Things that every poet is tired of hearing

That’s right, I’m going on a rant again – because everybody should do what they’re good at. Which brings me to today’s topic: Things that I as a creative writing student am absolutely tired of hearing.
There are these lines, repeated over and over again, sometimes by friends, often by family, mostly by acquaintances, always tedious. And, by the way: never funny.

Here’s what I mean:

North American Friend: So, how’s your studies going?

Me (refraining from correcting their English): Very stressful, there’s only two weeks left in the semester, and…

North American Friend: Ahh, c’mon, it can’t be that hard, it’s only writing, right? Don’t you mostly sit around and get drunk? That’s what being a writer is all about, I don’t think you’re doing it right!
One-sided laughter follows.
Maybe you should’ve went with a more challenging programme!

Me (now pissed and no longer seeing any reason to control my non-native grammatical arrogance): First of all, not your most original moment. Secondly, it’s “should have gone”. And lastly and FYI, we are all working our asses off!

North American Friend: Yeah, right. Why are you doing this anyways? You know, in order to be successful as a writer, you’d have to be, like, so lucky…

Me: Not lucky. Just good.

North American Friend: It’s so unlikely though, I mean, to make a living of it, you’d have to become a star or something!

Me: Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. At least I know I won’t ever have to get up in the morning thinking that I didn’t try. Or that I’m stuck in mediocrity doing something I loathe. How’s life as a nine-to-fiver?

North American silence.

 

 

Grandmother (translated from German): How are you doing with your studies, sweetheart?

Me: Well, it’s a lot of fun and very enriching, but there is also a lot of pressure.

Grandmother: Really? Do you have so many exams?

Me: Oma, I don’t have exams, I’m becoming a writer. I write.

Grandmother: Oh, well that doesn’t sound too bad…

Me: It’s not bad, it’s just very demanding.

Grandmother: And what exactly will you do with this degree when you’re done?

Me (after a deep, calming breath): I don’t need to know that yet, Oma, what matters is that this is what I want to do with my life. I have always wanted to write, you know that. I am doing it because I have no other choice if I want to be happy. I am doing it for very good reasons. Everything that I’ve done up until this point has been leading me here. There’s no turning back. I’m all in.

Grandmother: But you have such a good, useful degree, you could make more money in…

Me (interrupting, as I have heard this many too many times before): I’m not in it for the money, Oma, I’m in it for the challenge of my life. And for fulfilment.

German silence.

 

 

Acquaintance: So what do you study?

Me: Creative Writing. Postgrad.

Scottish silence.

Writing solo

It’s week nine and the pile of reading list books still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’ve accepted now that reading only parts of books until week 12 is a perfectly reasonable thing to be doing at this late stage of the game.

The last few weeks have been particularly fun but full-on. We’ve had a Writers Read with Daniel Shand who talked to us about his brilliant debut novel, Fallow. We also had a great masterclass from Chris Arthur who talked to us about the essay and gave us a handful of writing exercises which were really helpful for getting started on our own attempts – finally the essay makes sense!

The Dundee Literary Festival also took place at the end of October. I only managed to get along to two events but I made two excellent choices! The first one was ‘Nasty Women’ featuring three contributors, Jen McGregor, Alice Tarbuck and Becca Inglis, who had written essays for 404 Ink’s sensational collection. Topics ranged from Courtney Love to birth control which made for a really interesting hour of conversation.

I also listened to Erland Clouston’s hilarious but fascinating insight into the life of Nan Shepherd, ‘Zen and the Art of Rucksack Maintenance’. I love Nan’s book The Living Mountain so I was pretty excited about this one but Erland, Nan’s literary executor and family friend, didn’t disappoint.

Last week, I made a trip up to Inverness to interview the very lovely, Cynthia Rogerson. I’d met Cynthia earlier in the year at Moniack Mhor but it was great to find out more about what brought her to the Highlands from California, and her process for writing wonderful novels.

I’ve been very conscious of the fast-approaching deadlines of weeks ten and twelve so this week I decided to take off to the Isle of Skye for a couple of days by myself – and what a productive few days they’ve been! It’s amazing how much more you can achieve when there’s no distractions of day-to-day life. Details of my escapades are on my personal blog and I certainly don’t think this will be the last time I take off on a solo adventure!

What are you doing at the weekend?

“What are you doing at the weekend?”

Every Friday at work is spent fielding this question.  Do I bother telling the truth?  Go for a generic “oh, just a quiet one”, or really indulge the poor buggers by giving such a detailed account they regret ever having asked?

I tried to, once.

“Oh well, I’ll head home, feed the horse on the way, shovel a barrow of her shit, do the big shop, fall through the front door with bags of food, most of which will be for that cat.  Then probably some editing of a review, build that chicken coop, write up a bit more of the interview with an author that I did the other week, write a quick story, make a roast chicken dinner, cobble together some Miltonic(ish) poetry, find something else to review, read a few short stories for a presentation and then read Wuthering Heights and Paradise Lost.  You?”

“Oh.  Just a quiet one really”.

Then they’ll look at me, with an expression that so perfectly conveys the thought “I’m worried you’re having a mental breakdown” that if only I could describe it more eloquently I’d surely make millions.

In reality, the weekend is already destined to be filled with panicked moments of writing, procrastination (at least in part through the form of this blog) staring grumpily at the still un-mopped floors, deleting and then re-typing the same words on all my on-going projects, and picking up Wuthering Heights, only to be instantly distracted by a moderately new episode of Location Location Location.

Can someone please become my personal manager?  I clearly need someone to hire me a cleaner, sit me firmly down in front of my laptop, disconnect the internet and make me get on with things.  Instead I’m off to slurp wine on the sofa, and get cracking on Series 2 of Stranger Things.  I wonder if I can review that?

Short stories

I’m having a good day. I found a quid on the way to the supermarket, and nearly everything on my shopping list was on sale. I helped a friend, I’ve been complimented on my writing and my appearance, I listened to a favourite album for the first time in ages and I set a new personal best on my regular run around the park.

My tutorial with Kirsty, yesterday, went pretty well too. She said she liked my work, picked at a few nits, asked what else I was doing. I said I’ve been writing short stories, and this is partly true. I’ve been writing short stories for years, and just because what she had read was the best thing I’d written in months, didn’t mean I hadn’t written others. Short stories have been on my mind a lot. They came up in conversation with Ever Dundas, whom I was interviewing on saturday, and I spent a little while talking to Nathan about the subject, then and since. And Kirsty was entirely positive; encouraging even, in my storywriting, however short.

The thing is, I’ve never been one to second-guess good fortune. I’m running with it, it’s got me in the mood to gamble. I’m taking steps, I’m submitting work for publication, I’m shaking with nervousness, I’m making lists in my head with what I can spent the money on if it gets published, I’m trying to hold onto this wave and channel it into creative fever, I’m wishing I hadn’t made my coffee so strong, I’m…

 

yeah. A few months ago I did a little digging around for magazines that would buy and publish science fiction stories. I settled on one named Clarkesworld. I read their submission guidelines, a few things they’d already put out. I bookmarked their page and fretted about it for a bit, until today’s furore.

I know it’s not that big a deal. I know we’re all writers who deserve to be confident with our work – many of us have been and continue to be published. Regardless, this is the first time I’ve submitted a piece of fiction with a mind to it being published, anywhere, and it feels exciting. Plus, I could really do with the ~$200 they’d pay me for the story I sent in…

Let’s hope the good luck’s not quite out yet!

Not Unfascinated

Michael Marra, Dundee’s local hero and musical legend, was a man whose life was deservedly celebrated by his city kin last night at the Bonar Hall, with the launch of his biography, ‘Arrest this Moment’.

I am no Dundonian, but having lived in this proud city for over twenty years, I could not fail to be aware of the Marra family and the talents that abound within it. But Michael took the biscuit. I saw him in his last-ever performance at the Dundee Rep and all the while I listened, I wondered why I had never heard his work before, such was the depth of his gravel voice and quality lyrics, not to mention his musical abilities.

Artistic, irreverent, outspoken, musical, wordy, political, gravel-voiced and opinionated, no-one could ever accuse this local hero of being boring. But what was even more impressive, was the unanimous accolade of his kindness, sincerity and care for all the people he came across (unless they were Aberdonians or Fifers, of course) and how he treated everyone as individuals. His great partner in crime, St Andrew (Andy Pelc to the uninitiated) joined author, James Roberston, on stage, and together they gave a real flavour of Michael as a man:

“Ye cid ca’ him Michael or Mick. Never Mike!”

But the real tribute to the great man of Lochee was the turnout for the launch of this book, with Dundonians from Fintry to Ferry, Lochee to West End, coming in droves, to celebrate Michael’s life, surrounded by family and friends. The opening performance by daughter Alice and her musical partner was moving and amusing all at once, but the final word went to Michael, who delighted us with a ‘live’ performance of his famed take on Ulysses S Grant’s visit to Dundee in September 1877, just after he had completed his term as President.

Dundee was Grant’s last stop on a long and exhaustive tour of Europe, and in Michael’s words, “They say he was ‘not fascinated’ by the city.”

I love that term, and expressed so eloquently in this context, the audience knew exactly what Michael was saying about this famous man of his time, and also what Michael was saying about his own home city.

He went on to explain how ‘we’ (Dundonians) “find that hard to understand,” but justified the man’s remarks by saying how, the guy “obviously had a different life from us.”

The man was so obviously ‘unfascinated’ by Dundee that nobody could remember anything he had said on the visit, apart from, “That’s a mighty long bridge,” referring to the Tay Rail Bridge, the longest in the world at that time.

Michael was so taken by this that he found an account of the visit in a book entitled, The High Girders by John Prebble and wrote a tongue-in-cheek song celebrating the visit, entitled, ‘General Grant’s visit to Dundee.’

The song had the audience laughing one minute and in tears the next. There he was, up on the big screen, speaking and singing to us, as though he were ‘on our shoulders’ as James had felt, when he was writing his book, going over his boxes of photographs and memorabilia and recalling their ‘kitchen chats’ over a long and drawn out cup of coffee.

I looked at my friend beside me who had got us the tickets, overcome with emotion; she had attended that very concert. I wondered how his daughter and the other members of his family who were there last night had felt on seeing Michael, so full of life and idiosyncratic humour, and for those few moments, I felt part of a privileged audience and an extended family.  Amongst other things, I’m sure they must have been filled with a great pride.

The evening ended with Michael taking a modest bow, smiling to his audience, and thanking us all for coming.

As St Andrew said, he could never be an Aberdonian or a Fifer – a Weegie, mibbe.

I look forward to reading more about our local hero, with his unique gravel voice and his irreverence for the Scottish Education System,  amongst other things, for I am not ‘unfascinated’ by Michael Marra’s life.

Running, writing and cheese.

Actual footage of me running-

About three years ago I was walking to work, and passed an elderly man moving along so slowly that at first I could hardly tell he was moving at all.  Each step he took clearly used every bit of concentration and strength that he had, his feet barely left the ground, it was more of a dragging, shuffling motion, it was painful to watch.

That night, after quaffing at least one bottle of cheap red wine, I went on amazon and spent money I didn’t have on Nike trainers, a sports bra and terrifyingly tight looking pair of running trousers.  My reasoning was simple- one day I’d be as infirm as that old man, one day I’d look back in frustration at the fact that when I was in my twenties, and could physically do anything I liked, I chose to spend my time sat in my pyjamas in my flat, avoiding human contact and eating blocks of cheese.  I’ve been running regularly ever since.

What the hell does this have to do with writing?  Bear with me, I’m getting there.

It’s exactly the same mindset that’s brought to the MLitt.  I’ve been sliding my way slowly to thirty, living for 5pm, Friday, holidays, anything that gave me a break from my actual working life.  I could see my future, it involved me sat with a headset on, complaining endlessly, brain switched off, dreaming of retirement or death, whichever came first.

I don’t want to look back and think ah, I wish I’d gone for that MLitt.  I wonder what could have been?  Much like the running, I don’t particularly care if I’m any good at it, I’m not going to be the next Usain Bolt, but every staggering, wheezy, sweaty step is better than not doing it at all.  Every misspelled word, every sentence that makes no sense, every scrunched up bit of paper is better than nothing.  As long as I run, I’m a runner, as long as I write, I’m a writer.

So if, by some miracle, I make it to my eighties, nineties, or god forbid live to over a hundred I hope I’ll reflect on this time with a sense of pride- look at that twenty-six year old oaf, look at her taking risks and doing stuff.  Rather than looking back and feeling nothing but regret.

I’ll stop waffling now, already been for a run today so time to get in my jammies and munch a block of cheese.

 

Essays & The Reading Life with Chris Arthur

At the beginning of Chris Arthur’s session today, there was some time devoted to the tricky business of defining the essay as a literary form.  It’s worth discussing because the  association of essays with tedious school assignments appears to be impacting the marketability of the modern, creative essay, which remains a ‘minority interest.’ Publishers are largely reluctant to embrace the essay, in spite of the success of recent collections like ‘Nasty Women.’

So, what is an essay? Chris Arthur is reluctant to fully endorse the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ label although he concedes that for the moment, it might well be the best compromise. His essay collection, The Reading Life, is a collection of fifteen essays based, not surprisingly, around reading – reading books, reading objects and responding to books as objects.

He says that he begins an essay with a symbol or object because objects are weighted ‘with astonishing cargo.’ It’s the unpacking of this cargo, the peeling back of the layers which drives the prose, taking the reader on a voyage of discovery. The essay is both expansive and introspective and to be effective, it must have an element of accident; it should surprise the writer as well as the reader.

He reads a section from his essay, Scrimshaw (reading a whale’s tooth).

‘One of the most treasured remnants from my childhood is a whale’s tooth. It was given to me in exchange for – and as a distraction for losing – a tooth of my own.’

The whale’s tooth, a gift from Mr Wilson the dentist, becomes the literary springboard for an examination of the art of scrimshaw, that is, drawings engraved  onto the teeth and bones of whales. From there we journey to the ocean and imagine the life of the whale whose tooth was gifted to the young Chris Arthur.

‘Astonishing cargo’ indeed. Objects have provenance and can open up a world of wonder if we only stop to look and allow our thoughts to unravel.

Over the summer I dipped into and very much enjoyed reading Lia Purpura’s lyrical essay collection, On Looking which is on the M.Litt reading list. Purpura says, ‘I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.’ Purpura beckons you close, whispers into your ear. Her work feels intimate, as if you have been chosen to go with her and look at the world through her eyes, for a little while at least.

I’m looking forward to reading Chris Arthur’s essays. He has signed my copy of The Reading Life with ‘Life is full of wonders’ and it strikes me that this is an echo of Purpura’s comment about treasure.

However you wish to define the non-academic essay, there seems to be agreement: what awaits the reader is wonder and treasure, wrapped up in beautiful, highly polished prose.

 

 

 

Three Moments of an Explosion

Making inroads into my Bespoke reading list, I’ve started reading Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville.

Being a fan of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, Mieville has been on my radar for a while now, but I’d not managed to pick up anything yet – Three moments is a collection of short stories and feels like an easier place to start than a full-length novel, or diving right into his Bas-lag trilogy. Accessibility is important here because the fiction is, in a precise sense, weird.

I don’t mean weird as in surreal or structurally experimental, although the writing style is plenty fresh so far, nor do I mean fantastic or escapist in setting or genre, but weird as in uncanny or just a little bit unsettling. For example, one story is told from the perspective of a professional poker player who uncovers a phenomenon of ‘hidden’ suits that will appear in game, if the circumstances are just right. One might be dealt, mid-round, the Four of Chimneys, or the Two of Scissors, or even (giving the story its title), the Dowager of Bees. There are special rules which appear and vanish from the rulebooks as needed, as do the cards themselves. Like I said, weird.

I’m enjoying the collection so far. I was pleased to see Mark Bould, who was a lecturer during my degree, named in the acknowledgements. Moreso, I think this’ll have an effect on my writing. Look out for things getting Weird.

The Three Generations Rule

Despite my proximity to ‘Golf City’ I am not in any way even remotely close to being an ardent golf fan, my experiences in the sport being limited to a few rounds of pitch’n’putt round Kelvingrove Park with my dad, long, long ago. But golf was not the focus of the ‘Written in the Archives’ talk last night, as anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge would certainly be aware of.

History research is not something I am unfamiliar with and back in the good ol’ days of being a recent graduate and having not a care in the world, I had the privilege of being paid to read the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland in the library of Strathclyde University as I undertook my background research on the History of the Brick and Tile Industry in Scotland. Riveting stuff, I hear you scoff, but there began my fascination with lives long past and ways people lived them.

Last night’s talk reminded me of the passion I once held for piecing together items of information and creating a story; letters, photographs, extracts from trades’ directories, extracts of births, marriages and deaths; diary extracts, newspaper articles, census material … you name it.  Anything goes.  Everything tells you something.  Everyone has a story.

And what stories were hinted at last night in the telling of the 175 Years of Carnoustie Golf Club or the history of a proud community and its ‘working class’ members, worlds apart from their aloof neighbours across the water in the Ancient Kingdom.  (Did they really pelt golf balls at each other as they crossed the Tay in the ‘Fifies”?)

What struck me was a phrase one of the researchers used, when he stated quite simply that he was aware that there were three generations of history within that Golf Club, and if they didn’t record it now, it would be lost forever.

I thought of an earlier conversation I had had in the union when someone asked me what had prompted me to write again and join the course.  It was that very same thought that the Carnoustie veteran had voiced – that three generations rule.

When I was clearing my mum’s house, after dad had died and she herself was literally going mad with grief, I realised that all their young lives, stories of their parents and grandparents, of communities they grew up in and were such a close part of, stories of myself and my brother when we were young – all those precious moments in time, could be lost in an instant, if no-one took the trouble to at least think about what to record, preserve and write down.  They could be tipped into the skip, and lost forever.

Archives need not necessarily be held in university basements or council chambers; we have them in our homes and our loved ones have them in their heads.  They don’t have to be stories of the rich and famous, the outstanding achievers of the world. They can simply be these precious moments in ordinary lives that become the extraordinary when read about or listened to in a different context, at a different time.

I even found some photos of one day, long ago, in Kelvingrove Park, as my dad wraps his arms around me, and patiently tries to teach me how to hold that stick and aim the ball at the wee hole with the flag in it. He is wearing a ‘James Bond’ suit, shirt and tie, with hankie in pocket – on a Sunday afternoon, in the park, with his family.

What an extraordinary picture of time

sharing: review from elsewhere

In the name of self-promotion, I wanted to share a review from another blog I contribute to- this isn’t quite a ‘today I wrote,’ but an insight into my nonfiction work. It’s with a new blog called The Perfect Pack, which has grown out of an online community obsessing over backpacks. I know that’s quite a niche appeal, I have a few pieces in the pipeline with these folks, but probably won’t share them all in the same way. Have a look, or don’t.

More Here