Clubbing for Writers: Competitions, Conferences and Connections

Photo by Simon Hattinga Verschure on Unsplash 

Listening, Linking and Learning

Writing can be a lonely job.There are times when it can feel as if your only friends are your imaginary ones.

Most of us work alone. There are no colleagues to chat to over coffee or to share lunch breaks with. There’s nobody on hand to help if you hit a problem, to discuss ideas with, or just to offer encouragement when your motivation levels are low.

Or so it can seem.

But it needn’t be this way. Writers do have colleagues – even if they don’t share a physical office space.

And one of the easiest ways to find them is to join a writing club.

Writing Clubs  

I recently attended the 70th anniversary party of the Edinburgh Writers Club. It was a very pleasant evening. There was cake, cut by Ian Rankin (I know! I came over all fangirl and couldn’t string a coherent sentence together when he said hallo), there were glasses of bubbly, but best of all there was the company of other writers.

I joined the Edinburgh Writers Club (EWC) back in 2000 when I lived in the city. It was at the time when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously and being a member of this most welcoming club helped me to get started. Indeed, I got so much out of my membership that even after I moved to the Isle of Skye in 2004, I kept up my membership and attended meetings whenever I could.

I’m still a member today – even after my recent move to the Scottish Borders. And, yes, I’ve joined a local writing group too. So I’m a new member of the Borders Writing Forum (BWF) – another club where I’ve been made very welcome and with lots of new writing opportunities to explore.

The members at both the EWC and the BWF, range from those taking their first tentative steps to those who are successful, published authors, and everything in-between. The meetings include writing activities and guest speakers. The atmosphere is positive and encouraging and I always feel I learn something useful which could help improve my writing.

Competitions

Like many clubs, EWC offers a series of annual competitions. These cover all the genres including poetry, short stories, drama, non-fiction and novels and entering them give writers invaluable opportunities to learn more about the craft and to extend their skills. They provide deadlines – always good for the procrastinating writer. They tempt participants to step out of their comfort zones and try writing genres other than their usual ones. And most valuable of all they give the writers taking part the chance to get constructive feedback from the adjudicators.

Of course there are hundreds of other competitions for writers where no membership of a club is required. They’re available online, in magazines and through large literary organisations. But the advantage of club based competitions is that (other than a modest annual membership fee) they are free to enter and the pool of competitors is relatively small. And very few of these wider competitions offer any useful feedback.

Conferences

Competitions with similar benefits to the club ones stated above are also open to those eligible to attend the annual weekend conference of the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) held every March. Being a member of an affiliated writing club such as EWC or BWF entitles you to go to the conference. I’ve gone to several of these conferences now and I love them.

Winners (and other placed entrants) of the SAW competitions are announced during the weekend conference, usually by the adjudicator of the particular competition, and in front of all the delegates. This provides a good buzz of anticipation and a healthy rivalry between clubs. Besides the competition announcements, there is lots of other stuff going on. There is always an excellent keynote speaker. There are workshops run by established authors and by agents and publishers on a wide variety of writing related topics. There are opportunities to pitch your work to publishing professionals and there’s even a book shop where you can both sell your own books and buy those written by fellow delegates. And then there are all the networking opportunities over drinks in the bar or at mealtimes.

Connections

But by far the biggest advantage to being a club member, and going to conferences such as the SAW one, is the chance to connect with colleagues. It is wonderful to be with people who not only understand the frustrations of the writing process –  the perils of procrastination, and the periodic absences of inspiration, but who also understand the rewards –  the satisfaction of completing a piece of work, the joy of having your work appreciated by a reader, and the obsessive compulsion to write. Peer group support in any endeavour is useful, but for the solitary writer I reckon it’s priceless.

And although I’m also part of an amazing network of supportive and helpful fellow authors in the virtual, online world, I don’t think you can beat the real world connection with kindred spirits.

Over to you

I’d be interested to hear other writers’ thoughts on the usefulness, or otherwise, of clubs and conferences and the like. Do you value being part of a writing community? Do you connect with other writers, if so how? Please do leave comments below.

Procrastinating to Perfection

My name is Anne and I’m a procrastinator.

I’m also a writer and procrastination is in the job description. It’s the supreme avoidance tactic that many of us – writers or not – use when we really don’t want to tackle something. But writers seem to take the P word to professional levels.

Procrastination feeds on a writer’s fear and insecurities and I’m susceptible.

Yes, I mostly believe in my writing self. And, no, I can’t imagine my life without writing. I work hard at it, I take it seriously and do my very best. I know and accept my writing’s not perfect, but my fear is that it’s so imperfect nobody will want to read it.

And when the fear gets out of control, writer’s block can set in. It can be that I’m scared I’ve literally lost the plot and I don’t know where my story is going, or because there’s that inner voice that says I’m just an impostor – not a ‘real’ writer at all. And then when I’m stalled at the writer’s block red light, then procrastination can just jump in the car beside me and turn off the engine. (Sorry, bit of a dodgy metaphor right there – occupational hazard. Did I say I’m a writer?)

However, I do seem to have got the procrastinating thing down to manageable levels. When I’m writing my novels I follow Stephen King’s wise words: ‘Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work’.  Writing is my job. When my job was primary school teacher, I got up and went to work whether I was in the mood or not. Similarly with writing – I don’t wait for the muse. I just go to the desk and write. Mostly…

I can’t deny that procrastination does sometimes still stalk me.  And, occasionally, it catches up with me, overtakes me and stands in my way. Then, because I’m now only answerable to myself, and not to a boss, I do sometimes give in to it, let it take me by the hand, and let it lead me down the path to where the non-urgent tasks lie.

But you know what, sometimes giving into procrastination works in my favour. Yes, it could wreck my writing life if I let it, but a little bit now and then can be quite reviving and invigorating. Think of it as like being an alcoholic versus just an occasional drinker. (And yes, there goes another metaphor)

There are actually times when I find procrastination quite helpful. By giving into it, by going for a walk, or doing some gardening, or just tidying a cupboard, I often find that whatever is blocking my writing progress disappears. It’s as if by doing something else, by getting away from the screen or notebook, my mind is freed to go off on a ramble of its own. I then return to my desk ready, maybe even inspired, to write.

I think procrastination is part of the writing process. I think it’s probably right that it’s part of the job description. It lets me step away from the manuscript, lets me take time out to mull things over, to allow fresh ideas to form and, yes, maybe to make my writing a little bit closer to perfection.

Do you sometimes succumb to procrastination? What sort of tasks cause it and how do you get round it? Do you think it serves a positive purpose? Please do feel free to comment below.

Writing the Story: It’s all about the Characters

 

The world of storytelling: it’s all about the people

Telling Imaginative Histories

I prefer to read and write character driven fiction. Don’t get me wrong both plot and setting are important to me, but they don’t excite me, either as an author or reader in the same way that characters do. Characters bring stories to life.

The novelist, Dame Hilary Mantel, gave the five lectures in this year’s run of the annual Reith lectures on BBC radio 4. Mantel, the author of best-selling, historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (to name only two of her many books) spoke inspiringly on how she views writing in general and writing historical fiction in particular.

She talked about what history is, about how it can only ever be an interpretation rather than irrefutable truth. She didn’t deny there are historical facts. Certain things happened on certain dates, certain decisions were made, certain outcomes happened. And from these facts we construct a possible impression of the past.

Mantel said that she did detailed research before writing her Tudor novels and that she saw her fiction writing as bringing the past and the dead back to life, as taking the events and creating a picture of how things possibly were for the people living through them.

Although I write mainly contemporary fiction, much of what Mantel said about the writing process resonated with me.

I had to research a wide range of topics––from Scottish crofting law and the care of sheep, to the politics of the Middle East­–– while writing my novel, Displacement and this continues currently as I write its sequel Settlement. The geographical settings of the Isle of Skye and Israel-Palestine are real, certain historical, political and cultural events that give background to the plot did actually happen.

But for me the magic, the alchemy of writing the novels, comes from creating credible, interesting and engaging characters. My characters are imaginary, but they must be brought to life in the same way as any ‘real’ historical characters must. I must inhabit and get into the head of my characters––and by doing so present a credible picture for my readers of the events and the realities my characters are living through.

Similarly, when I wrote my children’s novel The Silver Locket which involves three contemporary children travelling back to the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites in eighteenth century Scotland, I had to research key historical events such as the Battle of Culloden, but also what life is like for today’s eleven-year-olds. But again the real magic and thrill for me came when I breathed life into my protagonists.

My characters shape the story, their actions and reactions, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses are the story.

My fictional characters, in the same way as long-dead historical ones, come to life on the page. As an author this can seriously mess with your head. Sometimes characters surprise me. They can go off in directions I hadn’t predicted. I talk to my characters, even interview them, when I’m not sure how they feel about something or how they might react in a given situation. I live inside my character’s heads as I write–– much as I imagine an actor does when playing a role. I sometimes expect to see my characters in a real life setting such as when I’m on a real life beach, or up a real life hill that happens to feature in one of my stories.

Characters, historical or invented, have a story to tell. They are living and real for the duration of the book––and perhaps beyond.

All authors need to be imaginative historians and to let the characters bring the story to life and bring life to the story.

What do you think? Is it the characters that make a story for you?

Breaking Down the Barriers Between Science and the Arts with @SAWTrust

Just before I started to write this post, I was listening to the Andrew Marr Show on BBC Radio 4. The panel of expert guests had been invited to discuss science. Specifically, in a programme entitled From Darwin to Big Data, they were asked to consider whether scientists have failed to communicate their work to the wider public, including specifically to children. And along with that, they were also asked to consider how science is not just a set of logical and rational facts, but that it also links into ‘real’ life. One of the panellists was Richard Dawkins, and he said he’d like to see a more integrated approach to science education and education in general. He said that science should be seen as poetic, soulful and spiritual and as something that’s aesthetically pleasing.  I agree with him.

By one of life’s weird coincidences I recently had the chance to work with the SAW Trust. This amazing charitable organisation shows children, not only the wonders and practicalities of science, but also its connection with the emotional and artistic parts of life. And it does this by bringing together teams of scientists, artists and writers.

Here’s how the SAW (Scientists, Artists &Writers) Trust describes itself on itself on its website

The science, art and writing initiative breaks down traditional barriers between the arts and sciences.

Through creative use of science in the classroom, SAW inspires artistic and scientific endeavour. Children realise that science and the arts are interconnected – and they discover new and exciting ways of looking at the world.

SAW projects are accessible to all ages and abilities. They stimulate exploration, enquiry and creativity.

And they are fun!

And so it was that one day in June, I found myself back at primary school. I was there as part of team along with a scientist and an artist.

I spent the day in the primary six class (eleven-year-olds) at Canal View Primary school in Edinburgh. I was there as a writer, but as a writing tutor rather than as a novelist, and I was there because of an opportunity provided by the SAW Trust and Edinburgh University.

Before the SAW day itself, I’d already attended a training day at the university, followed by a planning meeting with the artist, scientist and class teacher I’d be working with.

The SAW way is that each team chooses a scientific topic, concept or idea on which to base the day. The scientist starts the day off by introducing the chosen topic via a set of activities that all the children in the class take part in. The artist then picks up the topic and uses it to allow the children to create topic-related artwork and finally the writer completes the day by getting the children to respond in writing to what has been experienced and learned throughout the day.

The topic our team decided on was DNA.

First, having been introduced to the concept of DNA via a short, concise and accessible video clip, the children extracted DNA from strawberries. The children were completely engaged throughout and seemed impressed by the foamy, stringy goo that is strawberry DNA. I was equally (if not more) impressed.

Then it was the artist’s turn to lead the activities. The class worked in small groups and each group produced a model of a section of DNA. The sections were then joined together in the double-helix formation of DNA and the long string was hung up across the classroom ceiling.

And finally, it was my turn. After a brief and stimulating discussion with the children about what we’d done so far and some examples from me, the children worked in pairs to produce poems – some rhyming, some not – that expressed their reflections on what they’d learned and how they’d learned it.

At the end of the day, the children applauded and thanked all three of us visiting practitioners and told us they’d ‘had the best day ever’.

I certainly shared that sentiment – also having had an exhausting, but brilliant day.

So thank you SAW Trust and Edinburgh University, and thanks too to Graham the artist, and Daniel the scientist – but most of all – thanks to Mrs M and her wonderful P6 class.

It was a wonderful opportunity and a great day.

 

Competition and Conference Success and Other Writing News

SAW Conf 2017

There’s been a lot going on in my writing life recently so I reckoned a bit of an authorly round-up was due.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and as such I’m eligible to enter their annual competitions. In that previous post I reported that I came second in the General Article competition. The adjudicator of that competition was Anne Hamilton who edits the online magazine Lothian Life, and the stipulation for entries to the competition was that they should be of interest to readers of the magazine. And I’m delighted to say that my article – all about my personal reflections on some of Edinburgh’s many parks – was recently published in the magazine and you can read it here http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2017/03/park-life/

Then last weekend I attended the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW). I always enjoy this event and this most recent one was no exception. It’s great to meet with other writers and authors at various stages in their writing careers and to have the chance to share experiences with them. It’s also great to have a chance to network with agents and other publishing professionals.

The keynote speaker on the Saturday night was comedian and actress Helen Lederer and she gave an entertaining, funny and engaging speech after Saturday night’s gala dinner. There was an excellent selection of writing workshops on offer throughout the weekend. I particularly enjoyed one on self-editing given by author Michael J Malone and another one on writing for older children and young adults led by author Keith Gray.

I also enjoyed further success with my entries to the SAW conference competitions. Competition entries are submitted and adjudicated prior to the event, and the announcements of the results are made at the conference. I came third in the General Short Story competition judged by author Regi Claire, and I came second in the Women’s Short Story competition judged by author Kirstin Zhang. The feedback I received from both judges was helpful and constructive and certainly boosted my confidence in my writing.

And apart from competition entries, what else have I been doing at the writing desk? The answer is not as much as I would like. The reason being the desk, along with all my other worldly goods is in storage. We’re in the process of moving house and are temporarily lodging with family. Before the move I was tantalisingly close to finishing my next novel, but there’s been little time or space to write recently. However, the end is in sight – both for the book and for this transition phase. We get the keys for our new house at the end of April and after getting moved in, I’ll be able to reinstate my full writing schedule. In the meantime though, I‘ll be finding some time and space to fire up the laptop and press on with getting Settlement finished, redrafted, and ready for my editor.

Onwards and upwards!

Resolved and Resolute

happy-new-year-2017

No new year resolutions, but three inspiring initiatives to share…

First of all I’d like to wish all the readers of the blog a Happy New Year and to thank you all for your loyalty, interest, likes and comments.

This year I haven’t made any traditional resolutions as such – no promises to myself to get slimmer, fitter or wiser. Although if any of these come to pass I’ll be delighted.

However, there are three New Year related initiatives that have caught my attention and they’re all ways of bringing a little joy into our own and other people’s lives – something much needed after the battering of 2016. So let’s hear it for the power of positivity and individual action in 2017…

#ScotSpirit of Kindness

kindness-1197351_640

Firstly, I’m quite taken by the idea of 21 days of kindness being proposed by Visit Scotland.

The idea of the 21 days came from the fact that on the 25th January Scots, and indeed many non-Scots, celebrate the birth of Scotland’s national poet and bard, Robert Burns and in 1788 Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, a song still sung nowadays, often as part of the New Year celebrations and other celebratory occasions. The song praises the value of friendship, and one of the lines in the song is we’ll tak a cup of kindness yet- a lyric which expresses a promise to be kind.

Visit Scotland is suggesting that on each day from the 5th of January until Burns night on the 25h people commit to doing one random act of kindness per day and sharing it with the hashtag, #ScotSpirit. Suggestions include complimenting a stranger, feeding the birds in your garden or paying for the coffee or bus fare of the person behind you in the queue. Apparently it takes 21 days to change a habit or form a new one, so the hope is the kindness will persist after the challenge itself is over.

Happiness Jar

dscf1432

The second suggestion that I like the sound of is the setting up of a Happiness Jar. Again it could be a good way of defusing stress. The idea here is to write down one thing each day that has made you happy and to put the note in a jar. So you not only take a moment to focus on the positive every day, but you can also recall all these moments at the end of the year when you re-read them.

Reflective Reading Challenge

bookshelf

And the third suggestion is the 2017 Reading Challenge. There are a few of these challenges around, but I particularly liked the sound of this one as it’s ‘only’ 26 books and doesn’t necessarily require a commitment to read more. It’s more about reflecting on one book per fortnight over the 52 weeks of the year and then to ‘inspire your world’ with your reflections. The full list of suggested categories is below and it comes from Hannah Braime at hannahbraime.com So I hope to inspire you as members of my blogging world with my own reflective recollections.

The 26-book 2017 reading challenge

  • A book you read in school
  • A book from your childhood
  • A book published over 100 years ago
  • A book published in the last year
  • A non-fiction book
  • A book written by a male author
  • A book written by a female author
  • A book by someone who isn’t a writer (think Paul Kalathani or Richard Branson)
  • A book that became/is becoming a film
  • A book published in the 20th Century
  • A book set in your hometown/region
  • A book with someone’s name in the title
  • A book with a number in the title
  • A book with a character with your first name
  • A book someone else recommended to you
  • A book with over 500 pages
  • A book you can finish in a day
  • A previously banned book
  • A book with a one-word title
  • A book translated from another language
  • A book that will improve a specific area of your life
  • A memoir or journal
  • A book written by someone younger than you
  • A book set somewhere you’ll be visiting this year
  • An award-winning book
  • A self-published book

 

Have you made any resolutions for 2017 – perhaps reading, writing or reflecting related? Have you considered any of the above initiatives? Do share in the comments below.

Now I am Sixty

Happy birthday

Ageing is a privilege and having just had my sixtieth birthday has reinforced that fact for me

In Now We Are Six, the collection of poems for children by A. A. Milne the little boy, Christopher Robin, says:

‘But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever!’

And I think as I have just turned sixty, I’d say something similar.

I’m not sure that at sixty I’m as clever as clever, but I think wanting to be the age I’m at now at forever and ever is a sign of acceptance and contentment.

Yes, being sixty can seem old, though less so to those approaching or beyond this landmark birthday, than to those not yet twenty, thirty, forty or even fifty.

But I don’t have a problem with turning sixty––for one thing it sure beats the alternative. Having survived cancer in my forties, having my sixtieth birthday was definitely something to celebrate.

To me it’s not the new 40 or 50. It is 60––and there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of, it doesn’t need to be dressed up as something else.

I don’t want to be 40 or 50 again––been there, done that.

 

My lovely 60th birthday cake complete with photos from significant life stages, my book covers, my parents and round the other side my children and grandchildren. Thanks to Mr Anne and to cakemaker, Nicola.
My lovely 60th birthday cake complete with photos from significant life stages, including childhood with my four wee sisters, my graduation,  my wedding, my book covers, my parents and round the other side my children and grandchildren. Thanks to Mr Anne for commissioning and to local cake-maker, Nicola for baking and decorating.

 

For one thing, at 60, there’s retirement, I took it early after a thirty-six year career in primary school teaching, so I’m now two years in––and I can find nothing not to like about it. I miss the children, but not the endless politicking and paperwork. And I’m still working as a writer but, finally, I’m the boss of me.

And there’s my bus pass which allows me to travel anywhere in Scotland by bus free of charge––I was so excited to get that. Receiving it was the true mark of my long held ambition to officially be an old bag.

­But mainly, there is now time – time to do what matters to me – to write more books – both for children and adults – where the ages of the characters are no barrier to having adventures, hopes and dreams – to spend time with the people I love, to take care of myself – and to just stand and stare.

It’s not an end but a beginning – as with any day, it’s the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m not much wiser or less prone to worry and anxiety than I was before. But reaching sixty has helped clarify what’s important. Our numbered days are not endless and there really is no time but the present. A new day is a present––a gift not to be taken for granted at any age.

champagne-1500248_640

Yes, I have to face up to the implications of approaching old age whenever and whatever that may be. I’m sure I’ll recognise it when, and if, it comes. But every age has its challenges and requirements to plan ahead. Sixty is no different.

And apart from when I look in the mirror, I really feel no different. Of course I’ve aged physically, but my six-year-old, sixteen-year-old, twenty-six and thirty-six-year-old selves along with their forty and fifty-year-old counterparts are all still there inside, all part of the me I am today. I’m happy with that.

And what advice would I give my 16 year-old self?

  • Follow your dreams.
  • Do what you love.
  • Seek new experiences.
  • Have no regrets.
  • Be kind to yourself and everyone you meet.
  • Do your small bit to make the world a better place.

And remember these 3 things

  • You will be strong enough,
  • You will be brave enough
  • You will be good enough.

 

Here’s to getting older. How do you feel about big birthdays and about getting older?

On Being a Successful Author

 

I sometimes hangout in a couple of virtual staffrooms for writers and recently the talk at the virtual water-coolers has been about how success as an author is judged.

And the discussion got me thinking about what success as a writer looks like to me.

Some colleagues reckoned that being signed with one of the major traditional publishers was an essential part of being seen as a success. Others saw writers who are well-known to a large part of the population through the bestsellers lists, major prize awards, and appearances on television and in the other media as the successful ones. Having a book adapted for television or cinema was another mark of having arrived.

And there can be little argument that authors who fall into the above categories are successful. They’re hardworking and successful earners. They’re successful marketers of their work and they’re successful in writing books which appeal to many people. They are validated not only by their content but also by their sales.

But what of the rest of us, the majority of us, the mid-listers with the major publishers, the authors published by small independent publishers, or the self-published/indie authors? What constitutes success in these categories? As with the famous bestsellers, it seems in many people’s judgement to come down to sales. It’s not really surprising. Certainly for a publisher with a business to maintain and grow, their authors have to sell well. And even in the indie-author world the consensus seems to be that success equals sales.

Indeed even the Society of Authors and the Alliance of Independent Authors, both bodies which exist to support and advise writers have a two tier system. Members can be ordinary or professional and it’s their level of sales that determines the author’s status. Here success and even professionalism is most definitely judged by the sole criteria of number of books sold.

My opinion is that while sales are most definitely an indicator of success, they’re only one indicator. Sales don’t always correlate with the much more subjective components of success such as literary merit, or writing that seeks to raise awareness or challenge the status quo.

As a reader, I judge a writer to be successful first and foremost by how much I enjoyed their work. I’m not interested in who published them, in their sales figures or their media presence. Yes, these things will matter as far as me discovering them in the first place but discoverability, although linked, is a whole other topic. If when reading a book, I was entertained, or moved, or made to think or rethink, or learned something new, if I was captivated and taken to another place in my head – if any, some, or all of these things happened – then that author has, in my view, been successful.

And as a writer: How does success look to me? Am I successful?

Short answer: Yes.

I’ve written three novels. Success!

In the above quote I would substitute or equate ‘happiness’ with ‘success’.

For me the enjoyment, frustration and challenge I get from the writing process – living in the heads of my characters, letting them surprise me as they tell me their story, crafting the flabby monster of a first draft, seeing the thing edited, honed and packaged, holding the finished article in my hand – that’s success. The achievement of getting a novel to the published stage is success enough.

Having just one other person read and enjoy it adds a bit more to that feeling of success and yes, the feeling grows the more readers read it and report favourably on the experience of having done so.

But whether I’m successful or not in the eyes of others, it’s not for me to say. However, in my house I’m a world-beating, best-selling author, and I’m a successful writer just by turning up at my desk every day. Sales or the lack of them make me no less professional or successful in my own eyes.

Of course I’d like to make a comfortable living from my writing, and yeah, it would be cool to be interviewed on the BBC Breakfast Time sofa, or to pull in the crowds at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

But that level of success is not what motivates me, I write because I can’t imagine not doing so. Just the act of writing, to me, constitutes success.

How would you define a successful writer? Please do leave your comments below.

Absent Friend

A birthday tribute to my very dear friend. It’s been fourteen years since she died, but I still miss her…

1968, summer holidays: Elspeth (on left) and me aged 12

Elspeth would have been sixty-years-old on the fourteenth of June this year. I thought about her all day on that Tuesday just over three weeks ago. I shed a tear and I raised a glass to her memory.

I first saw Elspeth when she arrived as the new girl in my class at South Morningside Primary School in Edinburgh in 1965. She stood at the front of the class and the teacher explained that she had come all the way from England and was going to be in our class. The teacher asked me to look after her. We were in primary 5 and nearly nine years old. It was the start of a 37-year friendship. As nine-year-olds I literally looked up to her – she was tall and skinny and I was small and plump – this size difference persisted over the next 37 years! At the time we met Elspeth seemed very exotic to me – with her strange English accent, a mum who drove her own car, and her family lived in one of the brand new houses in the area.

For the rest of our primary school careers we were inseparable. We played piano together, went to ballet lessons, ice-skating, had tea and sleepovers at each other’s houses. I went to all her birthday parties at Gullane beach, getting there in her Uncle Kenneth’s van. We were very loyal to one another and fought each other’s battles – woe betide anyone caught speaking ill of one of us in the presence of the other!

We developed a rather quirky, mutual sense of humour and shared our own special vocabulary and linguistic shorthand, which persisted into our adulthood. Our mothers told us the “facts of life” when we were 11 and we immediately compared notes and assessed our respective mothers’ performance of this duty – with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and horror.

We went on to different secondary schools. My family had moved to the other side of the city. We therefore made regular trips on two buses across town to see each other. Throughout our teenage years we shared our most intimate secrets – especially our experiences with boys! Then Elspeth family left Edinburgh to settle in Gullane, about fifteen miles along the coast, when we were both 17. This meant that we spent weekends living at one or the other’s house in order to keep in constant touch.

University meant even more distance apart –Elspeth at Edinburgh and me at St Andrews – but so what – we just travelled that bit further to keep in touch. Boyfriends became more serious. Elspeth met her Ian. Her Ian had a 21st Birthday party and Ian’s best mate, Graham invited his brother along. Elspeth invited me. I met Graham’s brother at the party. I had met my Iain. In 1978, I married my Iain and Elspeth married hers.

We spent the 1980s having babies and then Elspeth moved – not just out of town but to New Zealand and then Australia.

But we kept in touch – we knew that for best friends distance doesn’t matter.

In 1998 we were both diagnosed, within weeks of each other, with cancer. Elspeth with a recurrence of the breast cancer she first had in the 1980s. For me it was ovarian cancer and I was scared stiff. I called my friend in Australia and she calmed me down. She made me believe cancer could be beaten. She was incredibly brave and strong.

In 1999 I travelled to Tasmania to see her. We were by this time both in the clear. We laughed, reminisced, shared all our intimate secrets once more – giggled like the daft wee lassies we always reverted to being in each other’s company.

Tasmania 1999

Then in 2001, I travelled to Tasmania again – this time my Iain came too. By now Elspeth was ill again – with aggressive secondary cancer – but again she was fighting – refusing conventional medical treatment but fortified by her great Christian faith and a timely visit from her sister Frances. We had a wonderful time together – sometimes we even included the menfolk! We talked about everything – life, death and everything in between. Her strong belief in the power of prayer and her amazing spirit sustained her for almost another year.

Tasmania 2001

I had no such strong religious faith and although I hoped she would not be taken from us just yet, I guessed our farewell at the airport would be our last. And I think she did too. We held each other just that little bit tighter as we said goodbye, both of us in tears.

She died in May 2002, one month before her 46th birthday, leaving Ian without a wife and their three young sons without their mother.

Elspeth was also a much-loved daughter, sister, and friend.

She was one of the kindest, funniest, most generous, most loyal people you could meet.

She will always be my dear friend and I still miss her terribly fourteen years on.

I will raise another glass to her memory on my own 60th birthday in August.

 

 

 

 

Learning: Taking The Plunge

diving in

Every week the folks at WordPress set a weekly challenge. I’ve not taken up the challenge before, but this one inspired me. It is to write about a time I learned something new.

In January 2015, aged 58 and a half, I learned to swim.

Now teaching and learning is something close to my heart. I was a primary school teacher for 36 years and I met all sorts of reluctant or struggling pupils. It’s easy to teach someone who’s ready to learn, who’s receptive to what you’re showing them. However, it’s not so easy to coax someone’s who’s afraid to even give it a try, who has decided in advance they’re not capable of learning. But I thrived on such challenges and persisted and tried everything I could think of to persuade reluctant pupils to just give it a go.

Then, nearly eighteen months ago, the tables were turned. I was now the reluctant learner, the one of was afraid, who didn’t believe myself capable. I had never learned to swim. But I’d set myself some personal challenges when I retired from teaching and top of the list was ‘get in the water and swim, woman!” An additional motivation, on top of the personal challenge, was that I wanted to be able to swim with my grandchildren on a family holiday to Cyprus later in the year.

So I booked a one to one hour long session with the swimming teacher at my local pool.

Now, I should say I’m not afraid of water. I’ve always liked bobbing about in the (warm) sea and when my children were wee, I’d always go in the pool with them when we were away on our annual holiday. I made sure they learned to swim – by delegating the task to my husband.

So, no, not afraid of water. It was just I believed I was the only human being in the history of our species who couldn’t float.

But I was wrong. With the confidence building teaching of my wonderful teacher, Yvonne, during that one hour in the pool I eventually took my feet off the bottom of the pool and with a few feeble and styleless strokes I swam. I swam a couple of widths. I went out of my depth and I treaded water. Me! the least buoyant human ever – could both float and swim.

I walked home through the January snow, oblivious to the cold, wrapped in a coat of smugness and pride. An Olympic medallist couldn’t have felt more proud.

I’ll never be a water baby, but yes, I swam with my grandchildren last summer.

I did it. I took the plunge and learned something new. And boy, did it feel good.