A few weekends ago, I was on an intense residency at Cove Park with PAL labs where we considered paradox. I found I liked paradoxical humor:
‘A paradoxical frog is a frog that is one-third the size of its tadpole. This is a paradox you can touch.
This is not a paradoxical frog, but was at the residency with us:
REM sleep is called paradoxical sleep because the electric brain patterns of this deep sleep most closely resemble those of our waking state. This is paradox you live.’
This week is writing and reading week and I’m reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Innoculation and Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams, and a friend’s work-in-progress essays. I’m writing one novel: my own, my third. To work.
This summer I cleared the decks and made room for writing. And that’s what the last five weeks have been: mainly writing and some travel. While on residency, I realized I needed to take out 1/3 of the novel – an entire storyline. A week later I overhauled the narrative structure and now, a month further on, I have 79,000 words, which is my first full draft. It’s been fabulous and full days of writing have been matched with full days of walking, because that’s what summer is like. Slowly teaching will take hold with its seasonal reliability and autumn is the perfect time for honing the next draft and turning to new projects.
In February, I spent a quite a bit of time over a number of days watching Siobhan Davies’ dancers explore the idea of archive through their Table of Contents performance. In Tramway’s intimate exhibition space fronted by big windows, the dancers’ exploration of the fallibility and possibility of archive was mesmerizing, welcoming and thought provoking, and the crafted, at ease nature of the project found its way into an essay I’d drafted but hadn’t found a way to complete. This has become “Body as Archive” I & II – the first is a commissioned response to the Zembla exhibition at An Tobar on Mull and the second is a response to Table of Contents.
In the same week, I wrote a blog post for Kirsty Logan on Theft. This is a longstanding interest of mine (as you can see from the blog post) and the idea of creative influence and sampling definitely crosses over with the idea of archive – for archives are at their best when they are discovered, re-enlivened and serve as a trigger or depth for another idea or project.
My collaboration with the artist Amanda Thomson is underway and the book is shaping up nicely. Watch this space for images and perhaps even my own table of contents for direction is the moment you choose: two elegies.
I’m also teaching and working away at my next novel and when I’m not thinking of archive, theft and death, I’m thinking about prairies and fire…
Summer has been hot (finally), full of writing, travel and a complete suspension of any sort of schedule whatsoever. August was full of pre-semester practicals, the first three weeks in September too. (oh, and Ramshackle was short-listed for the Scottish Mortgage Investments Awards, which is fabulous!)
Now the academic year has started and I turn to teaching and students and this particular balance with my own work (and with family)…
Jay Parini, in his The Art of Teaching writes – with support from Robert Frost (who stated firmly that he was a poet, teacher and farmer – in equal measure) – about having an essential balance in what we do. We are more than one thing and these multiple elements of who we are and what we do are essential to each other and help define the directions we choose to take.
So it is possible to be a writer, a teacher, lover, a daughter, a runner, a friend and a bread-baker and they exist in the complete, dynamic living system that is me.
The novel I’m writing is in large part elegy (and elegy, we know, is all in largest part about the living). The idea for this book emerged out of the emotion and experiences of my dad’s illnesses and a close friend’s brush with death and now, a few years later, the writing of it dovetails with my mother’s deep, mean illness.
I am thinking about balance and what we put out into the world. How I’m quite private and still (daily) wrestling with how to be in the public sphere (and resistant to the constant need to create drama and presence, which is exhausting, can be inauthentic, and definitely takes me away from my writing) and this autumn I will be faced with pressures from some elements of self more than others. I haven’t baked bread in six months, for instance, but I have been writing daily. I’m a bit behind in my teaching prep, but I read ten books this summer, just for me, and last week I got to see my mom, which I wasn’t sure I ever get to do again.
Autumn is the cusp of the year, a time existing between when things are in bloom, fertile and when a winter quiet takes hold. I saw the harvest moon from the plane on Wednesday night a week ago, above the clouds. Autumn is full of new starts, of promises made and fulfilled, and it’s here we re-affirm commitments. It is also colder and darker and full of focus. I don’t have any big revelations to share, only that autumn is here and so are we.
Autumn brings a bit more routine too: Yesterday I was at Little Sparta & Brownsbank cottage with students, and my colleague Zoe, for a relaxing day out. Today, I have emptied the trash, taken the recycling over to be recycled, bought eggs and veg locally, am doing laundry, and my first loaf of bread is doing its first prove as we speak.
It’s been the best summer in years. The RLS residency kicked it off during which I wrote, ate amazing treats from the local bakery, and went running. On day 8, I’d created a new character, and on day 19 I committed literary murder by killing a main character while writing a new scene. Unexpected. Perfect.
After the residency, we took a week’s holiday in Paris and Venice. We walked everywhere and it was hot hot hot. The Bienalle had some of the best art I have seen in years. Incredibly, disruptive video work; witty, smart and funny figurines by Fischli & Weiss. Some angular and arresting book art as well. Quietly and brilliantly stunning work – excellent curation.
There’s lots coming up: the next novel is progressing well and I’ve been enjoying the writing; I’m also part of the Written Image collaboration with artist Anupa Gardner and it’s been fascinating to get to know someone while also attempting to make some excellent work; I have two other collaborations in the initial stages; and I’m writing a number of stories and essays.
We just spent five days walking on Skye, and seeing good friends, and of course there’s the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Book Fringe, David Sedaris, and despite the creeping in of cool to the air and of practical Uni work into this headspace, it’s still summer and I plan to enjoy it.