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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snowdrops rising like lanterns

 

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Winter Garden
by Sarah Salway

Like the pilgrim divests himself of worldly goods,
the garden’s stripped back to a skeleton,

only the vertebrae of paths holds its truest form
and even as trees hold blossom close, buds aching,

it’s still the cutting back that matters most,
while through it all the river’s artery rolls,

a trust in what lies beneath, snowdrops
rising like lanterns to show the way.

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Poor Susan and the sounds of the city

This week I was lucky enough to go on a guided walk around the city of London with Rosie from Dotmaker Tours. She was concentrating particularly on the sounds of the city – we walked without talking, just listening (almost too intense, was the verdict), we talked how the city would sound in the future and how it sounded in the past. I wrote a poem for Rosie after, you can find it here.

The walk was wonderful, and one thing that stood out for me is the little park Rosie took us too, between Cheapside and Wood Street. It’s just a park with a tree you’d just pass by normally. I wasn’t even sure why we’d stopped there to be honest, although it was interesting to find out that it had been the site of the church, St Peter Cheap, which was burnt down during the Great Fire of London, (interesting to find out that Cheap was the medieval word for market). And also to see these benches. I’d never heard of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, and looking at their website after I see loads of useful information about London’s green spaces.

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So it was particularly lovely to find out from Rosie that it was this very plane tree (below) in the park that had inspired William Wordsworth to write his Reverie of Poor Susan. And here it is – proof that even in the city, nature can be the real time-traveller. To the past, as well as the future. Amazing to think of Wordsworth walking down these streets, looking up at the tree and him, in turn, thinking of poor Susan walking the same steps… and so on!

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The Reverie of Poor Susan
by WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
Hangs a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

‘Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove’s,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes!

Papermaking in the garden

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Back in the summer (remember that far back, when the sun shone and everything?), I went on a day papermaking course at Morley College in London. I was drawn to it by the fact we were going to be using natural plant materials, but what I hadn’t expected was that I would fall in love with the little college garden off Waterloo, and especially the plants grown for colour.

It was a taster session rather than a real course, but led by a real expert, Lucy Baxendale. There’s a course starting in June though, you can sign up here – I’m tempted. It was such a joy to go round looking for seeds, plants and textures to use, to feel the gooey mixture (like Blue Peter, prepared earlier for us) give as it turned from plants into paper. Yes, that real pleasure in getting your hands dirty and actually making something.

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Here are the scraps I took away with me:

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And I had just the poem I knew I wanted to write on the one I made using honesty. Here it is:

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My father takes Rupert Brooke’s poems to France, 1945

This knot of honesty I picked today
must have fallen out of my pocket
so you’ll have to believe me when I say

each leaf was thinner than a page
in the book of poems my father
took to war. I like to think

it was the weight behind each word
that kept pushing him to a future
he can’t have dared write himself:

to love and be so loved. Though once
reading nonsense rhymes at bedtime,
he leant so far into that night’s book

I started crying, sensing how
he wanted to topple into it,
just as he must have done once

smelling Brooke’s sweet honeyed tea
above the stench of mud and blood,
this other world he could slip into.

We wrote a poem on a leaf…

I’m just back from a glorious weekend teaching creative writing with Anna Robertshaw from Freestyle Yoga Project, who was teaching the yoga. Yoga and writing proved a perfect combination, or maybe that was the group who came. Or even the venue, glorious Tilton House, just up the road from the Bloomsbury set’s famous Charleston Farmhouse on the South Downs.

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There’s a beautiful garden at Tilton, which Shaun and Polly, the owners, are gradually clearing in parts to show off more of the views. And best of all, a fairy light lit walk through the words to the yurt – we shared our sessions between the yurt and the library belonging to Tilton’s previous owner, John Maynard Keynes. I know, it’s a hard life! Here’s Anna, at the door of the our yurt.

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I’d intended to do a writing exercise using the garden but it was raining that day, so instead, we collected leaves on the walk back from the yurt to the library, choosing them like children – precious treasure we might otherwise have walked over. Then in front of the log fire, we wrote haiku – not counting syllables though (sorry haiku writers) but working to combine image and emotion to catch a moment, a passing moment. We’d been talking about the concept of wabi sabi earlier – how time changed things into a different kind of beauty.

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Then we wrote our poems with sharpies on leaves, pinning them over the fireplace like autumn decorations, or writing them on the logs to feed into the fire.

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The joy was how each leaf dried in a different way over the next days – curling round our words like they were keeping a secret.

This was the original poem we used as inspiration, it is by the Russian Poet,  Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I love this poem, and somehow it seemed appropriate in the current news cycle (series of disasters).

I Hung a Poem on a Branch

I hung a poem
on a branch.
Thrashing,
it resists the wind.
“Take it down,
don’t joke,”
you urge.
People pass.
Stare in surprise.
Here’s a tree
waving
a poem.
Don’t argue now.
We have to go on.
“You don’t know it by heart!”…
That’s true,
but I’ll write a fresh poem for you tomorrow.
It is not worth being upset by such trifles!
A poem’s not too heavy for a branch.
I’ll write as many as you ask for,
as many poems
as there are trees!
How shall we get on in the future together?
Perhaps, we shall soon forget this?
No,
if we have trouble on the way,
we’ll remember
that somewhere
bathed in light
a tree
is waving
a poem,
and smiling we’ll say
‘We have to go on.’ …

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And of course, the next day, the sun shone… but we decided to let our poems gently disintegrate and took a silent walk up to the South Downs instead. Magic.

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