Gutter Spoken Word: The Greatest Magician

Contributing to Gutter’s spoken word issue (which is all about celebrating words off the page as well as on them) has made me wonder how I got from crowd-avoider to (fairly) confident reader.

There was a very, very brief moment in my teenage years when I thought I might like to be an actor. I was probably about fourteen. There was something very appealing, then, about the feeling of being someone other, someone bigger, on the stage. I quickly realised that there was a massive difference between doing well in your drama standard grades and actually working and let that dream drift safely away. I wasn’t destined to be on stage and that was fine.

Except, many years later, when I started to take writing seriously, I found there was this whole other side to it: the spoken word. This side tends to take place, you guessed it, on a stage. Or at least, in small space cleared among a motley collection of bar stools. Microphone optional, position as the centre of attention required.

Up until that point, I’d assumed writing was writing, other people would take care of the reading. Then I started paying more attention to those author events and lit nights and realised that reading your own work aloud is a skill. One I was lacking.

So I worked and I shook and I sweated and I fumbled with microphones and heard my voice rise to an unholy pitch and depended on kind audiences to forgive me my nerves until, eventually, I found I was really enjoying myself. To my relief, I’d discovered that reading stories to people isn’t the same as standing up in front of them and talking about yourself. It’s got a lot more in common with those heady, teenage moments when it was possible to step outside a bubble of embarrassment and be someone else for a while.

For Gutter, I read a story written to be read aloud. I originally wrote it for Illicit Ink’s Unbound slot at the EIBF, when I read it to a tent full of nice, bookish people. This time, I read it into my little brother’s microphone (thanks, Evan) and had to magic up an imaginary audience for myself. And you know, whether in the room with you or just there in your head, there’s nothing like an audience for conjuring up a touch of magic.

Winter survival for the freelance writer

Frozen, demoralised and contemplating ‘leaving the house’? Try these instead.

coffee2Achieve hot drink harmony

Carefully weigh up the cosy-finger benefits of a cup of coffee or tea against the frigidity of your bathroom. Constant, cold pee breaks will quickly undermine the warming factor of frequent hot drinks. What coffee giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

Waste no available sources

Got an old laptop that struggles to stay cool under pressure? Watch a few videos and wait for the base to heat up. Be sure to lie down and place laptop on trunk for maximum efficiency. If printing large documents on an ink jet printer, hold the collated pages to chest for residual warmth.

Buy a cape/blanket/poncho

Normal clothes are not enough for workers as stationary and sedentary as you. Layers are your friend. Also useful for concealing pyjamas, three day old stains etc. Running around pretending that you are Dracula is optional, but useful for generating body heat which can then be trapped be aforementioned layers.

Have a shower

When core temperature drops significantly and the mouse-clicking fingers start to feel like bunch of frozen baby carrots taped to a stone, have a hot shower. Also useful for avoiding emails and providing a legitimate excuse for not writing. Should be used sparingly due to high electricity costs.

Burn your failures

Bills, rejected copy, that novel you’ve been writing for most of your adult life – all can be valuable resources when the winter chill hits. An open fireplace or wood burning stove is preferable. Not only can you enjoy sitting in front of a cracking flame, the burning of failures provides that all important inner glow.

Detoxing: Book festivals, events and fun

IMG_2021The last time I posted, I was fresh back from a month in France with nothing to do but write. What a world apart from the last few months, where I’ve been scurrying around from one thing to the next, trying to squeeze in a few minutes of scribbling time here and there.

The weekend just past, I was wearing my organiser badge for Portobello Book Festival – a wonderful, warm local festival that attracts all sorts of writers, readers and interested folk. There was a lot of running around as usual, but all came together in the end and the committee was as hard working and passionate as always.

IMG_2018I was especially pleased that my mum’s book folding workshop went well and that the two events I was chairing (Peter Pan The Graphic Novel with Stref and Fin Cramb and Daring Debuts with Lucy Ribchester and Catherine Simpson – all of whom were a total pleasure to chair) were as great as I hoped.

IMG_2027Just as I was recovering from the fun of the festival, it was time for the launch of the Book Week Scotland programme – I’ve been helping out with the event listings over the last few months, in a freelance role for Scottish Book Trust – and there are just so many fantastic events taking place all over Scotland.

Living where I do, I’m totally spoilt for choice when it comes to readings, signings and bookish events but they obviously aren’t quite so thick on the ground in more remote areas, so it’s awesome to see libraries, councils and bookshops coming together to celebrate reading in all kinds of ways!

I’ve also been super happy this month to get my hands on contributor copies of two different books/journals – I Am Because You Are, an anthology of stories inspired by General Relatively edited by Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt and Banshee Lit, a fab new Irish Journal.

Today, my mind is reeling and still packed with information about other people’s books, ideas and words – it’s time to have a mini detox so I can catch up where I left off, and hope it’s easy to slip back into the imaginary world I left behind!

RLS Fellowship: A retreat is a better than rest

DSC01698As far as I can tell, writers are pretty bad at taking holidays. You’re either working or you’re writing and often those two things are one and the same, but it’s not the kind of work it’s easy to shut the office door on. Wherever you are, there’s a little voice in the back of your said squeaking ‘this is all very nice, but shouldn’t you be writing?’ And maybe you should. On the other hand, sometimes you have to have some actual real world experiences, if only to generate new things to write about.

For the last year and a half, all my self-organised trips were short writing breaks. I went for a day or two at a time and each was great but not the same as an actual rest, so when I found out I’d been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship through Scottish Book Trust and was off to spend the whole of June in Grez-sur-Loing, France, I was both incredibly stoked and a little bit nervous. Would I produce enough work while I was there? Would I find that a long-dreamed-for month of writing time was better in my imagination than in reality? Would I go crazy?

DSC01960Happily, I stayed pretty sane (no thanks to the mosquitos who all thought I was the best thing since sliced bread – a loaf of Mother’s Pride, no doubt – and thanks in part to the other artists at the hotel) and managed to write a bunch, even though the first few days were largely taken up with feeling weird and wondering what I was mean to be doing. In the end, I decided I was meant to be eating lots of poire amades, exploring the area in a very low key way and just thinking about things.

It was very inspiring to stay in a hotel so beloved by generations of artists and writers and the building and its grounds are so charming I felt like I’d stepped into another life. One of the best parts was the fact that I was away for so long, which meant that even though I was researching and thinking and writing, it actually did feel a little bit like a holiday too. I’m getting the feeling I prefer the working kind anyway.


Writing Without a Goal

Most days, I sit down and I write copy for one client or another. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s incredibly dry and other times it’s frustratingly vague, but all client work has something in common – a very clear objective and a defined finish line to cross. The work is done when it meets the criteria agreed in the brief and the client is happy with it. So far, so satisfying.

And then, later on in the day, I’m likely to be sitting down for a second time and writing something that just doesn’t have the same kind of clear cut boundaries. I’ll be switching to the fiction part of the day and unless it’s a commissioned story or I’m writing for a themed event, THERE ARE NO RULES. The only objectives are the ones I made myself and the client is, well, anyone I can persuade to read the results. So far, so woolly!

There’s something very freeing about knowing you can write about absolutely anything you want, but it can also be kind of unnerving. Especially if you get stuck thinking that every piece of writing should have a specific end point and a worth measured by a client or reader’s satisfaction.

Once you start putting on that kind of pressure, you can end up feeling as though writing your own stuff is the very opposite of freeing.

If I'm really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

If I’m really stuck, I might actually sketch instead!

In fact, it’s almost paralysing, because to be honest, not everything you write should be seen be someone else. Sometimes, you should be writing just to try something out, to get a random idea out your head or even to fail so that you can get it right next time.

Think of that writing you do that might not end up in a novel or as its own, perfectly formed short story as just another page in your artist’s sketchbook. Just like painters, everything you do has merit, even if the result is nothing you’d want to hang on the wall. Let yourself write without a goal and just when you’re doodling and scribbling away at something just for the fun of it, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on an idea you want to take forward after all.

Perseverance: Writing until you improve

As a child, I was not persistent. Not in the ways that mattered, anyway. I was probably tireless when it came to demanding more bedtime stories/snacks/attention, but when it came to hobbies or pursuits, my tenacity wavered quickly.

I was briefly in the Girls’ Brigade, Brownies and Girls Guides – I tired of all not long after being bought the unfirms (sorry, mum and dad). I pitched such a fit at my first swimming lesson I didn’t make it to the second. I decided I hated the rat-at-at of tap shoes so much that I cried until I was allowed to sit at the side and never returned (oh, how I later regretted that).

I gave up on maths, sciences, languages and playing the guitar. I slouched at the edges of the PE field, better to get in trouble for not trying than for people to laugh at my hand-eye coordination.

mini-meAt the time, I could’ve given you a handful of reasons justifying each of these decisions, all with some small amount of merit, but the truth was that I recognised that I wasn’t very good at being a Girl Guide or a tap dancer or a hockey player and instead of being inspired to improve, I decided to give up. ‘To concentrate on developing the things I was/might be good at’, I’d justify. Really, I was running away from failure.

I didn’t want people to see me struggle. I thought that if you weren’t good at something right away, there was no pleasure in it. Silly kid. Except, it took me a long time to grow out of it. So silly 20-something who wanted to give up on writing because she realised she wasn’t all that. Silly demoralised graduate who looked at all of the better writers out there and thought it’d be better to give up that really get started.

Luckily for me, lots of wise people patiently explained that persistence and perseverance is actually the name of the game – of nearly every game. There are few true geniuses in the world and plenty of other successful people who get good because they work at it. They try hard, they allow themselves to fail in public and they aren’t ashamed of sharing the process.

Now, those are the kind of people I most want to be like. Rather than wish for the ability to be instantly amazing, I hope for the kind of tenacity that will allow me to stamp down on fears of failure and embarrassment and just keep on going.

Between too busy and just busy enough to write

Lynsey May at NYC LibraryThe great writing dream is surely a completely clear schedule. Day after day, week after week of time to yourself, to think and dream and immerse yourself in a consciousness not entirely your own. I dream about it often enough, especially when I’m juggling a bunch of different and quite disparate projects. In reality though, I know it probably wouldn’t suit me.

What does suit is a fine balance between being too busy to start getting my thoughts in any kind of order and having so little to do that my brain starts to hibernate and hunts for low-impact tasks to keep it ticking over (making soup, reorganising my desk and so on).

It’s not an easy balance to achieve – it’s far too easy to tip one way and then the other – but when it’s working well, everything is energised. Work achievements energise writing and getting something creative done fills me with wellbeing that spills into everything else. For me, this elusive balance is probably the real dream and it’s in its pursuit that I stopped helping out at the excellent Edinburgh Review.

I’ll miss that place but I have lots of other extracurricular activities to keep me going (I’m looking at you, Edinburgh City of Literature and Porty Book Fest!). Of course, there’s the regular day job too, but I’m lucky enough to be freelance.

There have also been a few little injections of writing faith in recent weeks, including a spot on the Bristol Prize Longlist, which sometimes throw you off balance but always in the best possible way. Is the desire to be busy, but just a little bit busy, pretty average for writing types or do you think that a window of completely free time is what you really need to get going?

The WoMentoring Project: Finding a real-life fictional friend

WoMentoringIllo3WebConsidering that writing is all about making up stories, its always a little disconcerting to remember that the world of publishing is pretty tough. And if you don’t have a few friends to guide you through the potential pitfalls and dunts to your ego, you might just find it a little too much to handle.

Lovely (generous and talented) author Kerry Hudson recognised this, and the fact that many women are struggling to find the support they need, and came up with the fantastic WoMentoring Project as a way to inspire, connect and support female writers.

The aim of this fantastic, free project is to…

… simply to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. The hope is that we’ll see new, talented and diverse female voices emerging as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

So what are you waiting for? Get yourself along to the WoMentoring website and see if there’s a mentor perfect for you or, if you’ve got some excellent experiences to share, why not volunteer your services? See if you can find yourself a real life friend for facing the fictional world.

When will there be good news?

Some weeks, the world seems to be conspiring against you. And when one of those weeks rolls around, I often find myself repeating the title of a book by one of my favourite authors like a mantra: When Will There be Good News? When? WHEN?

Then I have to remind myself that, really, I already have my share of good news. True, I could have done without cutting my finger on the recycling cans, chipping my tooth on Friday night’s dinner, losing my hat at the museum, getting a reminder for a smear test, receiving some disappointing writing news and finding out about hassley flat stuff all within the space of a few days. But overall, I am a lucky duck.

list logoI get to spend lots of time making up stories and earn my living by putting some words beside some other words, I know some very lovely people and I have tested all of the cafes in a two mile radius and rated them for coffee and treat excellence (in my head, anyway). Last week even had a few highlights of its own, including mother’s day fun, gossip with a pal and a flash fiction of mine in The List, thanks to lovely literary editor Kirsty Logan.

That’s enough to be going on for now and fingers crossed this week is going to be just a touch luckier when it comes to minor injuries and annoyances!

How Twitter stuffed my blogging brain

A couple of weeks ago I composed a little tweet along the lines of ‘I used to be quite good about updating my blog. Then I discovered Twitter.’ One of my tweeting pals replied saying I should blog about this fact. I agreed and then proceeded to fail to write said blog for a silly number of days. Why? Because Twitter really has filling up the bit of my brain that compels me to write blog posts.

twitterTwitter is like and endless supply of mini snacks. A jumbo sack of 10p bags of crisps or a pic and mix of penny chews. A tweet is almost instantaneous. You don’t have to think about it for very long before firing it off (unless you’re about to wade into a spat or tricky discourse) and it takes no time at all to type it. Sometimes it does take a number of seconds to delete it down to the appropriate number of characters, but it’s still a very small time investment.

Blogging takes a little longer. A post will sit on your site rather than disappear down a timeline and it just straight up demands a little more in the way of words – and commitment. Also, blogging doesn’t seem to have quite the same addictive quality Twitter has. These days, I can go quite a while without thinking about blogging, but I seem to check my Twitter feed an awful lot. I don’t know why I’m surprised, crisps and penny chews have always been my downfall.

And then there’s the potential for instant feedback, which is so much more likely on Twitter, and feeds into that same writerly longing for confirmation when doing something alone that takes ages. It’s like the difference between writing a flash fiction you can sub in a number of days and a novel that will take you years. Which is more tempting when you’re in need of just a teeny wee ego boost? No question for lonely, affirmation seeking writers who happen to be drinking cold coffee and wearing a blanket.

So what am I saying? Basically Twitter has shown me that what I really want is distraction, conversation, attention and crisps.