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

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). 

 

Time to Speak Out

Last night Mr D and I, along with a couple of friends, had a night out in the Big McSmoke (or Edinburgh as it’s more commonly referred), to listen to a selection of poets, actors, comedians and musicians take part in the Speakeasy event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Unsure what to expect, we grabbed a drink and headed downstairs to the theatre: what a fantastic night! At £7 a ticket, the event far exceeded the more than reasonable price. Compered by comedian Jo Caulfield, there were six acts, all different and all equally as fun, entertaining and interesting as each other.

Speakeasy_0

At the interval Mr D and I were invited to take part in the next event on the 10th of March, a thought which both excites and terrifies me in equal measure. Add to that one of the other acts being Dave Hook of Stanley Odd and my fear begins to outweigh my excitement. Don’t worry, I’m not doing some kind of pseudo Sonny & Cher duet with Mr D, nor are we acting out our own mini-drama – I’m telling the story of my recent health-related experience through an extract from my Longer Piece of Work (LPoW), and Mr D intends to combine his writing and musical talents in a ‘life on tour’ mash-up (apologies if I’m bastardising the terminology).

Aside from a practice run at university, I’ve never read any of my writing in public, nor have I told my story to strangers. I’ve listened to other writers and storytellers and been in awe of their ability to stand up and put themselves out there. More recently, one of the other members of our MLitt Write-n-Rant Collective, Helen MacKinven, took the plunge, followed by another of my fellow ex-students. Our MLitt tutor, author Paula Morris, often talks at festivals and other events, one of my closest friends is a stand-up comedian, and Mr D and several of his friends perform music in various venues. All these people inspire me. And yet, the thought of doing it myself, seemed beyond my capabilities.

There are various reasons people take to the stage: to promote; to share; for fun (!); for the love of it. I think it’s great that they do so. Nothing beats watching someone talk about the thing they love, nor is anything more moving than someone sharing their life experience. To do it well is a talent not to be under-rated; a joy to behold. To do it badly – yikes!

No-one last night did it badly and that’s what really scares me. What if I go up there and I freeze or worse, I’m boring and no-one is interested? What if I bomb? Wouldn’t that be horrible? Well, no not really. I mean, yes it would be horrible but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I know this because last night I realised that even if someone had forgotten what they were going to say, or been less than inspiring, I would’ve rooted for them anyway just by virtue of them getting up there. The audience at the Speakeasy event weren’t out to get anyone, they weren’t rowdy, they didn’t heckle or boo. For each and every person that spoke, the audience were on their side. What better place to have my performance debut? If I do bomb, Mr D and my amazing friends will be there to pick up the pieces. And hey, there’s always red wine.

For those interested in going to one of the monthly Speakeasy nights, and I strongly recommend it, you can find out more by visiting the Scottish Storytelling Centre website.

Writing to fit in

An interesting game has popped up on Facebook, it involves revealing seven things about yourself that others don’t know and then inviting two of your friends to do the same. I often feel uncomfortable being ‘nominated’ to take part in something and even more seat shifting goes on if I’m asked to nominate others. This is different. It doesn’t involve buckets of iced water or any kind of favourite (a concept I still haven’t mastered but that’s for another time). It’s for fun, or so I believe, and it’s fascinating. Over the last week I’ve discovered a range of intriguing, funny or just plain bonkers facts about friends, most of which I assume to be true but even if not, who cares? And there’s the nub.

And so to my Longer Piece of Writing (LPoW) for which progress has been slow (read non-existent) of late. I’m stuck on a technicality. Is what I’m writing fiction or non? I’m drawing heavily on my recent experience on the transplant list (non) but embellishing and exaggerating, with some imagining and inventing, to give the story pace and fill in some gaps (fiction). Yet it still doesn’t seem honest to call it fiction. Yes, I know the ‘write what you know’ adage but when does some something drawn so heavily on personal experience stop being memoir and become fiction? And just how much of myself am I comfortable giving – the facts but what of the feelings? More importantly, does anyone care? Like the seven facts, does it really matter what’s true and what isn’t as long as it’s a good story? Does my LPoW need to be defined along such lines? Apparently, yes. And no.

QuestionsSeveral articles and the literary agent who spoke to my class during the MLitt, suggest that in order to get published you need to know which genre (pigeon-hole) your work fits into – it matters whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. This not only makes it simpler for your agent (or you) to pitch to publishers but also helps you to know your audience, who you’re writing for. This makes sense, I acknowledge, from a marketing point-of-view but not necessarily from an artistic (excuse the pretention) perspective. If everyone wrote to fit-in how would literature advance (and no I’m not suggesting my writing is either ground-breaking or boundary-pushing – to be honest, I don’t know what it is yet)? And if I did set out knowing with an idea of who I was writing for, wouldn’t this have the danger of influencing how my story might unravel? How is it even possible to know my audience when I don’t know what kind of audience I am? Sure, I have preferences (William Trevor and other short story writers are right up there), as, I’m sure, does everyone but I’m also open to all sorts of writing.

These are the questions that have been fighting for airspace in my head. I grant you they’re neither sophisticated nor fully formed but they’re troubling.

I was reassured by a recent conversation recounted to me by Mr D: he’d been speaking to the director of a Scottish publisher who had just signed an author not on genre or because her work fit neatly into a marketing category – her novel was ‘part fiction, part memoir, part novel, part short story collection’ – but because it was beautifully written, well-crafted and professionally presented.

I don’t know if other writers consider how their work will be marketed and to whom. Maybe some do. All I know is that I feel most myself when I write; it frees me, calms me, makes me care less about things that matter least. As for whether it will be published, it would be great if it were but it isn’t my main motivation – perhaps that’s why I’m still an amateur. I bumped into a well-known writer yesterday in Glasgow (well actually Mr D knows her so it wasn’t as random as the start of the sentence suggests); she asked if I wrote and I said I did but as an amateur. A brief exchange as to whether all writers are amateurs followed, after all, the word derives from the Latin amator meaning lover, something I had forgotten. I liked that idea. All amateurs. It’s enough to inspire me back to my desk.

imagesRC15ZIOSAt the end of the day, the thing that really matters, and which I’ve been avoiding so far, is that the LPoW needs to be written, not just in my head (where, believe me, it’s a masterpiece) but on paper or my laptop or a bus shelter (ok maybe not the latter) but somewhere and soon. Otherwise it’s just talk or worse bluster.

Long, short, fiction or not? Perhaps I’ll just write it and see.

PS: As for my seven facts, I didn’t reveal that my big ambition is to be invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – perhaps if I get my book written?!

All in the detail

My plan, since my last blog, had been to concentrate on the first couple of chapters and synopsis of my LPoW in preparation for my first meeting with my mentor; life however, had other plans.

Following what had initially been a successful blood transfusion, my body decided to have a further wee wobble (who can blame it after everything it’s been through recently), and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pinging between the hospital in Glasgow and the local A&E department. My temperature walked a high-wire of degrees and my white blood cell count plummeted, recovered slightly, then plunged again. Am I concerned? Damn right I am but for now, I’ve decided to leave the worrying to the experts – after all, I’ve been warned to expect a less than settled ride in the first year post-transplant.

All of which means I’m now running behind on my writing schedule!

On the plus side, I’ve managed to have my memory nudged on the sensory experiences particular to hospitals, all good information for my LPoW. I’d forgotten, for example, how the smell of the tape used to stick down the cotton wool after having blood taken, reminds me of a pine woodland after rain; or that I could identify which doctor or nurse was about to come in to my room by the cadence of the footsteps in the corridor; or that the taste of the tea lacks coherence, there’s an individual graininess to each mouthful, despite the fact it’s the same brand we use at home. All details that add colour and form to a piece of writing, that bring it alive and make the reader want to invest in it, or at least that’s what I find when reading.

Cheating at Canasta For me, the short story writer for whom I have the utmost respect (and a slight literary crush if the truth be known) is William Trevor. In one sentence he can characterise a person with such precision and insight that you feel like you know them immediately. His stories invite you inside, you’re no longer an observer but a participant (unless he wants you to remain at a distance), and at the end of the story you can’t fail but to walk away affected in some way. His real genius is that he makes it seem so simple: the sentence structure; the POV narrative; the settings; the story. Yes, he makes it seem simple but …

Over the weekend I edited and submitted a short story to the Bridport Prize. It’s gone through numerous incarnations and I was as pleased as I’d ever be with the ‘finished’ product. To unwind, I read Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor and my heart soared and then sank just a little. What I noticed most of all was his absolute attention to detail – every word counts, every sentence adds to the story, nothing is gratuitous, nothing a distraction.

As I write this, it occurs to me that enforced tripping between hospitals might not be the worse use of my time. Not only was I reminded of the importance of detail, I also spent time in the presence of other short story writers – James Salter, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis. I edited a friend’s novella for her MLitt dissertation and helped Mr D polish the first few chapters of his novel. And I made notes and notes and more notes.

And there were other details that prompted memories: a Facebook video of a friend’s parents in the US dancing at their 50th wedding anniversary; a camping trip with friends where I got to hear a laugh I love and hadn’t heard for too long; Mr D’s smile when I caught him looking at me; an unexpected card from a newish group of friends (old friends of Mr D); the shared delight of another friend who won a competition to be pampered; a ‘phone call from a cousin I hadn’t heard from for a long time; a shaft of early evening sunlight on the chair that belonged to my late grandad.

Writing, as living, is all in the detail.

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!

Where there’s a will, there’s a way (to procrastinate)

For the first time in several weeks my dirty laundry basket is empty, even my shower curtain has been washed. Why? The same reason random buttons have been sewn on to little-worn clothes and I’ve found five different recipes on how to bake the perfect banana loaf: it’s time to get on with my writing! It’s not that the will isn’t there, it just got a little lost on the way.

I started well, I made a list of what I wanted to complete and when (in between screen-shopping and catching up on cyber-chat). It was a rather modest list I thought: apply for a mentor through the WoMentoring Project; submit an award-winning short story to the Bridport Prize; finish off two other stories and complete my collection in time to send it to Jonathan Cape during its open submissions in June; write the first couple of chapters of my novel (for which I have more enthusiasm than notes) in time to apply for a Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award.

Image

So far so good. And then it began to unravel. One word; deadlines.

  • WoMentoring Project – asap
  • Bridport Prize – 31 May
  • Jonathan Cape open submissions – throughout June
  • Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award – 16 May

All the initial excitement disappeared beneath a blanket of inertia. There was just too much choice. I simply couldn’t do everything, so instead I did nothing. For several hours. And then several days. Something had to give, but what? I remember I had the same feeling in high school when I was trying to decide what I might like to be ‘when I grew up’ and realised I could do anything (except perhaps win a gold medal at the Olympics or walk on the moon – but even those options didn’t seem completely out of my reach). I had to focus; prioritise.

ImageOver a cup of tea and some banana loaf (bought not made), I decided. Mentoring. It was the obvious next step – I’d done the MLitt, had a couple of early successes, and I now needed help to sharpen up my writing and take the next step.

Hmmmm, maybe I could also apply for an Artists’ Bursary from Creative Scotland, or join NASA’s Astronaut Training Programme. Focus Angela. Focus!