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 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

Week 1 of Writing in the Garden – a free creative writing exercise

Hello!

I had such a lovely response to my recent article in the RHS Garden magazine on reading and writing poetry that I’ve decided to put a different creative writing exercise up on this website EVERY WEDNESDAY. We’ll see how we get on, but I suspect we will make some poetry and prose creative fire between us!

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Personally I know how much pleasure I get from taking my journal outside to write – there’s no need for expensive materials, subscriptions or even a completely quiet and free hour (what’s that, I hear you cry!). All these exercises have been designed that you can do them in ten minutes – or take as long as you want. You can do them even if you have never really written creatively since school. And heck, you can even do them with a pencil on the back of a seed packet, or whatever comes to hand.

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You don’t need to share unless you absolutely want to. I hope you will though. Please feel free to post in the comments here, or send them direct to me at my email – sarah@sarahsalway.co.uk. I won’t comment on them, but I do promise to read them all. Also for those on Twitter or social media, let’s use the hashtag #writinginthegarden or even #WITG to link through. I’ll try to collate and retweet some every week.

If you want a warm up, do use the exercise I posted from the Garden magazine article here. But otherwise, let’s jump in….

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WRITING IN THE GARDEN, Week 1

We’re going right back to the beginning – using memory, and with a little bit of help from Joe Brainard . He was an American beat poet who in 1970 who published the first edition of his memoir poem, I Remember which quickly became a classic. This book consisted of a list of one or two lines of memories, all beginning I remember. Here is an extract:

From I Remember by Joe Brainard

I remember ‘no ankles’ on some old ladies.
I remember trying to imagine my grandfather naked. (Eck!)
I remember white marshmallow powder on lips.
I remember a very big boy named Teddy and what hairy legs his mother had. (Long black ones squashed flat under nylons.)
I remember Dagwood and Blondie shorts before the feature started.
I remember not allowing myself to start on the candy until the feature started.
I remember big battle scenes and not understanding how they could be done without a lot of people getting hurt.
I remember crossing your fingers behind your back when you tell a lie.

There’s something about the rhythmic pattern of this repetition that brings up memories we might have forgotten, and allows us to move onto the next memory without pausing.

So I invite you now to write your own list of I remembers… but sticking to garden or outdoor memories.

Set your timer for six-eight minutes and just keep writing. Don’t worry about making them chronological, or even intelligible to anyone but yourself. Don’t censor your memories, or worry about grammar at this stage. You’re just collecting information, gathering seeds if you will.

If you find yourself getting stuck in one particular memory, then I suggest you move yourself out and deliberately pick another. In my experience, it’s the random quality here that works rather than trying to craft something right from the beginning.

And remember what James Thurber said, ‘Don’t get it right, just get it written.’

What next…

Well, you may want to finish there. I think you could usefully do a list like this this every day and just the process of writing things down would be valuable, but it may be you are inspired to take it further.

So… circle or tick the lines and memories that have particular energy for you. Just three. And then from those, pick one.

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Now shut your eyes and try to time travel yourself back into that moment. Go through the senses – what could you hear, what food did you like, were there any smells, what was the weather like? Now think externally – how old were you, who else was there, what was on the news at that time, what records were playing, what were your big concerns and excitements? This is your map.

I treat this kind of writing like compost – the words sit in my journal and sometimes they stay a messy mess, but more often than not, they transform themselves into something that brings another idea to life.

It may help for you to read these two poems, When I was A Bird by Katherine Mansfieldand The Elm by Hilaire Belloc. For me, they both catch exactly what it feels like to be a child.

When I was a Bird
Katherine Mansfield

I climbed up the karaka tree
Into a nest all made of leaves
But soft as feathers.
I made up a song that went on singing all by itself
And hadn’t any words, but got sad at the end.
There were daisies in the grass under the tree.
I said just to try them:
“I’ll bite off your heads and give them to my little children to eat.”
But they didn’t believe I was a bird;
They stayed quite open.
The sky was like a blue nest with white feathers
And the sun was the mother bird keeping it warm.
That’s what my song said: though it hadn’t any words.
Little Brother came up the path, wheeling his barrow.
I made my dress into wings and kept very quiet.
Then when he was quite near I said: “Sweet, sweet !”
For a moment he looked quite startled;
Then he said: “Pooh, you’re not a bird; I can see your legs.”
But the daisies didn’t really matter,
And Little Brother didn’t really matter;
I felt just like a bird.

 

The Elm
Hilaire Belloc

This is the place where Dorothea smiled.
I did not know the reason, nor did she.
But there she stood, and turned, and smiled at me:
A sudden glory had bewitched the child.
The corn at harvest, and a single tree.
This is the place where Dorothea smiled.

And here’s a short prose extract from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The sun was shining inside the four walls and the high arch of blue sky over this particular piece of Misselthwaite seemed even more brilliant and soft than it was over the moor. The robin flew down from his tree top and hopped about or flew after her from one bush to another. He chirped a good deal and had a very busy air, as if he were showing her things. Everything was strange and silent and she seemed to be hundreds of miles away from any one, but somehow she did not feel lonely at all.

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So now, from all the material you’ve now collected, try to jump into the moment of your memory rather like these writers have done. Please do it in poetry or prose as you want, but if you are writing prose and you can do it in less than 500 words, so much the better. The idea of this exercise is to bottle a particular memory, rather than expand it into a novel. For now, anyway.

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But most of all, enjoy! Do let me know how you get on.

Why gardeners should read (and write) poetry

It was Cicero who said that if you have a garden and a library you want for nothing, and I’m proud to have an essay in the RHS The Garden magazine about why gardeners should read poetry.

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It was a joy to share lines of some of my favourite poems in the essay, and if you have come here from the magazine wanting to read more, here are links to find more:

The Trees, Philip Larkin

Alice Oswald, Mother of Thousands, from Weeds and Wild Flowers

Marge Piercy, Attack of the Squash People

Louis MacNeice, The Sunlight on the Garden

Esther Morgan, The Long Holidays 

John Updike, September

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If this encourages to write your own poem, here’s a creative writing exercise for you, I’d love to see any results if you wanted to post them here…

Take your notebook and pen into the garden and set your timer for ten minutes. Record all you can see, hear, taste, feel, smell during this time. However tempted, don’t turn this into a ‘to-do’ list of jobs you notice, but let yourself stay aware of all your senses. Do this as often as you want to, but even f you make sure you do this at least four times a year – spring, summer, autumn, winter – you are engaging with your garden in a new way. When we are not being so deliberately mindful, too often we privilege our sight so I guarantee you will find something in your notes, both as you write them and when you look back after, that surprises you.

And in the article, I mention the wonderful Lost Words book by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. I’d also like to direct you to my recent TEDx talk which concentrates on the everyday words we use.