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Destination Unknown

Bare tree in winter

Driving to the first workshop of the year-long Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms Project I was feeling bleak. It shouldn’t be that way and normally it isn’t. Normally, I’m excited about a new event or workshop series; maybe a little nervous about who will come and how they will respond, but as I’ve gained experience and confidence over the years, I’m usually eager to get going. But this time was different.

For a start, the weather was the pits; so wet and windy that one participant had emailed to check if we were going ahead. We were, but I advised against driving if she felt unsafe. Though we love celebrating the Park in all its glory, be it snow or sunshine, the reality is we still get our fair share of Scotland’s legendary climate: grey clouds, wind and rain. But it wasn’t the weather that was the worst of it for me, or the driving conditions or the need to lash a plastic cover over my box of resources for the dash across the carpark at Aviemore Community Centre. The bleakness was mainly internal.

Writing class resources

It seemed fitting. As any writer (or keen reader) of fiction knows, bad weather spells bad news. And I’d just had some. My second novel is set here in the Cairngorms and was written across five years. Taken on by a very good London literary agent last year, I had high hopes for a swift publishing deal. Naive hopes, as it transpires. To cut a long story short, so far we’ve just had silence or rejection. That day was another rejection.

So I ran through the squall and into the quiet meeting room where I spread out papers, pens and a collection of beauty from the forest: twigs with trailing buds, downy moss, curling tendrils of lichen, a solid black fungi, oak and aspen leaves, pine cones and delicate scrolls of silver birch bark. Gathered in the rain, they still held all the damp, earthy smells of the woods.

Moss and leaves

And then the people came. First a Bulgarian woman who was the first to sign up but only able to attend by catching a bus two hours earlier and a lift home with another participant. (Be warned: a rant about public transport in this rural area may well be the subject of a future post.) She has lived in Scotland for five years, all in the Park, and spoke with such passion about it: “Everyone has welcomed me. I am home!”

Gradually others arrived, some bouncing in, others saying that this was a huge step. It can be a challenge to get baby-sitting, to make the time, to believe in yourself. “I’m really nervous,” one woman confessed to me quietly. “I’ve always wanted to do a writing course, but never felt the confidence. Then I had a serious operation and it woke me up.”

I nodded. “I’m so glad you’re here,” I said. And I’m glad that I am here.

Woman in class smiling

By 7pm the room was packed to the gunnels with 17 of us and we were already laughing. Talking about favourite places in the Park, one man described The Naked Man Loch, and swiftly clarified it wasn’t him. The mix of people included established, published writers to folk who had never written much more than a letter; university lecturers wanting a change from academic writing to avid diary writers wanting readers. All of us were there to write about nature and I threw out the question: “Why write about nature? What’s the point? Why do YOU want to write about it?”

Answers included:

“It makes me feel better. It helps me to understand myself.”

“I want to make people FEEL how I feel about the natural world.”

“We gain so much from nature; writing about it is giving something back.”

People talking at workshop

I shared a short reading from Natalie Goldberg, a favourite writer about writing, where she talks about the importance of developing a writing practice: learning to write well by writing often. “You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.”

The same can be said of appreciating nature. Instead of being driven by goals – spotting a certain bird or summiting a peak – we need to give ourselves time to simply wander, or sit, or lie down in it and observe. Writing can be a way of deepening our attention because, as so many of the participants concurred, we want to capture and convey what we experience. It makes us tune in.

We took time closely observing the found objects from the forest: feeling, smelling, listening, looking – though I cautioned against tasting! – and wrote all the words that came to mind. These scatterings of words may grow into pieces of writing, or they may not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the complete giving of focus and a playful discovery of language.

Nature writing workshop

Play is important. The deep play marked by complete absorption, by freedom from external measures and the pressure of results, by pleasure. We talked about the creating part of ourselves and the critiquing part; we need both, but at different times. When making something new, we have to give creativity full rein and sit on the critic for a while. And that’s what the first class was all about. Have fun. Go for it. You’re free to write complete rubbish, or clichés, or drivel. Who cares? No one’s going to mark it, least of all me. Just get words down on the page. Someone spoke of the power of permission: the freedom of no expectations means whatever is written is acceptable. Usually more than that: usually full of surprises.

It brings me back to my own writing. That night, it seemed full of disappointments. Not accepted. But one of the participants described a walk with her mother as a kind of pilgrimage and it reminded me that that is the framework I’ve chosen for myself through this project. In my first post I wrote this: “I don’t know yet what I will write or what form it will take. My plan is not to have a plan, but to explore the territory, both physically and creatively… This year is a kind of pilgrimage; it has a goal but no fixed destination.”

By the end of that class, my destination had changed. I didn’t really care about rain or rejection. Those sixteen people sharing their experiences and their laughter, their passion and vulnerability, their writing, had taken me to a place full of surprises. I packed up and dashed back across the carpark, brimming with joy.

Uath Lochans, Cairngorms National Park

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