Friday, January 24, 2020

The Writing Patient

January 17th 2020

The art of Writing means resigning yourself to being a vox clamantis in deserto. When the writer picks up her pen, she steps out of the throng and into the desert. Lines from the English Patient, when Almasey has left his beloved Catherine in a cave in the middle of the desert and gone running for days to reach help, flit through my head often. Katherine is injured and has nothing in that cold cave but a flashlight, a pen and the journal she keeps. After the batteries in the torch run out, she says, "I am writing in the darkness."

In a sense the writer is always writing in the darkness, with her creative life hanging in the balance. It is a conundrum that the writer wants his or her creation out in the sunlight,  but to get it there, there have to be hours in the dark place, a staring off into the middle distance, the desk in the closet (as mine once was) or up against the wall so that there are no distractions. It is the dark night of the soul that works itself out in words on the page. Dark doesn't have to mean depressing, but you can expect an eruption of something that was buried, a projection of the artist heart splat into the artistic product. We are creatures of the dark, little luminscent beasts scurrying around the bottom of the ocean of consciousness.

We take our flashlights and poke with them into the dark forest, trying to map out a trail, able only to see as much as the flashlight will illumine. We are writing in the darkness, and the risk always hangs over us that at the end of the day we may get through that forest or out of the dark cave, but the flashlight is dead, and no one even knows we were missing.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow

29th December 2019

History seems poised on the brink. I hope it will come through unscathed. America just impeached the most corrupt president backed by the most corrupt government in its short history. England just voted its own Trump, Boris Johnson, in as its Prime Minister. Scotland said, "Thanks, all the same," and is standing up for its Claim of Right that sets sovereignty with the Scottish people, not with any government, English or Scottish, monarch or otherwise.
Scotland was way ahead of the democracy game, even in the fourteenth century.
When Sir William Wallace was asked in the midst of a protracted execution to swear allegiance to his king, he answered that this King Edward, was in fact no king in Scotland. Twenty years later, after continuing efforts by the English to subsume Scotland under its aegis, a group of Scottish lords sent the Declaration of Arbroath to the Pope, as a reminder that the country of Scotland was indeed sovereign and not ever to be regarded as part of the Kingdom of England.

If you take all the arguments proffered by Westminster before Scotland's 2014 Referendum as to why Scotland should not regain its independence, there you have a profile of the pressure that was exerted back at the beginning of the 18th C for Scotland to give up its independence in the first place.

Three hundred years later, Scotland is now in the odd position of having to "ask" Westminster for "permission" to hold another referendum, and the same old arguments are being wheeled out. Last time, they targeted the old folk, those who have been especially well-trained in the doffing of caps. Breaking  the traditional norm of Purdah, prime minister David Cameron rode post haste to Edinburgh and offered all manner of baubles if only Scotland would not take itself to itself, as any country, of course, has a perfect right to do.

This time, history is not on the side of the usurpers. In this case, the young people are wiser than the old. Some of them have even been educated in Scottish history. We have to thank the Hollywood machine for helping us out there. But increasingly it is so in Scotland that while you can fool some of the people some of the time, we're not going to fall for these lies any longer.
On the brink of 2020, seven hundred years to the year after that ancient and stamped Declaration of Independence was sent to the Pope, my country stands to become truly, though not for the first time, the land of the people, the land of the free.

Friday, November 8, 2019

High Time

November 8th 2019

When I left academia after my post graduate degree, I had read so many academic papers that my brain would just shut down every time I launched into a new one. I would pick up the manuscript, and my eyes just wouldn't track it. It was an overdose of intellectual argument; it was the point of no return for my career of teaching more of those intellectual arguments. I was in the process of applying to colleges for jobs, but something behind my eyes was slamming on the brakes.

I moved countries and had a baby, and then slowly I came back to the written word.  Not C because A and B, not All Men Are Mortal, no syllogisms, but something my eyes could embrace: a dance. I started out writing poetry, because it was as far in the play of words from logic as I could get. And then, after a few years, a friend made the observation that all my poems, though different in form, were essentially saying the same thing, something to do with heart over thought, and since I no longer lived in my own country, longing. He suggested I try weaving those emotions into a longer piece, and I have been writing novels ever since.
So, my first novel was about a girl from a rural Scottish town who won a place at Oxford University, leaving behind her a boy whom she loved but considered beneath her. In my own life I hadn't done  that exactly, though I did trade in my lovely country for the stone walls of a British institution I could never in a million years fit into.

All of this was years ago, of course. In the meantime I have written something like nine novels, always reaching for the one that would run my story forward to the part where I was showered with accolades and enough money to pathe my way back home. I never thought it would take this long. Yesterday it was my birthday. I hung one more year on the line. I am one of those pesky, passionate but annoying Scorpios, but these traits have given me the grit to hang on over the years. Nowadays, I don't think about the accolades so much, but that longing to go home grows stronger.

Time, as Stevie Nicks wrote, makes you bolder, and it also distills things down. The things that matter to me now have to do with fighting for my country to get out from under the colonial hold of Britain. More importantly, it centers around my three children, all purveyors of the heart, dancers all.
Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life. Perhaps I have learned a thing or two along the way:  the life of the mind is all very well, but not without the counterweight of the heart. Belonging somewhere counts for a whole lot. Any writer has ambition, but it is a mistake to let it direct your story. I am a better person for the twists and turns along the road, because life, as is so often said, is not about the destination. Life, like the dance that imitates it, is about steps, one foot in front of the other. As the French say, "C'est tout."

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hazel And The Chessmen

3rd October 2019


It's enormously gratifying to take the option of publishing (via my agency Aevitas Creative) straight to Amazon. You have all the say in matters of presentation, cover picture etc. And most of all, you don't have to worry about being given a publishing date in the misty future, one in this case which would be way out of range for such a time-sensitive story.

HAZEL AND THE CHESSEMEN is set between the last Scottish independence referendum and the next. I was in Scotland for the first referendum which took place on a foggy day five years ago on 18 September. The interim has only shorn up support for a free and independent Scotland, while the catastrophe of Brexit has helped things along. Here's me five years ago doing my bit in Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

In the last few years, marches like this have been taking place all over Scotland. At the end of this week, there will be another in Edinburgh that promises to be twice as big as the last. Being an ex-pat (for now) it can feel frustrating to be so far from the action, but while I am away, I can do what I do best and spin a story about it.

In HAZEL AND THE CHESSMEN, Boston artist, Hazel Crichton, is left a croft on the west coast of Scotland by her colourful Scottish grandmother. Hazel has fond memories of a summer she spent in the croft as a teenager, but her life and career are now elsewhere, and so with five year-old son Aengus in tow, she goes off to sell the rural property. What she finds instead of an empty cottage, is Andrew Logan, a radical Scottish poet with a lease and a crazy scheme to steal back Scotland's Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum in London.

I went through the process of putting HAZEL up on Amazon so that it could hit the shelves as soon as possible. I had to laugh when I saw the projected publication date was 18 Sept 2019, the five year anniversary of the first independence referendum. As Hazel in my book discovers, some things are simply out of our control.

Friday, August 16, 2019

This Little Light

15th August 2019

The German  philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote, "Two things fill me with wonder: the starry skies above me and the moral law within me."  The combustion engine in Kant's time was still a century off, and reliable telescopes were still being developed by clergymen, so his reaction to the night sky was visceral, unsubstantiated by the kind of knowledge we have today.

I live in Colorado at such a high altitude that every inch of the night sky is shiny with points of light.  It fills me with wonder. So if you take me away to New York City for a month, as recently happened, where street lights fog up the lens of the night skies and the din of human habitation obscures our best impulses towards wonder, I begin to lose perspective. In our times, life is lived at such a  rate, it is hard under any circumstances to keep a sense that each life, each individual scuttling across the floors of Eliot's ancient seas, belongs to anything but the grit and grind of one damn second plastered onto the next.

So, I remind myself and those on the brink of a life-changing moments, those whose life has untangled into meaninglessness, those who cannot take the next step: This little blue globe we live on spins on its own axis at one thousand miles an hour; The solar system in which it spins is itself spinning at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour. And as if that wasn't enough to get your head in a whirl, the Milky Way galaxy as a whole is moving through the universe at 1.3 million miles an hour.  (If you live in the Windy City, all I can say is, you have no idea!) This galaxy, not even a very large galaxy, measures one hundred thousand light years across, which means that any photon that has just reached us here on earth, actually entered our galaxy at a time when Homo Sapiens was just migrating out of Africa.

You would think that all of this daunting perspective might make you want to expunge yourself, that any iota of self simply vanishes in a puff of insignificance, but strangely it doesn't. Oddly enough, and perhaps because this is the truth of our lives on this little blue planet, we only lose a sense of meaning and purpose when we focus on our own little corner. That's when we lose our sense of wonder. Cynicism is the absence of wonder, and we live in cynical times. But go out and look at the starry heavens. Or if you live in a city, stop a moment and ponder the flower pushing up through a crack in the concrete. Shakespeare had it right that life is but a passing shadow, but he had it wrong to infer therefore that it was a poor player on a stage. Life's not a box of chocolates either, but it is a unique opportunity to live for the brief span of a candle as a microcosm of something infinitely greater than this one life and these seemingly unsurmountable problems. It's short. Let it shine.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Publishing: The Road Less Travelled

June 14th 2019

Publishing News!!

It took about two years from the time Simon and Schuster signed me up to get to the point of Veil Of Time showing up on the book shelves, physical and virtual. I am happy to report that Veil Of Time is still selling, but for the next two books in the series, I decided to go a different route from traditional publishing and use the arrangement my agency, Aevitas Creative Management,  has with Amazon. It's called White Glove Publishing, and the really great thing about it is that from start to finish it took about two months! It's not a vanity press - I paid nothing, though Amazon put the book together and worked with me on a (admittedly rather limited) choice of book covers (I actually love the cover for "Iona," and think it very apt, those monks hovering above the standing stones.)
Aevitas put me in touch with an editor (Elizabeth Heijkoop, owner of ARC Editing - check her out!) and then furnished me with a liaison, Maggie Cooper (my protagonist's name is Maggie, a neat serendipity), and we were off to the races.

Now, I did this kind of on impulse, and it is very satisfying to have the books in hand. Of course, I am missing the publicity arm that a major publisher like Simon and Schuster provided, but I figured that since the series was already established, if the link function on Amazon Books works, I will at least get repeat buyers.
The publishing world is changing these days by leaps and bounds.  I hope my own leap will be rewarded. I hope I make it to the finish line.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Scotch and Wry

31st May 2019

Last week Europe held its elections for the European parliament.  Here's what the United Kingdom map looks like after the people voted and the chips were counted.

The yellow indicates the Scottish Nationalist Party stronghold wth its pro-Europe platform. The green represents the Brexit Party led by Trump wannabe Nigel Farage. The next day, the newspapers in Scotland were not ablaze with this SNP victory, but then these are not really Scottish papers. BBC Scotland, again not really Scottish, did not cover the SNP party conference speech by its leader Nicola Sturgeon.  Instead it covered the leader of the not-really-Scottish Conservatives, who command a whopping 12% of the Scottish vote.

England went for ultra right wing Bexit party in a big way and is poised to install either Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson as its next prime minster, or if not them, then some other Eton boy who will look after the interests of the old boy's club.

Here is a delightful little ditty penned by Trump look- alike, Johnson (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to be precise - methinks there is a foreigner in our midst!) :

The Scotch - what a verminous race!
Canny, pushy, chippy, they're all over the place
Battening off us with false bonhomie;
Polluting our stock, undermining our economy.
Down with sandy hair and knobbly knees!
Surpress the tartan dwarves and the wee Frees!
Ban the kilt, the Skian Dhu and the Sporran
As provocatively, offensively foreign!
It's time Hadrian's Wall was refortified
To pen them in a ghetto on the other side. 
I would go further. The nation
Deserves not merely isolation
But comprehensive extermination. 

So, no wonder that yellow country of the north prefers to stay within Europe than go the isolationalist route of the great British Empire-that-was. Yes, the ditty is supposed to be a joke, but it wouldn't hit any Scot (Scot, not Scotch, ye dunderheid!) hard, except that this is in essence what we have been taught all our lives. "The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road to England!"  goes back to another fatuous upper class  Johnson, Samuel this time  circa 1750.   This British narrative persists, trying to convince the "Scotch" that  they owe their existence to the beneficence of the English (despite top economists now declaring that England will not survive its debts without Scottish revenues.)

Scotland, it's time to get off your knees and lift your head. As our ancestors wrote in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320:   For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches nor honours that we are fighting but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Any Scot still swallowing the empire line and recognising in their race a mere shadow of a people, is but a coof. It's all tinsel show, ribband and star. Ladies and gentlemen of Scotland, you have to believe that you are higher rank than a'that. Because you are.