I’m Too Shy to Call Myself a Writer

Why am I doing this course? Simple. The late, great and lovely Jim Stewart told me to. I was sitting in his office, eating tangerines, asking for advice on some work. We got talking about my plans for after uni and Jim told me to go for the MLitt. Another year spent working with the uniquely amazing creative writing department? Go on then. I’m extremely sorry and endlessly sad that Jim isn’t here to guide me this year, but I feel his influence on the course in every session. I’m extremely honoured to have been his student for three years and that he pointed me in this direction.

I think that what I want to get out of the course is maybe a little different to what other students want. I’ve been talking to my fellow classmates and they all have these amazing dreams and goals, many of them have completed novels and other pieces of writing to be proud of. Sitting amongst them, I feel wholly inadequate as any finished short story I have ever written has been the product of my undergrad creative writing modules and I have used them for my portfolios. I’m too shy to call myself a writer, especially around people who are proper writers.

I don’t spend much of my spare time writing because I don’t have much spare time. In the past few years I have spent my summers interning at New Writing North, editing their online magazine for young writers, Cuckoo Review, and mentoring at writing summer schools. I spent my summer this year travelling Hadrian’s wall working on Mansio (a travelling writing project inspired by the wall). I have volunteered at Hexham Book Festival twice and next weekend I am heading to the Durham Book Festival to help out. Whilst I have been lucky enough to be paid for some of these experiences, I’m the girl who will happily work for free if I get paid in literary experience. One of my favourite things ever is that moment that you see someone has been touched by literature; eyes wide, chest full and mouth about to spill out passion. I love seeing people use writing as therapy, I love watching minds change and open, I love when someone gets it. I want to live a life where I get to witness that every day. I’d love to be a writer myself, I think someone getting it and ‘it’ being something I had written must be extraordinary. Already on this course I have been able to witness people being inspired by the reading list and I’m really enjoying being surrounded by such passion.

I’m too shy to call myself a writer yet, but maybe by the end of the year, I’ll be creating work I am proud of, even finishing some of it, and hopefully I’ll be able to call myself a writer.

What do I want? All of it. Everything.

Week Two

 

Roughly a year ago (June 30th 2015) I was a Dundee Uni History Graduate (2:1, let’s not WHOOP!) and recently, voluntarily unemployed. Why you may ask? Because I had to prove to the world that I was putting up with no more of its nonsense and my time was NOW. I took all my savings, plus some hard earned, much needed money that my gran insisted I take, and ventured into the world of publishing blind. I sent out one (read: ONE!) query letter to begin with. I wanted that particular agent and how could she not want Conniption? Two weeks later, before she responded, I sent out a few more just to be safe. Rejections came thick and fast. I tried to scramble together another book, which only garnered more, if a little kinder, rejections. And there I was, December, no money, no job and, most painful of all, no Book Deal.

 

Fast forward one job in management later, and I knew I had to get back on the horse. “Taking a year out” wasn’t an option. So my old job, thankfully, took me back with open arms and I applied for Writing, Practice and Study under the multiple award winning author, Kirsty Gunn. I sent in a sample story (quickly, she warned) and then the unbelievable happened – I wasn’t rejected. I believe in fate, and Karma, and destiny, and all of them convened on my place here, on this course. So here I am.

 

Ta. Da.

 

There’s no point pretending I want anything other than that which I do. And that is a Book Deal (fabled as they are). All I need is some time in a room with a publisher, just ten minutes, and I can get them to see my vision, my passion and, most important of all, all the money I’m going to make them. Just ten minutes. How lucky this course has a module that gives its students a placement in a publishing house, right? (#Destiny)

 

However, something’s happened which I hadn’t anticipated – I want to learn about the people around me. Kirsty wants to write fantasy for games. Stephen wants to be a better writer and Poppy wants to find her North – and I care. I want to see Cameron’s winning entries in short story competitions, and Sarah’s lyrical prose. I want to hear more about Jo’s crazy life and where exactly it is that Matt’s disappeared too. I care about the people around me and I haven’t felt that in a long while. So, from this course, I’d love to see the success that my fellow students earn, and the greatness they achieve and be part of it.

 

And, of course, a Book Deal of my very own.

 

You may snigger now, or warn me not to dream too big, but when you’re riding the rollercoaster at my theme park after having seen the movie of the book I wrote, remember the boy that quit his job and sacrificed everything for his dream. And remember, when that boy failed, he started again.

I’m an Aberdonian in Dundee…

Fit like?  I am Jo, native Aberdonian, former teuchter and adopted Glaswegian.  I also have blue hair.  I’m the scary one that spends a great deal of time trying not to swear (as much) in class.  I have always been a writer.  Since I was a kid, my nose was either buried in a book or I was scribbling furiously in notebooks –  in between catching tadpoles and fighting with boys.

My all-time favourite book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  I was spellbound by Roald Dahl’s imaginative storytelling, absurd hilarity and wonderful hyper-real characters.  I read George’s Marvellous Medicine countless times, along with The Twits, using the world of fantasy and magic as an escape from the real world.

I read a short story called ‘The Pedestrian’ by Ray Bradbury and went on to trawl my way through everything he ever penned, but I have a special fondness for Something Wicked This Way Comes.  If you haven’t partaken already, I insist that you do.  From then on, my love affair with weirdness and wonder has done nothing but mushroom, bordering on the obsessive.  I drooled over books that had a series of three or more, becoming a sucker for Science Fiction and Fantasy. I devoured titles by Douglas Adams, Phillip K Dick, Terry Pratchett, David Eddings, JRR Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Stephen Donaldson and a whole host of others.  I love the anticipation of being sucked into another world.

I’m not what you would call ‘well read’, and feel a little intimidated by the academic parts of the class.  I just read what I like.  I was possessed by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and its relevance to the present day continues to astound me.  I own a giant, ever growing book pile which includes one huge book containing seven George Orwell novels.  I will finish it one day, but something new always gets added to the pile.  I accepted a long time ago that I’ll never be ‘done’ reading.  There are simply too many great books, there is no finish line for me.

I adore the strange and unusual, so when a friend suggested that I read Kurt Vonnegut, I selected Slaughterhouse Five.  I was not disappointed.  I love stories that fling your brain around in a knapsack and chuck it at a brick wall, so that half way through the book, you are going ‘eh? Fits this aboot?’ and by the end of the book you are still not really sure because it is all up for debate.  Slaughterhouse Five did that to me and I am insanely (literally) looking forward to reading more of his work.  I am not a fan of sugary ‘new equilibrium’ Hollywood endings.

I recently finished The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  I was really disappointed and quite annoyed, because it took me ages to finish.  I really struggled with it.  My high expectations that it might give me some answers about my own grieving process were not met in the slightest.

I am currently reading two books (I have a terrible habit of reading several books at once) The Grief Club by Melody Beattie – not what I would usually read, but on advice I gave it a whirl.  One chapter at a time is all I can do, but I am getting lots of healing from it despite the slow going.  The other book I am reading at the moment is The Zen Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury – a superb collection of essays and short stories about his writing processes.  I am practically overdosing on inspiration despite being just halfway through. It inspired me to find this course.

What do I want out of this year?  I want to scream in the face of fear, write anyway and become my own Ray Bradbury, a writing rebel with pen poised, ready to break all the rules.

book pile

The Unbearable Lightness of Stephen

Hello, I’m Stephen.

I have known for a long time that I need to write. When life, or doubt, or procrastination or whatever else, gets in the way of writing, I don’t feel myself. I have been a teacher in a high school for the last nine years. I am quite excited now by the prospect of being ‘allowed’ to also call myself a writer.

Far more exciting though, is the prospect of properly ‘allowing’ myself to write.

‘So, what do you write?’

It is a question I hate because it always feels like I am trying to get out of something when I answer ‘I don’t know’, or ‘this and that.’ But I am being truthful. And it does not mean that I am not writing. Maybe the answer to that question only arrives when I have written something and I can look up from the page and the meandering trail of ink with surprise and say ‘Er… I write… THIS!’

A man asks Van Gogh, so ‘What do you paint?’ What would his answer be? ‘Sunflowers? Starry nights? Paintings? Myself? Life?’

Some things I have written: short stories, short plays, a radio play, beginnings and middles of novels, chunks of plays, ideas, sketches, bad poems.

Things I would like to write: more of the same! Except with enough time and headspace to shape them to be as good as I would like them to be. Even the poems.

Some things I have written about: fictionalised accounts of things I have seen, done, said; slightly unreal versions of reality; pieces based on things in the news; characters who intrigue me.

When it comes to what I read, I don’t think there are that many things that I won’t consider reading. I had a preference for science fiction and fantasy as a teenager but that sprouted into sampling anything and everything. The writers that always feel like I am coming home when I read them: Ursula Le Guin, Dostoevsky, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver.

Having never touched the stuff before, in the last few years I have really started to enjoy reading non-fiction too. ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain was really inspiring. ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ by Marshall Berman was heavy going at first but kept me coming back to it. I also really enjoyed ‘The Beechwood Airship’ by Dan Richards which is on our reading list. Having tried to teach pupils to be ‘creative’ in their writing, I am fascinated by ideas of creativity and craft and how to help both flourish.

I am really enjoying the course so far. The different things it has thrown up every day so far – writers to sample, writing styles to attempt, interesting people to meet, challenges to overcome, discussions to be had – seem just now like a glorious network of trails around a forest to spend some time getting lost in. I am a little wary of my ability to enjoy the wandering off and hanging around somewhere other than I had intended a bit too much. But I figure there is still plenty of time to plot a route and arrive at some worthwhile destinations. Wow – I really have stretched that metaphor to the limit.

To echo what Sarah said: it is going to be a good year.

Today I read: Sonnets

Read sonnets? Not a phrase I have used very often in my life, to my slight shame as an English teacher.

 

From ‘The Eye’ by Don Paterson

 

The empty mind you finally display

ten weeks into the yogic agony

of your silent retreat, you will discover

in the latter stages of a gin hangover.

 

To be found in 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson.

The words rang true. The sense of that moment in a long hangover, whereby you have finally transcended pain, and suffering, and self-loathing, and vowing never again, in order to arrive, sometimes only briefly, at a point whereby you know that you are actually going to get better. And so, you can just –exist. And everything is okay. And because it wasn’t before you feel amazing. And you’re not a bad person.

Except of course, Don Paterson puts it a lot more elegantly, which of course, is the point.

The poem goes on to consider those other, elusive, moments of transcendence, when you can just be. Its conclusion hints, I think, at something darker in the desire for that emptiness.

What I like about Don Paterson (so far) is that he clearly doesn’t take himself too seriously. Unlike, it seems upon reading it back to myself, this post.

An Introduction to Sarah

 

I ‘m Sarah. I write short stories which are sometimes historical. Often they feature animals, a bear, black grouse, a wasp, a stag. Fatherless children, mostly girls, recur. The starting point can be a place or an image, or even a process, the growing of a pineapple in Scotland, the story of an abandoned dancing bear in 1860’s Bristol , taken to court where he lay down and broke sulphurous wind.

I want to write something longer. I’ve started. I’m struggling with structure, allowing too many tangents to develop, tending too well to the sub plots.

I’m reading Gordon MacRae Burnet’s  ‘His Bloody Project’. Reading this soon after seeing ‘The Cheviot, the’ Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ at the Rep could be seen as a nice bit of synchronicity. I live in Glenisla. There are markers of past existences everywhere, rectangles of stone, walls crumbling amongst the ranked conifers. It’s not synchronicity, it’s simply rural Scotland’s ever present past.

I’m rereading an old favourite too, V S Naipaul’s ‘House for Mr Biswas.’ I was anxious at this revisiting. After a gap of thirty or more years would I think it as good? It’s better. Blending humour with darkness it uses beautifully described place and objects to construct a world. Reversing the rules of narrative fiction and beginning with the end makes it sad but doesn’t make it disappointing.

I’m working on not reading solely for the narrative, not reading as an anaesthetic, as a greedy escape from the day to day (although some of that has remained. Habits are hard to break.)

On the M Litt course I’m sharing my work with others. I’m listening better.

I’m working on getting a structure to my day and on embracing the aspects of the course I find most challenging, poetry, the academic stuff, rhythm and gorgeousness. I’m still terrified by the notion of interviewing an author, a real life published one.

Performing … it will happen. I’ll get over it. I’ll get better at it.

It’s going to be a really good year.

 

An Introduction to Poppy: ‘…my literary heart lies with women.’

Hello everyone, I’m Poppy. I’m the one in class with the long blonde hair who is always clutching my purple diary to keep up with my schedule. I never wanted to become predictable with my reading but looking back at the books I am most interested in, there is a strong running theme. Women. I’m a complete sucker for a novel with a strong female lead or a mousy lady who is downtrodden by a patriarchal society who rises above it to empowerment or even a woman going about her daily business. This is not to say that I do not also enjoy reading about men, some of my favourite work is by men, with male leads. It’s just that my literary heart lies with women.

I’m currently doing something I hate which is reading books simultaneously. I’m reading last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang. This is the hilarious story of a man from South Korea whose usually boring wife decides to become a vegetarian (She’s actually vegan but I won’t be pedantic). I’m also reading Kate Tempest’s debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, though I’m reading it painfully slowly, trying to adapt to the slower pace in contrast to her poetry. Alongside these novels, I have just started Angela Readman’s book of short stories, Don’t Try This at Home. Published by & Other Stories, the lovely mustard, jackalope* printed cover is what drew me in and the first line of the blurb was irresistible: ‘A girl repeatedly chops her boyfriend in half but, while her ‘other half’ multiplies, she is still not satisfied.’

My literary influences, to those who know me, may be slightly boring as I rarely shut up about them. Firstly we have the fraud** that is James Frey, I don’t care if his work is fictional or not, his writing style is right up my alley. Secondly we have Steig Larsson, a true feminist ally. I can’t have anything but admiration for a man who wrote a trilogy (intending to write ten whole novels), exposing disgusting misogynists, portraying off-kilter sexual and romantic relationships completely without judgment and celebrating the weird and wondrous creation which is Lisbeth Salander. Next there is Miranda July whose short stories and novel left me feeling completely inadequate as a writer; if I could create a character with half of the intrigue of one of July’s, I would be a happy little writer. Marilyn French is the next on my list, The Women’s Room cemented my views and made me eternally grateful for the women who have fought, even if quietly, for women to be where we are today, even if we have further to go. Finally there is Sylvia Plath because, of course.

I’m running closer to the word count so I’ll leave this here. I hope you’ll get to know me over the year as more than the blonde haired lass with the purple diary who keeps banging on about women.

*I later read that these are a creation by one of the characters where he puts antlers onto stuffed rabbits.

** Frey claimed that A Million Little Pieces was autobiographical but it was found that a lot, if not all of it was fiction. (Click here for more info)

Guess who’s back…back again…

Conner’s back!… tell a friend.

Conner McAleese

Hello!

I’m Conner, a recent graduate and returning Post Grad student at the University of Dundee. Although my Undergrad degree is in History, it’s in writing stories that my destiny lies. And yes, I am exceedingly thankful I completed a degree with such easily transferable skills and hadn’t spent four years doing Mathematics or Sport Exercise. Praise the Fates for they are generous.

I grew up reading whatever my mum read as we couldn’t really afford to splurge out. This meant that, as an eight-year-old, I would read books like Along Came a Spider and other James Patterson classics. It was brutal. But it was exciting. It was also liberating. I wasn’t scared of big books. In fact, I loved them. I remember selecting the first book in the Wind Singer trilogy by William Nicholson purely to show off to the librarian. I subsequently learned one of the most important lessons of my life in the trilogies’ second novel, Slaves of the Mastery, but that’s a story for another blog.

Currently, my favourite author is Marian Keyes. If you haven’t read one of her novels then I insist (see, INSIST) that you open Amazon.com in a new tab and purchase Rachel’s Holiday this very moment.

On you go, I’ll wait.

Her innate sense of funny, which she combines with harrowing, severe subjects (in this case, drug addiction) is one of the single greatest pleasures I take from her work. It’s also something I hope to emulate as, in my own novels, I try and combine fantastic adventures with real problems. I write primarily for Young Adults and see no reason why depression, alcohol addiction, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, rape, abuse, self-harm and even murder should be withheld from anyone until they reach a certain age, especially as several of these issues affect teenagers much more than they do adults. It is to Marian Keyes I look towards when I want to remind my readers that life may suck now, but there’s still a whole new world out there – if only you’d step out of your bubble and see it.

(Joss Whedon encapsulates this perfectly when he says, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke”.)

At this moment in time, I have written two novels (none, as of yet, published). Conniption and The Court of Wolves and Rabbits, with a third novel five thousand words away from completion. A handful of other manuscripts, all twenty thousand words plus (which is the graduation stage, in my head, from ‘idea’ to ‘work in progress’) litter my hard drive and I hope, one day, they will be plucked from a bookshelf somewhere on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I’m Conner and I write stories.

That’s all you really need to know.

Everything else is buried there, somewhere, in my stories.