The Ballachulish Goddess

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As usual I have been busy going in several directions at once. My biggest weakness as a writer is finishing things. I’m much better than I used to be. It wasn’t until I was doing my Creative Writing MPhil that I actually started finishing pieces rather than just stopping them, and since then I’ve learned how to make myself sit and just finish, damn it, but every so often I still fall prey to the “shiny shiny look look” distraction of a new idea. That happened since my last post.

The first section of my novel is now in a much better state and, but for a (hopefully final) pass, complete. I started work on the next section, reshuffled everything into a better order and began the laborious process of making the joins not look like joins. As I was doing that, an idea that had been nothing but a seed kept in a drawer for the next spring suddenly appeared fully grown (abandon metaphor, abandon metaphor).

There’s a piece in the National Museum of Scotland called the Ballachulish Goddess. The first time I saw it in the museum, I couldn’t step away from it. There’s a power in the figure that speaks to something in me, maybe psychological, maybe some kind of racial memory, whatever, I’ve never been able to forget it. Every time I go to the Museum (which is every time I’m in Edinburgh, I love that place and am eternally jealous of Zoe Strachan, who for a time was Writer-in-Residence there, one of my dream jobs) the first thing I visit is the Goddess.

In January 2012 the Museum ran a Twitter fiction competition that I entered. You had to pick a piece from the museum and write a 140 character story about it. Obviously, I chose the Goddess and wrote this:

He can feel the goddess’ iron eyes staring, wooden hardness. Guilt oak-heavy he buries it beside her in the Ballachulish bog.

I didn’t win, but Jeff Sanders, a Project Manager for 2015 as the Year of Scottish Archaeology, responded to the story and very kindly sent me a PDF of the original report on the finding of the Goddess in 1880. I read it with fascination and a new story began to form, but which I pushed aside until a few weeks ago when I found I could ignore it no longer. I started writing.

I am now more than 10’000 words through what will eventually be a novella (I’d guess around 30’000 words, making it all but unpublishable, but hey ho) in the Scottish Gothic tradition (think R. L. Stevenson or James Hogg) inspired by (but in no way about) the Ballachulish Goddess. I’m having a huge amount of fun with it and I’m enjoying writing again. Redrafting can be highly dispiriting since much of it is ‘cut and paste’, proof-reading for typos, fact checking and, as I said above, ironing out wrinkles. Writing a first draft is an adventure, creating characters, inventing a world for them, putting them in it, winding them up and watching them go. This writing one story and editing another at the same time seems to be working for me, as I can move back and forth as my mood takes me, and since they are so hugely different, there’s no chance of one bleeding into the other.

To change the subject entirely, I have just started reading Pippa Goldschmidt’s debut novel The Falling Sky (just published by Freight). It is fantastic. Check it out.

2 thoughts on “The Ballachulish Goddess

  1. Hi Iain – I’m one of the other shortlisted authors, Elizabeth Kay (Beware of Men with Moustaches). Your book sounds really interesting, and I’m looking forward to the publication of the opening chapters so that I can read it. Had a peek at your impressive poetry record – you may find my entry amusing. I’m a Dawkins fan too, incidentally.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for making contact. The whole list looks great and I can’t wait to read all the chapters, too. Getting nervous as we get closer to the announcement. Best of luck.

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