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


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.

Vanishing Moments of Brilliance

This morning I wrote in my Writing Journal. Kirsty has recommended we keep one of these and I’m rather fond of mine. Narrower than A5, it’s a lovely ‘poster paint’ blue with wrap-around elastic. I chose it from a million others on account of the quality of the paper, which is reassuringly thick and allows me to fill both sides without yesterday’s words leaking though the fresh page. I say ‘yesterday’s words’. In truth, it’s a daily routine which is prone to slipping as other priorities elbow their way to the front, so there’s usually a two- or three-day gap between entries. Plenty of time for the ink to dry, in fact.

Little Blue book

So what I wrote in my writing journal this morning was a lament; a lament concerning the HUGE gap between ‘mental’ writing and ‘real’ writing. I’m sure it’s a familiar scenario to many of you. It goes something like this. You wake up, usually in the dark, and you start thinking about your work in progress. In this case, I was ‘unpacking’ and ‘expanding’ a creative piece we submitted last week (the A9 Incident). What waltzed through my synapses was such a dazzling parade of sharply observed, finely nuanced and exquisite phraseology that I held my breath, not daring to even move. I have a notebook and pen on the bedside table for moments exactly like this, but in the middle of the night, with a partner sleeping peacefully at your side, who dares to break the spell with the harsh snap of a light. Instead, I convince myself that brilliance like this will still be glittering in the morning and I will remember… Yeah right!

This morning, I decide that meditation will help. I close my eyes and invite blank space into my head. What actually happens is that my brain is immediately flooded with every stupid, random or ingenious thought I’ve ever had alongside a jumble of niggling domestic preoccupations like remembering to fit a new light bulb into the dead socket in the hall, or remembering to buy milk. I have to sort through these rails of junk – a bit like shopping in T K Maxx – to finally extract a few hopeful ideas. Dowdy kernels which, with a bit more thinking and probably several cups of strong coffee, I might be able to polish up to a lacklustre version of their nocturnal selves. Mental note: keep a torch on the bedside table!

Something new and wonderful

I’m beginning to feel like a writer now.  It’s 23.50pm and I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating a macaroni pie and thinking wtf – I still have two blogs to do and poor Nic, my ever empathetic and totally talented writing buddy has just received a desperate plea from me to look at my attempt at the response to the A9 letter, even though it was due for the 8th but I got a bit of a reprieve cos I was going away for a few days and really felt that a piece of writing involving some kind of misdemenor on the A9 may well invite a jinx or two as I was heading somewhere away from Dundee which may well have involved the A9 but I am not sure as I leave all that technical work to my satnav. (Stop sniggering Marie; you are not off the hook – you’ll get your copy to review later; after the macaroni has kicked in and I’ve edited it at least another twelve times).

Anyway, isn’t that what authors are supposed to do?  Sit up through the night, eating crap and drinking beer, wine or spirits (the wine is nicely chilled by my side), gathering their thoughts and creating their masterpieces?  (Well, Ian; c’mon, create that masterpiece now!!)

I am convincing my cat that this is the case and this is why she is having to put up with me sharing her late-night kitchen cosy spot.

Of course, to all the young people on the course, I guess this might be early evening.  Being a right old git, I have no idea of the norms of study anymore.  My university days ran something like, from three in the afternoon to three in the morning but times may well have changed.  Mine have, for sure.

However, I have returned home from an evening’s entertainment, totally committed to getting something down on this blog.  And really, what I have been thinking this afternoon, is, ‘What’s all the panic about?’  All I have to do is write a poem, which I truly have not done since the days of writing into the ‘Bunty’ letters page, hoping to earn a fiver for pocket money (I was still in primary), write a review on  a Booker long-leeted novel and prepare to interview Chris Arthur!  Chris Arthur, no less.

That’s when the magic of this course hit me – and believe me, it will be magic if I get the time to read a sufficient amount of his work to make any sense at the interview.  However, I have started to do my research on this Irish bloke who has decided to settle in  our native Fife coast, and since doing so, I have been just a teeny wee bit overawed by the opportunities that are afforded to us on this course.  To tap into such amazing minds is a real privilege.  From the (very brief, so far) research that I have undertaken on Chris and his works, I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to interview such a profoundly philosophical person, who looks at life and objects with a pursuit of understanding that leaves me breathless.  How privileged are we to be able to tap into such talented minds and learn from such people?  In my moments of doubt, and there are very, very many of these, I have to remind myself that the prime purpose of me undertaking this course is to learn.  I have been teaching for the bulk of my working career.  What a privilege it is now, to turn that around, and learn from such a variety of people and such depths of talent and to open up an entirely different world.  I include you all in this, for every day, when I read your comments or listen to your work,  I learn something new and wonderful and feel my world expand.

Learning never stops.  That’s the excitement of life.

Living the dream…almost.

‘To write my next album’ are the words that my ears keep hearing my mouth push out like a cuckoo each time someone asks me why I’ve decided to go back to uni. I’ve been using the statement, almost like a line of defense and now I’m wondering – when did wanting to study become not enough?

But I suppose it’s a good question. Why am I here? What do I want to get from this?  I guess there’s a part of me that very much enjoys imagining how it would feel when the bank clerk, or library assistant, or mortgage broker asks what my profession is and I look them straight in the eye and reply with the words (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill “I am going to kill Bill” style)  “Why, I am a writer”. But, if I am being frank, the reasoning lies much deeper than that. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, as cliched as that sounds, and a writing qualification, seems the obvious prerequisite.

As a teenager I had dreams of becoming an English lecturer at an old world university where I would stroll the gothic grounds and spend Autumnal afternoons on benches reciting my latest paper, ankle deep in dead leaves. In my twenties, I had ambitions of working as a top copywriter in some lush London agency, the kind that have a bar trolley service on a Friday afternoon and take their morning brainstorming sessions in the jungle room at Sketch. And, as a thirty something I now aspire to be a novelist, living in the countryside in a big farm house with a beautiful view, a labrador and a roaring open fire at my disposal.

My reality? Well, you could say I’ve flashed my marshmallow in the camp fire.  I have managed to become a singer songwriter in my spare time at least. And yes I have managed to make a living from being a self employed writer.  But have I pushed my dreams to their limits? Probably not. The bulk of my writing career has been in the realms of marketing and within that world I’ve felt extremely confined and extremely frustrated. On the playing fields within it, there’s this massive tug-of-war going on, with sales and targets at one end and creativity and perception at the other. Quite often, the fight to make things more creative, is at the expense of targets and sales and vice versa. And more often than not, it’s the sales and targets that win (‘booooo’ goes the crowd). I know, its really annoying. Whilst the savviest of marketers know that a successful marketing strategy relies upon an even balance between the two, the reality is that the marketing world is driven mostly by number crunching maniacs who I’ve heard, too many times, saying to me, ‘just stick to the brief Nic’. How about shaking things up a bit? I want to reply. Adding the sparkle? A twist? Making people people think? Where does my five years of studying Saatchi and Saatchi strategy come into this game? Instead, my eyes glaze over, my heads nods like one of those dogs you see on dashboards and my spirits sink as i say ‘ok’ whilst I ask myself for the fortieth time that week why i didn’t just elope to London in my twenties to work for one of those lush agencies before my ivy creeping life anxieties had time to crawl all over me.

Next possible bus out of civilisation?

An Mlitt in Creative Writing.

Single fair for me please.  

But escaping the confinements of the marketing world isn’t the only forceful wind that’s pushed me here.  

It’s emotional.  Writing for me has always has been.  It’s an outlet. A therapy if you like.  As a child i often felt as though my voice was the weakest in the pack. And often found myself, alone, in my room, writing down how i felt rather than talking about it. I also found that I went into character a lot too – imagining my life as another – as someone who was outspoken, someone people listened to, someone with a much more interesting life than I.  That’s seemed to stick with me and even now as adult I find that words come to me much more easily if I write them down.  I wonder if it’s the same for most writers?  As the course progresses I’m finding that homework tasks and workshop exercises are opening up all of these tiny doors inside of my mind. Emotions are surfacing all over the place and the more I write, the more they ooze from every pore. I have no idea what’s about to come out of me next.


And i guess that’s why I’m really here.

The Voices In My Head.

Today I wrote that apology letter homework task thingy for Kirsty, yes people I was late handing it in!

I was having trouble controlling the voices in my head; I wanted to write a highly sophisticated well worded piece of writing but all that would come out onto paper was a rather sarcastic self-righteous voice about school uniform.

What I’m learning about my writing is no matter how hard I try to stay on task with what Kirsty wants, the voices in my head take over; I can’t plan it, I just have to write it which inevitably results in it being far from what Kirsty has requested and far from being reconstructed into anything that vaguely resembles what Kirsty wanted.

Am I actually capable of following or understanding rules, guidelines and instructions?

What is wrong with me?

I haven’t successfully completed a homework task yet!

Stress! Stressing! Stressed!

Though secretly really enjoying myself but not going to let my face or anyone else know 😉

Reading between the lines.

I’ve just started reading The Bell Jar. I’ve always been forcefully drawn to Sylvia Plath but equally aware of a strong rope-like feeling around my waist, pulling me back from her work simultaneously – the way that something inside of you draws you back from the people you know you could fall hopelessly in love with during one conversation, but who with them, bring the atrocities of heartache that you’d rather not deal with.   Her darkness, her wordsmithery, her independent thought – she has everything that makes me weak at the knees. I’m only thirty pages in and I’m already dreading arriving at the last full stop on the last page – for I know that it will signify the end of much more than her only novel.   I plan to take my time with this one, however even that is proving difficult. There’s just something so compelling about the way in which she constructs her sentences that each time I put the book down, she leaves me wanting more.  The words she uses and the way in which she assembles them so fluidly and interestingly, leaves me living and breathing the main character, Esther Greenwood more and more with each line.  I am reading each word out loud (in private of course) in an accent similar to the one of the mid-century socialite character, Holly Golightly, from the movie ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and I am enjoying convincing myself that I actually am indeed Esther Greenwood and having a lot of fun in the process receiving free beauty samples from designer houses and ordering straight vodkas.

Before The Bell Jar, I enjoyed Reservoir 13 which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize 2017.  It’s a beautiful read that took me on a journey through time, vividly unfolded by beautiful descriptions and measures of the changing seasons of nature, which gradually became a strong theme of the novel.  That in itself, was a welcomed and unexpected surprise – when I first picked up the book and read the description of it being about a missing 13 year old girl, I anticipated crime tents and dead bodies rather than swallows nests and lambing seasons. The reason I was initially drawn to it was that it referenced my lucky number and fortunately for me, it didn’t disappoint as it took me back to childhood memories of long summer holidays spent enjoying the countryside at my grandparents home in Strathblane (a small village sandwiched between Loch Lomond and Glasgow). The book isn’t set there but I imagined the main village in the story to be similar and I enjoyed the nostalgia that came with that.  Its undercurrent is very much a message that Mother Nature, regardless of what is thrown at her by the human race, stops for no man and this made me think a lot about my own life, at this moment in time and how currently, through taking on the MLitt course, I’m trying to keep afloat in waters that seem to be constantly rising.

Well, the pile of books on my sideboard at home (materialising as a result of my never ending reading list) is  certainly rising and becoming a constant reminder of the volume of work I need to get through  over the coming weeks.  Although at times it feels a little daunting, this large wad of waiting stories also excites me immensely. It’s been a long time since reading was at the top of my priority list and I am welcoming the hours that I am now ‘obliged’ to spend with my nose in a real book as opposed to a blue and white digital one!  My social media presence may be suffering, but my imagination is thanking me to no end.



Writing, grinding, working away.

The main thing I was looking forward to with this course was having time to write. Not struggling to fit it in between dinner and bed, or misusing my work computer during quiet periods. Time where I am meant to be writing, without distraction or other priorities.

Not pictured: stacks of paper and other junk on another table in my spare room.

The problem is, of course, that distraction doesn’t go away. Writing ceases to be the distraction, and becomes work. And we have so much of it! Homework, from week to week. Poetry. Reviews and interviews. Essays to reflect or challenge. I want to prioritise my own work, my novel and short fiction and the review work I like doing, but there’s only so much time in the day. I came to Dundee 136 pages into a manuscript, and now I have 139.

I sometimes equate writing fiction to pulling a thread – the right amount of pressure and things will unravel smoothly, until you hit a knot, and then I have to stop and untangle it all. With this many threads to pull on, I can usually find something that writes freely, but my attention is all over the place. By evening my head has become a cat’s cradle. The days when I wrote to escape my daily stresses are halcyon, already.

Today, I’m working on the creative assignment for our core module. That’s a 6000 word target – I decided I wanted to write three short stories, which have evolved into three chapters of the same story. I’ve cheated slightly, lifting characters and setting from the above manuscript, particulars I know well, have had time to round out and think through. My first knot has just reared, which brings me here, writing elsewhere while I chew through events in my head. I’m past point A, and point B is within touching distance, but I can’t make the words join up. Coffee hasn’t helped. Lunch might; exercise usually does. If not, I’ve got plenty more that needs to be written.

“Write a masterpiece, NOW!!!”

What? Me? How? Who’s in the audience? This command is enough to inhibit the newbie writer from sprinting off the block ; instead, ducking for cover with a few random words  of “help” and “whiji mean” rather than feeling compelled to go and “plant a glade” as famous Seamus was wont to say! Still, there must be method in the madness of writing with the mindset of a Usain Bolt(!), blunting one’s pencil on the paper in the process. Just, too soon, comes the moment of reflection and revelation (ouch!) when the rational mind scolds you with ‘WTF have you written!” and “you read that aloud and your DEAD mate!” So…I’ll stick with the quiet and laconic approach for now as echoed in the work  of the American poet, Lorine Niedecker, who spoke of her poems as being a “condensary” and of writing as learning “to sit at desk/and console/No Layoff/from this /condensary”! From “Poet’s WorK”




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.