Moving into Stillness

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done for a long time, I unrolled my yoga mat, lay in Savasana (corpse pose) and let all the tension slip from my body. I began by imagining my body becoming heavy, spreading out, sinking into the earth. No form. No boundaries. Soft, malleable.

images0ICU8V04Shoulders dropped, fingers unravelled, jaw slackened. All tension draining into the earth.

I began to focus on my breath. Abdomen first: rising with the in-breath, falling with the out-breath. In. Out. Next my rib cage. Breathing in, ribs widen, breathing out, release. Widen. Release. Finally, my chest.  A shallower breath, chest rises – breathing out it falls. Rise. Fall. In. Out. Letting go of any conscious effort, I let the breath flow naturally. I felt calm and revived. Still. Time passed.

Holding the stillness I began to move.

Gentle at first; some stretching of the back in Kumerasana (cat pose) then loosening my  tightened hamstrings and releasing my heels to the floor in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog). I rounded off my practice with Vrksasana (tree) and several rounds of Surya Namaska (sun salutations).

Sun salutation sequenceI completed my yoga teacher training with Yoga Scotland several years ago and for a blissful year, before I became too ill to carry on, I taught a wee class in a village hall in Perthshire. Discovering yoga had been my saving grace, the thing that coaxed me from the tumult of partying excess to a life rippling with happiness – for the first time my skin was the perfect fit.

Yoga soothed my mind and body and brought balance to a life where deadening lows were the pay back for mind-blowing highs. I thought giving up my partying days would make my life less; it didn’t. It was more, much more. I became more creative, less insecure. Giving up my practice was one of the most difficult parts of my illness. Finding it again is revelatory. After just one session I am whole. I’d also forgotten how it benefitted my writing. With my mind less scattered, my imagination expands, filling my head with ideas, information stored in darkened nooks wriggling free.

My plan is to try to make this a regular part of my life again. To help with that I’ve signed up to a class in my local area. It’s a different kind of yoga, more dance-like (another of my favourite pass-times), with a long relaxation period. I start next week.

Until then: Om Shanti.

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.

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?!

Learning to surf

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pressing either rewind or fast-forward on my life. It’s a new year. It’s tradition. In the last 12 months the highs have been plentiful, the lows difficult but worth the effort. As for the next 12, who knows? I have intentions; who doesn’t? But when I look back to this time last year and see how far I’ve come, I realise that the best part was in learning to just live – that realisation is my biggest high from last year and it is my main intention for this one.

There were other highs worth a mention: the feel of fresh air on my skin after two months in hospital; being able to climb stairs; a prolificacy of rainbows; the kindness of friends old and new. The chance to say yes to two important questions made the year more memorable than most, as did the privilege of working with established author Karen Campbell as part of the WoMentoring Project. There was dancing, campervanning, music, laughter, singing, comedy, cycling, star-filled nights, extraordinary views and not nearly enough writing.

There was a proposal. Up a tree. And a referendum. Both of which I answered YES to. One brought a weekend (and beyond) of untold happiness, the other disappointment. It was a year of recovery, a year of fun and, when it came to writing, it was a year of procrastinating like no other.

It’s time. Time to stop procrastinating and start putting key to keyboard. I began this blog to inspire me to write and also to help me keep a record of my writing progress. It hasn’t been that. Cathartic, yes, and probably necessary but not what it set out to be. Like life I guess (cliché alert) – it doesn’t always go the way we want or how we envisage it but that’s not to say it isn’t right for us at that time.

perfect waveI am lucky to have an eclectic mix of friends and what I’ve noticed most over the last year is that the happiest people I know are the ones that have learned to roll with it. Whether it’s recovering from illness, dealing with bereavement, travelling around the world or simply enjoying the simple things: cups of tea in a proper teapot, patterns of snowflakes, the sound of the waves through an open window, a shared joke, the ability to lose yourself in a song or dance, the feel of crisp cotton bedclothes against your skin.

One of my favourite quotes is from Jon Kabat-ZinnYou can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. 2014 was all about learning to surf – this year my intention is more of the same with a little practice at steering the surfboard, particularly where my writing is concerned.

Happy New Year and good luck on finding the perfect wave.

Amongst friends: music, camping, laughter and faux fur

There’s been little writing since my last blog and I make no excuses for it. Here’s why.

Lossiemouth: Picture endless sea and disappearing horizons and the flirtatious laugh of your best friend. Imagine stepping out of your campervan into a weekend community of shared smiles and cuppas, charity shops, fish suppers and home-made ginger bread – the lingering taste of salt on your lips, your fingers sugar-sticky. Feel the warmth of a faux fur coat given with a rib-squeezing hug; guitars and harmonies, fiddles, borrowed hot showers, the dance of rain and the barbequed smell of summer.

Ullapool: Picture a midge-riddled road-side stopover – reservoir sunset and the neck-tingling early morning sighting of a sea eagle, the moment where time paused in the shadow of a 7ft wingspan. Imagine parking on the edge of the sea; morning dog walkers, wagging tails and reflections of moored boats settling in the wake of the inbound ferry. Taste the home-grown berries for sale by the roadside, money deposited in a ‘trust box’, the coolness of ice-cream against your tongue.

Perth: Picture birthday cards from loved ones, bacon rolls in the garden, lavender and a contented cat lolling in the sunshine. Imagine your lover on stage, your friends cheering, a small girl blindly steering her pushchair back and forth, guitars and hats and motorbikes, coleslaw and over-cooked sausages. See the lightening split the sky, momentarily dividing the old bricked flats from the newly glassed shop, causing the old man on the bench to run for cover.

Dumfries & Galloway: Picture ancient burial chambers, guarded by standing stones – stoic sentries casting long shadows in the early evening sun, a starless night in the Dark Skies National Park! Imagine discussing your Longer Piece of Writing with a published and respected author while trying to contain the pleasure her words of praise and encouragement bring. Smell the freshly baked scones, bronzed crusts splitting with ease, a slick of melted butter coating your plate; the musty smell of yellowed paper in the second hand book shop, the incense burning amongst the Buddhas, kaftans and turquoise of the neighbouring nook-like store.

Glasgow: Picture two people arriving at the gates of Kelvingrove Park, tired and dishevelled and ten minutes too late to hear the daily bandstand music in celebration of the Commonwealth Games. Imagine the splash of colour and laughter of children in the play park, the queues and barriers blocking access to the museum, aching feet and anoraks. Hear the sigh of the water in the fountain as a penny breaks its surface, the bustle of the leaves and creak of the bark, branch bending under the couple’s combined weight.

Edinburgh: Picture the smile that splits the face of old and much-missed friends after a time too long – the heart-felt, arms thrown hugs that remind you of darkened pubs and cheap beer, dancing, air guitar and hungover happiness. Imagine street-side cafes and Fringe shows and fliers and the sensory overload of a capital city high on creative energy. Gossip and fizz. Talk of hearts and hair and handbags; laughter and a sense of belonging.

And now? Back to the writing.