Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

On writing and endeavour

by Chris on 8th July 2016

moniack-mhor-LST194651‘We could stretch our legs if we’d half a mind
But don’t disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two
Cause writing’s lighting up
And I like life enough to see it through’

From Writing by Bernie Taupin on Elton John, Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Cowboy, 1975

For me, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics on Captain Fantastic are as good as it gets. They remain inside my head forty years after I first heard them. Embarrassingly I even sing them out loud. Bernie’s a writer for sure, and a great one at that. But although I write a lot I’ve never considered myself to be a writer. Rather I’d say I’m someone who writes. A fine line you might think, but it’s a chasm too. Or at least it can feel like one. And this week I learned that if I want to ‘see it through’ to coin Taupin’s phrase, that’s going to have to change. Writing is a pleasure, but it’s also an endeavour.

I’ve spent the last five days at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre, high up in the hills in the historic county of Inverness. For almost as long as I can remember I’ve been writing. Even longer than I’ve been running and that’s a long time. I still – just about – think of myself as a runner. Running is a serious endeavour for me. So could I be a writer too? That’s what I came here to find out.

I’ve always taken inspiration from great wordsmiths; novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, lyricists and others. They all play with words. Beautifully, meaningfully and memorably. I take writing with me wherever I go too. Poetry is a special resource because you can dip into it so easily. I rarely go away for a night without Elliot’s Four Quartets or Heaney’s Seeing Things. They have a timeless quality that I never tire of. So they never stop speaking to me; comforting, inspiring and entertaining.

The course was billed as a tutored memoir writing retreat. And a retreat it has definitely been from everyday life. It’s not that I’ve no idea what’s happened out there. These days word always finds a way through. The house has internet access and I’ve had my radio and kept in touch with the big stories of the week. However, thankfully there’s been a detached quality to the news. It’s out there, but somehow, despite technology, it hasn’t quite got in here. And that’s because the level of intensity has been ferocious. Get a group of writers together and I guess it’s always going to be. Get a group of would-be memoir writers together and it takes the intensity to another place. The immediacy of the emotional noise has refreshingly drowned out much of that other news.

The experience has been a hymn to the power of stories and the irresistibility of words. And it’s how we use the latter to shape the former that has been our shared enterprise for a week. The stories here are remarkable – illness, death, guilt, coming of age, leaving home, relationships, childhood. There have been few stones unturned. Whether and how we can use words to share those stories has been the task we set ourselves. To help us we’ve had the generosity of wonderful writer tutors and on Monday night, they shared some of their own stories with us.

Kapka Kassabova took us to Europe’s last border along an old drove road on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. And in a moment we were there, observing and making sense of it with her, recollecting her past with her even though we’d only just met her, talking to border guards with her about the effects on them of the seismic shifts in geopolitics which have taken place in the last twenty years.

Rachel Kelly took us to the moment her life changed when she went from feeling mildly anxious to being completely unable to function within the space of just three days in 1997. And within a moment we were there in her bedroom as she tossed and turned, in her kitchen as she ate in case hunger was preventing her from sleeping and at the foot of children’s beds as she faced the long quiet night alone.

On Wednesday evening we sat in Moniack Mhor’s extraordinary hobbit house with Richard Holloway who seduced us, persuaded us and beguiled us with the stories you can find in his memoir, Leaving Alexandria. I’ve heard Richard many times before but never in such an intimate setting. What a privilege. I think we all fell a little bit in love.

Then last night we began to share our own stories, to take our words off the page and read them out loud. For many of us, it was the first time we had read our writing to others, let alone to a bunch of relative strangers. I think we surprised ourselves and each other. I think each one of us has been emboldened by the experience if not a little terrified too. But in any serious undertaking fear has its piece to play.

‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’ The refrain in Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Passion, has echoed for me these past few days. We write to tell stories. We want people to take us into their trust. Why? Because however, cathartic writing is for any of us personally, I think we write to make a difference. We write in the hope that sharing our stories can help make the world a better place.

What a cliché you might think. And you’d be right. But if even a fraction of what I’ve heard this week makes it into print it will be true.

  • Beautifully written article, Chris. I do hope you write your memoirs.

    Jane

  • Tricia McColgan

    Chris, you have captured the specialness of this experience so truly.

    Thank you.

    Tricia.

  • Gaby

    Chris – a reflective and intuitive piece of the days in Scotland – which were all the more extraordinary when you step away from them- beautifully written
    Gaby

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