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!
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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org. 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….
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.’
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
But most of all, enjoy! Do let me know how you get on.