The power of a list – a creative writing exercise for gardeners

I don’t know about you but I’ve been loving the trees at the moment. I’m hungry for them – for their blossom, their growing leaves, and most of all how they stand so strong. I need that right now.

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But there’s something else I’ve noticed during lockdown which is how I’m watching time move through how the trees change. I’m not sure I’ve been so aware of this before.

So this is the inspiration behind today’s writing prompt. Take a tree, or a plant, or even the larger more abstract, ‘garden’, and write about it at five different times. It could be at separate times of the day showing how the light changes or how busy or quiet it is, or in contrasting weathers, or through the years.

Here’s a story of mine as inspiration. Remember you can always make it up!

ps That tree above is in my local park. I was told recently it was planted in 1600 – just imagine what it’s seen. I find it so comforting to think that what we’re going through right now is just a blip to it.

 

Five Woodland Walks

1.

Every Sunday afternoon the family goes to the woods. ‘But doesn’t Mum want to come?’ It seems not. Besides she’d spoil the fun by getting nervous as you balance like an underage drunk, a tightrope walker tottering along fallen tree trunks to collect that coin Dad puts out to tempt you on to the end. The higher the drop the tree rests over, the bigger, the better, the coin. Often you fall, but more usually you fear the falling and jump first. Decades later, you wonder if this is the lesson your father wanted you to learn. That all you have to do to win is to keep your nerves steady. Because even if you nearly reach the end, even if you fall and hurt yourself, even if you’re pushed off by your brother, he won’t relent. He just smiles as he puts the treasure back in his pocket. And you walk on to the next tree. Because there always was another fallen tree. Just as there always was another Sunday.

2.

Seventeen, and the boy you’re not yet allowed to call your boyfriend takes you to the woods as it gets dark. You pretend to be spooked by the birds so you can take the hand he gives up to you when no one else can see. He even smiles as you trace the spider’s web with your finger on his palm, and then up his arm. His beautiful arm you have a sudden frightening desire to bite until he starts to tell you a story about a couple whose car broke down in the woods. The boy went to find help and the girl dozed until she heard a banging on the roof and then when she opened her eyes, she found herself looking at the upside down eyes of her boyfriend on the other side of the car window. But it was hard to see because the window was smeared with what. Blood. And then she saw another head looking in at her. But this was attached to a body. And that body was trying to get in the car now. And no one knew she was there. No one was going to come to help. You’ve heard this story before. Who hasn’t. But never in the woods. Never at night told by a boy who won’t call himself your boyfriend yet. And who knows you are there? No one. You open your mouth to scream but then he kisses you. Takes your fingertips that have only seconds ago been etching out an imaginary trail of blood on the window and he sucks them gently. And suddenly you’d open any door then and there just so long as he keeps holding out his hand to you. This boy, who you’ll call husband before too long.

3.

You’re in Africa, on an island that was once the holiday paradise of Zanzibar spice dealers. A paradise where they kept their slaves. And once you know this, it’s hard to stop noticing the particular facial characteristics of everyone you meet. That narrowness of forehead. That hook of a nose. And then once you hear a certain story, it’s hard to stop looking up at the tall trees that fringe the beach. It seems the young wife of a slave owner wanted to know if a monkey would fall from a tree in the same way as a coconut does. And because she asked and asked, the husband sent a slave up to the top of the tallest tree and then shot him dead, just so the wife would stop asking. But history doesn’t record whether the man – I presume the slave was a man – curled up like a ball or fell arms and legs outstretched taking up more space than he had ever been allowed alive. History doesn’t record whether anyone cared. Whether the wife was ashamed. Whether she stopped asking questions. Or whether she was even watching. Because it’s such a paradise, this island with all the tall trees that fringe the beach.

4.

A perfect Christmas, and now you’re watching your son and daughter run through the woods in front of you, their new woollen hats like bobbing festive baubles amongst the trees. You breathe in and smell the tang of pine, the crack of a twig under your boots, the frosting of cold air on your cheeks, and your fingers brushing over the chocolate coins you’ve kept hidden in your pocket for a surprise later. And all is good until you see the children stop dead. Your heart flutters – a dead body, an accident – until you see it. One small tree deep in the wood, festooned with coloured ribbons and handwritten wishes. And suddenly it’s enough. Your children might not believe in Father Christmas any more, you’ll soon have to bribe them to play cards with Granny, diets will kick in and moods explode, but you – and they – will always have this. Their faces turning to you, that look of wonder, a gift given with no expectation, a light in the woods.

5.

It’s a dream you often have. Of walking through a wood and picking sleep straight from a tree. Sleep is green, slightly underripe, and its skin has a bloom that clears like mist from a window as your thumb rubs backwards and forwards over the surface. When you cup it in one hand it gives slightly under the squeeze of your fingers. Sometimes you have to pull a branch down to reach the sweetest deepest longest fruit. Sometimes it will be protected by thorns but always, when you put it close up to your face, you’ll smell your grandmother’s room – the musty softness of crocheted cushions, endless cups of tea, pie crust and that special potion she’d make herself to keep her brass ornaments shining. And just as you never questioned her how she kept going, so you never question how sleep keeps making itself itself so freely, so abundantly, available. You just keep picking it. As if it will always be there for you.

Creative writing exercises for gardeners – we’re on again!

I started doing prompts for creative writing particularly designed for gardeners a little while ago but then life took over. Hmm.

However, so many of you said they were useful that I’m starting again. Do feel free to share this post, to leave your work in the comments or generally use this resource as you want. I’m going to do them along with you too, so you’ll have my poems as examples.

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The inspiration for this particular exercise came from my lovely friend Penny, who runs Le Petit Jardin in Tunbridge Wells who put these beauties above through my letterbox recently. Some of you may know that I’ve just come out of hospital with the virus so it felt a particular act of faith in the future to be both receiving and planting seeds.

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So I am using this as my first prompt for you. There are six stages and I suggest you do them in order and then see what you’ve got. But as always with creative writing, if any of them takes you somewhere else – GO!

There’s absolutely no right or wrong way to do this.

    1. Imagine an emotion – lust, kindness, joy, even fear – being sent to you. How would it arrive? What means of transport might it take? How does it get to you? How is it packed? Use your imagination.
    2. Link this emotion with something from the natural world – lust with a rose, perhaps, or envy with a weed. If they don’t seem to fit together well, then so much the better.
    3. A snippet of instruction – if joy came to you via helicopter, then might it be to put on your seatbelt. If anger was sent in a vegetable box, then maybe it should be washed before eating.
    4. Now bring in a wish for the future. It can be for the world, or it can be personal.
    5. Now add a snatch of dialogue. It’s often surprising how this can bring a piece of writing to life.
    6. And lastly include a sound, or a taste, or a smell, or a touch. As I’ve written before we too often forget about these senses, concentrating mostly on sight.

 

 

Here’s my version…

Seeds
Sarah Salway

Kindness came through my letterbox
wrapped in brightly coloured envelopes,
each one carrying its own instructions –
some early-mid, some late flowering –
to tide me through the year,
heralding a summer of drinks
in the garden with friends, carelessly
picked sprigs of mint, conversations
meandering without a ‘how are you’
to thud us back to earth. Will we laugh
at how once we bellowed out of windows,
refused eye contact as if even a glance
may bring us too close? I’m going to hug
you so tight, my phone tingles with messages
I read now on every seed packet, so I juggle
them like playing cards in a game of chance,
nature reproducing itself in rustling paper
like a miracle just when we need it most.
You can find more of the creative writing exercises for gardeners here, and I do hope you manage ten minutes with your journal over the next week.

Stepping insideThe Yellowhammer’s Nest

It’s National Poetry Day today – and for this, I wanted to take at least one of our words about nature and its beauty back to where it belongs. I was dismayed recently to search for ‘Yellowhammer’ only to wade through a full page of political jargon before I got to the bird.

Really?

So for today let’s move away from spin and lies and commercial gain.

And what better than a poem by John Clare to do that?

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So here, for the poets, and observers, and gardeners, and birdwatchers, and planet savers…

STOP! I’m in danger of sounding a bit like a building society ad already, and spinning this out of control….

Because as June Jordan said, ‘

“Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.”

Let’s just go straight to the poem….

 

The Yellowhammer’s Nest

by John Clare
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
‘Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed
—Ay here it is, stuck close beside the bank
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk seeds tall and high—’tis rudely planned
Of bleachèd stubbles and the withered fare
That last year’s harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse’s sable hair.
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells—
They are the yellowhammer’s and she dwells
Most poet-like where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly to fancy seems
And that old molehill like as Parnass’ hill
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O’er all her joys of song—so leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers and streams.
Yet in the sweetest places cometh ill,
A noisome weed that burthens every soil;
For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil
To watch such nests and seize the helpless young,
And like as though the plague became a guest,
Leaving a houseless home, a ruined nest—
And mournful hath the little warblers sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.
PS… If you haven’t seen it already, you may enjoy my TEDx talk about the importance of the words we use here

Creative Writing Wednesday – week 5. The smellograph…

this is a smellograph,
the delicacy of rose
surrendering to rain

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I went out into my garden this morning just after it had finished raining and the smells were delicious. It made me wish I could capture them in the same way I could snap, for example, the photograph this rose above with the raindrops on the leaves.

So I decided to create some ‘smellographs’, and to just write short poems about the smells I could find. I carried it through the passageway I walk to yoga, stopping and sniffing like a dog! It made me aware of how difficult it was to describe smells – I can capture sound, touch, sights so much more easily, but it’s often a scent that takes me straight to an emotion.

In her wonderful book, Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes about members of a tribe in New Guinea who say good-bye by putting a hand in each other’s armpit, withdrawing it and stroking it over themselves, thus becoming coated with the friend’s scent. Now, you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m not asking you to do that today, but I invite you to write your own ‘smellographs’ for your garden. You may want to do it at different times of the day, and in particular as we move into autumn, it’s clear that the air is smelling different. There’s a hint of apple, of log fires and wet dog… I love it!

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If you enjoy writing these short poems, you may want to join me on instagram here – I’m 110 days through a 365haikuchallenge. They are not all garden related, but I’m already seeing I’ve created a record of my year so far. So many moments I would otherwise have missed.

 

Creative writing exercise, week 4 – writing your own instructions

The late great Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

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I like this advice on many levels, but mainly because it deals with the idea that when we are writing, we are also listening to ourselves. Perhaps one of the best things we can ask ourselves before we start writing is:

What is it that hasn’t been said yet, but should be said?

Of course, last week’s prompt was about listening too, but this week we are being more prescriptive. We are going to instruct ourselves!

The idea for this exercise came from a short poem by Ada Limon, Instructions on Not Giving Up. You can read it here and it follows a theme of ‘Instructions’ or ‘How To’ poems. You can read one by the lovely Neil Gaiman here… and another by Ted Genoways here..

In her poem, Ada Limon writes:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs….

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For me, it’s this mixture of close present observation with future hopes (the ‘something miraculous’) that make this poem work so well for me. And the surprise of that ‘obscene’ when put against cherry trees. What do you think?

So for your writing exercise this week, I invite you to write yourself a list of instructions.

They may be for coping once the summer days, and indeed autumn, have left us and we are in the middle of winter.

What might be your ‘Instructions on Not Giving Up’?

Remember they should be personal, they may be surprising but they will be the instructions you want to read yourself!

As always start with the idea voiced by one of my favourite poets, Wendell Berry, in his poem, ‘How to Be a Poet’

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.

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Or do you long for winter and cold frosty days and hate this heat? In which case, your invitation is to write ‘Instructions for getting through summer’!!!

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But as always, enjoy. These might be the only instructions you actually want to follow – note the (to remind myself) on Wendell Berry’s poem!

You can share your work in the comments section, or email them to me (I’ve been enjoying these so much, thank you!) or on social media using the hashtags, #writinginthegarden or #WITG, or even #sarahsalway. I look forward to reading your instructions.

Creative Writing exercise, week 3 – listening for inspiration

Shhh… what do you hear?

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A simple writing prompt for you today – just sit out in the garden (enjoying some sunshine hopefully) and make a list of everything you can hear around you. Write down everything from the van backing in the next road to the grass in the wind. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a bee working hard near your chair.

Now read this list out loud to yourself. You may want to change the order slightly and pay particular attention to your verbs. Are they working hard enough for you? Is there a better work you can use – sometimes it helps me to underline all my verbs, to change them ALL and then decide which ones I want to put back to the original. For your first draft, nothing is sacred.

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You can use this poem below by John Clare as an example. On the surface, it really is a simple list of sounds but just try speaking it out loud and you can’t help but hear the garden come to life… in all its rustling, crumpling, whizzing, flirting glory!

As always, feel free to share your work, and please use the hashtags, #WITG or #writinginthegarden.

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Pleasant Sounds
John Clare

The rustling of leaves under the feet in woods and under
hedges;
The crumpling of cat-ice and snow down wood-rides,
narrow lanes and every street causeway;
Rustling through a wood or rather rushing, while the wind
halloos in the oak-toop like thunder;
The rustle of birds’ wings startled from their nests or flying
unseen into the bushes;
The whizzing of larger birds overhead in a wood, such as
crows, puddocks, buzzards;
The trample of robins and woodlarks on the brown leaves.
and the patter of squirrels on the green moss;
The fall of an acorn on the ground, the pattering of nuts on
the hazel branches as they fall from ripeness;
The flirt of the groundlark’s wing from the stubbles –
how sweet such pictures on dewy mornings, when the
dew flashes from its brown feathers.

selective focus photo of obalte green leafed plants during rain

Photo by Bibhukalyan Acharya on Pexels.com

Creative writing in the garden, Week 2

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If last week’s prompt was all about memories, this second writing prompt is all about looking forward in time.

Imagine it’s some point in the future – five years, ten years, twenty years hence. Now picture yourself in the garden. What do you think that future you think about what you are doing right now? What will the plants be doing? What will be coming into its best?

And how would you like to be thanked for your present hard work?

It’s a strange thought, but one beautifully given life by James Lasdun in his poem, Blueberries.

I’m talking to you old man.
Listen to me as you step inside this garden
to fill a breakfast bowl with blueberries
ripened on the bushes I’m planting now,
twenty years back from where you’re standing.

You can read the whole poem here, and then write one for yourself. If you like begin with that phrase … ‘I’m talking to you..’

Another suggestion might be to write back to yourself from that future you. What would they think of what you have done in the garden? What might they even wish you had done?

You probably know Audrey Hepburn’s quote, ‘To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,’ but another I love is from Rumer Godden who said, “A garden isn’t meant to be useful. It’s for joy.”

What are you planting or building in your garden for future joy? Rather than a list, this poem or letter exercise lets you time travel to capture that moment and have your reward now as well as later!

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Feel free to share in the comments, or on social media using the hashtag #writinginthegarden or #witg