Friday, July 3, 2015


3rd July 2015

I once came back here to my home in Argyll and found myself outside the graveyard where the model for one of my chief characters was in the process of being buried.  So close does the world of art lie to the world we like to think of as the "real" world, that this time before I left Colorado, I was even contemplating bringing my new little Winnie cat to Dunadd and leaving her here. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks ago straight out of the leaves of my published book Veil Of Time which takes place here at Dunadd, and some part of me believes she really belongs here. Perhaps she does, but in saner moments I know she will do more good purring on my lap while I compose my soliloquies. We all need our muses.

The Scottish singer Dougie MacLean famously wrote about standing on the land where Fotheringhay Castle once stood and where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded . "Something happened here....on the silent fields....Mary,  I can feel your heart breaking." The land speaks - don't know how. Places must be like sponges and absorb energies, especially intense human emotions. Perhaps that's all ghosts are.
But for me there is no land that hums like this place where I grew up with its ancient fort and its stone circles. I have a genetic link to this place: my ancestors Duncan and Ewan McDougall built castles here in the thirteenth century.

This is the main one at Dunnstaffnage near Oban, Argyll, as it sat in the mind's eye of an nineteenth century engraver. This is how everything sits in my mind's eye: whispy, half-created, dancing between worlds. Humming.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer Words

26th June 2015

This week I attended a panel discussion among several top-tier writers at Aspen's summer conference, the very conference that supplied me with my agent all those years ago (after MANY years of being marched by teenage table-seaters out to yet another agent looking at their watch waiting for these endless 15 minute sessions to be over - it was horrible, so much so that I have come to associate the conference with pain and stupidly avoid it. Well, I'm a published writer now - I don't need it! Ha!)
In the picture below, guess which one is the agent...

The one in the suit is probably saying, "Yeah, send me the whole novel," leaving out the subtext which reads "...and I'll find someone in the office to read it, or at least ten pages of it." And then about three months later, the rejection comes.
Actually, judging by the look on the prospective-client's face in this picture, it looks as though the agent is just telling him right up front, "I'd like to say that your writing stinks, but that would be bad PR, so I'll give you my card and, really, send me something else in the future, assuming that future never comes."
One year at my annual set of meetings, I talked to one agent from San Francisco who was very enthusiastic about my ten-page offering and told me to send him three of my novels (if I could remember the sod's name, I would expose him here, but I had to forget him in a bad way.) After three months, I started to call his office. He was never there, according to his secretary. I e-mailed him a few times and got no response. Nada. Yes, it's a roller-coaster ride this writing business, when it is a business, when you have to get out from your writing cave and market the damn stuff you're producing out of the guts of your bleeding heart.

Andre Dubus was on the panel. He wrote House of Sand and Fog, a book I liked very much, made  later into an outstanding film. He's an animated guy who cried when one of the other panelists read a passage about losing her five-year old daughter. I'm glad he cried. I'm glad that fame hasn't removed the bloody heart from his sleeve. It's the writer's curse, that, the displaced heart.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The bards

19th June 2015

A recent article by a high school teacher in California was pointing out that although Shakespeare isn't necessarily required in college-level English, he is still part of the curriculum for high schoolers. Because her classes are mainly comprised of African American students, she was calling on the powers-that-be to relinquish this requirement. I'll chime in that it isn't just American minorities that are at a disadvantage here. Being made to read Hamlet in my Scottish high school made me hate him. I could never figure out what the heck was going on. It's one thing to require this of students studying ancient English literature, but for high schoolers who not that long ago had their fingers up their noses, why do we insist on pushing those same noses into seventeenth century English? We don't make them read Chaucer.

A lot of it has to do with literary snobbery, of course. Americans might be even more snobby about this than the English. By the grace of the gods, my high school teacher also put in our grubby hands a gorgeous little book entitled Cider With Rosie. I don't know how that would stand up to another reading now, but the idea then was to make us fall in love with modern English and lovely lyrical writing. And fall I did!

It was published in 1959 and has sold more than six million copies. And it's still in print! Still being assigned to book groups. Still lovely:
“She leaned out of the window slow and sleepy, and the light came through her nightdress like sand through a sieve.” 
I bit into this particular peach of a book by Laurie Lee, and the juice ran out and down my hands, and it's what I use these days to cobble together my own stories. 
Shakespeare has his juice, too. There's no denying. There are entire soliloquies of his that pace around in my head. But it's more a kind of wine. Not for the young. Let's leave it until they can savour it, if they want it. You catch more bees with honey, anyway. Or peach juice. Or cider. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sing It

12th June 2015

They say that stroke victims who have lost the power of speech, can sometimes still sing lyrics, because that song-part of your brain isn't the same as it is for speech.  In fact it's on the opposite side of the brain. This is a very neat metaphor for why we need stories and in particular poetry: It isn't speech.

Modern poetry has lost that differentiation and eschews the lyrical and the rhyme. It no longer understands how close to music it is on the spectrum. That's why it tends not to rhyme but why songs still need to. A sung verse with an off-rhyme leaves you feeling oddly dissatisified, like a bite into plastic fruit. 

Here's two lines from Don MacLean's lovely song, Empty Chairs

Beams of blue come flickering through my window pane
Like gypsy moths that dance around a candle flame

Supposing the last line had ended candle light? It jars, doesn't it? That other side of our rational linear selves doesn't like it, even though we have convinced ourselves that poetry should not give in to anything so contrived and pat. 
Speech belongs to the linear part of the brain; art is seated over there in the messy beautiful circles we call creativity. It sings.

The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead. 
You have to stroke this verse from Auden. Though it has no music, it has to be sung.  

Friday, June 5, 2015

Dark Matter

June 5th 2015

The visible universe only amounts to four percent of reality. The rest is detectable only by the effect it has on what we can see and measure. But scientists know it is there. It is all just a little spooky.

Dark and spooky -  good material then for a novel, especially for the third part of a series on TIME. I have been standing at the precipice over the writing of this novel for quite a while, because it is going to be dealing with a very dark matter: the very dark issue of how we got to this point in history on the verge of extinction and how we could have opted for a different route. 
We live in a post-Christian society (according to Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury), so where to from here? Over in India, they have had the answer for a long time: you have to sever the head of the religious gorgon you created and see that all things, gods, religions, history, hopes and fears are invisible, come out of nothing and go back to the same place.  Our universe is simply a passing thought in the mind of Brahma, which is itself a thought. 
So it's all very dark and unapproachable. But this is the way stories get written: the writer takes a torch through the dark dark wood and illuminates little patches.

This torch is my only equipment as I embark on the walk. This light in the darkness is the human heart . But I am avoiding my desk, trying to avoid the spooks. In the quest for truth, this small area of illumination is all we are ever given.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Spooky Action at a Distance

29th May 2015


In Scotland, black cats aren't a bad omen as they are in the US. They are good luck. Somewhere along the line when the church was transforming good witches into hags, the black cat went with them into the shady area of occult.  So in my book Veil of Time, a black cat appears out of nowhere on Halloween, and my protagonist adopts it.   She names the cat Winnie, because it rhymes with skinny, and it becomes a sort of touchstone for her. When she gets transported back in time, lo and behold the black cat goes with her.
So one dark night a couple of weeks ago, a neighbour knocked on my door and asked if I was missing a black cat. Well, I don't have a black cat, but I was curious. I went out, and there she was. Winnie. Just exactly how I had imagined her: skinny, small head, friendly with a loud purr. Readers of my book will remember that it is the cat's rhythmic purring that sometimes sends Maggie off into an epileptic seizure.
Oscar Wilde famously said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." This sentiment even has a name: Anti-mimesis. And people have always felt it - all the way back to Aristophanes. Perhaps even before that. Is it possible that this is why we tell stories, that we are really trying to manifest the life we choose?

I was reading yesterday in the paper how some scientists are beginning to think that traditional science has reality on its head. According to that science, the universe is full of a number of things, and these things generate a field of information. But the scientists in the paper yesterday were positing the opposite:  before anything else, there is a field of information and then there is the physical manifestation of that field.

Perhaps that's where Winnie came from: the field of information I created when I wrote a book about time travel and witches and a black cat called Winnie. You never know.
As I write, Winnie is sitting at my shoulder looking out of the window, surveying the world that perhaps she only partially belongs to.
Of course, I have adopted her. What else can you do when spooky things turn up at your doorstep?

Friday, May 22, 2015


22nd May 2015

Here you are, on the brink of success.You have all your literary ducks in a row: you have honed your craft, you have walked the inner sanctum of the publishing world and found the agent and at last you have a publisher. All you have to do now is get that ball into the back of the net. Everyone is watching you: sisters, brothers, that teacher back in middle school who said you'd never amount to anything. But don't succumb to the vagaries of pressure, just shoot. It's easy - the net is wide open. The only thing in your way is that person hopping around in the goal trying to stop the ball.

Let's tease this metaphor out a little more: that person in your way is actually yourself. It's the parrot on your shoulder and the snickering voice in the night that says you're not going to make it. It is self-doubt, and it will actually make a lunge to stop that ball ever making its mark. It's your worst enemy and ultimately you have created it, this evil hobgoblin who wants to see you fail.
Recently I was watching a panel discussion on creativity featuring no less than the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Ken Robinson and a few other people in the field. One of the panel cited a study showing that when the player in a penalty shootout (let's say in a world cup match and the deciding goal is going to be this one!), pauses before he shoots, he is statistically more likely to score than if he goes for the ball the second the referee blows the whistle.

This relates to creative writing, because what the player who pauses is doing in those critical few heartbeats is finding within himself a still place. He or she is opening up a space to clear out the hobgoblins and let loose.
So, block out the crowd and don't get caught up in the voices, either your own or others. Give yourself time to retreat into the still centre, this creative space that stills the voice of self-doubt. And then get your eye on the goal, and go for it.