Friday, July 31, 2009

Writing Place

It seems to be a formula that works. Take sixteen writers, put them together on a windswept, sun-scoured hilltop between Beauly and Drumnadrochit for five days with good food, writing activities and the theme of 'Place'. A stimulating time seems to be had by all.

I was one of the tutors last week at Moniack Mhor with poet Valerie Gillies as co-tutor, Andrew Greig as Wednesday night guest reader and a group of writers ranging across all the forms. We walked, dowsed, talked, drew, mapped and explored our senses. And of course everyone wrote.

One of the topics of discussion I found of particular interest was how writers realise places to which they have never been in such a way that both they and the reader believe in them. Stef Penney's novel 'The Tenderness of Wolves' came to mind. This reader felt firmly located in place and time and yet the writer was criticised from some quarters for never having visited the Canada she wrote about. Kamila Shamsie wrote recently in the Guardian about how Google Earth had allowed her to convincingly research her novel 'Burnt Shadows', set in Afghanistan and contemporary Nagasaki. 'If you're going to write about a place you don't "possess" yourself', Andrew Greig advised. 'Have your character a visitor, or someone returning after a long absence.' I realised on reflection that I have almost never written a place I haven't visited or experienced through my own senses. A challenge for the future perhaps.

Finally, a plug for Valerie's wonderful book published next week 'The Spring Teller' in which her poems transport us on a remarkable journey across Scotland to visit over a hundred healing springs and wells. 'Each thought-provoking poem mirrors the flow of water, from still wells locked in the inner-city to the free-flowing springs of mountain or glen'.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Raja Shehadeh - A Wilder Vein

As A Wilder Vein, the anthology of 'wild places' writing that I've been editing is prepared for print, I'm delighted to see a shorter version of the piece Raja Shehadeh has written for it in today's Travel Guardian. He reflects on his first visit to the Scottish Highlands when he found the landscape muted in colour and water-saturated in comparison to his often bone-dry native Palestinian hills. However he found powerful echoes in the histories of displacement and the memories left in each terrain.

In this anthology ‘Wildness’ is applied to these islands in terms of each writer's sensibility. It might be a sense of scale or remoteness from roads, solitude, or a perception of surroundings that are natural or unchanging in comparison to human life cycles. That the idea is different for each of us is interesting in its own right. But history, memory, and the impact of the way that landscapes are seen animate the writings as visibly as the lines of river, stream and contour on the map. The pages are haunted by thousands of years of human activity which have formed our cultural landscapes, landscapes marked by tools or stones, by remnants of buildings.

The contributions of poets, travel-writers, natural historians, anthropologists and novelists give us many ways of looking, and varieties of writing. Amongst the pages there is lyricism and humour, biography and memoir, celebration and elegy. Perspectives come from inhabitants of these places, from visitors to them, and from travellers from other natural and political contexts like Raja Shehadeh who find echoes of or distinctions from home.

A Wilder Vein also includes writings by Sara Maitland, Andrew Greig, Margaret Elphinstone, Gerry Loose, Mandy Haggith, Neil Hegarty, Lisa Samson, Alison Grant, Lesley Harrison, Marco Daane, Katharine Macrae, Michelle Cotter, Ken Wilkie, Kenneth Taylor, Jane Alexander, Judith Thurley, Susan Richardson and with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane.
Published 2nd November

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A fairy cake for the Fairy Hill

A midsummer evening on my local hill, Schiehallion. We turned away from the summit, leaving a cake as an offering to the resident fairies, and as we began the descent, cloud drifted in to wrap the mountain and we projected onto it a huge brockenspectre of ourselves and the spiky summit. (Thanks to Elspeth for the photo of it).