Anything but Reading

One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.

A sheet of bingo cards.
A sheet of bingo cards. There will be no whistling at ‘Legs eleven’, thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.

I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.

Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.

It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.

A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.

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Ahead of the Curve

This blog is updated every Monday at 6pm. To the reader of any regular publication, it should seem as though the content trickles out on a predictable basis. But that rarely happens in practice.

English: Question Mark
English: Question Mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my case, I’m sometimes able to plan two or three entries ahead, or I have difficulty deciding what to leave out. Other times, I’m still deciding on a subject or writing an entry a few hours before it’s due to be published.

This week has fallen firmly into the second category, bringing little writing news, other than a rejection e-mail that simply said: ‘Gavin. Clever, but not quite what we are looking for.’

So rather than swerve off-topic for the sake of making an entry, I was going to leave this one here and think about next week’s content.

That was until I learnt that my friends at The Beans Podcast had a worse week than I did. They’ve lost an entire episode.

Slam Weekend

On Saturday, I made my annual trip to StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. And what better way to start than Breakfast at the Poetry Café with a pastry and a panel of four poets, namely Sara Hirsch, Jan Baeke, Esther Mijers and Luke Pell. They talked about the inclusion or exclusion of the self in their work, with an extensive discussion on pronouns.

English: St Andrews Town Hall (of 1858-1862), ...
English: St Andrews Town Hall (of 1858-1862), between Queen’s Gardens and South Street, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, where some of the StAnza events took place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I then moved on to the 12 Showcase, featuring some of the women who collaborate and respond to each others’ poetry via a shared Google document. Dispensing with introductions or explanations, they formed an almost hypnotic chain of verse full of back references and tangents, infused with their individual styles.

Past & Present saw Oli Hazzard speaking about John Ashbery, then W.N. Herbert speaking about W.S. Graham. It’s often difficult to know what to leave out when speaking about a prolific figure, but in their respective 25 minutes, each poet gave a broad sense of their subjects to the packed audience.

StAnza’s theme this year was Going Dutch, ‘shining a spotlight on the poetry of Flanders and the Netherlands in Dutch and Frisian.’ There were Dutch poets peppered throughout the event, but Five O’Clock Verses was the first time I’d heard anyone speak Frisian, the language most closely related to English.

When Tsead Bruinja performed in the language, I was reminded of a childhood memory. In Scotland, there used to be five minutes of Gaelic news shown every evening, and I’d be able to pick out borrowed words such as helicopter. In Bruinja’s case, the most outstanding term was double-D, referring to the bra size. Although he set a high standard, Tara Bergin was able to match it with her absurdist poetry, all delivered in English.

Poetry Centre Stage is held in the main auditorium of the Byre Theatre and is always a must-see. I’ve heard a lot about William Letford, but I don’t recall seeing him before. Half of his 40-minute set was devoted to a story cycle about a family who go to live in the forest. It sounded a lot like prose, but it was written in a wonderfully poetic manner. I left before Liz Lochhead’s appearance because I wanted to prepare for my personal highlight.

The StAnza Slam gives two and a half minutes to 12 participants, all eager to impress a panel of judges. Four of them would then progress to a second knockout round, with three minutes allowed.

I’m pleased to report that I managed to enter the second round with a piece called Sir Madam that’s proved popular at previous events. However, Jo Gilbert deservedly walked away with the prize after a poem about cake.

Although slam competitions are by nature competitive, they tend not to be ego-driven – at least in my experience – and I think that’s great.

For the last decade or so, StAnza has complemented the Dundee Literary Festival, which has traditionally been held in October. While StAnza appears to be stable, there might not be a Dundee event this year as we’ve normally been given news by now. If it doesn’t happen, Dundee writers might just have to pull together and hold an unofficial one of our own.

The Thick of It

In the middle of last week, the UK was hit by an exceptionally strong gust of snow. My area was given a rare Red Warning, and that led to some cancellations and closures.

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On Thursday, for instance, my office was closed and I was excused from doing the ‘day job’. I instead used the time to send work to a publisher. On Friday, I was supposed to be exhibiting my Fun a Day pieces created during January, but that’s been postponed. In fact, the one event that went ahead as normal was partly outdoors.

So on Saturday, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, whose volunteers are compiling an anthology of written and visual work inspired by the grounds. To this end, they’ve organised Focus Days where writers, photographers and artists are given a tour of the trees and plants to generate ideas. In this instance, the tour was restricted to the heated glass houses, although the participants seemed willing to go out in the snow.

The tour was followed by a lively discussion about the work that should appear in the anthology and how it should be created. Some of us shared our existing work; I read a piece I’d already submitted for consideration and three of the other members inferred religious symbolism where there wasn’t intended to be any.

Frustratingly, no consensus was reached about the anthology as a whole, but we reconvene in three weeks and we’re looking to take it forward from there.

If any new work was generated by Saturday’s visit, it’ll probably be infused by the ambient conditions. Some writers use it almost as a character in its own right and, done well, it can enhance a scene without distracting the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee invokes sticky summer heat; Kirsty Logan steeps The Gracekeepers with a cold sea chill.

Even when you’re trying to create a fictional universe, of course, nobody can escape the weather. Shooting began on the first Star Wars film 42 years ago this month in Tunisia, a location chosen for its desert landscape. On the second day, the country was hit by a rare winter rain that hadn’t been seen for 50 years, destroying sets and damaging equipment.