal hug and the queasiness of car sickness immediately subsided. For the next few hours I chatted, giggled and sang along, whilst Mr D imbibed the musical moonshine. Around 3.30am, we crashed out in Happy to the sounds of a whistle flirting with an array of stringed instruments and Bankrobber by the Clash, played earlier on a mandolin, still snared behind my left ear.

The following morning we left in sunlight and arrived home in a hail-storm. A brief interlude before returning to Glasgow.

In the midst of all the music and words, another friend had contacted Mr D:

‘We’ve got a couple of spare tickets to Nick Cave, you want to come?’

‘Nick Cave, fancy it?’ I raised my eyebrow. ‘Thought as much.’ And so, on Sunday, we picked up N and A and once again headed into the Glasgow night.

Nick CaveNick Cave strode on stage and divined his audience. A stick-drawn conjurer, he wove words around and through his music. Chaotic guitars, frenetic fiddles and the intermittent toll of a bell, rumbled and rose, crashing into the music fleeing his piano. Theatre, I said. No not theatre, drama, said Mr D, drama in the truest sense of the word. Words tumbled into the crowd, dashing off the lights, tripping over the edge of the stage. Walls expanded to make room for the sound.

Then this.

Nick at the piano. Spot-lit. The opening bars to that song. We’re up in the balcony, as high as is possible to be, with an uninterrupted view.

I don’t believe in an interventionist god

My body becomes air. I am weightless. The words and music intertwine; lift me. Eyes closed, I fall from the balcony into a field of unharvested swaying arms.

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels

Hands suspend me, fingertips skimming my clothes. I am without form.

Into my arms, o lord

Into my arms

On the way home in the car I am all out of superlatives.

Music and words; a heady cocktail from which I went to bed drunk and woke with best hangover I’ve ever had.

The Truth in Words

Glasgow’s week long Book Festival began on Friday and Mr D and I de-camped to the city for a literary adventure. Held at the Mitchell Library, Aye Write! is celebrating its 10th anniversary and when we arrived on Friday evening, laughter and excited chatter crowded the corridors and rippled up and down the queues forming outside various rooms.

Aye Write!Determined to pack as much into the weekend as possible, we’d studied the festival brochure ahead of time and agonised over which events to attend. As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m not so good on the making of choices and thanks to a glistering array of possibilities, agreeing on a final selection was particularly difficult. After much deliberation we settled on a programme of events that allowed no time for eating and barely enough time for toilet breaks: it was worth it.

Over the weekend we pledged to read dangerously, vowed never to get into a taxi driven by Juice Terry, and toasted 10 years of the festival with four authors, a poet laureate and a singer-songwriter.

There were brief encounters with authors in the green room (thanks to Mr D’s PhD and ‘access all areas’ pass), champagne chit-chat with a publisher and a discussion about Patty Smith and silver ankle boots with a member of the organising committee.

We reminisced about Jim Morrison, listened to tales of Moira’s dog, almost got bitten by a black widow spider, discovered a boy trapped in the margins of a book, and tried to erase from our memories the conjured image of Tony Blair in a crop top aping Mick Jagger in an attempt to be a rock star.

The incongruity of horrifying images risen from beautiful words caused discombobulation of the mind. Poems of drones and war cast dark shadows to chill bare flesh, warmed only by the enthusiasm of the poets for their craft.

And then there was George.

The words of George the Poet quickened my breath and enlivened my imagination. His were the words of intelligence, wit, social conscience and compassion. And truth. His were the words that pulled my shoulders back, sat me up straight and disciplined my attention. His were the words that convinced me that the fight for social justice will always be worth the effort. So we bought the book of his words and these are the words he wrote for us:

Truth doesn’t care who tells it … it shines regardless!

His were the words Mr D and I talked about back in our bargain hotel room where we dined on pakora and cheap red wine and feasted on the view of the Mitchell Library against the darkening Glasgow skyline.

Mitchell Library

The Aye Write! Book Festival runs until next Saturday 25th April (also Mr D’s birthday – cards optional) and there are lots of fantastic events still to come – all to be found on the festival website. See you there.

The events we saw were:

  • Andy Miller: The Year of Reading Dangerously
  • Irvine Welsh: A Decent Ride
  • Christopher Brookmyre, Denise Mina, Lousie Welsh, Alan Bissett & Jim Carruth: There’s Only One Aye Write!
    • Dylan Jones on Jim Morrison
  • Alan Bissett: Greatest Theatrical Hits
  • Mark Ellen: Rock Stars Stole My Life
  • Harry Giles, Marion McCready and JL Williams: Vagabond Poets
  • Introducing George the Poet: Search Party – A Collection of Poems
  • Nathan Penlington: The Boy in the Book (hosted by Mr D)

Our next Aye Write! outing begins on Thursday through to Saturday and includes:

  • Karen Campbell and Fiona Rintoul: Glasgow University MLitt – The First 20 Years
  • Lebo Mashile & Niq Mhlongo: South African Writers
    • Ian Buxton: Legendary Whisky Tasting (hosted by Mr D)
  • Zoe Howe and Douglas Hart: The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • UNESCO City of Music: Rock Sessions
  • Ghada Karmi: Return – A Palestinian Memoir
  • Ben Okri: The Age of Magic
  • Tony Barrell, Lewis Gordon & Hector Bizerk: All About the Drums

Learning to surf

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pressing either rewind or fast-forward on my life. It’s a new year. It’s tradition. In the last 12 months the highs have been plentiful, the lows difficult but worth the effort. As for the next 12, who knows? I have intentions; who doesn’t? But when I look back to this time last year and see how far I’ve come, I realise that the best part was in learning to just live – that realisation is my biggest high from last year and it is my main intention for this one.

There were other highs worth a mention: the feel of fresh air on my skin after two months in hospital; being able to climb stairs; a prolificacy of rainbows; the kindness of friends old and new. The chance to say yes to two important questions made the year more memorable than most, as did the privilege of working with established author Karen Campbell as part of the WoMentoring Project. There was dancing, campervanning, music, laughter, singing, comedy, cycling, star-filled nights, extraordinary views and not nearly enough writing.

There was a proposal. Up a tree. And a referendum. Both of which I answered YES to. One brought a weekend (and beyond) of untold happiness, the other disappointment. It was a year of recovery, a year of fun and, when it came to writing, it was a year of procrastinating like no other.

It’s time. Time to stop procrastinating and start putting key to keyboard. I began this blog to inspire me to write and also to help me keep a record of my writing progress. It hasn’t been that. Cathartic, yes, and probably necessary but not what it set out to be. Like life I guess (cliché alert) – it doesn’t always go the way we want or how we envisage it but that’s not to say it isn’t right for us at that time.

perfect waveI am lucky to have an eclectic mix of friends and what I’ve noticed most over the last year is that the happiest people I know are the ones that have learned to roll with it. Whether it’s recovering from illness, dealing with bereavement, travelling around the world or simply enjoying the simple things: cups of tea in a proper teapot, patterns of snowflakes, the sound of the waves through an open window, a shared joke, the ability to lose yourself in a song or dance, the feel of crisp cotton bedclothes against your skin.

One of my favourite quotes is from Jon Kabat-ZinnYou can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. 2014 was all about learning to surf – this year my intention is more of the same with a little practice at steering the surfboard, particularly where my writing is concerned.

Happy New Year and good luck on finding the perfect wave.

The Celebratory Living Room Dance

It was Friday night, I’d just returned from an impromptu overnight stay in Glasgow at the Golden Jubilee Hospital (only the best establishments for me) and I was worn out and generally feeling defeated by life. After crumpling into my favourite armchair, I opened up my email inbox, glanced down the messages with little enthusiasm, and paused. And held my breath. And felt the goose-bumps rise on the back of my neck. I did it! My application to the Wo-Mentoring Project had been successful and I was being welcomed by my new mentor Karen Campbell.

Celebratory Living Room DanceI don’t know if it was the news alone, or the fact that I’d received 3 pints of blood (rocket fuel as referred to by the nurses) but I was on my feet, grin plastered across my face and arms thrown to the sky; otherwise known as doing the Celebratory Living Room Dance. Mr D cheered me on and sang an upbeat version of a song – the tune familiar but the words unlikely.

There it was. The first milestone on my writing journey. The first tick on my writing to-do list.

This Is Where I AmFor those of you who don’t know Karen’s work, I highly recommend it. Her last novel, This Is Where I Am, looks at the realities of life as a refugee in Glasgow, alongside the loneliness and quiet despair of a Glaswegian widow and the friendship that develops when they’re brought together via a mentoring programme.

My hope is that Karen will be able to help me work on a longer piece of writing (notice how I tiptoed around the ‘n’ word) based on my recent experience ‘on the list’ for a heart transplant; a write-what-you-know approach for my first attempt.

The writing journey is often a solitary one, which for me, makes it even more important to grab opportunities to work with other writers. I’m already privileged in that I completed my MLitt at the University of Stirling with a group of extraordinary and talented people (heretofore known as the Write-n-Rant Collective) with whom I’ve remained in touch. Under the tutelage of author Paula Morris our group blossomed from students into fledgling writers and since graduation we’ve celebrated our successes and commiserated our near-misses. When you’re walking a long road, there’s nothing better than having a support group to cheer you on, and pick you up when you fall.

In the meantime, I’m recuperating from my latest bout of hospital food by sitting at the keyboard, working up the sketch of the first two chapters of my LPoW for discussion at the first meeting with my mentor. Watch these fingers fly!