I read a piece of advice today in the archives of One Story that made me feel it had been written for me. Where I am now. On this island. In this cottage. In the dark. Wind or rain. Or wind and rain. Driving rain. Gusting wind. Not much light from the moon, though the moon is there. Isolated and in my head for an extended period. The ferries passing keep the time.

Emma Donoghue, interviewed by One Story to accompany her story “The Widow’s Cruse,” was asked, as every One Story writer is asked, what is the best bit of advice about writing you’ve ever gotten. She attributed her response to Hilary Mantel: “Drop the charm. Eat meat. Drink blood.”

Posted in readings trouvé

slate chalkboard

Back from a walk. Ten minutes to the top of University Road because it’s a climb and back down through the trees to the open water. Deer along the road. Completely unafraid. Every once in a while I see one flinch. They seem darker than I remember, their coats thicker, black tails, and a black band around the snout and under the chin like a circle.

The sky keeps changing. The grey cloud cover is calming, but the sunlight is playful, and it moves like a lively mind across the leaf surfaces and the water. How beautiful, water. Who was talking about the moon. The way the moon is a friend to water. Was it last night? Was it the narrator in Rebecca? Which I’m loving, almost as much as Jane Eyre. The cadence of the sentences, what the narrator notices, the way what she sees has the effect of revealing what she feels within, appeals to me so much. How wonderful to have been led to the kind of writer, the kind of character, I admire just when I need her most. Like a good friend, a character in a book, Inga once said.

Afterwards I walked past the labs where the students and the researchers work. I like the drawings on the window panes.

They make me think that the people who work here are playful, though maybe they’re meant to be serious life drawings. Some of them are labeled.




A narrow utility road leads past the wharf, and trails branch over the bluff and out to the point.






There I found an unpainted Adirondack chair beside a pod of kayaks. An older Japanese woman was carefully making her way down the gravel incline. She didn’t smile; she didn’t even look up, maybe she was concentrating on her footsteps. She entered one of the derelict looking lab buildings at the edge of the campus and closed the door behind her.

Walking back up the stone steps toward the top of the bluff, I noticed a bench facing a table.




The bench, made of hewn logs, stacked on tree stumps, faced a wide slanted board like a draftsman’s table. When I reached the other side, fitted to the frame of the table was a piece of slate. There was a built-in box beneath the board, like the opening at the base of a desk. Inside, a metal tin with a perfectly fitting lid—there’s a name for this kind of a can—maybe they’re used for developing film or for the chemicals scientists use.

Inside, as I had hoped, was a fistful of colored chalk. Beside it a wadded rag and a stone the shape of an island or the bluff itself, colored pink with the chalk on one side and blue on the other. The slate board was perfectly clean, from the rain we’ve had all week, I imagine.

I sat down and looked out over the water. A small blue boat was approaching the harbor. I wanted to draw the wake line, and I did, and then the blue boat and the following swells and eddies as it went by.

How fast the hours in the day go by. How fast the sun across the sky. The days in a week. And so on. I’ve been here four days.

Posted in place names

on skivers and and reverie

Feeling nostalgic. It’s taken 3 weeks to absorb where I’ve been and what it meant. We were there for the state of mind that engenders writing, though other things happened and other things came and were observed and recorded.

I’ll begin with an excerpt I found on the blog of my friend Marianne called Kanlaon on the subject of continuing in the midst of feeling somewhat lost. I hope she doesn’t mind. I open Kanlaon whenever I’m in need of a lift.

To be a writer is to be a focused skiver.

It’s not that it isn’t hard work. Ask anyone stuck arse-about-face-halfway through the long tube of a novel, hauling mechanical bits and sprockets, both start and finish mere pinholes of light at either end, whether or not it feels like a nap. The skiving comes elsewhere. It is attitudinal.

 An artist must live at one step removed from everyone else, curiously observing the ebb and flow around them. You have to be close enough to empathise with society, and yet not be consumed by it entirely – Mortgage! Career! Keep the profits coming! Work! Work! – and watch your soul disappear into the office shredder. 

–From the introduction to New Scottish Writing 28, eds. Alan Bissett and and Carl McDougall

Posted in place names, readings trouvé

the weather in japan

Yesterday evening at the end of the day, wandered downstairs through the rain and cloud-darkened rooms. Sat in the window seat in the drawing room without the electric fire. Didn’t realize there was a view of the river, which was and still is, swollen and brown and traveling swiftly by.

At the back of the formal dining room, mirrored doors slide open onto the special library that contains books by writers who have been awarded the Hawthornden prize and the Drue Heinz prize. It’s a cold room. The ceiling is open to the rafters and the original wall is visible behind the fireplace. A sign is taped to the window sill:

Please keep this top sash window slightly ajar.
you wil notice a build up of
Hothouse flies trying to escape.

I think of it as the window that faces the front of the ship of the castle. The window behind the foredeck. The prow.

I pulled a few of the prizewinners down from the shelves. Read a few first pages. A few random pages. Continued turning the pages of some. Surprised and not surprised how many of the names I knew. Edith Pearlman. Jennifer Cornell. Stewart O’Nan. Geoff Becker’s prose struck me as the tightest, the easiest to enter, the most fluid, and this reminded me of Frank Conroy, of the kind of story he would have admired. I think it was called Dangerous Men. Anne Sanow’s Triple Time wasn’t there, nor was the 2012 prizewinner’s collection that rumor has it was considered by Mrs. Heinz too risqué.

My eye moved higher where the slender volumes of poetry are shelved. Find I’ve been more drawn to poetry since I’ve been here. Maybe prose is beginning to remind me of talking, is beginning to sound like the dripping faucet that talking sometimes is. I remember noticing the title The Weather in Japan, but walked away from it to the other side of the room where books by William Drummond and Ben Jonson and books about the country, the landscape, the lore and the language of Scotland are kept. But something took me back to the Belfast poet Michael Longley’s The Weather in Japan. Reading it has changed something in me in the last 18 hours.

The dedication page goes like this:

For Ronald Ewart

In my ideal village, the houses lie scattered
Over miles and are called a townland, while in yours
Neighbors live above and below, and a nightcap
Means climbing up steps in the direction of the stars.

The title piece like this:

The Weather in Japan
Makes bead curtains of rain,
Of the mist a paper screen.

At the bottom of the page called Notes and Acknowledgements, he defines a few words and tells where they appear in some of the poems, but when I looked to those pages they weren’t there:

I use several Scots (or Ulster Scots) words, three of which may require a gloss: hourly-gush means a noisy rush of water; peerie-heedit means ‘with a spinning top for a head,’ confused, disoriented; dayligone means twilight, dusk.

I read of mud and waiting and loyalty in the terrible war poem “The Horses.”

I read “Found Poem,” a wonderful lesson on the naming of colors and a tribute to Harriet Tubman, who “thought her quilt patterns as beautiful / as the wild flowers that grew in the wood / and along the edges of the roads.”

I especially remember “Birds & Flowers,” dedicated to Fuyuji Tanigawa, which contains pieces of a correspondence between friends:

‘I have been a man of home these years,’ you write, ‘often
Surprised to know so much passion hidden in myself.’

You who translated for me ‘ichigo-ichie’ as ‘one life,
One meeting’ as though each encounter were once-in-a-

And finally, as if he knew this reader would find him in this particular place at this particular time, from “The Well at Tully”:

This view of the river from a window-seat, attracts you
Like a sea trout,

The Weather in Japan, Michael Longley. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

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a day of reading, from the paris review interviews

For epilogue here, let’s append a passage from the Baroness Blixen’s “Albondocani,” a long series of connected tales still unfinished at the time of her death in 1962. This excerpt is from “The Blank Page,” published in Last Tales (1957). An old woman who earns her living by storytelling is speaking:

“With my grandmother,” she said, “I went through a hard school. ‘Be loyal to the story,’ the old hag would say to me, ‘be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story.’ ‘Why must I be that, Grandmother?’ I asked her. ‘Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?’ she cried. ‘And you mean to be a storyteller! Why, you are to become a storyteller, and I shall give you the reasons! Hear then: Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass [or anyone else] understands it or not.’

“Who, then,” she continues, “tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does.”

Isak Dinesen, interviewed by Eugene Walter, Issue 14, 1956

Posted in readings trouvé

a day in edinburgh

A week ago today I took a trek into Edinburgh. Beautiful windy day. Lots of sun. Even the walk up the drive to the castle gate felt like an adventure.

Wasn’t sure whether there was a proper stopping point for #49 or if I was meant to flag it down. Felt good to walk, and I did. Past trails leading into pastures, a few cottages on the other side of the road. I like the way there seem to be walking paths in this country, different from sidewalks, most anywhere you might want to go. It was my first day out of the castle, and all I could see were details. A brick in a wall. A rose on a trellis. A man’s teeth. His son’s ears. Though it might have been the other way round. After 35 minutes, the countryside left behind, we circled the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh Medical School and entered the city from the south on Nicolson Street. At Clerk, I noted a sign pointing to the Royal Commonwealth Pool. Hopped off the bus at North Bridge, which doesn’t cross a river, but feels as if it does. Saw the signposts to the Royal Mile, but wanted to go my own way. To find a way by chance.

Princes Street turned into Waterloo Place at Leith and Waterloo turned into Regent Road. I was looking for a cutoff to Royal Terrace. All I could see was a walled estate to the left and what had to be Arthur’s Seat beyond a government building on the right, the train tracks leading back into Waverly Station below.

Stopped to look around a garden of stones in Regent Park, a sculpture of stones, one from every region of Scotland.

When I came to Abbey Hill, I was sure I had missed the turn or there wasn’t one, but waiting for the light, looked over my shoulder and there was the sign I needed: Carleton Terrace Brae and another–leading to Royal Ter. Regent Ter. Carlton Ter. Crossed Abbey Hill first, thinking I might stop for a coffee.

Passed what looked like a Jack Russell in a locksmith window,

a shop that refurbished bicycles,

and a woman sitting on her third story window sill, clipping her toenails, which interested me because I had just been wondering where I was going to clip mine. Walked a bit up London Road. The bus 49 passed on its way to Portobello, site of another public pool I’d read about with cold sea baths and Turkish baths, but turned back

and made my way up toward
Royal Terrace, where I found not only a lovely curving road at the top of the hill, but possibly the best views of the entire city, including the Firth of Forth and all of Calton Hill.

I love the terraces and the mews,

the doors to the houses,

the gates to the parks.

Passed a woman walking her black and white spaniel called Ivy 

and just afterwards a man with a cane and a dog called Jack. I have a key to the private garden, he told me, unlocking the gate. You can walk through the inner park with me if you like. It’s for residents only. I’m not going to do anything to you. I held the gate open with my ankle, took a photo of him and Jack and walked on.

After a posh lunch at 21212, passed what looked like an old surfer woody parked at the curb outside the door

and a father with his daughter getting ready to climb Calton Hill, both of whom reminded me of a father and a daughter I used to know. And then the rain came down. The first real rain since I’ve arrived.

I pulled on my rain jacket and walked down the Leith and through the construction site of the city center, though it wasn’t long before I found the ways and alleys that appeal to me the most, Dublin Meuse, Drummond Place, Royal Crescent, and Fettes Row, past the Queen Street Gardens to Heriot Row

and back up Frederick Street, where it was time for another glass of Chablis.

Caught #31 at the bridge just as the sun was setting. I recognized Bonnyrigg when we came to it, but it was dark when we reached Polton Hill or Mill, and I knew the bus was circling back to Edinburgh there and wasn’t sure which way to walk.

I came in on the 49, said I to the driver. Is this the way to Rosewell?

You can wait here for the 49, said he.

I’m walking to Rosewell, a woman said. With these long legs. You can walk with me if you like.

Go with her, said the driver. And I did.

We walked hard and fast in the dark and talked the whole way about following men away from the sea. There’s your castle, she said. I thanked her and remembered the numbers for the code that open the gate and it worked and, after all that walking, the dark way through the trees wasn’t scary at all and the gravel crunched and the light came on and there was H at the door and I was home.

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my room at the top of the trees

The stone step at the back of the garden is where I start my day. Coffee, the wind and the river.

Haven’t ventured out too far yet. I like my view into the treetops very well. My room is the one at the end with the open window. Every night so far I’ve awakened at midnight and watched the moon cross the sky

Twice I’ve circled the castle along the River Esk. Yesterday or the day before, I saw a fox on the trail. And then I come home to my desk.




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