The articulation of sweet sounds

George Mackay Brown
George MacKay Brown by Ian MacInnes

It’s always interesting for a pretending writer to observe the thoughts on writing from established poets and writers. For me there is sometimes a drop of comfort to be had. I am in awe of those writers who can complete a piece on the bus or while eating their cornflakes. Perhaps I am inhibited by reading too much and mistakenly believing that writing involves skills. Here are some thoughts on writing from George MacKay Brown.

‘ I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration, if there is such a thing. I toil in the writer’s workshop for three hours every morning come rain or shine. Sometimes all the sweat is for nothing, but occasionally a passable piece of narrative emerges or a pleasing line, what Yeats called “the articulation of sweet sounds”.

Chapman Literary Magazine, Centenary Issue 1, Edinburgh.

“I will attempt to get back to the roots and sources of the community, from which it draws its continuing life, from which it cuts itself off at its peril. With the help of the old stories, the old scrolls, the gathered legends, and the individual, earth-rooted imagination, I will try to discover a line or two of the ancient life-giving heraldry.”

An Orkney Tapestry (London: Quarter Books, 1973)

“All a writer needs is a cheap pad and a 10-penny biro.”

Quoted in Obituary, Scotland on Sunday (14 April 1996)

“Once I was out in the street alone. A few drunk trawlermen from Aberdeen came lurching round a corner. I ran home in terror. (In those days Stromness had no pubs; the town had seen such wild splurges in the days of its prosperity that the women and ‘the kirk folk’ had voted it dry the very year I was born.) I could not understand the speech and wild gestures of the strangers: they seemed to be frightening creatures who had no part in our story.

Another time I was sitting on the front doorstep when ‘a travelling woman’ arrived with her pack. She seemed so unutterably strange, in language and appearance, that I fainted clean away on the spot.

These experiences left marks on the mind. ‘The drunk’ and ‘the tinker’ move through nearly all my stories and plays and poems; symbolical figures who are both in and out of the story, for they […] are not bound to one part forever but come and go at their own sweet will.”

‘An Autobiographial Essay’ As I Remember, ed. M. Lindsay (1979)

“It is the word, blossoming as legend, poem, story, secret, that holds a community together and gives meaning to its life. If words become functional ciphers merely, as they are in white papers and business letters, they lose their ‘ghosts’ — the rich aura that has grown about them from the start, and grows infinitesimally richer every time they are spoken. They lose more; they lose their ‘kernel’, the sheer sensuous relish of utterance. Poetry is a fine interpenetration of ghost and kernel.”

An Orkney Tapestry (London: Quarter Books, 1973

‘There are mysterious marks on the stone circle of Brodgar in Orkney … from 5,000 years ago.  We will never know what they mean. I am making marks with a pen and paper that will have no meaning 5,000 years from now.  A mystery abides.’

from For the Islands I Sing

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