Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sussing Out the Secrets to a Short Story

I spoke to a friend earlier this week and mentioned his absence at the Moniack Mhor inspired weekly writing classes. Discovering that it was all about short stories, characters, settings and so on, he declared that he had been there, done it, bought the T-shirt and written numerous stories. Come to think of it, so have I, but it didn’t stop me.

We began with creating a character. Claire gave us a list of things and we set to the task. I like my man Ivan. He’s not a remarkable character, but once placed in a setting and given something to talk about, he became interesting. It seems that he has the potential to feature in a series of stories according to the folks around the table.

Not allowed to simply read through the list, we were to imagine finding a bag, and the contents of the bag would reveal the character.  Some people described the bag in detail and there was always something in the bag that made people go “Ah”.

The bag was resting against a wall beside the bus stop. It was just a plastic carrier with a supermarket logo in primary colours. A quick look around, an empty road, no returning person.

There was an elaborate Mother’s Day card poking out of the top of the bag. A huge vase of flowers covered the front with purple petals picked out in soft cardboard, and a sprinkling of glitter. There was nothing subtle about it – purchased for a mother most definitely loved.

A bag of bird feed nestled next to the card. It was from the farm and poultry shop on the other side of town. Not your usual peanuts or suet balls. Something for hens perhaps? Maybe he kept hens. But no. There was a home-made looking magazine printed on cheap paper with the title “The Pigeon Fancier”. In a police station the same sort of thing might have had pictures of local criminals, but these pages were filled with photographs of pigeons, artfully posed, eying the camera, feathers smoothed and oiled.

I warned you that he wasn’t a remarkable person. At the end of the road where I live there is a man with a shed full of pigeons. There are quite few other birds that settle on the roof of his house and along the wooden fence. It has a feel about it like visitor’s time in a prison, chatting through the bars.

The next task was to write a setting. My man Ivan disliked anything to do with football – so I took him out of his comfort zone and into a football stadium.  I have been to one or two games. We were asked to work through the different senses in describing the place. The first time I went to see a live game we were way up in the top seats. The players were like ants. I hadn’t realised how much I needed the commentary that TV provides. They didn’t tell you who had the ball, who they passed it to, who fouled them, who took the free kick – all the essential stuff.

Dialogue was next on the list.  Claire was looking for a dozen lines.

“So, you want in, then? A piece of the action? Need to move it, mate, before them birds are all bought?”

“I’d like to see the birds first if I may. I don’t like buying birds without having a good feel.”

“Yeah, well. Feeling ‘em up - when does it stop, eh? Wouldn’t we all like to feel ‘em. Then they’d be damaged goods, see?”

“Damaged?  They can’t be that sturdy if you can damage them that easily. Where did you say they were from? Do you have their passports?”

“Passports? Are you kidding? They don’t come with passports. We ship them in. Slip an envelope into the right hands at the passport control.”

You have perhaps worked it out already. The bird seller took a while to catch on. Poor Ivan didn’t. 

Next we marry the dialogue to the setting.

Ivan was becoming uncomfortable not just with the way the conversation was going.  He didn’t like football or football grounds. He wondered why they couldn’t have met somewhere else. They were standing beside the food kiosk. The bird seller was reaching into his pocket for loose change. The smell of chip fat oil was nauseating and Ivan had spilt hot coffee on his hand and it stung.

“Got any brown sauce, mate?” The man pushed the polystyrene tray along the counter.

Ivan was hoping the man had a Spanish dovetail to sell – grey feathers if possible. The ad in the local paper had been in large bold print – “Birds for sale!” The talk of no passports worried Ivan. He needed to know the breeding background of the birds.  It surprised him that the bird seller didn’t seem to find it that important.

I’ll skip the middle bit of the story – it goes on a bit. Someone scores a goal.  There’s a lot of singing. I plundered my setting chart and covered all the senses. The bird seller tried to pressure Ivan into a decision. His voice took on a threatening note.

The bird seller looked around, eyes shifting from a group of me leaning against the coarse brickwork to a single man loitering beneath a poster.

“Something’s not right.”

A hand slapped against Ivan’s chest, feeling the fabric of his shirt.

“Are you wired?”


“You’re an effing cop! I’m being set up. The whole conversation on tape! I should have known!”

Ivan, small man that he was, tried to make himself even smaller.

“I just want a Spanish dovetail with grey feathers,” he said soflty.

“A Spanish dovetail?”  A dawning look crept over the bird seller face.  “Birds? Real birds? With feathers? Not birds, then? Not women?”

Scorn poured into every word.  It stung more than the spilt coffee.

“Effing ‘ell” said the seller shaking his head as he walked away.

And there you have it - a complete story, apparently, in first draft form. I don’t know whether Spanish dovetails with grey feathers actually exist – but I had you convinced they did, didn’t I?

Monday, March 27, 2017

What’s so wrong about serving?

We’ve just got back from a weekend away at a wedding. Friday afternoon flight, Saturday wedding and a Sunday flight home made for a very quick visit – but a lovely one none-the-less.

I was asked to do one of the readings at the wedding. The original plan had been to write and to read a poem for Emma and Joseph, but there was a service written out and coming off script wasn’t encouraged. The passage, not familiar to me, is taken from Ecclesiasticus which sits somewhere in the Apocrypha, that middle section between the Old and New Testaments where most Protestants don’t visit.

Happy the husband of a really good wife;
The number of his days will be doubled.
A perfect wife is the joy of her husband,
He will live out the years of his life in peace.
A good wife is the best of portions,
Reserved for those who fear the Lord;
Rich or poor, they will be glad of heart,
Cheerful of face, whatever the season.
The grace of a wife will charm her husband,
Her accomplishments will make him stronger.
A silent wife is a gift from the Lord,
No price can be put on a well-trained character.
A modest wife is a boon twice over,
A chaste character cannot be weighed on scales.
Like the sun rising over the mountains of the Lord
is the beauty of a good wife in a well-kept house
(Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 16-21)

I thought there were one or two lines to take issue with.  It doesn’t really describe a modern marriage, does it? I have always had a bit of a problem with the silent part of anything. The well-kept house would be nice but doesn’t happen very often. Describing anyone in terms of how they benefit another person seems to do an injustice to both partners in a marriage.

I tracked down the missing verses, the bits between v4 and v16.  They describe the kind of wife that a man wouldn’t want to have – the selfish, vain woman who nags him.

I sit somewhere between the two women.

I wasn’t sure I could do justice to the passage. It wasn’t something that I felt I had signed up to myself.  Perhaps my husband has a different view of me as a wife. Maybe I am his joy and he lives out his life in peace because of me. Maybe. If the lenses in my glasses were of an up-to-date prescription I might have seen from my lectern position the eyes of all the women in the room rolling at one line or another. The church, yet again, failing to keep up with today’s world.

“What’s so wrong about serving?” asked God this morning.

Take away the context of a marriage and if people put that kind of thinking into any relationship the world would be a different place.

Why can’t we all be the joy in the lives of other people? Why can’t someone else have years of peace because of the way I live my life as their friend? Do I have to surrender my gladness when the end of the month comes and my wage packet is all spent? Should other people have to live with my misery? “Cheerful of face, whatever the season” – we all respond to a cheerful face.

Silence is not always the option that we choose. We are so quick to defend or justify ourselves.  We feel the need to supply the context for our actions and insist on not being misunderstood. Our silence allows the other person to be free to supply the context and to misunderstand. Yes, there are times when silence is not the right option – there are things that need to be talked about, discussed, air cleared and so on. But there are a lot of things said that need not be.

The “well-trained character” seems to apply more to the dog than to the wife – but let’s not forget that we are all in training for righteousness as Christians.

I do yearn for a “well-kept house” – not particularly for my husband’s benefit but for my own. We all need a place of peace and our surroundings contribute to that.

“There’s nothing wrong with serving,” I admitted, “but why is all down to the wife? Where is the husband’s part in it all?”

“Why not be the instigator?” said God. “Why not set the tenor of the relationship? Why not be the starter of all things good in any relationship? The alternative it to be in a relationship where you have to earn or deserve the good.  The good become something to barter over, to withdraw at times – and that’s not the kind of love that reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church which is what marriage is all about. It’s not the way I do love and it’s not supposed to be the way you do it either.”

Happy the wife of a really good husband;
The number of her days will be doubled.
A perfect husband is the joy of his wife,
She will live out the years of her life in peace.

We should all be the instigators in every relationship we have, setting the tenor, being the starter of all good things – acting rather than reacting.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Praying the Pauses

Yesterday had all the potential to be a great but it didn’t turn out that way.

I like things like Lent – that preparation time of the heart before Easter.  I’m not so bothered about fasting, or giving up chocolate for forty days. Yes, it’s a challenge but with my built in brownie-point mentality it becomes something far too external and physical rather than something inner and spiritual. This year I bought a book “The Little Book of Lent: Daily Reflections from the World’s Greatest Spiritual Teachers” edited by Cannon Arthur Howells. The one contributor who I have recognised so far is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s like sitting with the sages and drinking in their wisdom.

Back to yesterday. I like my quiet times in the morning. I am not more alert then than at other times of the day, but I know the day ahead has challenges and I know that the best way to deal with them is to be armed with everything that God puts out on the table. I admit that many of those things are not picked up. They are left on the table and perhaps later on, after some event happens that I could have dealt with better, I rush back into the room to pick it up rather aware that the horse has left the stable and it’s too late to close the door. Yesterday I didn’t make time for my morning quiet time. I didn’t pick up the Lent book. The day would have been so different if I had,

Another contributor I didn’t know was James Catford, Group Chief Executive of the Bible Society among other things. Yesterday, he wrote about William Wilberforce and his intention to “make goodness fashionable” and about how he wanted to begin with his own heart, transforming his thinking, not just his action. James called it “making virtue possible”.

He went on to talk about spiritual disciplines and prayer. Prayer can be slotted into so many small pauses throughout the day. Waiting for the kettle to boil can be a minute or two spent in prayer. Walking up the stairs rather than taking the lift, or even standing in the lift if the walk is too demanding, can be times of prayer. He called them short prayer walks.

Like anything else, this way of praying, catching those pauses during the day, doesn’t come naturally. We don’t drag our attention away from other stuff always to focus on God. That’s why James called to discipline I suppose – because you learn to do it and make it a habit. Three months, apparently, it takes to make a habit. I am almost three months into a Scottish Slimmers diet. Can I presume that healthy eating will become a habit?

Yesterday my day was littered with prayer pauses – or, rather, the potential for prayer pauses. Because I didn’t read the book, it never occurred to me to live my day any differently to any other day. I should be praying my pauses anyway – but sometimes we need to be taught to do these things and I wasn’t taught. The day wasn’t a disaster – don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t a bad day as days go.  I have had bad days and I know what they are like. Yesterday was not bad but it could have been so much better.

I could have picked up the book later on in the evening but I was reading something else, some fantasy fiction adventure involving dragons. There was a nudging inside from the Spirit – “Read the Lent book! Read the Lent book” and my answer “Just the next chapter! Just the next chapter, please.” So I read the fantasy fiction adventure and not the Lent book.

I took the Lent book to bed with me. I read the chapter and I mourned for my lost day.

Today is a new day and I am praying my pauses – but yesterday is lost to me. All the distractions of the day, the usual and the unusual, robbed me of the opportunity to live a different kind of day.

I am challenging myself, and not quite succeeding, to write a Lent poem a day. This is yesterday’s poem (written today).

My foe proposes
To snatch every moment and
Fill with diversion
Wake up, dear heart, rise
Take back each and every pause
Therein look for God

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Putting Pen to Paper with Claire Askew

I was promised “the time, space and support to tap into the writer" in me. I joined a dozen others for a relaxed and informal writing session expecting “some top tips and simple techniques" to get me writing.  I armed myself with a couple of note books, a dozen scraps of paper with half written poems on them, a selection of pens and a determination to leave the biscuits alone.

It was not quite what I expected. I thought I could drop in, focus on the half written poems without the housework lurking in the background, and drop out when I had had enough. I hadn’t planned for a full on creative writing class complete with exercises to do - not that I didn’t totally enjoy it.

Task 1 - We began with a list poem. I have never written one of those before. Claire had written a poem “Catalogue of my grandmother’s sayings”. It was precisely that – a list, alphabetic in nature, of things her grandmother said. The idea that any collection of lines of text can be a poem – I don’t know about that. There are times when I yearn for something more structured – but I’m not the boss of these things.

One of the lines, “Twined as a bag of weasels” was an interesting one. I think that could have been said about me earlier this afternoon – I was very wound up about stuff that had happened during the day.

We worked in small groups to come up with our own list of sayings. Our list was not that inspiring apart from a Gaelic insult that sounded good. I added a couple of my mum’s favourites – “When it’s gone it’s gone” and the whole line of names “Carla, Linda, Sharon, Mel” she addressed me with. Another group came up with “hard as a whore’s heart” which I found appealing but will never use.

Task 2 – the challenge was to pick a saying and use it as a prompt for writing something. I don’t often perform well in these kinds of things. I need an hour or two to simmer the ideas.

“Fly with the crows; get shot with the crows”

She doesn’t approve of my friends. She lives in a world where people wear smart stuff.  She thinks because we wear baggy black jeans, T-shirts with swear words smeared across them and tattoos marching up our necks that we are trouble.

The police cars with their strident sirens are out to hunt down the real criminals. The man at the end of the road, him with the posh car - I know for a fact that he bashes his wife about.  He doesn’t wear baggy trousers or offensive T-shirts.  If he had a tattoo it should be in brand form across his forehead – “wife beater”.

She sees crows where I see eagles. She knows nothing about my friends and doesn’t ask. Take Mickey, for instance. She doesn’t know about his music. Not the boom-boom base stuff I listen to.  He plays proper music on a violin. He can read music. He knows composers and he plays in an orchestra – baggy jeans and everything. She listens to the stuff he plays and she thinks he’s a crow and he’s going to get shot one day.

I blame Clive for all of this.  You’ve probably never met Clive. He goes to some public school and plays cricket. She thinks the sun shines out of his arse but I could tell her a few things about Clive. But I don’t, see. I’m not a crow. I’m an eagle and eagles are noble birds. What good would it do her or me? She wouldn’t listen anyway. She thinks I’m a crow, right?

I fly with eagles – not crows. Eagles don’t get shot.  They soar way above it all. That’s me and my friends soaring way above it all.

The exhibitionist in me couldn’t help but volunteer to read it out. It went down well. It was a complete story they agreed and they liked the juxta-positioning of crows and eagles.

Task 3 – yes, she managed to squeeze in another exercise. The rain was drumming on the roof and I was clock watching. I had long intended to be on my way, collecting the car from the car park before my allotted two hours was up.

The American Sentence is another familiar form of poetry that I have never tried. It is basically a haiku without the line breaks. Instead of a 5, 7, 5 syllable structure it is one sentence of 17 syllables and must tell a story.

Here’s why I was as twined as a bag of weasels.

He exits the room, slamming the door, leaving behind a stunned silence.

It was something I said earlier that day, something I shouldn’t have said, unkind even. I wish at times I hadn’t been taught how to talk. I abuse the privilege far too often. I am supposed to be building people up, not taking a hammer to what looks solid but is often fragile.

She munches on another biscuit choosing to ignore Monday’s scales.

So much for the determination to leave the biscuits alone.

Monday, March 13, 2017


I climbed on the scales at Scottish Slimmers earlier this evening.  It was a good loss. Two hours later I was eating my way through a bowl of Jaffa cakes! There was no sense of the restraint I had inflicted on myself all week.

Pol-UK should come with a warning – “Writing poetry can damage your health”.

It was my first time at Pol-UK, a writing group led by two Polish sisters which meets every Monday night in the Bike Shed on Grant Street. The Bike Shed isn’t a bike shed though it might have been one in a previous incarnation. It’s a community building for all sorts of groups. I had been in there once before for a Christmas carol singing event.

The group was small and friendly. There was tea, coffee and Jaffa cakes to see us through an evening of creative writing.

It turned out that I was expected. They had been warned I might come. A friend had been there last week and told them that I planned to come. It appears that I am a known entity in the creative writing circles of Inverness.

We talked books for a while. We all seemed to be published authors – although they had managed to break into the “Waterstones” market where despite many meetings with various shop managers, I never made it on to their shelves.

We got down to business.

The prompts were a series of random words – green, Thursday, sweet pea and steam train. What magic we chose to weave with the words was up to us. There was no word limit or apparent time limit – just the four words.

The steam train derailed me. I could work with the other words. I’d had a conversation earlier with my ex-next door neighbour about the conifers in my garden that were knocking down his ex-garden wall. Apparently they were a safety hazard and best taken down. Thursday was a good day for him. The conifers were green. Once the conifers were down I could plant sweet peas – but the steam train didn’t seem to fit into the narrative. Just in case you are curious as to why the ex-next door neighbour is worried about his ex-garden wall – his daughter and son-in-law are my new neighbours and he has a grandson he would rather not find under a pile of bricks.

I was more successful with the second set of words – fire, rowan, April and wardrobe. I wrote a poem.


New day dawning
Warm April morning
Sun fire burning
Pink sky turning
Winter’s grip fading
Spring wardrobe raiding
Green dress wearing
Round the garden tearing
Rowan tree waking
New leaves making
Light rain falling
Birds in trees calling
Blossom petals drifting
Dark mood lifting

It’s a first draft. The wardrobe is the awkward word. A poem about spring really doesn’t need a wardrobe in it. I didn’t have access to either which limited my creativity.

I was impressed with the quality of the writing the group produced. They had subtle nuances and imagery and layers – all the more impressive when English was not their first language. It amazed me how with an economy of words they had written such powerful pieces. There was enough of a narrative to capture the imagination, but enough absence of detail for the reader to fill in the blank spaces and reach their own conclusion. Very much “show not tell” stuff.

I really enjoyed the evening. I enjoyed the opportunity to write. I enjoyed the opportunity to critique the work produced. I really enjoyed the Jaffa cakes. My intention is to go back again. I shall arm myself with fresh fruit, or veggies and a savoury dip or something and sit as far away as possible from the biscuit bowl as I can.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born into Community

There’s a school on the other side of the road, on the far side of the field next to our house. Interesting things are going on. There are piles of soil, a temporary fence, diggers and bulldozers and a sign that says “Keep Out! Building Site!” The school is over-subscribed, I think, with more children than they have space to accommodate so maybe they are building an extension. If I was a pupil there I would spend far too much time watching the builders.

I walked past the fence and the notice earlier today when I went to fetch the Sunday newspapers. I thought of other building sites and other notices. The “Keep Out” sign never really did its job. As kids we pushed our way through hedges to get onto a building site. They were building the telephone exchange in a nearby patch of scrub land. We explored the pile of pipes and paddled through muddy puddles.

I am my own personal building site, a work in progress, not yet the finished product. I would love to put up a fence and slap on a notice that tells people to keep out. Weeks, months or perhaps even years later I would like to dismantle the fence and present the polished person that is me – no piles of bricks, no cement bags or scaffolding. I would like to testify that, yes, I had a challenge, and it’s all sorted now. Feel free to take pictures and admire to new extension!

But God isn’t like that. He doesn’t like the fence I have put up and tells me to take down the notice. He doesn’t want people to keep out. He invites them in – friends, family and foes. He gives them the keys to the bulldozer. He lets them operate the cement mixer. He rolls out the blueprints on a trestle table and directs their work.

He insists that they speak into my life and instructs me to speak into theirs. Sometimes I cannot see, or will not admit to, weakness and flaws. My perception of His truth is coloured and tainted by hang-ups and short-sighted vision. I don’t know everything I need to know – he gives truth to others to pass on to me.

He never intended that I should be the lone wolf or the solitary hermit I yearn to be. The Christian life is lived out in community.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are a body and that the “you” of scripture is plural, not singular. We need each other to grow and to flourish and the journey of faith can never be personal or private.

Gone -  the first person singular in me!
Renounced - the hermit I’m inclined to be
For “him” and “her”, and “they” and “us” I see
Yes, born am I into community

Saturday, March 04, 2017


first there’s Him,
mighty in the heavens
King on a lofty throne
revered by angels
Holy God
glory unconcealed
spilling everywhere

then there’s me
unpicked in His presence
dismantled beneath His gaze
a man undone
now purified by fire
purged of guilt
sin paid for

And last - there’s purpose
Who will He send?
Who will go for Him?
Without pause, debate or reservation
I step forward
Here am I 
Send me

And I go