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.

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.

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). 


Freedom in Expression

It’s been a blur of tests, high temperatures and soft food for the last couple of weeks. I’ve felt fragile, addled and more than a little helpless under the scrutiny of doctors and nurses. I’m now familiar with a raft of medical acronyms and have a grasp of the numbers connected to blood counts and infection indicators. I’ve done very little writing, but I have had time to read, listen to the radio and think.

Before I carry on with this blog, I should make it clear that in the current referendum on whether my home country of Scotland should be independent, I stand firmly in the Yes camp. I’m not a nationalist and I was born in England. For me the issue is simple: Who do I want to make the decisions on the future direction of my country – a government voted in by the people of Scotland or a government where my vote has virtually no impact, if any at all?

But that isn’t what this blog is about. As a fledgling writer and someone who has worked in the media, I’ve been increasingly concerned with the way the referendum debate has been represented by our media outlets. Not more so than in the recent storm-in-a-teacup surrounding J K Rowling’s announcement that she is supporting the Better Together (No Thanks) campaign to the tune of £1 million.

Now I know very little about J K Rowling as a person but I saw her giving the commencement address at Harvard via TED talks and was impressed by her eloquence and compassion. Her statement, and I’m paraphrasing, that those more privileged are duty-bound to those less so not to squander their opportunities, was laudable and resonated with my own beliefs. She’s worked with Amnesty International, for whom I too have volunteered, and gives a substantial amount of her money to charity. In my view, this makes her a decent person. She also has a lot of money, to do with what she will. And that’s an important point – to do with what she will. In the same way that the Weirs (a Scottish couple who won a huge amount on the Euro lottery) choose to use their money to support worthy causes and the Yes campaign, JK is at liberty to use her money as she sees fit.

Similarly, she’s free to her opinion – on this matter (and probably many others) I don’t share it, but she’s entitled to it. It’s the beauty of living in a democracy and the right to free speech. Now here’s the rub;  in a democracy, oftentimes people will disagree with you. And with freedom comes responsibility. So when people, on both sides of the argument, start abusing others for not sharing their view, everyone loses.

What bothered me most about JK’s statement is this; she cites the ‘fringe nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence’ and then goes on to make the assumption that she will be considered ‘insufficiently Scottish’ by the same people. No-one had said this, she just imagined it would be true. Which would be less derogative if she had then gone on to acknowledge the fact that there is also an unsavoury element on the fringes of the BT campaign. She didn’t.

As the writer of one of the most successful series of stories ever, if she wishes to speak out on a subject (and that is her right), she does indeed have a responsibility to use her privileged position well, as does anyone with that kind of public profile, as do we all.

It wasn’t which side she chose, or in her donating money that I think she failed to live up to that responsibility, it was in her lack of respect for those that don’t share her view by failing to recognise the unpleasant elements of her chosen campaign.

The vast majority of Yes campaigners are reasonable, passionate, dedicated, positive people who are hoping for a better future for their country and its glorious mix of people – many of whom, by JK’s reckoning would also presumably be ‘insufficiently Scottish’.

That said, my bigger gripe is with the mainstream media. I worked in radio and as a press officer for various charities for a number of years and I’ve become more-and-more dismayed by the lack of quality journalism in this country – there are of course exceptions, thank goodness, but they’re few and far between.

When the Weirs gave money to the Yes campaign they were not only personally attacked but also lambasted through certain media outlets and their donation was questioned publically by politicians. I for one, saw very little sympathy for them in the mainstream media. Contrast this with the outrage at the nasty cybernats in the media when JK received some abusive Tweets (don’t get me wrong, they were horrible) and the difference is astounding.

One of the greatest rights of a democratic society is freedom of expression. As a child I was in awe of those who brought us the news, both from my country and abroad. I was proud that our media was considered to be amongst the most honest and unbiased in the world. I could weep when I look at it now.

I’ve deliberately chosen not to address the political issues regarding the referendum, I understand them enough to make my own mind up but would be unwilling to speak to them when there are so many others more qualified. The information is out there, you just need to want it.

My final thought on the matter is this: I believe most in the good of people and I respect their right to hold an opinion even if it opposes my own. I may sometimes find it difficult to swallow but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Opinions are there to be challenged, that’s how great ideas are born. But we should always do it with the utmost respect. Otherwise we all lose.