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!  (http://bit.ly/ImagineImBeautiful) 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 booktrope.com)
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.


Friday, October 31, 2014

The Good Witches


31st October 2014

All Hallow's Eve (Halloween) is one of those pagan holidays that the church took over and tried to make holy (in the sense of people filing down the aisle to drink blood at the altar! Mmmm)  In my country, Halloween is called Samhain (pronounced Sah-voon) in the old Gaelic language, and my book Veil Of Time starts on Halloween when my protagonist arrives at the ancient fort of Dunadd in Scotland.  There are plenty of Christians these days who won't celebrate Halloween because it is supposed to be the devil's birthday, but whether you do or you don't, Samhain keeps shining through the veil: there is just no escaping the holiday's pagan roots.
What our ancestors were celebrating on this day of Samhain was not the devil, for god's sake, since they hadn't yet divided the world into "good" and "evil," but the fact that our everyday world is only a thin veil drawn across the great totality beyond space and time (which is why we dress up as the dead, the ghosts and ghoulies.) Once the church took over the holiday, witches appeared in this Halloween pot, too. But "witches" were just the wise women of pagan times, the ones the church didn't want leading their disciples off the Christian straight and narrow. You can't conceive of Halloween without witches -  those hundreds of thousands of "witches" the church took out and burned to death.


On this Halloween day, let's take a moment to remember the wise women, as they are remembered by a small sconce with pink flowers set in the wall of the esplanade at Edinburgh castle. This is one of the spots the "witches" were taken. Sometimes these innocent women were garroted first, often they went to the flames fully conscious. It is a horrendous and not much acknowledged part of church history. In 1727, Janet Horne was the last woman to be burned at the stake in Scotland on the charge of consorting with the devil. This was the same year Handel was composing St. Matthew's Passion. The plaque next to the sconce allows that "some" of the witches were actually good witches. Small recompense, I say.



I was going to talk today about dialogue -  a fun but crucial aspect of writing stories - but let's leave that until next week. On this day of Halloween, I am feeling the weight of this fear of the wise woman and of the pagan in general. I'm thinking of the untold damage it has done to human consciousness. It is not a literary point and I apologise for this time out of my blog's main function. But it inspired me to take a stand in a book series and write about what was lost to our religious sensibility when the monks took over. It's about time someone did. It's about time.



Friday, October 24, 2014

Rewrites and Conjuring Tricks

25th October 2014

When you write a book of fiction, when, like God, you create this world populated by projections of your own psyche, it takes over your life. That seventh day of rest doesn't come for you, though, because you're too absorbed with your fictional world and too disengaged from your real one: the days just keep on passing, from five pages on this day to ten on the next, to a day when you are forced to go out and attend to other aspects of your life but keep chewing over what you have written and what you are going to write next. It's a socially sanctioned obsessive compulsive disorder.


I have to say this is where I am right now, recreating this book that I created once before but so long ago now the initial impulse has become hazy. So I get to be god all over again, and it is a heady business, a piece of psychotherapy, if truth be told. The craft of the writer is to make this journey of self-discovery compelling also to the reader.  Funny thing - I thought I knew these characters of old (Lord knows I have been carrying them around for long enough!) but they are surprising me all over again.  They are saying different things and are reacting in different ways, and my main character, Hazel, has much more of an internal struggle going on. Sometimes I wonder from where in the dark pool of my own soul I am pulling this stuff. I thought her attraction to the love-interest was obvious, a
fait accompli, but now I don't know if he isn't just too aggravating, that in the end she might not, as she did before, end up with him.
Stephen King says in his fantastic little book "On Writing," that stories consist of 3 things: Narration, Description and Dialogue.  Where is plot in this? - nowhere, and that's the way it should be (he says, and I agree!)
So re-writing becomes a new voyage of discovery. You have the same characters, but this time around you're not in the same place you were the last time around. This time the story begins to list in different directions, because the characters have come out of their sleep and are not the same.
If the writer of "The Three Bears," had picked it up a few decades later and messed with it again, it might have come out differently: Goldilocks might look up at the three bears crowding her bed and, instead of fleeing, might begin to explain her predicament. The bears, being reasonable bears, might probe more deeply and find out that this little girl is truly lost, and not just in the forest. In this version, they might adopt her, and then the point of the story would be entirely different.



So don't carve characters out of stone. As you do your own children, let your characters blossom into their own persons. Stephen King says, "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it something I never expected."



Friday, October 17, 2014

Ye Of Little Faith

17th October 2014

There are people, some of them my friends, who balk at the idea of being seen with a time travel book like mine in their hands. They think it reflects badly on them: REAL literature is not taken to such flights of fancy - it deals, if somewhat poetically, with REAL life or with Quirky life or with an Aberration of life, but always with tangible life, thank you very much.  The REAL reader of fiction is a no-nonsense sort of reader, and time travel, they think, is precisely that: nonsense.
I was giving a reading earlier this year and found myself saying, "Time travel isn't as far-fetched as it used to be." This caused a wave of titters to move across the room. But I am right, you know. Our whole notion of both space and time is dissolving about our ears, and neither one is that solid entity we once mistook it for. Reality, science is beginning to concede, is what you make it. Reality, as it turns out, might be the best case of mass hallucination there is.
At another reading, I came to the conclusion (with the audience) that my book really falls into the genre of Magical Realism. Why does Gabriel Garcia Marquez get to put the tail of a pig on babies and have people floating about, while when I have people floating about, it is deemed low brow supermarket nonsense? I take umbrage at this. All books ask the reader to take a leap of faith. It's just that I am asking them to jump a bit further. So is Marquez.


Jump, and you will be vindicated when the first contraption makes it possible to send your collection of atoms through space and time to another spot. Scientists are already teleporting photons, for god's sake. So, don't go scoffing at my time travel book! If you want reality as Newton saw it, I have a whole backlog of unpublished books with people up to their ears in the quagmire of hard reality.  Maggie, the protagonist of "Veil Of Time," is actually doing the same, trying to find her life, and in the process digging up some questions about what we lost when the pagans were ousted.



These ancestors of ours would have had less of a hard time with the idea of time travel. It was the Christians who made time look like a long line because they needed to put God at the beginning and heaven at the end. The pagans knew that time doesn't really exist. They were masters of magical realism, and not only Marquez but McDougall would have been up there on their bronze-age shelves. Right next to Hawking's A Brief History of Time. You see, they wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.