Tag Archives: inspiration

The last month of the year

the winter gardens at the People's Palace, Glasgow



The cold breath of the last month of the year is blowing now, and it’s almost, but not quite time to find out the edges of this last year and to gather it in, and see what it amounts to before looking up to (shh) face the year beyond.


The Millions have started posting their Year in Reading series, something I look forward to, even if I’ve not read nearly enough of those spoken about. I’m starting to think how many books I will have finished by the year’s out – I think about 32? Which is a good number I think, because that will be my age in the middle of June next year, if nothing intervenes.  I’m going to start thinking about what books spoke to me most – but I might keep quiet on that, lacking any great insights, and favouring for now they unuttered over the analysed.


I’m thinking too of how this time last year I was in Banff, in Canada, on the Creative Futures residence at The Banff Centre. I’m so incredibly grateful to have had exposure to those woods and mountains and sulphuric streams and icefields and lakes and stress and friendships and too much delicious food and walks and drives in the dark and in the hills. It took a long while for that experience to settle (if it has at all) but I think I can say truthfully that On the Edges of Vision came out of that time, though I wrote it several months later, having scrapped the stuff I was working on all those days in the the Leighton Colony, looking out at the snow and the pine martens and the pine bark. Lists and lists and riches. None of it settles, I suppose. None of it can be made neat. It sits in a dark place, crackling like a fire, fuelling my work right now.


Yes, it’s been a productive, book-filled year, and it is not over yet. I’ll start (hopefully) on edits for On the Edges of Vision right before Christmas, so I’ll be typing away. I’m also working on another project, interweaving flash and a longer narrative. Who knows where that will go, but where there is fire there is energy, so -.


Have you started to gather things in yet? Or is it too superstitiously soon? Or are you in a frantic rush for the holidays? Or are you reading (please say yes, and what)?



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Diversionary tactics

Because this month is a month of waiting, of waiting it out and waiting on response, of biding and tholing, I have little to share here. The circus is in town – the book festival in full swing, but I’m not going to much until the horror event much later. So for now, I thought I’d share some interesting links with you. So at least I might direct you to other, more intriguing places.


1. Matt Bell’s Tumblr. For writers it is a valuable collective of motivating quotes (sans sentiment) and interesting snippets of fiction. His new book, with a very long name, The House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, is out, and is something I have a mind to read, once the current mountain of books is climbed.


2. For Scottish writers and artists, this mountain residency in Banff, Canada, might be an appealing prospect. From the site:


The four artists will be resident for the period in the Leighton Artists’ Colony studios, which are located in a secluded, wooded area on The Banff Centre’s 43-acre campus, providing an ideal space for creativity and intense productivity. These independent residencies offer artists the ability to work independently, as well as to engage within the larger artistic community of The Banff Centre. The successful artists will thus also be able to work collaboratively should they wish.
Each residency will provide:
•    Board & accommodation in a residential artist’s studio
•    All travel expenses
•    All Banff Centre fees
•    Advice, support, expertise and access to sites, curated by the Banff Centre, appropriate to the resident and the project
•    A stipend of c.£1,200 (exchange rate dependent) for the 5-week residency.


3.  ‘Pictures of Lo‘, A thoughtful take by Mary Gaitskill on the problems of designing a cover from one of the 20th century’s most controversial novels, Lolita. While I don’t agree with Gaitskill’s argument that Nabokov was writing a love story (for how can obsession with the image, constructed by oneself and pursued until recognised be love?), there are some brilliant lines:



“For Humbert’s aesthetic infatuation is based on a tyrannical ideal, and cuteness is a kind of ideal — one that is heartless, breathless, timeless, and ageless as Bambi, static and hard-edged, perfect in its way, with all excess flesh and unseemly feeling cut out”


4. Would you like to read the journal of a woman migrant passing back and forth between America and Japan? What if her writing is lovely, full of aches and lyricism, psychogeographic takes, haunted senses of place, slipped moorings and meanings? Here, On The Border.


5.  Maybe you are just hungry. Looking for something that will make you smack your lips, a peanuty gingery warm salad with kale. Tried and tested, multiple times.  That sounds terribly scientific. It is not. Munchy leaves and a slick, satisfyingly complex sauce that takes hardly any time (or measuring) at all.


6. Last of all, and to keep you going into next week, the supremely talented writer Cari Luna has an engrossing – and important – series of interviews on her blog, called Writer, With Kids. Put a pot of coffee on, peer at your children as they watch cartoons or doodle or study for their exams, and read.




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A tap on the rostrum


I’m working on patience, while D reads and adds some edits to this nearly-nearly finished draft of Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. To help me, I’ve struck on hunting for an epigraph (and possibly a change in title, something which better reflects the energy of the novel).


It is hard, and I think I have one from Anne Carson, but along the way I found a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which in its entirety works as an epigraph, with its imagery of nature, death, motherhood and childhood. Though no one has read the novel in its entirety, here is a little of the poem, which is a terrible beauty:


Dead Doe

for Huck


The doe lay dead on her back in a field of asters: no.

The doe lay dead on her back beside the school bus: yes.


Where we waited.

Her belly white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off

from where we waited: yes


at a distance: making a distance

we kept,

as we kept her dead run in sight, that we might see if she chose to go skyward;

that we might run, too, turn tail

if she came near

and troubled our fear with presence: with ghostly blossoming: with          the fountain’s

unstoppable blossoming

and the black stain the algae makes when the water

stays near.



The doe lay dead: she lent

her deadness to the morning, that the morning might have weight, that

our waiting might matter: be upheld by significance: by light

on the rhododendron, by the ribbons the sucked mint

loosed on the air,


by the treasonous gold-leafed passage of season, and you

from me/child/from me

from…not mother: no:

but the weather that would hold you: yes:

hothoused you to fattest blooms: keep you in mild unceasing rain, and

the fixed

stations of heat: like a pedaled note: or the held

breath sucked in, and stay: yes:


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What a poem can do




I’ve been reading more of Daniel Bailey’s Hallelujah Giant Space Wolf – in awe and excitement at what poems can do.


How language can be made as uncanny as a flower, an oxblood stem, a neon red burst, an epiphany between yourself and a fuddled pane of glass.


How reading a poem can make you want it to be Spring, to run down a great green slope with your arms out (not singing The Hills Are Alive…, but perhaps thinking of some other song you like better).


If there was a scale of poetic melancholy feeling that ran from noted miserabilist Philip Larkin to let’s say, Frank O’Hara in a good mood, Bailey would be firmly at the O’Hara end, digging furiously for even more of that good blue air. Here’s one of the poems I particularly liked (Mr Bailey, if you are reading this, I hope you don’t mind how much I post of it, it’s just really so wonderful. Fangirl sharing):




I’m sorry. I just tricked you by starting at three

don’t worry so much that I tricked you, instead, worry

that you have a stab-wound in your belly and you are leaking

blood all over the ground. again, I am sorry


keep in mind that

this is a special moment in our relationship

because I get to see what your insides are made of


they’re so beautiful

I never would’ve guessed

your blood would be so fragrant and musical

it’s like harmonicas in the alley

behind the soup kitchen


you’re still mad at me

I can tell by the way you are stabbing me


this is not good. it hurts

it’s like arctic waters diving into me

with the hurt. we are both bent over, bleeding

everything inside spilling out




we should lie down


this is better,

lying on the ground like this




how long do we have to live? three minutes?

maybe two? however long, I don’t care

this all hurts so much, but I’m glad

that I’m hurting with you in this way






come here. I want to hold you


what, you can’t move either?


it hurts too much?


I know, I know


swordfighting was a bad idea

whose idea was it anyway?

mine? oh right. I forgot








I don’t know what just happened

I think I just blacked out a little


oh, you’re dead now?

ok, I’ll see you soon


And really, this is all you can ask of a poem. That it runs you off over the hills, into the trees and over the moor, towards some idea of a setting sun, or rising, whichever. If you’d like more, Bailey’s Tumblr is here.

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Mundane bones livid heart

Marigold and lemongrass tincture


Editing yesterday, and trying to disassociate myself from the words, which have become hard like soap, and tasteless. I feel like a discount Midas right now. But a good tactic I’ve found is to pick up an author, not necessarily one I am overly fond of, and to read a few pages before turning to my own. Someone who writes and thinks very differently from me is helpful. Murakami’s 1Q84, which I’ve been shaking my head over (so explain-y, so repetitive, so addicted to the cliffhanger chapter ending)  but also hoovering up – it is enough to jolt me out of my usual tendencies, and therefore my usual mistakes. It clears the text a little, reminding me that I do, perhaps sometimes, need to set out what is happening and why, rather than always making the reader act as archeologist brushing at my dust.


Here is the other side of being a writer, I tell myself. We cannot read Proust all the time (though I haven’t read my Proust in quite a while. Too many other more urgent, exciting books in the way). The thing is, I have always been a huge snob when it comes to reading. I find it very hard not to be. This only applies to fiction, not books of theory (which I struggle with and give up on far more than someone with a PhD in English Lit should really admit to). I only want to read the best, that is, the most ambitious and enchanting and devastating novels. I want to get lost in swamps of words and carry those perfect, glassy iceblocks of prose around to wonder at – but. I also have to learn to write clearer myself, thinner, if need be.


If I want to acquire more techniques, I need to be able to learn from multiple sources. And not just books that strive in different ways (1Q84 a kind of giant jellybean souffle that I would never normally want to imitate). I need to drink cups of artificially flavoured hazelnut coffee and remember the punch of coffee from roadside gas stations as D and I drove through the American heartlands. I need to sip weird combinations of teas. Take risks on picking up unusual things as well as the usual, the popular, that I often discard. This does not mean I’m going to start watching Strictly Come Dancing. There are limits. I just need to listen to how people really speak, or how they speak when they are bad actors. I need to watch silly TV dramas and eavesdrop more. I need to sit in company.


I went to see Alasdair Gray reading from his collection, All the Short Stories, and was startled to find how direct and simple and yet effective his works were. I need to learn these sorts of skills. To be brave is also to approach the everyday without the defenses of dismissal. Frightening stuff. If I can learn to refine, then that will not mean I must always take something out of my words. That I must always dispel the pretty mist that hangs about them. I can make the choice to keep it in. But it might mean that, sometimes. The acquisition of a sharper, less precious eye. It might mean mundane bones and cheap fabrics. If that’s what’s needed to set the semi-magical, semi-flesh heart beating.


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Back to the Village

Christmas is over, Boxing Day is done, and the flat is still strewn with tinsel, many surfaces padded with cards, and the fridge full of rich left-overs to be munched when appetite returns.

So, time to resume where I left off, in the beautiful St Mawes.

Looking out over the rooftops, towards the inlet

It is really such a lovely place, cluttered up streets tucking in on themselves, tiny houses tressed in ivy and climbing plants, and those subtropical species that seem to endure quite well on the mild westerly coast of the UK.

A pink cottage with palm trees leaning in close

A thatched house on the road up to the castle

Ye Olde Petrol Pumps

It has been so well preserved I think because of its location, at the tip end of the Roseland peninsula. Hard to get to by car, along those single-track roads (hairpin bends, obscured further by high hedgerows), the quickest way to get there is by special chain-boat ferry.

The Ferry, decked out for Christmas (I love the little man watching over the cars)

The ferry leaves from a small hamlet with the docking point, that wonderfully appears on the map under the name of King Harry Ferry. As you can see, it’s more of a flat platform, and is ported across the river Fal by the use of chains, rather than an engine on the boat itself.

Despite the small difficulties of getting there, the village (or perhaps it is a town) doesn’t feel isolated or in any way dead, even in the depths of winter.

All the cottages have names, some descriptive of those who used to live there, others a bit fanciful (like 'Pirate cottage') and then there was this one

This cottage has a pretty sensible name, considering its location..

...quite close to this, the Holy Well of St Mawes (dating from around the 6th Century, and sadly locked behind this tiny door)

I really wanted to open the door and peer down into the well underneath. A grotto of ferns around a dark, stone pool – or perhaps less impressive, and better imagined than seen.

With all these sights to fire the mind, I plan to start back later today on the draft of The Millennial, hoping to bring something of the spark of the place into Aida’s memories, to wind the ivy and the smell of salt air around her (inland, American) loneliness.


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Out of Context

In New York City, in any city, there are a lot of spaces in which to communicate a particular message. A billboard on the road to the Queensborough Bridge; a sticker posted on a ‘walk’ sign; a face in chalk, or a hundred faces, as is sometimes to be found in Union Square, for reasons I have yet to discover. What is interesting is when some of these images are removed from their locales, their meanings can alter. These, for example:

An Informative sign that lends the subway an air of existential dread.

Contra, this one cries out an affirmation -"Live, Disregard the previous sign!"

And if I told you what this was for, would you believe me? It's on a newspaper booth in East Midtown, and is one in a series of handwritten mysteries, all promoting the wonders of the New York Lottery.

I suppose my thoughtful point was to do with the choice and placement of phrases, identifiers of culture and class, and indeed the choice and placement of ‘foreign’ characters (by dint of national or chronological origin) in The Book of the Alter.  The English, homesick Aida as consciously foreign, the Lowery/Coronada family as unfamiliar territory to me etc., and something to do with how I worry about the validity and success (at this early stage) of my efforts.

Really, it’s an excuse to post some amusing pictures I took.

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