Time Well Spent

The lack of activity on my blog is, I’m glad to say, primarily due to the fact that I’ve been writing. Yep, you read right, I’ve been boosting the word count and piling up the pages. And no, before you ask, my LPoW is not yet finished, but it is beginning to fill out pretty well. Even better, I’ve finally settled into my writing groove and am enjoying that liberating sense of timelessness that comes from losing yourself in something you love.

But you know what they say: all work and no play …

IMG_2696A fortnight ago, Mr D and I loaded up Happy with champagne, chocolate, walking shoes and my parents, and headed north in convoy with our friends F and L in their campervan, Sunny. Findhorn-bound, we stopped off half-way to picnic in the sunshine and kick start the holiday with leftover quiche and cold potatoes.

Two hours later, we tumbled out of our campers and set up home in an old fisherman’s cottage with a free-standing bath. We were joined by more friends the following night and, when Sunday dawned and promised to live up to its name with regards to the weather, we spilled out onto the beach.

Friends and food at the seaside: the very essence of bliss. There were games and laughter; a curious seal; ebullient dogs; bird-watching; paddling – swimming even! We took photographs (including a rare one of me with my best friend), traded stories, told jokes, and sat side-by-side watching the sea as it kept on coming. The world was huge, time limitless, and as the sun began to pack up for the day, we followed suit and headed back to the cottage, a weave of arms and rolled up trousers and sun hats and dogs.

IMG_2716The rest of the week was quieter: opera in Elgin town hall; pummelled by rain on Burghead promenade; Berghaus bargains in a Nairn charity shop; fresh vegetables bought from the side of a path through the Findhorn Foundation; huge plates of Buckie fish; and the impish greens of the Northern Lights.

On our penultimate day, B and G visited with strawberries and truffles and told us of Pluscarden Abbey, the place where B told me she had gone when I was in hospital, to ask the monks to include me in their prayers. We arranged to meet her there later, where we listened to the Gregorian chanting of the monks during Vespers, the last wisp of sunshine trickling through the stained glass, fragments of blue and pink and green scattered across their hooded heads.

A quiet calm accompanied us on the journey home in Happy.

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.

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

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.

Time to write

It’s the curse of every writer; finding the time to write (or in my case, finding the time and then squandering it on other non-essential activities such as rearranging the cutlery drawer). As already mentioned in one of my previous posts, I suffer from the affliction of procrastination, which has a propensity to flare-up just before I settle down to write.

There are certain activities that may, to the outsider looking in, appear to be consumers of time best used for writing – walking, day-dreaming, basking in the sun, checking emails – which are essential to my writing process. For example, last week I received three emails alerting me to the fact that the Scottish Book Trust is looking for stories related to journeys. I took this as a prompt to deviate from my LPoW to develop an idea that began as an exercise in my MLitt class a few years ago. This got me to thinking about a part of my childhood in the Highlands, which tapped into a whole range of memories and experiences relevant to my LPoW, thus freeing my mind, and hand, to move the story onwards, albeit in a direction I hadn’t expected.

Not only that. A line within the SBT story nudged open the door to thoughts of the outdoors; freewheeling through the world, wind at my back, gulping fresh air, laughing, living. Those memories prised me (and by association, Mr D) out of bed yesterday, shoved us into our walking boots and propelled us outside to explore our surrounding area. We walked through woods draped in mist, the decay of leaves deadening our footfall. A young roe buck eyeballed us on the path ahead (he blinked first) and we watched a red squirrel skite and scurry around and up a lone pine jostling for position amongst the domineering beech. The birdsong was orchestral, at first a suggestion but once we became attuned, a rich panoply of whistles, chirps and caws; layers of sound reverberating around the forest. A promise of spring in the air; of barbecues and bare feet and the dissolution of tensions in the touch of sunlight on skin.

geese on the wing

Back out in the open, above the mist, a flock of geese waltzed across the sky. Our morning adventure ended at Stirling Castle, where Robert the Bruce loomed over a gaggle of Japanese tourists and steam rose from our coffee-filled paper cups.

How could I fail to be inspired?

My resultant daydreams are crammed with new ideas, not only for my LPoW but also for other shorter pieces. Any minute now I’ll capture some of them in words, if only I could lay my hands on that time.

To read my short story on journeys, visit the Scottish Book Trust page (extra points if you spot the spelling mistake, which I swear wasn’t there when I uploaded it). 

 

Feel the fear…

In the last couple of weeks, Mr D and I have made our spoken word debuts; both of us taking part in The Front Room in Alloa, and Speakeasy at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh. In Alloa we gathered in an artist’s studio – one of several in the artist collective based at Marcelle House (part of the Maker’s Village). Around 30 people cosied in, straining the studio at the seams. Confidence skittish, I entered the room holding Mr D’s hand a little too tightly, an extract from my LPoW tucked in my pocket, my fingers returning to it again and again as I sat, summoning up the courage to add my name to the list of readers. Mr D, a seasoned performer in another incarnation, signed up, sat back down and struck up a conversation with two poets sitting in front of us. I decided I’d wait until after the first half before committing to make the transition from voyeur to participant.

A sticky camaraderie bound the room together: poems, short-stories, nerves, laughter. Mr D crested the first half, a wave of applause depositing him back beside me. He’d seemed so confident but when he folded his notes I noticed his hands shaking. Decision made. If he could do it despite the nerves, then I could too. So I did. In the second half. I scanned and read, editing as I went along. I looked at no-one and everybody; shook and smiled, and sometimes I remembered to breathe. At the end I returned to my seat and Mr D stroked my hand. I was glad I’d done it. Surely it would be easier the next time.

Speakeasy posterFast forward a fortnight and I’m standing to the side of the stage, about to be introduced as the first act in the Speakeasy. There’d been a brief sound-check earlier in the evening when, freaked out by the microphone, I’d decided against using it in favour of projecting my voice. I’m considering the wisdom of that decision. Then there’s my name, and I’m on stage. The lights are down, it’s silent, peaceful, welcoming. This time I begin with an extract from my writing, before talking a little about my experience; the latter is the more daunting. There’s a point where I think I might not get the words out – I pause, collect myself and though my voice wavers, I manage it. The dimmed lights make it impossible to see anyone other than the front row of the audience but I know they’re there, my friends, rooting for me, like they’ve always done, lifting me, spurring me on. I finish with another extract. The audience gasps at the end and then, applause. It’s over. I smile, say thank you, and wonder how on earth I’m going to manage to make it back to my seat without my legs buckling under me.

In the break several people come over to talk to me, to tell me they enjoyed it, to ask me more about my transplant. I’m moved and humbled by the response. Friends hug me and one hands me a glass of red wine: wine on an empty stomach! By the time the second half begins, my hands have stopped shaking and I’m basking in alcohol’s warm embrace. Mr D rounds up the evening with stylish ease (only I know how his hands shook before taking to the stage).

Ten minutes on stage but several days of preparation. I am in awe of those that do it on a regular basis. Not only were all the other performers amazing to watch, they were also fun, reassuring and really great people – several confessing to being nervous before every show. It was a fantastic to share the experience with them. Later, in the pub, I was asked if I enjoyed it. On balance, yes. Would I do it again? Buy me another glass of red wine and we’ll see.

For those of you interested, you can read the extract from which I read here – the full extract is about to be published in the Next Review.

To book tickets for next month’s Speakeasy visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre.