Fashioning a Fellowship

Earlier this year I was selected by Scottish Book Trust for one of their 2018 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships alongside Jenni Fagan, Theresa Muñoz and David Keenan. Funded by Creative Scotland, the Fellowship involves spending all of November at the Hôtel Chevillon in the small French village of Grez-sur-Loing where Stevenson frequently stayed throughout the 1870s. This is a dream opportunity for me, especially as it will give me focused time to work on a novel inspired by the life and work of Aberdeenshire-born fashion designer Bill Gibb.

Following my Fellowship announcement, I was awarded Creative Funding by Aberdeen City Council in June to undertake preliminary research on Gibb in advance of my residency. This funding has allowed me to conduct interviews across Scotland and in London, as well as many hours of archive research. While I have a background in academia and I did a fair bit of digging around archives at the National Library of Scotland for my Muriel Spark 100 project earlier this year, this is the most extensive and far-reaching research process I’ve ever carried out.

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The biggest highlight has been meeting Gibb’s family who’ve been very welcoming, including making me his favourite meal – mince, tatties and skirlie! His middle sister Janet has been particularly patient and helpful in answering random questions that crop up as I dig around archives trying to make sense of often conflicting and contradictory press cuttings. It seems there’s already a lot of fiction at play when it comes to Gibb, but I’m hoping to get close to the truth of his story, as much as there will be creative license at play given I’m writing a novel.

In London, I also met his former partner and collaborator Kaffe Fassett, the world-renowned artist and textile designer who was recently awarded an MBE, and who, at 81 years old, still works full-time on new designs in his home studio which is so colourful and uplifting. In Edinburgh, I interviewed Rosalind Woolfson, a former fashion PR for the likes of Bruce Oldfield, who worked closely with Gibb during his final years in fashion, and who also introduced McDonald’s hamburgers and Center Parcs to the UK across an illustrious career.

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I’ve enjoyed all those little ‘aha’ moments where connections are made and missing puzzle pieces uncovered while searching through the biggest Gibb archive at Aberdeen Art Gallery’s Treasure Hub, making connections with his contemporaries in Central Saint Martin’s archives and looking through links local to Fraserburgh at the town’s Heritage Centre. Staff at all of these archives have been so welcoming and helpful, and I even reconnected with two of my primary teachers who volunteer at the Heritage Centre which was a nice surprise. 

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One particularly exciting aspect of this additional funding is that it gave me the time and confidence to approach Gray’s School of Art to look into any ways I could learn about what studying fashion and textile design involves so that I could get a better understanding of what Gibb may have undergone during his studies. Following these discussions, they decided to make Gibb the focus of their third year’s Industry Project. In exchange for providing a talk on Gibb, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on their seminar discussions where students have explained their own path from initial ideas to final design for garments and textiles inspired by what they’ve uncovered about Gibb online and during a visit to the Treasure Hub.

I’m also in the process of looking through Gray’s own Bill Gibb archive which includes some of his final dress designs and paper cuttings. In tandem with this research, I’ve since been commissioned by Look Again Festival to create a new interdisciplinary work for the 2019 festival, funded by the Scottish Funding Council, which will celebrate this archive and involve working further with the fashion students at Gray’s. 

Research can often be a very solitary, thankless and dull undertaking, but working on Gibb has led to so many inspiring and collaborative connections, like my new links with Gray’s and Look Again, and I am grateful to Scottish Book Trust’s RLS Fellowship and Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding for giving me the time and space to get so much done before I head to France today! Fingers crossed I find my writing flow on retreat in Grez-sur-Loing…

 Images of a young Gibb on the farm from a family member’s photograph collection.

Images of a young Gibb on the farm from a family member’s photograph collection.

Nevertheless: Muriel Spark in Bulawayo #murielspark100

[This post originally appeared on Zimbabwean publisher amaBooks website]


If you’d told me four years ago I would be publishing a collection of short fiction inspired by Muriel Spark’s time in Bulawayo between 1937 and 1943, I would never have believed you. At that point, Dame Spark’s best known work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,was one of only a few of her works I’d read and had the pleasure of teaching at the University of Aberdeen. In 2018, the centenary of her birth, the National Library of Scotland and Creative Scotland have set about raising greater awareness of her international literary career, during which she published twenty-two novels, multiple short stories and a play. In the call out for writers and artists to create new work inspired by the archives at the NLS, it was then I discovered that Spark had lived and worked in Bulawayo and that I’d followed in her footsteps while working on an arts-in-health project in Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital where she’d given birth to her son eighty years before.

 Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital, United Bulawayo Hospitals

Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital, United Bulawayo Hospitals

Rewind to 2015 when I was commissioned by maternal health research initiative, Immpact, to write a play about the issues faced by women in labour in and around Aberdeen’s Zimbabwean twin city. Thanks to a Twinning Aberdeen grant, the sold-out performance at Aberdeen University’s May Festival was attended by an obstetrician and matron visiting from Bulawayo, and the discussions that followed with these health workers led to me visiting Bulawayo in September of that year to explore the possibility of an arts-in-health project in Lady Rodwell (United Bulawayo Hospitals) and the maternity unit at Mpilo Hospital. During this visit and a second in November 2016 when the arts-in-health project took place (read all about that here), I was blown away by the staff at both of the maternity hospitals who work under extremely difficult conditions, and was impressed by their care not only for their patients but for the spaces they work in. I was also so inspired by the creative energy of the city and its resilience in the face of economic and political struggles, particularly the work being done at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe and by Brian and Jane of ’amaBooks. Beyond this, there was the beauty of the jacaranda-lined streets, the wildlife at the Matopos and the thundering spray of the Victoria Falls…

 Bulawayo-based artists at Lady Rodwell including Danisile Ncube, Omega Sibanda, Talent Kapadza, Owen Maseko, George Masarira, and Charles Bhebe. Also featured: Shane Strachan (Writer), Sue Fairburn (Designer) and Sally Thomson (Director, Grampian Hospitals Arts Trust)

Bulawayo-based artists at Lady Rodwell including Danisile Ncube, Omega Sibanda, Talent Kapadza, Owen Maseko, George Masarira, and Charles Bhebe. Also featured: Shane Strachan (Writer), Sue Fairburn (Designer) and Sally Thomson (Director, Grampian Hospitals Arts Trust)

In the year that followed my second visit, ideas for stories inspired by my time in Bulawayo kept drifting in and out of my mind. I knew there was something I wanted to write, but I hadn’t quite grasped how I would shape it, and I had various other quandaries around what I could legitimately write as someone from the outside who could never really know or understand the day-to-day Zimbabwean experience. So when I read about the Muriel Spark 100 project and then discovered of Spark’s connection with Bulawayo and the various short stories and autobiographical material she wrote connected with her time in Southern Rhodesia, a path towards writing about Bulawayo became clear. I was delighted to subsequently be awarded an Endless Different Ways grant to work on the project.

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Muriel Spark’s archive at the National Library of Scotland is vast with boxes full of notes, correspondence and, from the late 1950s, receipts and cheque books. She hoarded all of this  to record the truth of her whereabouts having suffered from the press printing misinformation about her – this habit alone made writing about Spark a rather daunting prospect! But there is comparatively less material available for the years she spent in Southern Rhodesia given that she was only nineteen when she arrived there and that the years that followed were some of her most traumatic due to a fraught marriage. Add to this the Second World War which effectively trapped her in Southern Rhodesia and it becomes clear that this was not the happiest of times for Spark. Yet it is where she herself said she found much spiritual strength and where the roots of her literary career proper can be found in the prizes she won at the Rhodesian Eisteddfod for both prose and poetry. Alongside studying her African-set short stories, her autobiography and reading many more of her novels, I spent several days in the archive, decoding her handwriting and making sense of snippets of information on post its, letters and notebooks, in an attempt to piece together a clearer picture of her experience in Southern Rhodesia during these years. 

 Muriel Spark at the National Library of Scotland

Muriel Spark at the National Library of Scotland

In the final work, Nevertheless: Sparkian Tales in Bulawayo, this story forms the basis of four fictional vignettes, interspersed with a modern-day story of a medical doctor from Aberdeen visiting Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital and unknowingly tracing Spark’s steps; it wouldn’t be apt to write a linear narrative given that Spark played so brilliantly with shifts in time and perspective throughout most of her novels and stories. As well as these fictions, there are also a series of Spark-inspired illustrations by Scottish artist Donald Urquhart which add another dimension to the book, and which I’m grateful to be able to include given that visual art has been a big part of my own Bulawayo journey.

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Nevertheless is available in print and e-book from African Books Collective and onAmazon. All profit raised from the publication will be donated to Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital.

Creative Learning

I recently left my job with Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Learning team after three years. I’ve been very lucky to have this part-time job alongside my writing career as it’s been flexible, creative and above all, lots of fun! When I first started, I was a tad naive to the working world having been a full-time student for 8 years... But I soon found my feet and learned that my creative skills didn't have to just be expressed through creative writing and facilitating workshops, but that creative approaches could be used in all aspects of working with others (including spicing up work meetings that would otherwise be very dull!).

As well as working on creative projects in schools, such as dressing up as the Doric Gruffalo and a circus ringmaster for the team’s Arts Across Learning Festival, much of my work was focused around supporting creatives in Aberdeen to develop their professional careers, whether that be through 1-1 advice sessions or longer term development programmes like Sustaining Life as a Creative (SLAAC). This programme involves bringing a mixture of creatives from across the city to work together on things like collaboration, application writing, networking, building websites, CVs and their own personal journeys, particularly building their confidence and resilience to deal with the realities of a creative career. Before working for Creative Learning I took part in the pilot version of the programme and it definitely polished my practice and gave me a wider, more multi-disciplinary network which still benefits me to this day, so it was great to go on to help support two versions of the programme.

 

One of the great benefits of the job was getting to develop my own programme for emerging and established writers called The Writers’ Room, which was very much based around the SLAAC concept. I’ve blogged about the first version before, but I got to run the programme twice, and from it now have a great group of writers across Aberdeen and shire (and beyond) who are passionate about developing their writing careers and supporting each other with their creative work. I’ll be forever grateful that the job allowed me to develop a new group of friends with similar interests, as well as make an impact on the writing scene around me!

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The second Writers’ Room programme was funded and supported by Creative Scotland as part of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship which I applied for on the team’s behalf; we were lucky enough to be selected and go on to host the highly talent playwright Morna Young. While we supported Morna to write five plays (she was only obligated to write one!), including ‘Aye, Elvis’, a hit at this year’s Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, I learnt a lot from Morna about what it takes to make it at the mid-career level – her drive and determination is very inspiring and she deserves all the success she’s had of late, including a three-month residency in New Zealand with Magnetic North. I look forward to seeing the other four plays go on to be produced and performed in the future.

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After three years with Creative Learning, I decided now was the right time to put all my energy into my own writing career. This involves three months’ full-time focus on a novel inspired by the life and career of fashion designer Bill Gibb which I’ve been researching for since the start of this year; the project has also earned me one of this year’s Scottish Book Trust’s 2018 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships. This writing time will culminate with my RLS residency in Grez-sur-Loing in France throughout all of November. As a freelancer, the prospect of not having consistent paid work is always a bit daunting, but I’ve got to take the advice I’ve been dishing out for the past three years to other creatives and go forth with confidence that it’s the right choice for my career right now. (But fingers crossed I get a job post-November, aye...). One thing I'll definitely miss is my lovely and hilarious colleagues who have all taught me so much – I wish the team all the best for the future.

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I’ve been a little behind with blogging with all the changes of late, but I’ll be sure to post about the RLS Fellowship, my Muriel Spark 100 project and mentoring for Queer Words Project Scotland throughout the rest of the year.

Beyond Beginners

I’ve found too often that creative writing opportunities available to the general public often focus on inspiring folk to give writing a go for first time. However, there is a point where some keen writers may find that they’ve done several similar workshops with similar outcomes a few times over with little or no critical feedback and no sense of where to go next…

So I was pleased to be asked to run a more advanced series of workshops focused on the short story form at The Barn in Banchory. Having run many beginners workshops, it’s been really energising planning and delivering workshops for a group of seven writers who were up for being creatively stretched and challenged to take their writing practice to the next level.

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After the first session which involved co-creating a set of new characters, the participants shaped and completed a full story by the course’s end by considering how they voiced their story and the importance of omission in shaping, editing and redrafting it. The final session involved the participants giving feedback on each other’s story using the Critical Response Process, sharpening their critical faculties in response to one others’ work as well as their own.

Feedback from the sessions made it clear that all of the participants enjoyed being given the opportunity to have more time to really build and reflect on a piece of fiction with a more advanced theoretical take on the writing process throughout. It was both encouraging and a little poignant when one of the participants commented that they wished they’d been able to do the course years ago!

What made this workshop series particularly special for me was being in the fantastic setting of The Barn. Our main facilitation space was in their converted barn gallery, but we also enjoyed a session out in their wild garden and were treated to tea and coffee every week in a very homely breakout space. I’d highly recommend checking out their events programme and getting involved if you are in or near Aberdeenshire.

On Tuesday 28th August I’ll be reading some of my work as part of a Literary Salon at The Barn which will include a preview of the stories I’m writing for my Muriel Spark 100 project. Book tickets here!

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30 before 30

2018 is the year I turn thirty, a year that I suspect will involve lots of change, both in my writing career, and in my everyday life. And so, yes, I have been tragic and clichéd enough to create a “30 before 30” list.

A few of the goals I’d like to achieve before my birthday in July are already proving challenging (‘be the fittest I’ve ever been’ and ‘learn Dutch’ for instance). Yet some are linked with what I want to do as a writer and are a little more manageable, so I’ll share a few here which will also give insight into what’s in store for me in the coming months…

1) Improve general knowledge.

Having studied Literature and Creative Writing for eight years at university, my knowledge has perhaps become a little niche and I’ve often strayed away from the facts and figures that you need to do well on the likes of Eggheads or The Chase; besides Art and Literature questions, I often find myself stumped. So, as well as reading more non-fiction, I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts across lots of different topics. When it comes to the general knowledge side of things, I’ve found Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ podcast particularly good at providing a more nuanced and academic take on various disciplines and periods of history in under and hour, while the likes of ‘All Killa, No Filla’, has really improved my knowledge of serial killers (and provided lots of laughs), just in time for my reading at the upcoming Granite Noir Festival (23-25 February).

Yet, I couldn’t help but also become a little addicted to podcasts from ‘The Moth’ (true, inspiring / thought-provoking stories),‘The Paris Review’ (a beautifully crafted hour of literature, interviews with authors and awesome found sound and music), and the 90's nostalgia inducing serial narrative ‘It Makes a Sound’, so the more literary side of aural entertainment has not escaped me!

13) Go on a writing retreat.

This weekend coming (15-18 February) I’m heading to Cove Park with five writer friends from Aberdeen Writers’ Studio for a few days of writing and creative discussion. I’m hoping to really get going with a new novel project based on the life of fashion designer Bill Gibb, for which I recently went on a three-day research trip to London, visiting Central Saint Martin’s School of Art and various locations where Gibb worked and sold his clothes. Fingers crossed I knock out a good number of good words now that I have a fair amount of research in the bag.

I’ll also be heading on a week’s writing retreat in the summer after receiving one of Creative Scotland’s Muriel Spark 100 Awards, which was a fantastic boost after a fair number of rejections of late. As well as spending time at the National Library of Scotland looking through their Spark archives, I’ll spend a later week writing new short stories inspired by her time in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and my own. It’s hoped that these stories will be e-published in time for some public readings in autumn. I’m really excited to be part of this project celebrating a writer I admire’s centenary alongside the likes of Janice Galloway, Morna Young and creatives working across several other disciplines. It should be a great year of events!

19) Read a book a fortnight.

Although it might not seem a lot to some, pushing myself to read at least one new book a fortnight has become necessary for me as it’s so easy to get caught up in part-time work, freelance commitments, writing, research and general life, meaning that reading for both pleasure and writing craft can often be left behind, so I’ve been keeping a list of what I’m reading and making sure I always have something else lined up and waiting to be read on my Kindle or by my bed. Books I’ve particularly enjoyed since starting my 30 before 30 list are: A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Adult Fantasy by Briohny Doyle, Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m currently reading Mary Paulson-Ellis’s The Other Mrs Walker, which I’m really enjoying.

I was fortunate enough to speak alongside Mary and the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid (founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat), on a panel about writing and place as part of Spectra Festival’s Catalyst Conference last week. After lots of great discussion, I feel the Icelandic Sagas need to make it onto my reading list soon...

I am also looking forward to a slew of fresh writing coming my way to read in the coming weeks as part of my mentor role on the Queer Words Project Scotland. I'm looking forward to hearing lots of new voices in the shortlist and helping to make a selection of who I'll be mentoring between April and June.

25) Write a play.

Thanks to a commission from Aberdeen Performing Arts, I’ve been continuing to work with fine artist Kate Steenhauer on our ‘The Shelter’ play project (the origins of which are covered in my last blog), which has continued to grow in several interesting ways.

So far this year, we’ve been back out on the streets of Aberdeen, with me listening in on conversations in and around bus shelters, while Kate sketches the scene, all in preparation for a sharing of the work-in-progress on Thursday 26th April at The Lemon Tree (tickets can be booked for free here!). Here's a promo for the show:

We were also awarded a commission by Curated Place to project the first scene from ‘The Shelter’ as part of Spectra, Aberdeen’s Festival of Light. We’ve learnt a lot through working with technicians at The Lemon Tree, a young filmmaker Alex Cormack, and the staff at Curated Place to install our projection in Union Terrace Gardens this week past, where it’s been viewed by tens of thousands of people every night, Thursday to Sunday (8-11 February). Here are some pics from the festival:

If you’re based in Aberdeen, you can get involved with ‘The Shelter’ by tweeting in what you hear on the streets of Aberdeen with the hashtag #aberdeenoverheard or by commenting it on this blog post - you never know, it might end up in our show. You can read our own quotes and see Kate’s sketches on our special Twitter account: @writeaberdeen


Even if I don’t achieve all 30 on my list, it’s great to push myself in the run up to entering a new decade. And if I don’t do them all, at least it’ll have pushed me to read and write more in the coming months!

 

Taking to the Stage

Having had work performed by others earlier in the year (Sister Echt; The Granite Mile), the last couple of months have seen me return to the stage to perform myself. These stage appearances have also marked a progression in my work as I move from completing my first novel, Quines at Sea, to exploring new ideas and projects.

  Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

First up was Aberdeen Booked Unbound, part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s On the Road programme. I hosted this fun evening event in the Arts Centre in Aberdeen, with fantastic performances from Esther Woolfson, Jake Arnott, Morna Young and Morna’s band Folkify. As well as hosting, I read the opening chapter of my novel Quines at Sea which covers five women’s escape from Fraserburgh harbour in an old fishing trawler. I read a much earlier version at the May Festival in 2016 when I was only about halfway through writing the novel, so it was great to give it a second outing now that I’ve written to the end of the novel (but not necessarily completed it!) and I'm sure of the characters and overall direction of the work. If you’d like to read the opening chapter yourself, it’s just been published in issue 34 of Northwords Now which is available in print and online.

The next stage outing was much more of a challenge. I was commissioned to write a 10-minute piece about ‘home’ as part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From series, a fantastic project where four playwrights from different cities and towns across the U.K. are invited to perform and record new plays which are then all uploaded to an app. Having recently dislocated my knee (long story!), I decided to incorporate this into my piece, exploring dislocation in the sense of 'disturbance from a proper, original or usual place or state'; this involved rapidly moving through many of the homes I was brought up in throughout the Northeast of Scotland and the memories attached to them, memories of movement and unrest, and of stillness and isolation. I was so nervous just before the performance as I've never written something so personal and usually avoid autobiography, but I'm glad I was challenged to do it as it's made me realise I have many more stories to tell, even if I decide to tell them through different characters and perspectives in the future. It was also great to perform alongside playwrights Neil Cargill, Morna Young and Lesley Hart, as I think our plays resonated with each other in that we all come from small coastal towns and have all moved around, generating a complex sense of place. You can read a Wee Review of the evening here.

Finally, I was selected to take part in the National Theatre of Scotland's development opportunity, One Day to Play, as part of their new Engine Room initiative. Led by NTS Associate Director Cora Bissett, this project was all about generating new cross art form ideas, and I was very excited to be paired up with visual artist Kate Steenhauer.

After an initial discussion about how to approach working collaboratively across art forms, we were sent out into the night with a task to gather material from a public space in Aberdeen. After wandering around for a little while, Kate and I finally settled on a bus stop on Union Street as a perfect location to eavesdrop on conversations to gather verbatim text and for her to stand slightly aside and sketch the scene. What was fascinating about this process was that what I heard and what Kate saw told two different narratives, even though we were interacting within the same confines of one bus shelter on Union Street.

We decided to explore this further the next day, gathering more sketches and voices, until we had enough material to create a new piece that could potentially involve a live drawing and a monologue unfolding at the same before an audience, giving different perspectives on the same physical space and scenario. While Kate refined ink drawings from her initial pencil sketches, I got to work on typing up all my (badly handwritten) scribblings from the shelters. Unsure of how to progress with how I could cut, paste and structure the verbatim material into something theatrical and performance worthy, I decided to watch Kate at work, and noticed how she would return to certain aspects of her figures, adding more detail and definition as her drawings progressed, or even drawing them all over again from a different perspective. With the realisation that, over time, an audience watching Kate drawing live would slowly start to work out what her drawings represented, I decided to chop up the text I had gathered, repeating certain lines up to three times, with the next line being added in on the repeat, so that, by the end of the monologue, fully coherent stories are being told by the different voices I embody, and the audience can finally work out the location and who is talking. 

After a few practice runs, we presented this to an invited audience and it seemed to go down well; we're looking forward to receiving the feedback so we can find out more about what caught the audiences' attention most (sight or sound) and their ideas of how we could develop this further, either in a theatre context, or as an art installaton (or both!). It's definitely something Kate and I would like to explore and develop, so I'm looking forward to visiting Kate's studio and collaborating further!

  Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

As you can probably tell, it's been a busy few weeks! Now it's time to do some reflection on the new material I've generated for the stage, as well as new prose ideas I've been developing and consider how best to progress in the coming months... Watch this space!

Summer 2017 Update!

I’ve been a little quiet on here the past couple of months, but with good reason... At the end of April, I met with literary agent Jenny Brown after she read my manuscript for Quines at Sea and I am chuffed to announce that Jenny has taken me on! This has meant that I’ve been working hard on getting my manuscript into ship-shape for submission to publishers at the end of the summer. This has involved a lot of time spent playing with post-its to map out each of my characters’ arcs, smoothing out continuity errors and contradictions, and tightening up the prose as much as possible. Thankfully, I’ve had the resource of a shared studio space, Aberdeen Writers’ Studio, with fellow writers in Aberdeen at The Anatomy Rooms. It’s been great working in a dedicated writing space with the support of a community of writers I’ve come to know really well. I don’t know if I would have got this far without them all!

Alongside this, I’ve been facilitating a second The Writers’ Room programme at my Creative Learning post. I’ve really enjoyed getting to deliver this programme again, but with a different set of writers who’ve all brought something new and unique to it, and it’s also been great to have help with the facilitation from Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow Morna Young, author Wayne Price, last year’s participant Megan Primrose, and two visual artists, Lady Thornfield and Caitlin Hynes. One highlight this year was when participants from both programmes took a jaunt up to Inverness to attend XPO North, Scotland’s creative industries festival. There we watched three writers from last year’s programme - Rachelle Atalla, Rae Cowie and Emily Utter - pitch their novels brilliantly to a panel of publishers and Jenny Brown. Lots of great feedback was given, and more general advice that had us all scribbling notes in the audience!

On the theatre side of things, I had new work performed as part of Union Street, a collection of skits, sketches and poems from playwrights local to Aberdeen, performed by professional actors (including Joyce Falconer and Morna Young), as part of the Silver City Stories Festival. This production, a follow up to the National Theatre of Scotland's Granite, showcased the diverse set of voices writing in Aberdeen today, but all focused on the city’s most famous street. The play, and other writing from the group, was published in a collection by Aberdeen University Press, and also performed as part of this year’s May Festival.

Speaking of festivals, there’s still one more literary festival to come to Aberdeen this year, and that’s EIBF’s Booked! Festival in ACT Aberdeen. I’m looking forward to delivering children’s writing activities throughout the two days in my role at Creative Learning, and also hosting and reading some of my own work at Aberdeen Booked! Unbound alongside bestselling novelist Jake Arnott and some of the Northeast’s most well-known and well-loved writers: Leila Aboulela, John Aberdein, Esther Woolfson and Morna Young; there’ll also be music from Morna’s band, Folkify. It’s a free, unticketed event starting at 8pm in the ACT Theatre on Thursday 24th August, so get it in your diary now!

Student Show raises over £90,000 for charity

After working for over half a year on the script for the 96th Aberdeen Student Show, Sister Echt, it's great to hear today that the production has raised £92,194.15 for local charities in the Northeast. Having been a Script Editor and on the script team in the past, I doubted I'd ever be back as Script Editor again, so it was great to be able to write one last show for 34 great causes in Aberdeen city and shire! Now my focus is fully back on edits to my novel, Quines at Sea. There'll definitely be more news on that in the months to come...

BUKA at Look Again

In advance of a talk I'll be giving alongside Sue Fairburn and Sally Thomson about our art-in-health project in Bulawayo, I've created a document highlighting the story so far which features some new creative pieces alongside images from the project. Read it below!

If you'd like to find out more, the talk will take place on Monday 24 April at 12pm in N118 Sir Ian Wood Building at Robert Gordon University as part of this year's Look Again Festival.

Aye! Scottish-Bavarian Literature Festival

Having previously visited the special Bavarian city of Regensburg twice before as part of the Passages project, I was delighted to be asked back to take part in a Scottish-Bavarian Literature Festival in the middle of March. The festival is the third in an annual series of literary festivals run by the Evangelisches Bildungswerk where Bavarian literature is paired with that of another country; the first was Turkish literature and last year’s was Czech. This year’s festival took place in the city’s newest cultural space, the Degginger, and featured ceilidh band Danse Macabre, and writers Helen Lynch, Alex McCall, David Ross and myself from the Scottish contingent, and many writers, storytellers and performers local to Regensburg.

Over the course of the weekend, I read of one of my stories ‘Caul Iron’ as part of a Short Story Dinner, took part in a panel discussion about links between Scotland and Bavaria related to the Passages project, and read Burns’ ‘Tam o Shanter’ alongside a German translation from performer Magdalena Damjantschitsch who has one of the most soothing reading voices I have ever heard! We decided to have the German version of Burns read first, so that when the Scots was read it would be easier to follow. I also ensured I read ‘Caul Iron’ a lot slower than I normally would as well as being a bit more performative to evoke as much of the story as possible since a fair bit of it was in the Doric. Reading as part of the short story dinner was one of my favourite moments of the weekend, and the food was lots of fun, fusing Scottish and Bavarian traditions: haggis ravioli and sauerkraut! Thankfully, the audience were really responsive and receptive to Scots and Doric throughout the weekend and many said they enjoyed getting to hear it, in some cases for the first time.

The whole festival had such a nice feel, and involved meeting friends old and new. It's always great to set the world to rights (no easy task right now!) with Helen Stellner who translated the Passages collection; brought up in Aberdeen, Helen has been living in Regensburg since the 70s, and so she’s a pro in English, Doric, German and Bavarian, and is a wonderful reader and storyteller, as well as a very thoughtful translator. I also had lots of laughs with the quines of Danse Macabre, Helen Lynch, Claire White and Anne Taylor – all literary festivals should have one of their ceilidhs! I must thank the EBW for their fantastic hospitality, and writer Angela Kreuz, who did a great job hosting both the Short Story Dinner and the Passages panel discussion, which is not an easy task when it involves four different dialects…

 

Following another fantastic visit to Regensburg – which must be seen to be believed – I spent a day wandering round Munich, enjoying the nicer weather and wandering through the gardens and art galleries. I hope it’s not too long before I see Bavaria once more as it has become one of my favourite places thanks to connections I’ve made with it through writing and literature.

Inspiration Point and the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship

Over the past half year, I’ve been working on an exciting project as part of my role as a Creative Project Practitioner for Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Learning Team. Inspiration Point was an interactive arts project which aimed to inspire residents of Aberdeen to engage with their creativity and to highlight the range of artistic and creative opportunities in the city. We did this through a range of residencies covering visual art, drama and creative writing, as well as a two-day celebratory event packed with lots of creative activities, workshops and performances at The Lemon Tree.

My main focus in the run up to the celebratory weekend was coordinating the three Creative Writing residencies which took place in the last fortnight of January. This involved supporting three writers – John Bolland, Avril Erskine and Elaine Reid – to create new work and engage with staff and customers at three local businesses: Fifth Ring marketing agency, Bon Accord Care and Charles Michie’s Pharmacy. As well as the images below, you can find out more about how they went via the Inspiration Point blog.

During the Friday of the Inspiration Point celebratory weekend, I ran a creative writing workshop for S3 pupils from Mintlaw Academy who are interested in choosing arts subjects. I facilitated a character creation workshop which led to some really interesting and mature writing from various pupils in the group.

Later in the afternoon I ran a CPD session for teachers which launched a brand new Youth Arts Advice website for young people interested in the arts in the Northeast. Check out the website here and spread the word to anyone you think might find it helpful! The session also involved talks from Skills Development Scotland, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Scottish Drama Training Network and ACES RGU, who all deliver great work for young people interested in the arts. It was great that the first day of events was capped off with a packed networking event which took over most of The Lemon Tree with lots of creative discussion and buzz happening all over the place!

Throughout the Saturday I supported three writers from The Writers’ Room programme to deliver workshops to the public, and also learned a lot myself about children’s literature (from Megan Primrose), visual storytelling in film (from Gavin Gilmour) and life writing (from Emily Utter) during the workshops.

The weekend culminated in a Literary Salon hosted by yours truly, featuring brilliant readings by all eight writers who took part in The Writers’ Room, all three Inspiration Point writers-in-residence and the chosen recipient of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship, playwright Morna Young, who delivered a powerful performance of excerpts from her play Lost at Sea, which is set to tour Scotland in 2018.

It was great to finally launch Morna’s Fellowship after months of reading applications and conducting interviews since Creative Learning was chosen as the Fellowship Host at the end of last year. I’m really looking forward to supporting Morna throughout 2017 to create a new full-length play which will give voice to working-class female voices from the Northeast. I’ll also be running another The Writers’ Room programme in May/June thanks to Creative Learning being chosen as the Fellowship Host, so it's great to be able to to continue supporting a lot more writers and creatives in the Northeast this year! Follow further Inspiration Point happenings on Instagram and Twitter @inspirationABDN

A Doric Smoorach at Spectra

This weekend, thousands of people traversed Aberdeen city-centre under intermittent showers of snow to see the annual spectacle that is Spectra: Aberdeen's Festival of Light, which is always a real highlight of the city's festival programme. Like last year, I particularly enjoyed the illuminations at St Nicholas Kirkyard, especially umbrellas which lit up when you made lots of noise!

A couple of months ago I was asked to provide Doric recordings for one of the installations in Union Terrace Gardens. Along with Les Wheeler and Sheena Blackhall, my voice was recorded for the Doric Smoorach display, which involves festival-goers having images taken of them making different vowel sounds that are then projected onto huge heads. Each head speaks at a different time with our original Doric recordings playing back, sometimes at pitch, and sometimes altered to make it lower or higher. Check out the videos below to see what I mean, and you can hear some of the original recordings on my 'Writing' page.

This was a great start to this year's cultural calendar and I loved that my writing featured as a wee part of it. Next stop it's the Inspiration Point Literary Salon which I'm hosting as part of a weekend of events with Creative Learning at the Lemon Tree. Then I'll be running a workshop with John Bolland as part of Granite Noir the weekend after. A busy month ahead!

Dates for Your Diary in February 2017

There's lots coming up in Aberdeen in February that I'm really excited to be part of...

Thursday 9 – Sunday 12 February

  • Two of my Doric poems and a flash fiction piece will form part of a light and sound installation during the fourth annual Spectra Festival of Light in Aberdeen.

Saturday 18 February, 7pm onwards

  • As part of the Inspiration Point celebratory weekend, I am hosting a literary salon in the Lemon Tree featuring readings by Northeast writers and the recipient of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship. Tickets available soon.

Sunday 26 February, 10.30am-12pm

  • As part of Granite Noir, Aberdeen's first festival dedicated to crime fiction, I will be co-facilitating a Dark Doric creative writing workshop with John Bolland in Aberdeen Central Library. Tickets available here.

 

To whet your appetite for my next workshop, here's a wee fun task from my last workshop in December which was Dickens themed!

Dickensian name.jpg

A Creative Journey in Zimbabwe

Between the 12th and 18th of November, I visited Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to work with a team of arts-in-health experts, artists and maternal health experts to facilitate a creative exchange between arts and health organisations with the collective goal of enhancing maternal health environments in the city.

This project was follow up to a play I was commissioned to write in 2015 by Immpact, a global maternal health research initiative based at the University of Aberdeen. The play, A Mother’s Journey’, was performed at the 2015 May Festival and attended by an obstetrician and matron from two Bulawayan maternity hospitals. The obstetrician, Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa of United Bulawayo Hospitals, was impressed by the art work on display in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and commented on her own efforts to enhance the maternity wards she worked in with visual art. During an exchange visit with Immpact in September 2015, I witnessed the beginnings of Dr Makosa’s artistic enhancement in the Lady Rodwell labour ward and also met with the Mayor of Bulawayo. He was very interested in a potential arts project and felt it would be of much benefit to the hospitals, particularly in maternal health buildings, which are often the last to be renovated and repaired.

On this recent return visit, I was joined by Sue Fairburn of Gray’s School of Art, an expert in design in maternal health environments who previously worked with Immpact, and Sally Thomson, the Director of GHAT, an organisation which has provided art in Northeast hospitals for over 30 years. Throughout the week in Bulawayo, we were hosted by Cliford Zulu of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and met with arts and health organisations to identify areas of need within Mpilo Hospital and United Bulawayo Hospitals; we then facilitated a creative demonstration by Bulawayo-based artists in the public-gathering areas of the maternity hospitals. This involved the six artists — Owen Maseko, George Masarira, Talent Kapadza, Charles Bhebe, Danisile Ncube and Omega Sibanda  creating new paintings and chalk drawings, as well as inviting staff and patients to have a go at creating their own work with clay and coloured vinyl cuttings.

One of the many highlights was brightening up the Youth Friendly Unit at United Bulawayo Hospitals which is composed of grey cabins tucked away behind the main maternity buildings. Hospital staff expressed concerns that the location and appearance of the unit was discouraging young people from visiting them for sexual health advice and counselling services. In order to counteract this, all six of the artists and hospital staff worked together to create a colourful artwork on the side of one of the cabins using vinyl cut-outs.

As a result of the visit, Cliford and the artists have created a new arts-in-health collective called #Buka, an Ndebele word which means ‘look at’; they will continue to engage with hospitals in Bulawayo, while myself, Sue and Sally continue to support them by seeking funding opportunities to expand the art programme further into the wards and buildings of the maternity hospitals, as well as exploring other potential arts-in-healths links between and within the cities.

I am currently working on a creative document which will capture the dialogues that took place between the artists and health workers, as well as my own creative responses to the beautiful art works created during the project. Check out some of work in the pics below, and keep up to date with further developments by searching #BukaMpilo and #BukaCentral

The Writers' Room

I've been meaning to post a blog for some time about the fantastic experience I had mentoring eight emerging writers between July and November of this year, and here it finally is...

The set of images below explain the purpose and structure of The Writers' Room programme, which I ran as part of my role as a Creative Project Practitioner for Creative Learning (Aberdeen City Council). The CPD programme has led to so many fantastic outcomes for the participants involved as well as the creation of a close group of writers who continue to share and critique each others' work as part of a new writers collective. I've loved every minute of running the programme and look forward to running a second in 2017!

Polari Literary Salon @ Edinburgh's Assembly Roxy

On November 4th, I read at my second Polari Literary Salon in Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy. My first took place at Aberdeen University’s May Festival earlier in the year, so it was great to be invited back to read alongside queen of crime Val McDermid, Mari Hannah and Karen McLeod, as well as compere Paul Burston. Highlights from the evening have to be getting my story BSL interpreted which proved for some interesting takes on the rather rude imagery in my piece ‘A Story for Mrs Grey’ (appearing in the Winter 2016 edition of Causeway/Cabhsair magazine), and the brilliant performance by Karen of her alter-ego Barbara Brownskirt – a hoot from start to finish!

October Update

I've been pretty busy the past few months with various events and workshops so thought I'd share some pics of what I've been up to!

First up, I took part in the Edinburgh International Book Festival's Booked! Festival in Aberdeen. Across two days I ran Doric Gruffalo and cut-up poetry activities for primary schools as part of my role with Aberdeen City Council's Creative Learning Team. On the first evening, I also read from my work in progress novel, Quines at Sea, at the Unbound cabaret event, performing my work alongside Peter Arnott, Wayne Price, Helen Lynch, Joshua Seigal, Allan Burnett and James Oswald.

 Photograph by Amy Muir (courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival)

Photograph by Amy Muir (courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival)

The following Sunday I read more of Quines at Sea at a packed-out Pushing Out the Boat magazine event at The Blue Lamp. It was great to test out new passages from the novel across this week, to assure me about the direction it's going in. It was also great to see so much support for the magazine as it heads towards its 14th issue. I'm on the prose panel so I'm looking forward to reading through all of the submissions across the next month!

As part of my work with Creative Learning, I've been coordinating and facilitating a CPD programme for emerging and established writers in the Northeast called The Writers' Room. I promise to do a proper blog about it soon, but for now, here's a pic of an open event we ran with theatre production company, 10ft Tall, which explored Performing Your Work.

I then headed for a week's retreat in Moniack Mhor. This was an untutored retreat where I could get on with your own work in the company of other writers. It was great to hear what everyone else was up to and to talk about my work to folk outside of the Northeast. I'm especially looking forward to seeing new work from Zoe Venditozzi and Helen MacKinven in particular, who were a great laugh throughout the week!

This Autumn, the Granite writers have regrouped after the epic National Theatre of Scotland performance in March. We're now working on our own projects as well as writing smaller pieces to form part of a play for performance next year. Here are some pics from a hilarious session we did with the Granite Theatre group, who we will be devising work with across the next few months.

At the beginning of October I was asked by IntoFilm Scotland to do a reading for P5 - S2 pupils of The Sleekit Mr Tod, which is Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr Fox in Scots. This was followed by a screening of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox film and then the school pupils were asked to write their own review in Scots which I helped them with. It was great to pick winners for the review competition, who will all be receiving Sleekit Mr Tod goodie bags from IntoFilm and Black & White publishing.

Later that day, I ran a 'Messages'-themed beginners' poetry workshop for Aberdeen City Libraries, which explored their postcard collection for inspiration and celebrated National Poetry Day. I then ran a beginners' prose workshop a couple of weekends later which explored the libraries' Treasures collection, including 'How to Stamp Out Typhoid' booklets from 1964 following Aberdeen's typhoid outbreak, and Cooke's Royal Circus programmes from the late 19th century. The Treasures collection is currently on display in the library in anticipation of the Central Library's 125th anniversary next year!

My last event in October was a beginners' Doric workshop for Aberdeen University students. This was mostly attended by students from other countries who are dumfoonert by the Northeast Scots dialect. We had a lot of fun watching clips from Brave and Aberdeen Student Show, as well as guessing the meaning of a selection of common Doric words.

Next month I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon on Tour in Edinburgh on November 4th at the Assembly Roxy along with Val McDermid, Mari Hannah, Karen McLeod and Paul Burston. I'll also be heading back to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe for a week to follow up on the Mother's Journey project I did in conjunction with Immpact and United Bulawayo Hospitals last year, so there's still plenty to get excited about in the rest of 2016!

Upcoming Readings and Workshops

It's not quite the end of summer and already the second half of my year is filling up fast! Over the coming months I'll be taking part in a few readings and facilitating a couple of creative writing workshops in Aberdeen and beyond. All details below and on my home page..

Monday 29 August, 7pm

  • Reading at Unbound! as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival's Booked! Festival in Aberdeen Arts Centre and Theatre Café Bar.

Sunday 4 September, 7pm

  • Reading as part of 'An Evening with Pushing Out the Boat' at The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen. Advanced tickets available from the POTB website.

Wednesday 5 October, 6-7.30pm

  • I am running a beginners' poetry workshop for adults at Aberdeen Central Library on the theme of 'messages' to celebrate National Poetry Day. Booking info.

Saturday 15th October, 12-1.30pm

  • I am running a prose workshop for adults exploring Aberdeen City Libraries' Treasures Collection. Booking info.

Friday 4 November, 7.30pm

  • Reading with Val McDiarmid, Mari Hannah and Karen McLeod as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs), Edinburgh. Further details here.

Spirit is Released: a Nan Shepherd Mural

I was recently asked by artist Lady Thornfield to select a quote that I felt would be suitable for a book group and creative writing meeting room at Rosemount Community Centre where I work part-time for the city's Creative Learning Team. After sifting through a few books on my shelf, it didn't take long to come across a brilliant quote about libraries and reading by Nan Shepherd, a writer who lived and wrote in the Aberdeen all of her life. Thankfully Lady Thornfield loved the quote, and it's now part of the monochrome mural which reflects Shepherd's engagement with nature throughout her writing, particularly in her first novel, The Quarry Wood, from which the quote comes.

Shepherd was recently selected to be the first female writer to feature on a Scottish banknote, and her non-fiction work, The Living Mountain, has gained increasing attention over the past decade with several new editions finding their way on the shelves of book shops across the country. Definitely check out her work if you haven't done so before!