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 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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The News From the Garden

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is earthshattering,
a blackbird’s made its nest
in the hawthorn tree,

and breaking as I write,
seedlings planted a month ago
are bursting forth, teasing

us with their rainbow hints,
but if you rub 
a leaf
between finger and thumb

you can smell summer
already; a baby is kicking 
its legs
in response at the clouds

rolling over her like a news tape
filled with sun-bites,
while over by the swings,

a camellia 
leads an uprising
of blood red against the privet,
tulips and bluebells form a late coalition,

and even the grass strengthens its position
near where this morning, at five past eleven
dizzy with dandelion flowers

the cat let a pigeon fly free.
Only the plane tree, obedient
to the season follows the prompts

while propped up against the wall
already warming itself for glory,
the first rosebud waits for her cue.

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!

Nine bean-rows, friends and a poetry exchange

I am lucky enough to be involved with the Poetry Exchange, an organisation which pops up in interesting places and asks people to nominate what poems they consider as friends.

It’s a fascinating question – not your favourite poem, or even a poem that you love – but what kind of friend is this poem to you? The conversations are fascinating too – and of course I always prick up my ears a little more when they turn to gardens. Recently John and I discussed Ithica with a perfumier who considered it an adventurous friend – partly inspired by it, he was sure, he’d created a perfume based on a garden at Pompeii.

Luckily, some of the conversations are podcasts now so we can all listen in. Here’s one I took part of which made me look at Yeat’s beautiful poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, again, and inspired its ‘friend’ Martin to think about creating a special garden. Here’s the podcast: (I’m hoping this embedded link works like magic, but it’s looking a bit gobbledygook to me so if not, click here, it’s episode 8!)

You can subscribe to the Poetry Exchange podcasts here, and here’s the poem Martin discussed. I’d also love to know what poem you’d consider a friend, and why!

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.