From Scratch

I haven’t had much time to pull this entry together, but working quickly has very much been the theme of this weekend.

The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre
The Netherbow Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre

I attended a workshop run by poets Jenny Lindsay and Rachel McCrum at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC), aimed at those who have a spoken word show either already written or at the draft stage.

On the Saturday, we discussed such topics as: how the show might be mapped out, technical considerations, and how to attract funding. We were also invited to try a number of physical movement exercises and experiment with using the space.

The next day, the group put together a show from scratch, making sure the running order flowed, discussing lighting requirements with a technician, and ultimately performing our best pieces in the custom-built Netherbow Theatre at the SSC.

I found the group a joy to work with. Jenny and Rachel pointed out there were no ‘egos’ and that we all took each others’ ideas on board. The final show went incredibly well. I usually find among a group of writers that I like many of the others but there’s one whose work I especially admire. This weekend, I found that person and let them know.

As I begin the week, I’m excited to take my project to the next stage, and I’m looking forward to keeping up with some of the other participants.

Thinking of Santa in Summer

Ask writers what they dislike most about the process and the issue of time restraints will probably appear near the top of the list. There’s a final date to enter writing competitions, there are deadlines when your work is accepted and needs to be edited, there are book launches to attend when you’re finally in print, and so forth.

An extract from my Moleskine diary
An extract from my Moleskine diary

Although lead times in publishing can be weeks or even months, the deadline can still creep up on you before you know it. Right now, it’s half-past July, so publishers will be looking for Christmas material. Similarly, they’ll be planning for Easter by the time Halloween comes around. The savvy writer is thinking of Santa in summer.

A sense of timing is also important in the shorter term. On many occasions, I’ve turned up at events at the time specified, only to find that’s when the doors open, not when it begins.

Tonight, I’m running Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers, and I make it clear that the doors open at 6:30pm for the readings to begin at 7pm. There are still occasional latecomers, and they’re welcome to join us, but they know they’ll miss some of the readings. Conversely, the Dundee & Angus NaNoWriMo region meets up every week, whether or not the official contest is happening. An e-mail and a Facebook post are made several days in advance, and each one states that members are welcome to drop in and out at any time.

Of course, it can be just as important to state as early as possible when you won’t be able to make it. I have this situation in August; I’ve written a piece to respond to an artwork, but I had a prior commitment the same night. In this instance, I’m aiming to arrange for someone else to present the piece, which will allow me to keep the other commitment.

One tool I find incredibly useful is a Moleskine diary. The strongest advantage I find over an electronic diary is that much more information can be displayed at the same time. The physical act of writing out deadlines and appointments also helps to secure it in my head. That includes making my Monday blog entries on time.

Serving Your 10,000 Hours

There’s a much-quoted theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make you an expert in anything. While the notion of becoming an expert by this method has been debated for nearly 25 years, it is true that quality practice makes you better at what you do.

If you’re a long-term reader – and there must be one or two of you out there – you know I’m upfront about not being a lifelong writer. I started to pen fiction seven years ago at the age of 26; my last creative writing before then was done at high school, at which time I was more interested in music and computing. I’d entered my thirties before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet.

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...
Creative writing class-fine arts center (402690951) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the purposes of this entry, let’s convert the 10,000-hour theory to more manageable figures. It’s near-impossible to calculate accurately, but let’s say I practised my writing for two hours every day. If we enter that into the 10,000 Hours Calculator, it gives me a figure of 13.7 years. Eight hours devoted to my field per day brings that down to 3.4 years.

By this measure, I’m not convinced I’ve reached 10,000 hours yet, but does it matter?

As I started relatively late, I used to believe I’d forever be catching up with more established writers. These days, however, I lean toward the view that once you’ve practised for a certain length of time, the gap begins to close. The writer who’s done it for two years will know far more than the one who started 12 months previously. Yet when you’ve written for five years, say, you’ll probably have more in common with someone who’s written for 20 years than two.

The message here, of course, is not to stop practising once you’ve been at it for two decades. On the contrary, the more a relative newbie learns, the narrower the gulf will be between their knowledge and those with more experience. Every day is a schoolday.

Points of View

This week, I’ve been so pushed for time that I couldn’t pull together a full entry. Instead, here are a couple of photos.

This first one is my writing area. There are better views from other windows, but it is a great place to stand and observe people and traffic. There is a seat in the room, but it’s not in front of the PC. I prefer to stand while I write.

The second is my bookshelf. I don’t have a TV here, so this is the focus of my living room. I’ve yet to read most of them, but they’re there for when the occasion arises.

Fluent in 1½ Languages

On Friday, I attended the premiere of a play written by John Quinn, whom I’ve known for several years.

In O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin, he tells the story of the jute industry in Dundee. The play was staged in the round within Verdant Works, which used to be a functioning jute mill and is now a museum dedicated to the manufacture of the material. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, particularly the satirical in-jokes that only locals understand.

A large portion of the dialogue is in local dialect; in fact, even the title seems like gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular. Helpfully, however, the programme contains a glossary of the terms used in the production. The title translates as ‘The Mother Tongue’:

Glossary from the play
Glossary from the play

In everyday life, I speak and understand standard English. I also understood almost every word of the play without looking at the definitions, and I’d be able to decipher the dialect’s parent language: Scots. But to say anything in dialect or Scots, I would have to make a conscious effort to work out my sentences.

That’s why I say I’m fluent in 1½ languages.

There’s a long tradition of English as a written language, with dictionaries and grammar guides going back centuries. Scots, on the other hand, is more of an oral language and there’s no commonly-accepted way to render it on paper. As such, I find it easier to catch what’s being said than if it’s written down.

The problem is most apparent with the sound at the end of the word ‘loch’, which is pronounced like ‘huh’, but said from the back of the throat; a similar sound appears in German. This guttural noise is usually written as ‘ch’, but in English, those letters are pronounced as in the word ‘church’. There are also less obvious issues. The word ‘yes’ can be translated as ‘aye’ or ‘ay’, but depending on the context, the word ‘ae’ might mean ‘always’.

In modern times, there’s been a revival of the Scots language. Perhaps it’s down to the formation of the current Scottish Parliament in 1999; perhaps it’s because Scots speakers can now easily find one another online.

In my experience, there’s a minority of people who use the language merely to show off or to exclude non-speakers. But spoken for the right reasons, it’s full of rich expressions that often have no direct translation.

‘Tartle’ is the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name, and is under consideration by the Collins dictionary. ‘Driech’ can be used to describe any weather except warm and sunny, and can only be used in relation to weather. There are even informal neologisms such as the word Facebook being split into its component words and translated to ‘Pusjotter’; there’s no one definitive reference for this, so here are my search results.

I’ve no plans to start writing in Scots myself. But I am pleased to be fluent in half a language and I appreciate the insight it gives me.

How I Don’t Remember It

I’ve recently joined a new poetry group. It’s so new that we don’t even have a name yet, but I’m enjoying the work of the other members.

One of them wrote about his time at Stirling University and included a photo of the place in the springtime. For the following month’s meeting, I visited Paisley, where I studied at what’s now the University of the West of Scotland. I’d paid a brief visit to the town centre in 2016, but it had been some years since I’d explored its other areas.

I’d expected some change, and I saw it particularly in the accommodation. There were new blocks of flats in a couple of spots, while one place I used to rent from the University had clearly been sold to a slum landlord – and the other might well have been going the same way.

I then walked up Neilston Road, which is one of the backbones of the town. From the moment I turned onto it, I began to wonder where I was. There were new tearooms with seats outside – even though it rained all day – but even taking them out of the equation, I didn’t even remember other landmarks.

Deutsch: Logo University of the West of Scotland
Logo of the University of the West of Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were bends in the road I didn’t recall, buildings that must have been there a century I didn’t register, and a field with cows as you head out of town that I must have seen at some point.

At least now I had a focus for my poem. One of the prompts had been ‘A letter to…’ so my piece became A Letter to Paisley, with the first lines reading:

I saw you the other day,
I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you.

But I found the opening words to be the easy part. Sometimes I can have something I really want to say, or I theme I particularly want to explore, and I find it difficult to work out how to present it.

In the rest of the piece, I muse upon the changes that have taken place and the parts I didn’t recognise, and I ponder whether it was the excitement of moving there at age 18 that caused me not to take in the details I saw on that day. I presented the piece to the group on Thursday of last week, and they helped me to make a few changes that will probably find their way into the next draft.

Strangely enough, I gained a BSc Music Technology while I was there. I didn’t do much with the qualification as it was, but I was able to use it to gain a place on the Masters degree I completed last year.

Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru