Monday, December 03, 2012

The pen and the desert

How far would you travel for a transformational writing workshop? There are many on offer in interesting locations -- Greek islands, the South of France, south-eastern Spain – that suggest a holiday atmosphere. So what about the Sahara Desert - a day’s camel-lope from a tarmac road? After my recent experience of leading a writing retreat in Morocco, I would encourage anyone to go a step or two further to 'Cafe Tissardmine' near(ish) Erfoud.

We know about the power of travel as a writing stimulant. Firstly there’s the effect of an unfamiliar setting, language, culture; a tonic to the senses. Suddenly we notice how much more we notice. Alastair Reid has written wonderfully about this in ‘Notes on Being a Foreigner’:

‘In a foreign country the pattern of days is less predictable – each one has its character and is easier to remember. So, too, the weather; and so, too, the shape and feel of newspapers, the sound of bells, the taste of beer and bread. It is all rather like waking up and not knowing who or where one is. If, instead of simple recognition, one can go through a proper realization, then quite ordinary things take on an edge; one keeps discovering oneself miraculously alive’.

Then there’s the effect of motion itself on our writing minds, whether it's walking, train travel, or the rhythm on the back of an animal. Tahir Shah, whose In Arabian Nights was one of my literary discoveries on this Moroccan adventure, captures this in describing his own response to the journey from his home in Casablanca to the South East of the country and the desert:

'Movement has a magical effect on the mind. It stimulates the eyes, distracts them, allowing real thought to take hold'.
To learn how to write on a camel, click here
I attribute my starting to write in 1995 to an early workshop experience combining an immersive experience with a place that contributed a significant personality. Lunga House near Ardfern, in Argyll, used to run a ‘creative space’ in the summer months and it was there that a small group of us hung on to Liz Lochead's every word for a week. It provided me with a combination of guided writing activities, encouragement towards independent writing and the freedom to roam over the local hills and coastal inlets in a kind of creative trance. It was a time out from ordinary life whose impact didn’t recede once it was over in the way that holidays often do. My second residential workshop was the gusty hilltop at Moniack Mhor near Inverness, a place I return to often now to teach. Interestingly participants in the residential Arvon Foundation courses frequently come some distance -- often from the south of England. I would say that the sense of displacement itself, of tipping out of everyday life, adds a significant element to their development as writers during their stay.

Although I've been in a desert before, and written here about its effect on me, Café Tissardmine Is perhaps one of the remotest inhabited places I have stayed. There’s 180 degrees of sky wrapping around you and a red plain for the eye to travel over. The effect of alienation together with some evocative journeys built into the design of the week are powerful experiences for writing.

Many of the workshop activities we did together were common to those I’d offer anywhere: close observation using all the senses, making abstract words concrete, playing with the power of dialogue. But the strange, red, wide place made other activities possible too. We each created a character, paying particular attention to what they wore on their feet and carried in their pockets. Then we walked them out of 'nowhere' towards the mud walls that enclose Café Tissardmine, passing fossilised fish locked into rocks, occasional date palms, a van stuck in soft sand. Sure enough each of the characters’ journeys became a story as they came to terms with the alien territory they moved through.

We also each chose a place nearby to revisit on several occasions during the week. This allowed the place to become familiar, but also allowed the effect of light and temperature to de-familiarise it. Under moonlight and stars a stretch of flat dune became a mountain; sunrise threw flat black shadows the opposite way to where they carved the land at sunset. We noticed the landscape’s tricksy character. It appeared so still and silent, but was a shape-shifter and it crept its way into our writing whether we wanted it to or not.

Karen Hadfield has created this quirky guesthouse/artshouse with a Berber business partner to provide just such experiences for people in need of creative or reflective time. Its other characteristics, not immediately to do with our individual writing experience, also shaped the week. There was no Internet, an intermittent phone signal, and limited power for light and heat for hot water. Our accommodation was in Berber tents woven for warmth from camel wool (although each had a double bed and flushing loo!). They were grouped around an intimate enclosure laid with rugs. Each breakfast-time and through each afternoon we shared the shade of the lovely ‘salon’ under canvas but open to the sky. The peace and stillness that characterised the place was frequently punctuated by our communal hoots of laughter. Each evening our applause exploded as the tagine lid was lifted and our sizzling aromatic meal revealed. There should be a word for the moment of teasing anticipation between the placing of the dish on the table and the lifting of the lid. A week of this home cooking was the most wonderful, and varied, treat.

The journeys we made together also played their part. We shared an eight-hour drive from Fes to Tissardmine. Rumbling the last miles by Land Rover at dusk in a sandstorm across the flat seemingly featureless plain, we were silenced by the place that would be our home for a week, in uneasy awe. Later we spent a day travelling with camels through the massive dune-scape, Erg Chebbi, and across a plain to a new camp for the night. The sunset, fireside drumming, Cassiopeia arcing over us during the long, bright night and then the transformational sunrise brought us into intimate contact with the sand, the stars, our hosts, each other. By the end of the week the landscape had shifted beneath us, made itself our home. We could pick out small landmarks and orientate ourselves by familiar shapes in the distant cliffs and mountains. We knew the ‘clock’ of sounds marking the transition from night to daybreak – the donkey near the well ‘going off’ like some sort or alarm, the raucous waking of the chickens, then the sheep silenced by Karen bringing their food, and finally her footfall on our rugs, bringing us morning tea just before sunrise.

By the time we travelled twelve hours together across the desert and over the High Atlas to Marrakech, we had learned the landscape together. How this will continue to resound in our psyches and in our writing remains to be seen. But my feeling is that it will linger long.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent Calendar (sort of)

'The Coming', my story which involves opening 25 doors with tasters inside, a bit like an Advent Calendar, can be found here. It was inspired by a scrap of paper found on a London street by Andy Hayes.

Friday, June 01, 2012

26 Treasures in print - museum objects 'speak'

Museums often talk of wanting their objects to speak to visitors and as if in answer, the '26 Treasures' Anthology was launched at the V&A on 18th September. The 26 refers to writers' collective, see more here, and each writer was asked to respond to an object in only 62 words. I'm very proud to have my short piece included in response to Saint Fillan's crozier handle and relic known as the Coigrich, a very treasure-y object with magical powers (or at least it did before it was captured by the National Museum of Scotland, so who knows what it gets up to in its glass case!). More about the writing of it here. This is a beautiful book produced by Unbound, the book crowd-sourcing specialist and distributed by Faber for £14.99.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Finishing a Fellowship

What a great conclusion to my three years as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Stirling University. First, my grand ‘walk home from the office’. Then the Publishing MLitt celebrated its thirtieth birthday and World Book Night on April 23rd by sending a whole lot of books ‘walking’ as dominoes, including my ‘best foot books’. Then the launch of Kathleen Jamie’s new book of essays ‘Sightlines’ for which the gorgeous wall pictured below was painted in the Pathfoot Building alongside a celebration of the Fergusson Collection of paintings (which I’ve had the joy to walk past every time I’ve gone to work there). Then a ‘farewell’ reading this Tuesday for Creative Writing students and assorted lecturers alongside fellow-RLF-Fellow Eleanor Updale and Charles Wallace Fellow from India Nabina Das. And finally as I cleared my office yesterday evening, a chance to join the Publishing students for the final showcase of their book production projects – very fine results indeed. I’ll miss my work, the students and colleagues there very much, but now as one door closes, another opens…

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Illuminating Libraries

My latest radio play ‘The Lamp’ goes out on BBC Radio Four on 14th December, and has special status as ‘Play Of The Week’ which means that it will also be available as a podcast from Friday 16th for seven days.

It was recorded on location at Perthshire’s charming Library of Innerpeffray at the beginning of November, and I’m only now shuffling the paperwork around, deciding what to keep, what to discard, where to file it. But it’s interesting to look over the lengthy process of proposal and development in the scraps of paper, the notebooks, the handwritten and successive typed manuscripts, with Director Eilidh McCreadie’s helpful notes, which finally led to the official script sent out to all involved by the BBC.

I’ve been enchanted with Innerpeffray for a long time, Scotland’s first public lending library set on a bend of the river Earn. Founded in 1680, it epitomises Scotland’s Enlightenment, and a belief in the power of books to civilise and democratise, to illuminate the spirit, after a period of terrible violence. It proved ‘the urge for education amongst the lowliest of country folk’ and is more recently a magnet for literary tourists rather than a lending library. I’d wanted to write something set there for a long time, though I hadn’t thought of it being a radio play.

It chimed though, with a visit to Kenya in early 2009. I’d been intending to go the previous year but was prevented by the post-election violence which ravaged the country, leaving over 1,000 dead and thousands displaced. I was going there to visit friend and PEN colleague Philo Ikonya, who had stood in that election. Several things became apparent as I visited various towns and villages with her and talked to people. They included a burning desire for peace, political freedom, and tolerance; and a hunger for books and reading which by and large remained un-met. We visited Kisumu, in the west of Kenya, and ‘Obama’s’ nearby village Kogelo, at the time of his inauguration. We had hoped to sell the book which Philo had written for children about Obama’s Kenyan origins. We spent the inauguration day surrounded by children, and often adults, devouring the pages of the book. But in truth it was unthinkable for any of these ‘country folk’ to buy a copy, or even get access to one to borrow, a situation reflected all over sub-Saharan Africa where books are so precious they might be wrapped in plastic and kept on a shelf rather than read.

And so, the parallels began to form in my mind. Along with them came the character of a young enthusiastic Kenyan librarian from the Kisumu area, who is exploring British libraries on a study visit with Book Aid International, and becomes enchanted himself by Innerpeffray. This enchantment, coupled with his fear of the forthcoming election in 2012 at home, fuel a reluctance to leave. When he sees a woman – Elspeth, a widow from a nearby farm – crossing the river to the library at a ford used by the library’s past borrowers, he is reminded of journeys on foot at home, and begins to entice her into books herself. But he is dealing with an antiquarian book collection kept largely behind glass, and so hangs the story…

It was a great joy and privilege to record on location – hearing the gasp from the actors as they walked into the high-ceilinged room lined with leather bound books that I had tried to conjure with words. And as ever, it’s a fantastic learning experience as a writer to hear how the actors interpret your words – the nuance provided by a question mark; the trip-up of unnatural speech; the finding of humour or pathos where you had not seen it yourself.

The play has happened to coincide with a time of great concern for access to libraries here, and so another contemporary chime was set up. Meanwhile in Kenya, efforts are being made to broaden access to books through the mobile libraries (including bicycle and camel-driven) of the Kenya National Libraries Service. Especially in the conflict-ridden Rift Valley, some libraries are being cultivated as places which can provide a civilised and tolerant meeting place for people on opposing sides in the 2008 troubles.

Three wonderful books in their turn helped me with this project – Arthur Herman’s ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’; ‘First Light’, a gorgeous limited edition history of Innerpeffray by George Chamier; and Alberto Manguel’s ‘The Library of Night’. I’ll leave the last word with him:

‘As repositories of history or sources for the future, as guides or manuals for difficult times, as symbols of authority past and present, the books in a library stand for more than their collective contents…’

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Treasures in Sixty Two Words

Saturday 3rd December sees the launch of '26Treasures', another quirky partnership project from the 26 Writers' collective, this time with the National Museum of Scotland. (see last post for another 26 challenge!) Sister projects are also going on in Wales and Northern Ireland.

The launch will bring together for Treasure Chatter most of the 26 writers who have been randomly matched with 26 museum objects. Together they tell Scotland's history, and the writers are diverse as the objects, from poets and novelists (such as Alexander McCall Smith, James Robertson, Sara Sheridan) to screenwriters, journalists and academics. One of the particularly challenging aspects of the task was to write about each object, in whatever form, in exactly 62 words!

I was matched with ‘The Coigrich’, the ‘crozier shrine’ of Saint Fillan, an Irish missionary active in Glendochart in the early 8th Century, on display in the Museum’s Kingdom of the Scots gallery.

The writing process is always a bit mysterious, but my mystery object turned out to have its origins just up the road from me, and had me stomping along the West Highland Way between Crianlarich and Tyndrum to discover more about the places associated with the Saint.

The elaborate shrine in the shape of a crozier handle dates from the 15th century but with earlier elements including a crystal believed to have come from the original crozier. The Dewar family were its hereditary keepers, and in 1818 Archibald Dewar emigrated to Canada and took it with him. It was returned to Scotland in 1877 by his grandson. The Coigrich had an almost magical potency in a cult of people who believed it to have healing powers for their cattle.

I did a fair bit of research but the 62 word limit was a wonderful creative restriction, forcing me to choose one theme, or 'story' from many potentials. One of the things that intrigued me about the Coigrich, was that even when it left the country, Canadian Highlanders still sought it out to help their sick cattle. Such was the belief in its power over centuries. This is where I decided to focus, and then to try and crystallise language down to some essential images.

Since completing this piece of work, I've found the rigour of finding those 62 words has helped me elsewhere - to be spare, to be ruthless, and find the sharpest expression. This kind of compression is perhaps more common to poetry, a form I feel I should try my hand at more often for the energy and discipline it brings to other forms of writing.

Meanwhile I'm looking forward to experiencing the fresh perspective that the writers should bring collectively to these objects and the stories they tell. Treasure indeed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turning litter into literature?

I've always been intrigued by the fragments of stories that you come across as scribbles on paper - a shopping list for a party; an unfinished love letter; a message passed surreptitiously from hand to hand during a boring meeting. So when I saw on the '26' writers' website that Andy Hayes was proposing to distribute 26 of the handwritten scraps he's collected over two years from the streets of London, I put my name in the hat. And it was duly drawn...

When my scrap (above) arrived, I had 26 days to write a short story that included the message, or was inspired by it. With quite a lot of other things on my plate, and much less of a personal message than I'd anticipated, I had to beat off panic! I've written before about the length of time I take to write a short story from genesis to completion, with all the layers bedding in, and a purpose emerging over multiple drafts. I did not have the luxury this time. But part of my reason for taking it on was because I sometimes find it useful to have external prompts, deadlines, restrictions imposed, in order to make sure that I write something. And so I did.

A new story will be appearing on the 'throw-away-lines' website each day between 25th November and 11th December, each inspired by a random piece of litter. And what diversity!

As for mine... (do take a look)...on this occasion I can assure you that, yes, it's rubbish, and be proud of it!