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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?

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.

 

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

Imposter!

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it is I’m here, and it boils down to reaching the big 3-0 last year.

If I’ve asked myself, “what am I doing with my life?” once, I’ve asked it a million times. I first graduated in 2008, and since then have floated between cities and jobs trying to find my ‘path’. It didn’t bother me too much that I hadn’t found it, until I turned 30, and suddenly my hodgepodge career wasn’t okay, it wasn’t enough.

I couldn’t stop looking at others with their successful careers and fat salaries, and comparing myself – someone with a half-arsed attempt at a career and who is STILL terrible with money. (Can someone teach me the skills of budgeting? Anyone?!)

I also couldn’t ignore the fact that deep down I was unhappy. None of my jobs felt like the right fit for me and I felt endless waves of panic that I was wasting so much time; treading water and bobbing around in a world of mediocrity. I had a severe case of Imposter Syndrome, questioning why I was never quite getting anywhere and wondering when people would discover that I didn’t belong in the corporate world.

So I took a big step back. People say to do more of what makes you happy, and after spending almost 10 years doing what I thought I should be doing, I decided to do what I actually wanted to do. Inconveniently, this happens to be writing. Probably one of the hardest careers to make real, hard cash from. Brilliant.

But I realised that this was the only thing I felt genuinely passionate about, so I started up a little freelance writing business as a side earner. Then I was accepted onto this MLitt and packed in my full-time job. I know people thought I was ‘aff my nut’ as we say up here, and some days I thought I was too, but it’s always the scary decisions that are worth jumping for.

So now I’m commuting to Dundee from Aberdeen every week and juggling an MLitt with a part-time job and a freelance writing business. I don’t think I have ever been so busy in all my puff, but I am SO happy (underneath all the stress and general terror).

I’ve been asked several times what I’m going to do after I’ve graduated and the honest answer is that I have no idea. But that doesn’t scare me at all because I know that no matter what, I won’t be treading water anymore. I’ll be swimming upstream with no idea of where I’m headed and I can’t think of anything more exciting.

Books and Beans, Speakin’ Weird and Scratch nights

I thought you might be interested to hear about some of the ‘writerly’ events that regularly take place in Aberdeen, which might be useful if anyone is planning a visit.

Last Thursday in every month is poetry night at Books and Beans on Belmont Street. Books and Beans is a cosy café and bookshop. The poetry readings take place upstairs, it’s very relaxed and you can take your tea and teacakes with you. Each month a guest poet is featured followed by an open mic session. Many well-known Aberdonian poets are regular contributors and they often perform in Doric. It’s not unusual for poets to sing their Ballads and sometimes there’s musical accompaniment.

A more recent event in Aberdeen is ‘Speakin’ Weird,’ at Underdog on Union Street. Underdog is a venue in the cellar beneath the famous Brewdog Pub. It’s dark and dinghy with a stage at one end and bench seating in tiled nooks and crannies. Overhead, metal grilles rattle as pedestrians pass by on the street. There’s a guest poet followed by an open mic session which features poetry, prose, short plays, comedy, angry rants, sketches and any other sort of musings people wish to share.

In June Ash Dickinson was the guest poet, he’s also a writer and a performer. He was brilliant and blew everyone’s minds. He writes about the big topics of our times, his imagery is often surreal and startling, yet he’s a very accessible poet and he’s very funny. He has two collections, “Slinky Espadrilles” and “Strange Keys” which are published by Burning Eye books. His well-known poem, “One Week at Sea” is in ‘Slinky Espadrilles.’ Ash imagines meeting the Ocean in a bar and they swop places for a week to see what each other’s lives are really like. I also like “Chiller Queen” a funny poem about a fridge that falls in love with him.

The other place that’s worth a look is the Lemon Tree Performing Arts Theatre. They have an exciting program of dance, drama, performance art, spoken word and music. They showcase well-established artists, as well as experimental, new and alternative performers. Two or three times a year they host ‘Scratch Nights,’ which are an opportunity for new playwrights to have their work performed. A theme is set and script submissions have to be between eight to ten minutes long. Professional actors perform the plays, which can be monologues, or they can feature up to three characters. You might need a closer look at the website, but I’m pretty sure they accept submissions from everyone and you don’t have to live in Aberdeen.

Hope this is useful! You can get all the details online. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to checking out some ‘writerly’ events in Dundee.

 

 

 

 

A word wifie from Aberdeen

Hello! I’m Jane a mature student from Aberdeen and its great to be in Dundee. It’s quite a thing, at such a great age to be back at Uni.  But everyone on the course has been so welcoming and friendly.  I have noticed how many of the students hold doors open for me! I wonder if they think I’m a visiting aged Professor or something? Whatever, I’ve made the right choice to be on the MLitt programme at Dundee.

At the moment I am reading ‘Sunstroke’ a collection of short stories by Tessa Hadley.  She writes about families, children, love and the eccentricities of life.  Her imagery is brilliant. It’s concrete and real and quite unforgettable.  To paraphrase, she talks about one character as having  sorrowful emotions stamped on her face like a boot print.  This set me thinking how I might have looked on my first day at Dundee? Maybe I could describe it as, apprehension nipped my face like the nip of a new pair of hiking boots? Not as good as Hadley, but you get the idea.  Next on the list, are the short stories of Mavis Gallant.  So far I have only had time to read one story, which was brilliant – I’ll keep you posted on the rest. Before I started the course I had never come across either of these writers and its been a joy to discover them.

I also like to read creative non-fiction in particular books about landscape and travel. I have just finished a book written by the artist Anthony Schrag, called ‘Lure of the Lost.’ He walked from Huntly in Aberdeenshire to the Venice Biennale in Italy. Its a sort of contemporary pilgrimage, as he walks he reflects on the landscape and on art. He was accompanied at times by fellow artists and family members who shared his journey. I’m interested in how walking can help with the creative process of writing. On my bedside table I have a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Wanderlust’ which is a history of walking.  I’ll get to it eventually, at the moment there’s too much other reading to be done.

As someone who struggled with the acquisition of literacy at school, I came to appreciate books a little later than most.  I think this is the reason that some of the books I studied at school continue to influence my writing.  If I’m struggling with creating realistic characters I turn to Dickens every time. If I’m struggling with telling a good story I turn to Thomas Hardy or Laurie Lee. I think the poetry element of the course is going to be a real challenge, its time to dust down my old poetry books from school.  Yes, I still have them in the loft.

I have never blogged before and rather I’m proud of myself for having worked it out! At this moment, I have a smile stamped on my face like the sparkle of a diamante Jimmy Choo shoe.