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.