A Highland writers’ retreat where guests learn to bring the outside in … and onto the page

 

Moniack Mhor, Scotland's Creative Writing Centre
Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre

James Morgan, Deputy Sports Editor of The Herald

THERE is the beginning of a grey mizzle, and the scrunch of autumn resonates underfoot as a few cars park up, their lights briefly illuminating a house in the distance. There is a figure in the doorway then it disappears into the warmth inside. And, now, I am that figure outside the front door of Moniack Mhor, a writing retreat of some renown whose luminaries include Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, just a tentacle-length from the banks of Loch Ness.

It took me almost four hours driving north to reach this converted steading near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. And looking back now, a fortnight later, I can’t quite remember what that door looked like. In any case, it has far greater symbolism than the mere components of its form. I took my clothes off on the step outside and stood naked in front of it, the late October chill nipping at my shoulders. Figuratively speaking, of course. Inside I found the marrow-warming embrace of fellow men and women, who had similarly left their inhibitions on this doorstep. It was not what I had expected from a five-day residential course in business writing. But then this wasn’t just any business writing course, this was a Dark Angels production.

Formed in 2004, Dark Angels was the brainchild of John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey, a trio of writers who were alarmed at the growing tendency to tangle up words in jargon-infested webs. The latter is the author of five books, a natural storyteller and an inspirational figure who will guide us during the week.

“On one hand we think management speak is, at its very worst, toxic,” Jamie says. “It’s bad for people’s emotional health. Yes, it’s a crusade against that but we prefer to laugh and throw stones at it. The biggest sin of management speak is that it alienates rather than connects.”

Jamie is joined by Neil Baker, a former Fleet Street journalist who fell out of love with newspapers, if not crafting words themselves. Today, he says he writes what he wants to write and for whom he chooses.

There are six students: John, another Jamie, Lana, Sarah, Cameron and myself. We will bare our souls to each other as we pick over parts of our lives like scavengers searching for untold treasures. I find myself asking what all this has to do with business writing but it is clear Jamie and Neil are following a tried-and-trusted formula.

Our first day begins in what Jamie refers to as “the hobbit house”, a white rotunda propped on stone bricks and adorned with a grassy roof. It is straight from the pages of Tolkien and will be our writing base for the week. Our eyrie provides an astonishing vista, overlooking the mountain ranges of Ben Wyvis and Strathfarrar. In the foreground Highland cattle and sheep graze on the surrounding moorland.

A Red Kite rises and falls on the wave of a northerly wind. We are encouraged to bring the outside in. The great philosophers understood that if we can empathise with our habitat we can come to know truth and truth is not found in the mangled wreckage of a soul-crushing press release or company mission statement. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, however, were strangely silent on the nuances of tone and clarity in business communication. And that’s where the Dark Angels, who take their name from Milton’s Paradise Lost, step in.

The Angels set a frenetic pace as they chuck ideas at us: from discussing our favourite books to writing the introduction to someone else’s. A pattern is established: one emphasising verbal gymnastics, quick-thinking, impossible deadlines. The key is not to overthink things – overthinking leads to ambiguity, to contrivance and self-censorship.

The tasks become quite personal. We are mining the deposits of memories long since forgotten. Under duress, it is disconcerting to rediscover those lost truths. And yet, it is cathartic, too. There are tears, most suppressed to the rims of eyelids. Others are unable to withstand the flood. This feels unsettling but it also feels necessary. We are unburdening ourselves and relearning what it is to feel empathy in what we write.

Neil quotes the poet Robert Frost’s thoughts on writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

After a hard day’s craft, the wine and beer is brought out. Dinner is cooked by the students. I have been paired with Lana, who works for a community foundation in London. She wants to enliven her writing in a way which contrasts with my efforts to spruce up some cod in breadcrumbs. With enough wine in their bellies, the rest of the group graciously admit that dinner has been a success.

Nights follow a familiar pattern: a log fire and a dram, ghost stories, life stories, travel adventures in far-flung corners and sing songs until the early hours. John even hosts a wine-tasting evening.

After a day of fresh Highland air, I retire to my Spartan chamber. It is monastic: a tiny bed, one table, two lamps. But this is a place for reflection and, crucially, sleep. On most nights, the former triumphs over the latter but there is a simplicity to life here that is as reassuring as the blanket that is too short to cover my feet.

The next day, the deeply personal recollections are locked away in tea chests and the Angels focus on business. There is a realisation that the navel-gazing had to occur. There has been a cleansing of the mind, a silencing of the noise in order that we can be more attuned to the task at hand. And, there is a new-found sense of what it means to appeal to the reader’s emotions.

The other Jamie, a recent graduate, has come to Dark Angels for some direction on where he might go next in his career. It is clear from the off that he has a great gift for words. During one task, he replaces a vast tract of tedious copy about the environment, waste disposal and its impact, with the word “rainforest”.

Sarah, a public sector employee, says she has become stale in her work because of the constraints it places on her writing. She wishes her employer would give thought to sending people like her on a similar course. John, a former senior officer with a local council, continues the theme.

“Everything came to be seen through a single lens and reports all came to read like each other,” he adds. “It is unconsciously Orwellian. I think people have been clogged up in the machine. It ultimately affects the way you think.”

In the afternoon we are free to stroll the single-track roads or hire bikes to traverse the surrounding area. We are on the edge of a forest; to the east, a llama farm stretches out before us.

I am suddenly aware of how little I know of the flora around me. My companion, Cameron, a former journalist and now a translator, agrees that it would be beneficial to know the names of the trees we see. There are certainly fir trees but others are yellowing, some are brown, and they appear to be dying. I’m struck by the idea that I have been hearing but not listening to the world around me, looking but not actually seeing it.

As the week ends, I sense I have changed. There is a resolution to adhere to the principles the Dark Angels live by: to write more, to think more, to breathe more cool air and to fly high above the trees I will soon know the names of.

I have been given wings, after all.

Dark Angels in Conversation Nov. 2016

Dark Angels student, Johnny Lyons at the Intensive Foundation Course in Cornwall
Johnny Lyons at the Foundation Course in Cornwall

John Simmons in conversation with Johnny Lyons

John to Johnny

You’ve been on two Dark Angels courses now. So obviously I’m interested in hearing things from your perspective because these conversations should involve the whole Dark Angels audience, not just the tutors.
But first, because it was first, I just wanted to ask you about reading. We met when I was doing some tone of voice work with AIB in Dublin. Our first proper conversation was not about writing but about reading. You recommended a book to me – Stoner by John Williams. The best book recommendation I ever received. I hadn’t heard of it at the time, few people had, but it then became a rediscovered classic across the world. What do you get from reading?

Johnny to John

There are so many things I get out of reading. But some of the bigger ones would include the way reading can take me beyond myself and my own limited thoughts and experiences. Then there’s the unique exhilaration that comes from reading a heart-achingly sad novel like Stoner or an intellectually mesmerising Platonic dialogue or a poem by Keats or Larkin that helps me feel less alone. I also like the way reading has the power to change me in interesting and unpredictable ways, the way it can both liberate and challenge my imagination.

John to Johnny

All those things, I agree. There’s also the obvious point that reading leads to writing. It helps us to become better writers if we become better readers. So, as you know, we do a fundamental exercise on Dark Angels courses – you’ll have done this in Cornwall on the Foundation, then the adapted version in Spain. The exercise leads to writing in the style of another writer. It seems counter-intuitive but, for me, that’s an important step towards finding your own personal voice.

What it does is liberate us: “You don’t have to write as you.” But of course that’s what people do, without realising. And they do it – hopefully with increasing regularity as they write more – by paying closer attention to the individual words and sentences as building blocks of longer pieces of writing. Recognising that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’ as Leonard Cohen put it. This doesn’t mean choosing exotic words, just trying to find the right word, dedicating yourself to that pursuit. Then, broadening out from that, trying to make every sentence an event.

That’s how I now approach writing – but it’s continually reinforced by examples in books I read. Does any of this match your own feelings?

Johnny to John

I remember that exercise well. We each wrote our own versions of a famous novel ending. The amazing thing was none of us guessed correctly from the choices written by each of us – they were all credible.

Your comments about the relationship between reading and writing remind me of something the author Stephen King said – ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’.  Yet while I was always a pretty voracious reader of history and then philosophy, for some reason this never helped me develop into a good writer. In fact, if I’m honest, I was so afraid of writing that I’d get a pit in my stomach every time I had to produce something.

Dark Angels broke this chronic spell. By doing exercises like the one above in the company of supportive and like-minded people and under the helpful guidance of the tutors, I managed finally to overcome my crippling phobia of writing. It literally happened over three magical days in Cornwall. So I suppose my main obstacle to writing was psychological, a lack of confidence and once I found a way of overcoming it the sunlit uplands literally opened up before me.

Since then, I’ve been reading far more fiction and poetry as well as writing with a degree of fluency and regularity that I couldn’t have imagined little more than a year ago. And writing, in turn, has helped me become a better and less intimidated reader.

John to Johnny

You went on the Advanced course to Spain after the Foundation in Cornwall. Recognisably a Dark Angels experience, we hope, but stretching you even further. The places we go to have a certain magic, whether that’s a stunning coastal location in Cornwall or the Andalusian national park. Did you find that the places helped sharpen your own receptiveness to the writing challenges? I often think that the location is like an extra tutor.

Johnny to John

I couldn’t agree with you more. Being somewhere entirely new and stunningly beautiful has a hugely invigorating and liberating effect. Being in an unfamiliar place can help us break free of familiar or habitual ways of thinking and writing. One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed on the Advanced course in Aracena was when we took a hike into the countryside which inspired us to write a wonderful play. Yes, place can be as important as people in inspiring us to write.

John to Johnny

Reading, people, place – all things that inspire us to write. But I think you’ve also identified the most essential: simply a greater confidence in the individual’s writing instinct. It’s so easy and so damaging to suppress it. With it we are better, more fulfilled human beings. Dark Angels’ aim is to bolster confidence, to boost the belief that you and your words can fly. But how do you maintain it?

Johnny to John

There’s a three-word answer to that one which I know you’re fond of – Just do it! And by that, I have taken you to mean keep writing, keep reading and keep talking.  I think the more you can connect writing with your own well-being or, at least, with your own sense of self, the more natural it becomes to develop and maintain the writing habit. In this way, to paraphrase John Keats, writing can become as natural a part of our lives as leaves to a tree.

The gravelled voice, the minor chords

Jamie Jauncey
Jamie Jauncey

1969. A small, draughty farmhouse in the Aberdeenshire hinterland. It’s the Doric that’s spoken hereabouts by the local loons and quines. ‘Fit like?’ the perennial greeting. ‘Nae bad,’ the perennial response, come rain, shine or shitstorm. But in the farmhouse, a more urbane tongue speaks to the five inhabitants. Amid the unwashed dishes and empty bottles, roach-filled ashtrays, pieces of dismantled motorbike, climbing boots, study books and other undergraduate paraphernalia, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room—on alternating repeat—strike a new note of sophistication. The gravelled voice, the minor chords, the darkly soulful sentiments hang like smoke, linger in corners, insinuate themselves into our collective consciousness until the words of Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy, So Long, Marianne, ­Bird on a Wire—so knowing, so wise, so … elevating—are on all of our lips, all of the time; the soundtrack to our adolescent rite of passage.

~ Jamie Jauncey

Leonard, a remembrance from early Dark Angels

John Simmons
John Simmons

From John: Up early, showering, dressing, packing, then carrying my belongings of the week across the courtyard to my car.
At six o’clock in early March it was still dark. Stuart and Damian had a plane to catch at Bristol Airport and I needed to drive them there.

We were not an exuberant trio as we drove along with the sun rising over Dartmoor. Perhaps it was the Leonard Cohen music I had
chosen to play, moody and atmospheric but encouraging refection. Perhaps it was the early hour; I am not made for conversation at breakfast,
particularly when I have had no breakfast. But more likely it was the impact of the week, satisfaction mingled with sadness that it had come
to and end; and the realisation that it would be good to be home but that home was still many hours driving away.

Stuart Delves
Stuart Delves

Stuart: That was driving away from the very first Dark Angels course. (That mood the same every time.) I still remember that first journey, and the music as John describes. Leonard Cohen has always been a part of Dark Angels – channeled through John, gratefully received by all.
So many of us remember that album, with that moody cover, at a significant moment of growing up: those songs. So long Marianne…and later, much later, him still with us – just – those last words of his, to her, so beautiful.

 

And Who Shall I Say is Calling?

 

Richard Pelletier, Dark Angels
Richard Pelletier

She was a Connemara girl. Red hair. The red was bottled, but still. A wonder. Talk about stories, talk about language, talk about deprivation. She’d grown up so poor she took to school hunks of stale bread thrown together with slices of orange in between. She was so poor the nuns beat her. At eighteen she got out. Became someone else.

could go in one end of a henhouse and come out the other end with a man,” said her friend years later. It was true. I was the man.

“For fuck’s sake,” she would say. “I could muurder a feckin’ beer,” she’d say. “Lovey? I’m down the pub with a few of the lads and we’re philosophizing,” she’d say over the phone. “Will you come?” Music was her joy, her salvation. Mary Black. De Dannan. Van. Hothouse Flowers. Dolores Keane. Richard Thompson. Dylan. Leonard.

“For fuck’s sake, Richard, you don’t know Leonard? Who’s been minding you, ya por thing? He is grand entirely.” Homemade cassette tape slides into tape deck. Wine glass, already full, topped off. Then.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

The chorus, those voices, that story. That song.

Our love was doomed, born as it was on charm and booze and loneliness. But that music. Talk about the dimming of the day. Talk about a soundtrack for love and its discontents.

She was my wife once
the poor girl from the bogs
with the jam jars of tea
and the red hair and the stories
who ran away to London
to become a nurse
who found Leonard
and for a while
a man to love her.

~ Richard Pelletier

 

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