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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Writing and the Dangers of Cabin Fever


Wednesday the 25th was a big day for famous literary birthdays. Robert Burns, William Somerset Maughan and Virginia Woolf all share the same birthday.  I saw one of Woolf's well known quotes, "A room of one's own" (well I spotted the 75% off sticker first) on a china mug in my local Waterstones. I snapped up the bargain as a wee gift for my good friend, the award winning novelist, Karen Campbell as she's been acting as my unofficial mentor for years and purple is her favourite colour.
http://www.karencampbell.co.uk/
I met  Karen for lunch in Glasgow yesterday and as always, it was great to catch up with her news and she gave me some really helpful advice about my WIP. As the saying goes,it's good to talk. Woolf was right, having somewhere to lock yourself away to get on with your writing is the ideal scenario but what I've discovered during this ridiculously long semester break is that I suffer from cabin fever. 
Classes finished at the end of November and it's been too long a break for me. I haven't yet reached for the axe but you only have to watch The Shining to remember how dangerous cabin fever can be...

I need to get out of the house regularly. The romantic idea of being locked away in a remote writer's garret is not for me. There's not a lot of inspiration to be gained from my view of the petrol station across the road! During the break from uni, I've been going to a botanical art class, swimming every other morning, meeting up with friends and working my way through a list of 'must visit' places. This week I went to GOMA in Glasgow to have a look round the polymath, Alasdair Gray's, 'City Recorder' exhibition. His paintings of Glasgow life in 1977 are brilliant. It's hard to believe that one man can be so talented in so many areas. It's not fair!


Gray has captured the life of the city's streets and its people
I also had a quick look round the GOMA's 'You, Me, Something Else' exhibition of contemporary sculptures. The idea of the exhibition is to question established assumptions of what a sculpture can be. It certainly achieved its aim as there is no way I'd call a stack of Ryvita boxes or a crumpled pile of plastic sheeting a sculpture! I'm sure all the artwork on display means something, but whatever it does, went right over my head. I wasn't alone in lacking appreciation for the artwork. A comment in the visitors' book read,  "I've lived in Glasgow all my life, so I’ve seen some shite, but this really is shite.” This wasn't the only derogatory comment and "shite" was a popular word choice!


Over the break, I've been writing short stories and everything I've written about recently has been triggered by observing and interacting. In my last job, I travelled all over Scotland to visit schools and train teachers. I met new people everyday and I now realise that I need people and places, not just a room of my own, to keep me inspired.



























Sunday, 22 January 2012

Oral History and why Memories Matter




Who doesn’t like to reminisce? This week I was greedy and indulged myself with a double dose of happy memories. Hubby and I went to the Riverside Museum. Glasgow’s well-loved Museum of Transport relocated last summer to the banks of the River Clyde. The trip has been on our ‘to do’ list for a while and we were keen to see the new building that was designed by internationally-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid and houses 3000 objects, each with their own story.

What really surprised me most was that amidst exhibits such as a glamorous 1910 Bentley, I saw part of my own story, a humble Raleigh RSW bike. It was the same colour and model as my first ‘real’ childhood bike. Memories of my dad sourcing the second hand bike for me (not the one I dreamed of!) came flooding back and inspired me to write a short story about an ungrateful child (don't know where I got the idea from!). Here’s a short extract,
“It is brown. Not candy pink or baby blue like my sister’s bike. Brown. The colour of shit. And it has a brown and green checked shopping bag on the back. For shopping. I am ten. This is a lady’s bike. This isn't a Chopper. This isn’t cool. It’s crap.”

The following day, I ended up thinking about my dad again. I was at a workshop, an introduction to Oral History at the Scottish Oral History Centre in Glasgow.  The day’s programme included how to plan a project, interviewing techniques and I got the chance to play around with Zoom, the latest in digital recorders. Technology has come a long way since I belted out, “Ma! He's Making Eyes at Me" into my tape cassette recorder, convincing myself that I was just as good as Lena Zavaroni (I’m still deluded that I can sing!) 

The workshop made me appreciate how oral history has helped to preserve hidden histories, especially under represented topic areas and marginalised communities. The concept really struck a chord with me when I thought about my dad’s background. Professor McIvor used his book, ‘Miner’s Lung’ as an example.  The book is an exploration into the diseases suffered by miners due to their horrendous working conditions. One of the men he interviewed could have been my granda, Peter Meechan. He was a miner living in the small North Lanarkshire village of Croy and would have experienced the same brutal working conditions. No such thing as Health and Safety regulations in those days! 


Home life was just as tough too. My gran, Annie died aged 44. She had given birth to 15 children (Peter junior never survived). My dad, Archie was the eighth child of 14 and told me that in his house, “first up, was the best dressed.” And yet although my dad never played down the reality of his childhood (the wrong bike was never an issue!), the stories he told were always full of laughter. Maybe telling his own oral history he romanticised some of the details to entertain me and my sister but does it really matter? But it does matter that the history of communities like his are faithfully represented and their story is told.

I haven’t got the skills or knowledge to record the lives of the families like my dad’s for historical purposes; I’ll leave that to the experts.  But if my dad was still alive, I’d have a Zoom recorder ready to capture his special stories. It’s too late for that now. My dad didn't leave a record of his life but he did pass on his storytelling ability. And for that I will always be grateful.


The only childhood photo of my dad.

           


Saturday, 14 January 2012

Writing Competitions-In It To Win It!


My name is Helen and I’m addicted to quality stationery. There you go, I’ve admitted it publically.  And one of my annual highlights is always starting a fresh diary (I know it’s sad). This year’s object of my affection is a lovely Writer’s Diary (thankfully my eldest son responded to repeated hints (I don’t do subtle) for a Xmas present I would actually use. The diary is produced by Mslexia and is packed full of ideas and info for women writers.  On one of the first pages it has a Submissions section for you to record when and where you’ve sent your precious masterpieces. There’s nothing quite like pages of blank columns to make me feel under pressure.  And as the publisher, Bloomsbury has dubbed 2012 as the year of the short story, I felt that I should get cracking and enter a short story competition.

I've not got a lot of experience of writing short stories and I know it’s not easy. With strict word limits you can’t afford to waste a single word.  I’m in awe of writers who can pull off a powerful story succinctly. The ultimate in flash fiction, a short form of storytelling, has got to be Ernest Hemingway’s work of genius, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Wow! How can six words be so evocative? Maybe stunning examples like that are why I’ve avoided the genre, but it was time to face my fear.

I needed a theme and a deadline to motivate me. And I found it on a trip to visit the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.  Hubby and I went as part of a festive trip to Auld Reekie.  The gallery is a fantastic neo-gothic red sandstone building and has something to suit everyone’s taste whether you like traditional paintings of Scottish lairds or photographs of Glaswegian slums.  It’s well worth a visit and it’s free entry! On the way out, I picked up a leaflet for a competition called, ‘Inspired? Get Writing!’  There’s still time to enter! 
http://www.nationalgalleries.org/education/competitions I chose to write about a striking (and a bit scary) portrait of the acclaimed writer, committed feminist and social activist, Naomi Mitchison, painted by Percy Wyndham Lewis. She sounded like my kind of woman!  

A very clever lady but what a dour faced looking besom!

sent off my submission this week and felt quite smug at being able to make my first entry under the Submissions section of my new diary. Entering the competition has fired me up to enter as many as I can in the hope of being published. Read a lot, write a lot is my new mantra and the competitions will give me a goal and the chance to practise, practise, and practise my writing skills. The chances of winning are slim but as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it. Watch this space…


Saturday, 7 January 2012

Writing and Best Beginnings



Starting something new is always exciting. That’s why I really like January, (apart from the dreich weather and hurricane winds that have caused major roof leaks in my house!) it’s the month of new beginnings.  The beginning of a new diet, an exercise routine, or even a novel.
One of my fellow students posted on Facebook that she wrote the first line of her novel at the stroke of midnight.  She’s kidding us on that it starts, “It was a dark and stormy night…” We’ll need to wait for her workshop submission to find out the real opening line.


But her FB post made me think of the best way to start a novel. I think every writer obsesses about making an impact with their first sentence. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but that doesn’t apply to first lines. One of my favourite well known opening lines is,




“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger.

But the best beginning that I’ve read recently was from a brilliant book- Precious by Sapphire- “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver.”  I was immediately plunged into the world of an illiterate black girl who has never been out of Harlem and is pregnant by her own father for the second time and kicked out of school.  The novel is a fantastic exploration of abuse and deprivation but also totally uplifting. Read it!  I dream about being able to write such a powerful story.

But what got me writing in the first place? It was another FB post that got me thinking. It was a post by a new literary magazine for students in Scotland called Octavius. They aim to bridge the gap between being an unpublished student and submitting to professional magazines and journals and accept work of any genre and looks for writing which is fresh, unique and exciting.
Their FB post asked for a photo of your desk/laptop/outside of the library you work in, etc, and a brief description about what being a writer means to you and details about what made you start writing. This was my reply.

I don’t have a proper desk, so I escape to my boudoir bedroom to write at my dressing table. But don’t be fooled by the pink laptop and flowery d├ęcor, my writing can be dark and gritty.

I started writing when my best friend gave me a lovely notebook in 2006 for my birthday. The message inside read, “I would love to buy a novel by you. I’m sure you have the talent and wit and ‘experience’ to make it a great read. Thought you could keep some notes here. Have fun. Love Veronica x”

I love a challenge and her encouragement was the trigger to write my first novel. Almost six years later, I’m now working on novel number three and have finished the first semester of a MLitt in Creative Writing.

Turns out my pal gave me the best present ever-belief in me that I could write something worth reading and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to give her a special mention in my published novel…