Friday, October 26, 2012

Veil of Dunadd

                                         Friday, 26th October 2012

There's a Brigadoon quality to this part of Scotland. I came in late to Glasgow Airport and drove (on the left-hand side of the road, which is always an astounding challenge, even if that's how you learned to drive all those eons ago when you were 18 years old) almost solo along Loch Lomond, over the pass and around loch roads. My headlights alone lit the wayside trees, bare now for the late autumn that it is, and the rusty bracken in its unlikely retreat from summer. After almost three hours, you turn a bend, and then out of the darkness appears the white town, it's front of small-windowed houses lit by spots of yellow light, unchanged from those far-off 18-year-old days. It is not yet the middle of night, but no one is walking, the shops all shut up tight. No wonder it has provided me such a wealth of life for my, perhaps unusual, imagination growing up here. 
Beyond the town you're back in pitch black except for the car's yellow eyes, along narrow roads that were never built for more than the plod of a horse and cart. You flick on the ticking indicator, turn down the lane, and there she rises like a figment in the night, the great mound of Dunadd, tight-lipped, still guarding the memory of all she has known, from the Druids and warriors, to the farmers and holiday makers, to the tourists mounting her back to wrest what they can from the other lives she has lived. 
The break of morning finds me in the cottage where my book "Veil of Time" (now the title seems only too fitting!) takes place. I haven't been back here since I wrote that story, but here I am, a cup of tea between cold palms, staring out the window on the river winding through fields of sheep that my heroine, Maggie, looks out in between bouts of slipping back into this country's naked past. What comes to me in the silence of this place on this frosty morning is how easy a slip that might be.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Mountain Bluebird on a Scottish Wall

19th October 2012

Colarado days like this one are called Blue Bird days with skies so blue, like a child took the bluest crayon and coloured it in thick and deep. You could lie on your back in the grass and look into a blue like this, broken only by the lazy flap of a raven, until you're abducted, not by aliens but by the sky. Snow has been creeping from the tops of the far peaks down the slopes, a little more each night, telling us we will wake one morning soon and find its footprints on the stark trees, on the wall that I put together round stone upon round stone,  two sides coming together to lean upon each other and call themselves one wall, a Scottish wall under blue skies, shifting uneasily, robbed of its moss and lichen.
Last week I was about to embark on a few tips for aspiring writers, but I got waylaid in talking about why writing is a craft and why some writers are craftier than others. 
Here are a couple of tips:

(1) FORGET THE AUDIENCE. I know you wouldn't be writing anything down at all if you weren't thinking some one else would read this some day (some writers are very dishonest about this fact.) So, acknowledge them, then turn out the theatre lights and go to your writing desk.  The greatest hindrance to writing is the editor parrot perched on your shoulder. Just like you wouldn't invite anyone into your dressing room to watch you undress, keep those same people out of your writing space. You don't want to know what they think of your last sentence or your writing project. When I was co-chair of a writer's group, we'd often have people come in and read the one chapter they had written and then ask if anyone thought they should carry on with the project. That is not only listening to your editing parrot, but raising him to king. Shoo him off! The reason for your writing has to come from deep inside, not any place that ever sees the sun, or a Colorado blue sky, and especially not the opinion of others. You write because you can do no other. If there is any other reason, then maybe you should find a different outlet for your creative urge. Which takes me to Advice Number Two.

(2)  FORGET THE FAME AND MONEY: The fame part is harder to let go of than the money, just because we really do write to be heard. Now, I know it happens now and agin that a writer strikes rich with half a book completed (like "Clan of the Cave Bears," for instance.) It happens, but not that often. If you're after riches, there are far straighter roads to that particular goal. I've yet to make any significant money from writing, and it has always been my sense that fame and riches could actually undermine the writing process.  It was my goal from early on to have a collection of books before any one of mine was published, because I didn't want to end up a JD Salinger, a one-hit wonder (he still qualifies as that, even though he wrote other things.) I could see the danger of the success of a first novel and the pressures that are brought to bear on that author. So, I wrote a collection of five unrelated novels, and at that point felt able to start sending them out.  To date I have about eight novel, which I think gives me a nice cushion for Blue Bird days and doing nothing but getting lost in the sky.

Next week's blog and the following one will be sent out from Scotland, home of my birth. I plan to make a mad dash down to the Emily Bronte Museum in Yorkshire, then back up to Alloway to the  Robert Burns Museum, and finally to the Writer's Museum in Edinburgh.
I have many more writing tips, too, which I will get round to by and by.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Digesting writing

13th October 2012

The slender cottonwoods in my garden that take up the foreground of this view from my window are slowly denuding themselves. A crowd of smaller trees by the wall never got the memo and are still in coats of orange. But the clouds are low today, touching the hills with a lace of fog, as though the day has forgotten to wake up. The hours pass slowly on the grandfather clock downstairs, and I spend my day in a no-man's land between waking and sleeping. Der Tag will nicht erwachen.
Someone once gifted me what must have been a ten-year subscription to Writers' Digest magazine, so I flick through it when it arrives. I brew a steaming cup of tea and sit in the corner of my couch musing over its titles and advice.
One thing that comes up repeatedly, and not just in this publication, but wherever writer's discuss writerly things, is advice for aspiring writers. I went to a book launch lately where this was asked and the author said that the only qualification for being a writer was that you write.  I spent a good ten years of my life attending and eventually chairing a writer's group, and I can't whole heartedly endorse that sentiment. I certainly wouldn't like to go to a doctor whose only qualification was that they practiced medecine. I would want to think that they had made their gruelling way through medical school. Not that I am proposing every writer should run off and join an MFA programme. Far from it. But writing is a craft, something that most writers put in their thousand hours over, something that you learn brick by brick along the way, and nothing that an education in literature or writing will necessarily furnish you with.
My first forays into creative writing produced nothing that would give anybody else any joy or sense of accomplishment. I had mostly been involved in academic writing in what was then my short life, and my writing style was dense enough you had to pry every sentence from the next and from the paragraph as a whole with an exacto knife. In short, although the images were quite nice, nothing flowed. It was like handing a hungry restaurant patron a piece of overcooked steak. Still steak, still full of protein, but not exactly palatable.
It took years and years, for me to find the button that had "Let Go," printed on it in fine print. It was hiding all the while somewhere under the breastbone, but I didn't know that for a long time, certainly not at the beginning when I was trying so hard to be a writer. I had a few principles back then, all of which eventually had to be tossed, and one that said, "Writing in the first person is a cop-out."  For me, finding that let-go button had to do in part with allowing myself the freedom to write in whatever voice came naturally. That turned out to be the first person, and just that little allowance unleashed a flood of creativity and gave me new channels to pour it into. (Aside: I still sort of believe that principle, so I'd like to get back to writing in the third person, but I'm not holding on to it in a death grip. It's more of a musing now.)
So, are you are a writer because you write? Are you a painter because you paint? Modern art says Yes. I want to say there is a whole lot more to it than that, something you'll discover if you commit to the craft and are open to learning it along the way.
I started this blog with the idea of giving a few guiding principles to aspring writers, but I've run out of space, and I'll do that next week. But for one to go on, you can't do better than the advice to write routinely and keep at it. It won't make you a writer right away, but it is to writing what a restaurant is to a cook. It's a very good place to start.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Oliver Griggs

5th October, 2012

Somewhere in a graveyard in Liverpool there is a gravestone bearing the name of Eleanor Rigby. Paul McCartney doesn't believe he has ever seen it, but it gives me a nice seque into the question of where an author finds his or her characters. (By the way, just as an aside, I sometimes get introduced to people as an "authoress." It makes me want to reach out and clip that person around the earhole  - as my aged aunt used to say - because it seems a bit diminutive. I remind myself that a lioness is no less of a lion, but somehow in the term "authoress" seems hidden some surprise that a woman should be writing at all. Like a fish riding a bicycle. Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Anyway.)
I suppose characters come from all over the place, even graveyards, but my advice to anyone who knows an author (or authoress) well is to watch out. Snape, that infamous character in Harry Potter, was based on a mean-spirited teacher that JK Rowling once had (he says, "I knew I was strict, but not that bad" - the happy ending of that tale is that he cashed in on his infamy by writing a book about some of the places from JK Rowling's childhood. His name was John Nettleship, which is almost as good a name as Snape.)
So I am not the only authoress who gives in to the temptation to get back at some of the less savoury characters in her life. They just pop up whenever you reach for a name for an antagonist. Just saying. You know who you are, and you are invariably male and in a position of authority.
As for the good characters, the same probably applies. Beth in Little Women was based on a friend of Alcott's who was commonly know as "Elizabeth the Wise." Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on his childhood friend. It's just so much easier to write about someone you don't have to invent. Once you have tucked them into your story, they already have a personality, and you don't have to wonder how they would react in a given situation or how their face would look. In one of my books, I pretty much took a professor I had as an undergraduate (a nice one) and stuck him straight into the narrative wholesale. I made him more colourful, but he was already quite a personality in himself.
So far, I have rarely managed to create a protagonist who didn't think like me. I suppose I must not be very creative. I did try in my last novel, and even gave her the name of a childhood friend, but she didn't act like that friend or think like that friend. She didn't even really look like that friend (or me) but the things coming out of her mouth sounded like me. I don't know if every authoress (or author) has this problem, if it is a problem. I imagine that Kathy of Wuthering Heights was every bit like Emily Bronte, and Sylvia Plath bore a strict resemblance to her protagonist in The Bell Jar. We're exorcising our demons, I suppose.
But whatever the cause or result, I will probably keep on doing it. It's not a question of being lazy, more just what you do when you set out on a journey: sit down in the driver's seat and hand-pick a few friends (or not, as the case may be) to walk the path with you.