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.
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’:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Once you’ve written a piece, it’s a good idea to lay it aside for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. But what happens when the days and weeks turn into months and years?
In 2013, I was given a homework task from a writing class. I had to pen a story containing the words sleeping, falling, and alchemy. I struggled to write something, so I used a fallback technique of creating a diary form. The draft of the story was about an 18-year-old woman who had just started university and was assigned a nasty flatmate. I titled it F in Hell, the F being short for the antagonist’s name.
I redrafted the story a couple of times over the next two years, tightening the language and enhancing the plot points. But I didn’t do anything else with it, other than giving readings at a couple of events.
In 2016, I was desperate to write a creative piece for my MLitt Writing Practice & Study dissertation. The problem was that there was no unifying theme to my pieces because I’d wanted to expand my horizons, so they were difficult to bring together into a cohesive collection. I’d printed off some of my best short stories and poems to show my supervisors. One of them picked up on F in Hell and suggested expanding it.
The tactic worked. The diary structure was ideal for demonstrating my prose skills yet flexible enough to allow interpolation of my poetry. Furthermore, as the story is told in an impromptu first-person narrative, I didn’t necessarily have to iron out every inconsistency before the relatively tight deadline. The title was changed to Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream.
Almost overnight, a short story that had lain forgotten in my archive became the piece that helped me to clinch my Masters degree.
And the tale doesn’t stop there. In August of last year, I was in the audience for a BBC radio recording when I realised the piece would work well on stage. I spoke again to one of my tutors, a playwright himself, and learnt the basics of script formatting and practical considerations for the props and scenery.
From then until last week, I’d been converting Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream into a script, and making the plot much darker, before entering it into a competition. Even if I don’t win, I know I have a finished product ready to be sent elsewhere.
There are many professional writers who have left work aside for one reason or another and reaped the benefits.
In the 1960s, Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock for a film set entirely in a phone booth, but neither could find a compelling reason to keep the character there. When Cohen revisited the concept decades later, the world had changed: nearly everyone carried a mobile and had fears of terrorism on their minds. In 2002, with the idea well over 30 years old, Phone Booth finally opened in cinemas.
Sometimes the delay is beyond the control of the author. Jilly Cooper left a novel manuscript on a bus in around 1970. Disheartened, it took 14 years to begin again. In the intervening time, the plot and characters had time to mature, and her novel Riders was finally released in 1985. She considers it among her best work.
Moving away from writing, My Modern Met ran an article in April about the Draw This Again project, inviting artists to revisit and redraw their old pictures. Sometimes there’s a year between the two, sometimes there’s a decade. Be sure to click through to the Deviant Art page for many more examples, and see how each one has improved by being left aside for so long.
Anyone who routinely submits work for consideration can tell you how long it often takes to receive a response, let alone see your words in print. Right now, for instance, it’s too late to plan for summer; publications will shortly be looking for Christmas-themed material.
In October last year, I heard that my poem The Executive Lounge had been accepted for the local publication Dundee Writes. However, the launch only took place on Thursday of last week. Nonetheless, it was worth the wait because my piece is alongside some excellent work from students and alumni. There is also a focus on one of the creative writing tutors who died around a year ago.
The style of the pamphlet tends towards the less mainstream and more experimental and wistful. My poem describes an object without naming it. Instead, the reader is presented with a list of statistics about the item, with the most telling stats placed near the end.
It’s a favourite of my own work, and it seemed to go down well with the audience, but it is primarily a page poem. On this occasion, audience members could follow the text in the book; but when I read a loud it a couple of years ago, it received no reaction at the end, not even applause.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, owned by the city’s university. Within its 21 acres, there are plants and trees from around the world and educational areas where you can learn more about them.
That day, the Gardens had been opened up specifically for writers, artists and photographers to respond in their chosen media for an upcoming anthology by the organisation who maintains them. A botanist even led us to many of the noteworthy spots, from tropical plants that change gender overnight to hardy shrubs that live on a limited water supply.
I’ve long believed that going for a walk helps to sort out any thoughts a writer has. In this case, there was a lot of input from the botanist’s talk, from discussions with other participants and indeed from my own observations.
Yet there was so much input to process that it took several days to form any meaningful output. During these days, I was taken by the idea that some trees can survive forest fires while other trees actually rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. I made drafts in free verse with internal rhymes, but the narrative was ultimately going nowhere.
Some friends, also poets, were on the same tour. One of them writes poems around the length of a haiku, although he doesn’t use the haiku form itself. Looking at my own work, I realised I liked the opening line and the conclusion, and I felt that to include other details would simply be filler and distract from the message I wanted to impart. So, borrowing his style, I kept only those parts: two sentences enjambed over four lines.
After leaving it aside for another few days, I came back to my verse yesterday morning and decided to enter it for the anthology. For that reason, I’m unable to publish the finished product online, but you’ll be the first to know if it’s included.
Which brings me to an event happening this coming Thursday. I’m having a poem published in Dundee Writes, a pamphlet distributed by the University of Dundee. I’ll report back on the launch event next week.