Friday, October 28, 2016

Digging Down the Runes

28th October 2016

I recently did a DNA test which came back with the surprising result that I am only 73% European. Eeeks. I thought I would be one of those 99 percenters. I often watch a program called "Finding Your Roots," which takes celebrities on a trip down their ancestral lines. It seems that if they have blond hair, and even if they don't, they often turn out to be 99% European. This twist in my DNA narrative is apparently due to my mother, whose blood group, and consequently mine, is one that is quite common in the Middle East. I even have 5% Ashkenazi Jew, and about three times that much Basque in there! I always suspected something, since my mother's family are all quite dark of skin, hair and eyes. My sister, too. But here I am with a red sheen to my brown hair, green eyes and fair skin. 73%, they say, and I can only conclude that not too far back a female slave or just a random traveller from warmer climes crossed the sea and copulated with some ancestral Brit.

On the McDougall side, the family line originated in exactly the area of Scotland I grew up - Argyll and specifically Oban, where the clan seat is and where I went to school. All McDougalls go back to Dugald, son of Somerled, Lord of The Isles. My branch came not so long ago from the Gaelic-speaking island of Islay, where all the famous single malt whisky also hails from. I think this is the approach the powers-that-be have taken to my writing career - keep it in a vat in a cold dark cellar for decades and then uncork the barrel and pass it around. That's what I am waiting for  - a good connoisseur of spirits to slap a "Grade A, Single Cask" label on my forehead and send me off for general consumption.

Never mind the Celtic cross on that label - that was something that came and then left in my particular distillation. There were lines and lines of Christians for a while in there, including myself for many a youthful year. But it is the heathen that has won out in the end, the dark, peaty, runic drone of my ancestors that hums in my brain and rattles down these tattered bones. What I am trying to do in my writing is lend them a voice.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Nasty Women

21st October 2016

British actor Hugh Laurie said recently about the presidential election that, for an outsider, it's like coming into a movie half an hour late and not being able to really get what's going on. Everyone is so angry at Hillary Clinton. Why? She's not perfect by any means, but, compared to Donald Trump, why would you even give it a second thought?
Donald Trump says Hillary is a nasty woman, and I think he is on to something there, not because he's right, but because this is the modern myth that has grown up around her.

What he is trying to appeal to by his term "nasty," has to do with an ingrained suspicion, particularly in America, and most particularly among men, about any woman in a position of power. In fact, if you follow Trump's ranking of women on a 1-10 scale, the "10's" of his world are the least threatening.
Let's take a look at a very few of history's "nasty" women. But I should warn you, some of them have been downright rabble rousers:

Cleopatra (69-30 BC) who inspired her fellow Egyptians to rise up against the Roman invasion.
Boudicca (1st C AD)  who led Britons in revolt against the Romans.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431) who roused her countrymen against the British invasion
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who was an advocate for women's rights in an age when they were still burning such women at the stake.
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), another advocate for women's rights.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), campaigner against slavery.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), British suffragette.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005), civil rights activist.
Oprah Winfrey (1954-  ),  rights activist, named most influential woman in the world
Malala Yousafzai (1997-   ) women's rights activist.

Nasty women, all.
But women are beginning to catch on. Below is an electoral map drawn up by FiveThirtyEight that shows how the election would look if only women voted.

The same site shows that if only men voted, the map would be overwhelmingly red. Women are defeating Donald Trump, and about time. My dearest hope is that Melania Trump will seize her right as a nasty woman to go into the voting booth and place her X next to Hillary's name. I am hoping that women under the thumbs of their husbands all over this country will secretly seize the day and vote like nasty women. 

Friday, October 14, 2016


 14th October 2016

Iona has set sail. On Monday, I cut the mooring line and set her into open waters. Why is a book a she? Because books are boats that navigate deep waters, and a boat is always a she.  A good book shifts us onto a different perceptual plane, takes us off dry land and tests our balance.
My agent, getting ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair, says he is too crazy-busy to read my book super quick, but the launch was the important thing. Now I have to think about revising Book 2 in light of Book 3, but first I'm going to take some days off, just a breather to take in the scent of autumn, slow down time to the speed of a drifting leaf and rid myself of that feeling that I have to do anything at all.  Nothing stymies the creative flow quicker than Gotta.  It's true Mozart in the court of Leopold was under pressure to engage his genius, but I think he would have done it anyway.

It was just a matter of who to hand the sheet music to - the creation was a constant flow. But I'm not Mozart - this stuff isn't flowing out of me non-stop. I keep having to go back into the cave and put on my headphones, block the outside, replug, reboot. Roll some billiard balls.
I am anxious to finish this time-travel series, because time travel and/or historical fiction is never anything I thought I would do. I write literary fiction, as I am quick to point out to anyone who his interested. That's literary with a capital L.

And yet, and yet, in this book series, I may be touching on the most important question of all my writing: how did our race get to such a soul-less state in its evolution? What fork in the road did we take that wasn't the one that would make all the difference (pace Frost, this keeps coming up...)? It's an important question (for which I have one possible answer) because we have reached a time of great confusion and turmoil. We have hung our hats on the wrong hook for too long, and now we need to ask why.
Iona, by Claire R McDougall, coming to a book store near you!

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Wall

October 7th 2016

I made a promise to myself when this whole election circus began that I would be taking a back seat, and certainly not be sitting ringside. Unfortunately, I have failed miserably. My finger seems to be stuck on the newsfeed button, just because all you have to do is have a one hour nap in the afternoon and you come back to Donald Trump tearing off yet another scrap from his emperor's clothing. Pretty soon, he will be naked before us, in all his shining stupidity, and, yeuk, what a thought.
I admit it was nice to have one week out of all of this whilst in Scotland, but there the headlines were full of another type of circus: Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

The world seems to have come completely unstuck, as right wing nut outdoes left wing nut outdoes any semblance of sanity.
Back in the good old USA, I did appreciate the stunning autumn colours, but I was soon back to the compulsive newsfeed business. Let it be said, I do not consider Hillary a paragon of virtue, or even very easy to listen to, but I can only shake my head in dumbstruck wonder that the United States  can't make up its mind between these two.
I console myself with Robert Frost's thought that "Something there is that does not love a wall." I have to reassure myself that this feeling will win the day. Something there is about Trump that does love a wall, and in the end I hope it will count against him.

Trump versus Hillary. There has been so much hype about not playing the woman card, but I ask why? Hasn't the man card been played ad nauseum? America has had forty-three presidents and vice-presidents so far, and not a vagina among them. It's hard to think of another presidential nominee who was ever more qualified for this job than Hillary Clinton. On top of that, she has spent her life fighting for the interests of women and children. What is going on here if it is not the last rumblings of the old boy network? The last hurrah of the male-only elite?

So, I appeal to this country's better sensibility with another image from Robert Frost: at this juncture in history, two roads have met in the wood. One leads to a wall; one doesn't. Take the one that doesn't. And it will make all the difference.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Writer's Nightmare

30th September 2016

The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft aglay, says Scotland's famous bard. It was my plan to get off the plane in Aspen, sleep a while and then finish those last few pages on the novel before sending it off to my agent. But that's not the way it happened. I came back to a computer not working, and now I'm using someone else's laptop, and it is doing things my dinosaur computer never did, not doing things I need it to. So, I started reading my novel again from the beginning. That's how aglay I am. I read over the first chapter and made some changes, went to bed, and when I got up, the changes had turned to poison. It's the writer's worst nightmare: the lines that seemed so magical yesterday feel like drek today. Your flights of creative word-mongering that seemed so, well, Yeatsian in the moment, feel today like Enid Blyton.

So, I pushed aside the travel books about Scotland and reached for one of those comfort tomes I often mention on this blog: Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize winning, "Tinkers."

I sat on my couch on the porch with a cup of tea nestled against my thigh and started reading. Lovely words, that would seem Yeatsian no matter what the time of day: ...chopping a hole in the ice and slding into it as if it were a blue vein, sliding down into the black, silty bottom of the lake, where you see nothing, perhaps feel only the stir of some somnolent fish in the murk as the plunge of you and your wool dress and the big boots disturb its sluggish winter dreams of ancient seas. 

And then I am reminded what I do this for, why I tie myself in knots for the sake of one split second of illumination when the words you chose are the words that carry the mystery from your pen to the heart of the reader. I sipped my tea and cried. And then I went back to my own words, and they didn't seem so bad after all. It must have just been the hobgoblins

Friday, September 23, 2016

Consider The Lilies

23rd September 2016

Ah, the highlands of Scotland! The place where time stands still. The place where there are more sheep than people, and after while, so the joke goes, it shows.

Life is slow here, and so it should be. What has the human race achieved by its wealth and its mile-a-minute lifestyle but high rates of suicide and a general sense of malaise? This is happiness: nothing to do. As the Buddhist sage said, "If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner,  then you have learned how to live."  

But there were no boats out to the island of St. Kilda this week. The wind was strong and the swell too high. St Kilda will have to wait. I'll be back in sunnier weather.
 In the meantime there is Harris, where the boat would have sailed from.

Lovely, Gaelic-speaking Harris where sheep fall asleep on the main road and you have to go very slow. Your brain has to hit a different rythym altogether. Go to the north of this floating land mass and you come to Callanish, a spectacular set of standing stones, second only to Stonehenge, where the ancestors danced and cavorted to the moon. Another short jaunt, and you're at the beach where in the eighteenth century a farmer chasing his cow fell into a stone cavern filed with three-inch high twelfth century chessmen. There were eighty-two of them, and now they reside where they absolutely shouldn't be, in the British Museum London.
I went out there because a fire was in my head. It was raining; close dark clouds were sweeping over the sands. Here as everywhere on the islands, seagulls, guillemots, oyster catchers, and gannets fill the air with the beat of their wings.

Here they live in their hundreds of thousands, silent witnesses to it all since the dawn of time: the coming and going of species, the paltry dance of human kind. Long after the final fall of the last stone on the last human dwelling, the birds will take flight as usual over the seething sea, skimming their bellies on the surface of the water, and then spotting a fish, climb high above the waves and like a thunderbolt fall.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Listen to the Wind

16th September 2016

A week of little sleep has had me bog-eyed in front of the computer many mornings, still trying to work my way through the final edit of book three in my Veil Of Time series before I leave for Scotland tomorrow. I am so close - a mere forty pages away - but this morning my computer of many years decided it had had enough and wouldn't save anymore. So, all I can do is let go and hope that Deepak Chopra is right when he proposes that everything in this moment is exactly as it should be. My edit will have to wait. Perhaps when I get back I will even have new clarity.
I haven't ever been able to decide whether being in those sleepy twilight zones makes for better writing or worse. Some celebrated authors of past and present who spend much of their creative life in a drunken stupor obviously think that the muse needs a little help from the bottle. That the genie will not emerge unless there is a bottle. But this seems a little cynical to me. Alcoholic authors, whether or not they possess genius, are still alcoholics.
I suppose the thinking is that a writer does what she must do to side-line the intellect. Being so tired you can barely see straight will do this too.  In one such stupor the other morning, I had to move a piece of text from one place in one copy of my MS into another place in a new copy and then remember what the old and new contexts for the passage were so I didn't repeat myself.

It didn't go well.
No, I would rather be alert and awake, even if then I have to manually turn off the mind. You can do that by listening to music or reading poetry, which as Wallace Stevens put it, should almost successfully miss the intellect. Prose is a little further along the creative spectrum towards maths and science, but still the mind needs to be silenced, because like an American in a room of other ethnicities, it will if at all possible make noise.

If only that were his worst fault!
Inner silence is what we writers are after. Perhaps it's what everyone should strive for, and what I hope to attain as I sail a hundred miles out to sea next week to an island where the chatter is outdone by bird cry and the ever present wind.