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

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.

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.