Friday, December 19, 2014

Scribo Ergo Sum

19th December 2014

Winter obliged this week in Colorado with what natives deem "a good dump."

You get rather blase about scenes like this when you live in them, but there really is nothing more spectacular than the sun coming out in the mountains after a night of snow and setting the whole scene aglitter. This is where I live. I am a lucky woman (skip ahead to April, it won't seem so appealing!) Out of my window as I write is a calendar view of a range of mountains lined with pistes, peaks wherever you look, skinny Aspens  in the foreground that winter has stripped but still left a kind of fragile beauty. The bears are a-snooze at this time of year, but the mountain lions and coyotes are still on the prowl. Every so often a herd of two hundred or more elk wanders through. I didn't grow up in such surroundings, but they have been home for getting close to thirty years now. And yet I know I will not stay here. It's not written into my fabric as the hills and glens and lochs of the west coast of Scotland are.
One day, I will no doubt look back on these snowy winters in this middle section of my life, but it will be a sentimental look, not what the Germans call Sehnsucht. This is more than just longing. It's longing to the point of addiction. For better or worse, I am addicted to Scotland.

News - publishing news. My agent took a look at Druid Hill, my sequel to Veil Of Time, and deemed it worthy of taking to the publishers - once I fix a few problems, that is.  Not all agents involve themselves with polishing manuscripts to this extent, but it is probably as well for me that mine does. Quite apart from anything else (but something he pointed out) the dang thing is riddled with typos. This is only partly due to my inability to spell - it's because my ancient computer won't spell-check a document the size of a novel.
I can't get to it now, though. I am too caught up in the current novel I am writing. It's too close to the climax. To stop now would be the literary equivalent of coitus interruptus. Scriptus interruptus. Can't do it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Crows and other Mythos

12th December 2014

So much depends upon the cry of a crow perched on a telegraph pole on a country trail in December with only the sound of tires on a distant road as faint backdrop. Such was my e.e. cummings moment while out walking my dogs today. The crow jolted me out of my ruminations just as the red wheelbarrow disturbed the poet. Cummings was right - it is these little epiphany moments that are the life-blood of the artist, the focal point of all of life right there in a black crow, in a wheelbarrow glazed with summer rain. So much depends upon it. I'm not sure if so much ultimately depends upon it, but for the artist, the poet, the writer the musician or sculptor, there is no urge to create without it. These are the moments that excite the creative quick.

If you're stuck for something to write, bare yourself to these moments, cherish them and tuck them away in a hidden pocket. Don't try to contrive them. Let them find you.

Many moons ago, when I was a philosophy student in Edinburgh, I was assigned weekly essays. My nemesis back then was a tall English aristocrat, an angular and rather handsome professor in her early forties. I won't name her because she went on to Yale and Princeton and could sue me if she is still alive (she is  - I just looked her up and she looks like a nice old lady now!)  At the time, Doctor W. suffered no fool gladly, and most definitely suffered from ye olde pogo stick up the rear end. Though it was not required at Edinburgh University, she wore scholars black weeds, and she scared the living bejesus out of me. I would feign all manner of illness just to get out of private tutorials with her.  I don't know what I was doing in the field of philosophy exactly, because I was probably less suited to the art of dry argument than anyone I think of. But Doctor W. should have noted Scotland's motto, Nemo me impune lacessit. No one provokes me with impunity. Then she wouldn't have become a central, and not altogether sympathetic, character in one of my novels. But I digress...

What I would have to do to write these assigned essays was to find that spark that touched my creative quick and ride the wave from there. An essay on a Platonic dialogue would become a discussion of the novelist Robert Pirsig's distinction between logos and mythos. Doctor W. was squarely of the logos school, and I was definitely more in the field of mythos (which is why I shouldn't have been studying philosophy in the first place!) Her comment in red ink on that particular essay: This is the work of a person who is determined to remain an amateur. 
Funny thing is, old Doctor W. was right. An amateur philosopher I surely was. But what I became in my  profession of writer was a mythos-maker, turning my head on solitary walks to the crows, upon which so much depends.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing in the dark

December 5th 2014

There is probably nothing more fundamental to human beings than telling stories. Cave paintings like those blood-red animals in Lascaux France date back around 14,000 years, and they're all over the globe; some go as far back as 40,000 years. This is an era when people were still migrating out of Africa, a period thousands and thousands of years before stone circles or pyramids or any other human structure.
No written word then, of course, just pictures on a wall telling stories, trying to make sense of this place we find ourselves in. Here were our ancestors, thrown into existence (as the existentialists put it) trying to make sense of where they found themselves and who they were.  The first human to draw on a cave wall was the very first author.

And today we are still telling stories. There is a very haunting line from the very haunting film The English Patient that is written by the injured  female protagonist in The Cave of the Swimmers in the Sahara where she has been left with a fire and a flashlight while Ralph Fiennes is on his way for help. Help, of course, never comes, and so the fire and then her flashlight run out, shortly before her life does. "The lamp is gone now," she writes. "I am writing in the darkness." A cave writer, just like the cave painters. In the dark. But in a very real sense, we are all writing in the darkness, trying to poke a hole in the mystery of why we are here at all.

I'm thinking about these large questions, partly because after more than twenty years I'm re-reading Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here's a book that was rejected 121 times before being picked up by a publisher.  While writing the book, Pirsig had to hold down a day job, and so he would work on it from 2 am to 6 am every morning. That's what you call writing in the dark. But what's the drive? With no hope of publication, why did that man keep sticking his hand print on the wall?
Of course, Pirsig's book became a classic, and is these days regarded as something of a cultural icon. But that's the thing about writing in the dark - only one in one hundred and twenty-one people are going to be able to see what you're really doing.  Still, this is how we as humans struggle towards the truth. I don't care if your a minimalist atheist rationalist, you are still telling yourself a story, still trying to forge little pin-pricks of light out of the darkness.

In a time before we projected our idea of god into the heavens, the human being and the god being were not so separable, and so the god was able to tell stories through the man. "En-thused." En-theos, literally means "Possessed by a god." Here's the spark, the flame that inches those drawings, those writings, towards the light. It's the knowledge that we are more than tattered coats upon sticks. Look - my hand on the wall, more than just sticks and bones. I am homo-en-theos; the eternal shines through. The story marks the moment. The writing on the wall says that this is so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Spell Check

28 November 2014

Last week I was thanking god for dentists, and this week I want to extend my praise to editors. (I had better watch or else this attitude of gratefulness might get to be a habit!) Because bad spelling and writers do seem to go hand in hand. Jane Austen (apparently) couldn't spell, and neither could Fitzgerald, Keats, Hemingway, TS Eliot, Agatha Christie and Faulkner. The biographer of WB Yeats described his spelling as "at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork." So, you see, I am in good company.
I once wrote an undergraduate paper on the philosopher "Immanuel Can't." So, there. That tops everything. Unfortunately for me, Immanuel Could and Did very well. I rarely go out at night and look at the ink blue star-studded sky without thinking of Kant's "Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me." (Well, I'm with him on the starry skies!)   But I digress...
I should have lived in the time of Shakespeare when spelling was less an art than a preference. The
man himself spelled his own name in several different creative renditions. But that was allowed back then. Dr. Johnston still hadn't appeared on the literary horizon with his particularities about this and that spelling. I have other reasons for pouring contempt on Dr. Johnson (most especially for his pouring contempt on the Scots) but because of him we are now divided into arbitrary categories of dyslexic and Lexic. Before Johnstone the dyslexic were just thought of as creative. 

Writers by nature think outside the box. If they didn't they would have nothing to write about. But it's not the same kind of thinking outside the box that good scrabble players or crossword puzzlers employ. I am notably bad at both of these skills. Perhaps it's because I don't think of words as representational but as pictures, as whole scenerios. So I can't think of words in abstraction with inherent qualities such as orderly letters. Does that make me dyslexic? Or just a writer.
Don't be discouraged if you can't keep pace with the Dr. Johhnson's of the world. If you march to the beat of a different spelling drum, it might just be a good sign. 
Bad spellers of the world untie!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inner Butterfly

21st November 2014

Yesterday I was in the dentist's chair. I only have to walk through the door of a dentist's office, breathe in that clove smell, see the people waiting in chairs next to a rack of magazines, and my shoulders go up around my ears. Don't get me wrong - on a daily basis I thank god for dentists. A recurring anxiety of mine is that if our world fell apart for whatever reason, if we ended up walking among the ashes of our civilisation like on a Mad Max set, what would happen if my tooth began to ache? I want to say to the dentists of the earth, long may you live (especially in my neighbourhood and especially if there is a holocaust!) That said, the dentist's chair is only one of the few places in the western world where we succumb to ritual torture (ritual only because we are wiling accomplices); and to delusion  - for the few seconds between me spying that six inch needle lurking at the back of my dentist's thigh, I really really believe that it's not an instrument of torture and is not going to hurt at all! Just like they say.
I think too often we get into a space like this with our writing, where walking into our office brings on a bout of tension, where trying to pull an astounding array of words out of ourselves feels like lying back in the dentist's chair and steeling ourselves for pain.

It is advisable, of course, to have a routine with your writing. Turning up each morning or at whatever appointed time you have set, not waiting until the spirit or the muse moves us, is just good writing habit. Still, I often find myself neurotically bound to that habit. There's a magazine on the table with an article I'm dying to read, but I feel too guilty to just go ahead and read it. I have an appointment with my creative self, and so the inner dialogue kicks in insisting that I show up. I actually catch myself shaming myself.
One thing people often congratulate me on is my persistence. I keep writing. I never give up. Every morning sees me in my office, and no invitation will distract me away from it.  I don't go on hikes until after my work is done. I don't go out for coffee and chat. Well and good. But it's a fine line. Your creative space is not going to be productive if your rules become jailers.
What you are aiming for is freedom. But the best kind of freedom is not the kind that has no structure at all. The demise of many young artist in the sixties and seventies is proof of that. But freedom cannot thrive either if your creative life becomes restrictive.
I am going away in a few days. The novel I have been working hard on these past months is about 100 pages from being finished. But I am distracted right now. I have been standing myself up these mornings. And I have to let it go. I wouldn't make a habit of this, but for now it is okay. I'm giving myself a little space. I'm doing what I want, which is to fuss about for now doing things that need to get done before I go. And sometimes, I should just let myself read that magazine article. Sometimes I do. What we are aiming at is what feeds the creative soul. Attendance at the desk is one thing, letting your imagination flit around where it wants is another.

So you decide where this line is. It's such a tiny little border between discipline and creativity. I don't know how to put my finger on it to show you where it lies - I only know that it is somewhere. Perhaps you can find it. And if you do, then let me know. And then let your inner butterfly soar.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Keepers

November 14th 2014

We live in a time of paradigm changes, which makes it a very exciting era to be in.  The bishop of Truro recently gave the Church of England six years before it gives up the ghost (and I'm not talking of the holy ghost!) ; all of art in its many forms is slowly wandering out of the desert of solipsism; physics, they said in the news this week, is on the brink of a whole new Copernican revolution; the explosion of social media has really changed the game on just about any front you can think of.

I have a daughter who is tearing around the country promoting the Indie film she wrote and starred in and which has done very well on the Indie film circuit garnering ten awards, including three for best actress. I bring this up because her struggle against the old paradigm, "the film industry" is very telling. Any time an "industry" moves in to represent the voice of the artist, then you have something like the kind of totalitarian regime that we, in our "free" society, love to denigrate.

The Hollywood monopoly still stands in so far as it continues to dictate our viewing options, but there are noises now from down the ladder, loud noises that are questioning the gate-keepers and why they were ever given that power in the first place.  Robert Redford put his mega-millions to very good use when he started his film fest at Sundance (quite apart from anything else, they sell fantastic clothes!) but inevitably the renegade morphs into the status quo, and though those films are still good, they have begun to rely more and more on big money and star-power.
You might wonder why I am going to such lengths to describe the film industry (apart from the obvious fact that my daughter has taken up arms against it!  ( I'm going on about it because this kind of indy movement is happening all over the arts and not in a small way in the book industry. Independent publishers have been around for a while, and of course we all know about "the big six," one of which (happily for me!) published my own book.  There are reasons of course for shooting for traditional publishing and reasons for going down the independent road. Both have their bonuses and pitfalls. But something else is beginning to emerge, a sort of half-way house between the independent publishers and the big industry ones, something that gives more power to the author (check out
The truth of the  matter and the impetus for change is that the voice of the artist doesn't necessarily conform to industry standards. Actually, how could it possibly? In an earlier blog I was talking about the difficulty Pulitzer prize winning Paul Harding faced trying to find a publisher for "Tinkers." He eventually went with this teeny little publishing company called Bellevue, and I am sure he must have worried for a while if he shouldn't be committed to Bellevue (on another level) for putting his hard-won opus into the hands of an underfunded company with a staff of one or two. For Harding it payed off big time. But there ought to be a larger more consistent outlet for "art" as opposed to "commercial art." Let's make the distinction, call a spade a spade. Who would publish James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Steinbeck, Faulkner, even Marilynne Robinson these days? Is it because their writing is outmoded? No. It's because by industry standards, they could not be successful, meaning, not enough people would cherish them to make a profit. But history will cherish them. The better side of our nature will cherish them. Great art is to be cherished and savoured over time, not sold for the fastest dollar.
We stand at a watershed-moment in many areas of life. All we know is, we don't need more gate-keepers. What we need, and what we are slowly getting, is a new paradigm.
Apologies to designer of this great image for using without permission

Friday, November 7, 2014

He said, She said.

7th November 2014

To begin at the beginning....

Every writer ought to have a house like this. It should be the law, that's what I say. This one belonged to Dylan Thomas, and no wonder it gave rise to such unearthly lines. I would have a house such as this right over the water. As Jung said, the human psyche gravitates towards water. I know mine does. It's primordial, our first home. And on this day of my birth, this is what I wish for myself: a good place to live and an even better place to die. Not that I'm there yet. There's much too much to get done, too many books to be published, too much to see (including the above house which is now a museum.) But in the end, in the very end, the spirit should pass out over the water. That is something I have no fear of.

And so to dialogue. The funny thing about dialogue both in literature and in film, is that it has to perform an amazing trick: it has to appear normal while being at the same time far from normal. It has to be doing a job, which in everyday living, of course, speech rarely does.

      "Did you get the teabags while you were out?"
       "I think I got the right ones. Which do you prefer?"
       "I used to think it was Tetley, but these days I prefer Yorkshire Gold. Which ones did you buy?"

And so on and so on.  This is the way people really converse, but if you filled a book with this kind of meandering drivel, you'd have your reader asleep in no time.
So speech in books and in film has to be condensed. It has to be pithy and move the story along. And it has to do all this while sounding real.

"You keep away from Curly, Lennie."
"Sure I will, George. I won't say a word."
"Don't let him pull you in, but if the son-of-a-bitch socks you, let 'im have it."
"Let him have what, George?"

Immortal lines from the best of all dialogue-writers: Steinbeck.

"When dialogue is right, we know," says Mr. Stephen King. "When it is wrong we also know--it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument."

"Bond. James Bond." This does not sound real, though it has become standard fare in books and film when people introduce themselves. I have never once in all my many years introduced myself as "McDougall. Claire McDougall," but in written dialogue you see it all the time.
Another thing you see too often in dialogue is people repeating phrases in a way they would never do in real life: "I will never get over this," he said. "I will never get over it."  If you heard anyone talking like this in real life, you'd think they were reading off a badly written script.
Dylan Thomas wrote in a converted garage just up the cliff from his amazing house. Every day his wife would lock him in it for four hours. She should have locked him in it for good. If he had lived until 2014, he would have been 100 years old.
"To begin at the beginning...." He hardly started. But he filled our hearts with beautiful soul crunching language. And none of it sounded in the least bit like speech.