Where to begin

It’s been so long: let’s start with the celebration of my second wedding anniversary. As I write, Mr D and I are ensconced in a converted cinema on the Fife coast, overlooking the Firth of Forth. Through the floor to ceiling window an anthracite sea disappears into a bruised winter sky – below us, the curved beach upon which we ran this morning.

Inspired by our friends B heart-25and B, we’re spending our anniversary flexing our creative muscles in an artists’ studio, away from distractions for a few nights. Mr D sits to my left, hat pulled down over his ears, shoulders hunched in concentration, fingers transforming three years of research into the final write up of his PhD. I try to write but my feet are cold and my eyes return to the sea again and again and again.

This blog is by means of a gentle easing into my next project. The same principle as stretching my hamstrings before a run.

I have news though. On the writing front. Quite a bit as it happens.

The last time I wrote I had completed my manuscript and was preparing to set it free. It took a couple more months before I did so, to one publisher, Freight Books in Glasgow. Four years previously I had listened to Freight’s Adrian Searle talk about the future of books during a panel discussion, after which I had turned to Mr D and told him Adrian was the person I wanted to publish my first novel. No matter that I had neither a manuscript nor even the inkling of one at the time. I would. One day.

indexWhen I sent out my manuscript, I had a wish list of two publishers: Freight was first. I also had a plan. Contrary to advice, solicited or otherwise, I decided to play the long game. Send to Freight, if they said no, send to the second on the list. If both turned me down, then I would lengthen my list and take it from there.

What were the chances, I was asked, that the first publisher you send it to will want to publish it? Even the best authors are rejected many times, I was told, some have even published books of their rejection letters. You should send it to at least a few, I was advised, just in case, not that it isn’t good.

I smiled, took a deep breath and dispatched my manuscript to my first choice. And waited. Two months later, at the end of August, they made me an offer.

If, from this news, you’ve made the assumption that the process was simple, I apologise. It wasn’t, isn’t. I didn’t finish my manuscript in a flurry of brilliance, send it to my preferred publisher and wait to bask in the glory of a publishing deal. Instead, when I was happy that I’d written, proofed and edited as well as I could, I sent it to half a dozen people to look at for comments on cadence, repetition, narrative flow and readability. Half were friends whose opinion I trusted, the other half acquaintances. Next I sent it to two people to edit: a friend whose editing skills I trust (and who isn’t afraid to be critical when necessary) and another much newer friend with relevant editorial experience and little knowledge of me or my story (remember the book is a memoir).

Armed with the collective feedback, I had a good idea of what worked and what needed tweaking. And yet, there was still something niggling me. Every person I’d shown it to knew either me or my story to varying degrees. I needed someone unconnected to me, with no prior knowledge of my story, to give me their unbiased opinion. I found them through a friend of a friend. Only after I received their assessment which, as it turned out, was similar to that of the others, could I conceive of sending the manuscript to Freight.

angela-writingDuring the manuscript ping-pong, I used the time to research my choice of publisher. I’d already read some of their authors but I read others, ones I might not have come to naturally. I noted the style of writing, choked down the panic that rose in my throat at the brilliance of some of the use of language, and read interviews to try and get a feel for the relationship between author and publisher. Through published articles about Freight, I developed an understanding of its ethos and vision.

By the time I sent my manuscript out, I was as prepared as I could be. Despite that, when Freight responded I was stunned and delighted. I still am.

And that’s not all. Mr D and I have also been dabbling in spoken word, as those of you who’ve read my blog will know. We developed a twenty minute performance based on extracts from my manuscript, chosen to reveal my state of mind on different days during my wait for a new heart. Mr D intercut these with guitar music to reflect the tone of the writing. We added an original song, an exchange of dialogue and poetry. The piece began and ended in the same way, with the line ‘the heart that beats within me is not the one I was born with’, spoken over a guitar riff that was passed through a looping pedal and slowed to replicate a heartbeat (the technical stuff is all Mr D).

Inspired by the positive feedback we received after our performances, I applied to the Starter for Ten project at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) – funding and support to develop new theatre. I knew it was a long shot. I wasn’t chosen but I was told my idea had scored very highly and I was invited to NTS to speak to them.

Last week, Mr D and I visited NTS to discuss my idea and were overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of help to realise the project. We now have further meetings with people in the theatre industry to look forward to.

Along the same vein, I also sent my idea to the Tom McGrath Trust Maverick Award. Again, it was a shot in the dark. Again I didn’t win. Again I received an email to let me know I’d been shortlisted, that they liked my idea and offering support.

gin-and-tonicWhere things go from here, who knows. I loved doing the spoken word (or rather I loved it after each performance had ended and I was drinking a large gin and tonic) but my first love is writing and my next novel has been brewing inside me for far too long.

Time to get writing again. Time to hit those keys and type the first letters on a blank screen. Time to begin. Gin and tonic anyone?

A bird in the hand

In my hand (well, trapped between the keys of my computer) is the equivalent of a new-born spring chick – the completed manuscript of my first book. Key words to note: completed and manuscript. After a gestation period longer than that of an elephant, my book made its first appearance mid March. Since then, I’ve fed and watered it, burped it, changed its nappy and passed it around a few people for admiration, validation and reassurance at my ability to be a responsible parent.

Over the last couple of months we’ve grown together, my book and I, and I’m now faced with the terrible realisation that I need to send it out there, into the world, to find out if it can make it on its own.

spring chickOkay, that’s more metaphor than enough for one blog post. The reality is this: I’ve written a memoir based on the sixteen days I spent on the urgent transplant list, waiting for a new heart. Sounds morbid? It’s anything but. I won’t lie, there are dark days but throughout, the narrative sparkles with joy and laughter. Above all it’s a love story, not only mine with Mr D but also the one with my friends and family. For sixteen days I waited, on the brink of death, for someone else to die. Difficult both physically and emotionally. I didn’t wait alone. On Christmas Day, my donor and their family gave me a gift more precious than any other. My own friends and family made sure I was (and still am) able to receive and make the most of it.

book birdBut I digress. This post isn’t about the content of the book, it’s about how to set it free. How and when do I release my Caxton bird-in-the-hand skywards in the hope that it can fly?

To get to this stage, the first edit was easy – read-through and correct all the obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Next, kill, or at least mutilate, all my darlings (at least most of them – the ones I missed were culled by a couple of ruthless editor friends). Follow this with reading for continuity, flow and cadence. And then the hard part.

Close reading and editing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, until my eyes crossed and watered. This stage, in my experience, is the trickiest. Get too up-close-and-personal with the narrative and you run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture: maybe it’s okay to use that verb again, perhaps there is no better word than this one. It’s difficult but worth it. Which leaves me with the shiniest and most robust version of my manuscript.

champagne uncorkedLike every anxious parent (I’m wringing the last droplets from this metaphor), I’ve equipped my fledgling with all the survival skills at my disposal, what happens next is out of my control. It’s time to leave the nest. To fly.

If I succeed in publication I’ll celebrate, likewise if I don’t. A manuscript, complete, is an achievement in itself and should be celebrated. As the saying goes (I think), I’ve come a long way to get this far: time to pop the bubbly!

Now, what to do with the empty nest.

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.

Retreating into Writing

Excited. And nervous. Excited and nervous is how I feel at the moment: thanks for asking.  In less than 48 hours I’ll be ensconced on a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor. Just me and my laptop and a couple of books. Well, not quite – me, my laptop, a couple of books, several other writers, a publisher for one of the days, the Moniack Mhor team, I imagine several, no lots, of other books and a huddle of laptops; but you get what I mean. No mobile (no signal), no TV (not that Mr D and I have one), no supermarket at the end of the road (though I doubt I’ll starve) and no Mr D (though there will be company – see above for other writers, etc).

moniack mhor bedroomSince winning the Work In Progress grant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wavering between excitement and nerves. A week to write, that’s exciting, but with a group of people I’ve never met before, that’s nerve-wracking. On more recent days, I’ve even been a wee bit scared: what if my writing isn’t good enough? What if I get there and everyone else is so much better and more confident and –

‘What if it’s absolutely fantastic?’ said Mr D. ‘What if you love every minute? What if you don’t want to come home?’

What if he’s right? I hope he’s right (except for the not wanting to come home). I’m sure he will be.

It’s not my first time on a retreat. I’ve been to several meditation and yoga retreats, particularly during my yoga teacher training – I’ve even been on one which involved fire-walking and a solo one in a hut above Loch Voil. And I’ve loved all of them (and been happy to go home when they ended).

Moniack Mhor viewThere’s something about being allowed the space and time to write (or meditate or do yoga or whatever); the permission to forget about all distractions and concentrate on the thing you love. And Moniack Mhor, just looking at the picture of it draws the tension from my shoulders. How could I fail to be inspired?

And so I’m off. I’ll take lots of pictures and write about it when I get back. Until then …

Now, dungarees or jeans? Walking boots or wellies? Books –

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.

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.

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