I have just finished working with the most wonderful group of writers on a Reading and Writing Short Stories course with the University of Kent. Writers we looked at included Janice Galloway, Jamaica Kincaid, David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolf, Helen Simpson and so many more. Teaching a course like this is the chance for me to push my favourite writers! And to sit reading short stories for a day and call it work.

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Below is a copy of the sheet I gave out at the end of the course, which I hope some of you may find useful. Do feel free to add more resources in the comments. This is just the start of a happy exploration for us all.

Websites and newsletters to find out more about the short story:

https://shortstops.info/

https://theshortstory.co.uk/resources/

https://commapress.co.uk/resources/

 Monthly visual prompt for writing:

https://visualverse.org/

Fairy stories and folk tales:

http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

and on twitter – #folklorethursday

 List of magazines publishing short stories:

https://www.neonbooks.org.uk/big-list-literary-magazines/

And if in London, it’s worth visiting the National Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall (has all the literary magazines free to read):

https://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk/

For women’s magazine writing:

https://womagwriter.blogspot.com/

For short story workshops/readings/prompts:

http://www.thewordfactory.tv/site/

 To read short stories:

https://bookriot.com/2019/03/19/free-short-stories-online/

http://eastoftheweb.com/

And to listen to short stories:

https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction

Finding new short story writers:

https://electricliterature.com/electric-lits-15-best-short-story-collections-of-2018/

https://www.standard.co.uk/shopping/esbest/books-dvds/best-new-short-story-collections-a3879791.html

Each one of the links above will lead you to many more, so have fun exploring!

 

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”― Neil Gaiman

For the third week in my short story course, we looked at fairy stories and folk tales. We discussed how they can be updated, and how they can be used to ‘hold up a mirror’ to the world nowadays. I read this quote from the introduction by Alison Lurie to The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales:

The fairy tale survives because it presents experience in vivid symbolic form. Sometimes we need to have the truth exaggerated and made more dramatic, even fantastic, in order to comprehend it….

‘Hansel and Gretel’, for instance, may dramatize the fact that some parents underfeed and abandon their children physically and/or emotionally, while others, like the witch, overfeed and try to possess and devour them.

Of course, the question is whether we actually need to have the truth exaggerated right now but that’s another story! We all came up with a list of issues – small and large – we could use the fairy tale format to cover, using variants of the ‘Once upon a time…’ first line. And then…

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Our last exercise of the session was me bringing in one of my favourite brown crackly paper bags… what was in it?

 

Ha! Everybody took a pinecone to look at, feel, smell while I read out these beliefs/facts about them that I had gathered from all over the internet…

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Maybe you have a cone handy, or if not you can just imagine! Here… take one…

And here is what I read out…

  • For native Americans, pine cones represent wisdom and longevity…
  • they are also known to represent, fertility and life
  • in northern Europe, fir trees were decorated at the end of the year to celebrate the birth of Frey, the Norse god of the sun and fertility
  • the tops of the trees were lit because in winter as the days were getting shorter, northern people thought that the light would attract the sun.
  • they are seen as a symbol of human enlightenment, the third eye. this is because they are the same shape as the pineal gland in your brain, from which the gland takes its name
  • your pineal gland is responsible for melatonin and therefore sleep patterns
  • it sits in the centre of your brain, linked to your body’s perception of light
  • the pinecone is the evolutionary precursor to the flower –
  • the tree is one of the most ancient species on the planet – has existed three times longer than all flowering plant species.
  • the pine cones spines spiral in a perfect Fibonacci sequence in either direction, much like sacred geometry of a rose or a sunflower.
  • Dionysus, or Bacchus, carried a fennel staff topped with a pinecone – this dripped with honey and used in religious rituals.
  • Romans built an enormous bronze sculpture, the Pigna, in the shape of a huge pine cone four metres high.
  • It used to be a fountain overflowing with water next to the Temple of Isis
  • This now sits directly in front of the Catholic Vatican in the Court of the Pinecone
  • The sacred staff the pope carries is topped with a pinecone
  • the fir tree is also the symbol of peace.
  • It can withstand many temperature ranges, such as cold climates, snow, rocky soil, and drought.
  • The soothing scent has been shown by research to make people ‘feel at home’…
  • in the United states, often found growing beside graves because they represent eternal life, and pine cones represent the continuity and renewal of life.
  • If you dream of a pine tree, this refers to a new place, an environment or new persons
  • to see a pine cone in your dream, that indicates there will be a job chance and you will quickly adapt.
  • If you dream of climbing a pine tree, you will have problems – and get exhausted because you are preoccupied with these
  • If you sleep under one, it signifies your achievements and success.

So much in just one little overlooked thing I’d picked off from the ground. And then there were more. One writer told me you could tell the weather using them, another remembered making necklaces from them at Christmas. I’m sure you have more of your own too, I’d love to hear them.

The writing prompt was to listen to all the different points above while listening also to the cone. What was it telling you? And then write.

It was an exercise in finding out more about things we think we know about already. Perhaps it was more of finding the magic, and slowing down enough to let the magic find us.

 

The Chiddingstone Literary Festival has been called ‘one of the best literary festivals in Britain’, according to the Tatler magazine, and it’s certainly one of the most beautiful settings for it. SO, lucky me, I got to give two workshops in the historic library there over the weekend.

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It wasn’t hard to find inspiration, especially when you enter through this door, and then come across this Egyptian mummy on the way up the stairs.

And then there’s the library itself which looks like a collection belonging to someone extremely privileged. In fact, as I pointed out, some of the books there were probably bound by the previous owner of the castle, Denys Eyre Bower himself, and he had learnt bookbinding when he was in prison. But that’s a whole different story. Look again, look harder, look in a different way! That was the message of the workshop.

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We looked at quick-fire ways of getting inspiration in the morning with a series of short exercises that led into one another. Here’s one – taking the work of Joe Brainard who wrote the now iconic book,  I Remember:

I remember ‘no ankles’ on some old ladies.

I remember trying to imagine my grandfather naked. (Eck!)

I remember having a crush on a cousin and mother telling me that you can’t marry a cousin and, ‘But why can’t you marry a cousin?’ and, ‘Because it’s against the law,’ and ‘But why is it against the law?’ etc.

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.

I remember thinking that comic books that weren’t funny shouldn’t be called ‘comic books’.

We wrote our own ‘I remembers’ around books, and libraries, and castles… and then just as quickly wrote a second list. This time, starting again with I remember, we wrote lies. As wild as you liked. It was interesting to see how the mind had to work harder with the fictional memories, but we agreed that both lists took us to surprising places.

This was one of several themed poems we read, And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz:

And Yet the Books
Czeslaw Milosz

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

For our last exercise, YES WE WORKED HARD!, we looked at haiku – as in the capturing of a moment. This was part of thinking about how we noticed things – not just the sight of something, but also the questions we might have, the other senses we feel, the insights that come to us. I suggested that they might leave their poems and lines around the castle and during the rest of the day, I kept coming across them like mini treasures. They had indeed become part of the Chiddingstone collection. Here are some that I found, and I know there are others I hope to stumble across next time I’m there:

In the afternoon, I ran another workshop in Getting Published – focusing particularly on short stories, essays and poetry. It’s one of my favourite workshops to give because it’s always an eye-opener in how much there is out there. If anyone would like a copy of my handouts for this, including where to find magazines, examples of how to write your biography, etc etc, do email me on sarah@sarahsalway.co.uk, and I’d be happy to share.

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It was the end of a perfect weekend really. I’d been at the castle on the Saturday too, with Michael and John from the Poetry Exchange, recording people talking about the poems that had been a friend for them for the podcast. None of the festival’s recordings are up just yet, but you can listen to many others prepared earlier here. The Poetry Exchange is always a magical, surprising experience for everyone involved. This time round, we had Wilfred Owen, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, H W Longfellow, C P Cavafy, and Kathleen Raine all come and take tea with us in the castle Housekeeper’s Room. I’m pleased to report they got on very well indeed.

 

Here is an exercise I’ve been refining for a while, and which I shared in my creative writing group last week. It’s silly and liberating and, perhaps because of that, gets fantastic results every time. The reason – it takes you through some difficult writing transitions (eg from memory to detail), but also the set stages means it becomes impossible not to use concrete details. Go epic, enjoy (and feel free to share your writing in the comments)!

How to Write a Love Letter to a Kitchen Utensil
by Sarah Salway

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Writing love letters to spatulas or coffee machines may come easily to you, in which case, ignore these instructions and just sit down with pen and paper and let the magic commence. Otherwise, let’s look at a tried and trusted formula…

  1. Begin by saying what it is you want as a result of your beloved reading this particular letter. He/she/it/them should know from the start that this is a love letter and not a note to ask if they could be a bit quicker when boiling water, or to stop needing to be cleaned so often. A start may be something like, “I was thinking today about how very much I love you, and how I really don’t tell you that enough.” CHEESY IS GOOD, especially if talking to a cheese knife!
  2. Think of a shared memory. The special thing about the two of you is your shared history. What’s different between you two and, say, you and the oven or the fridge? For example, begin by saying, “I still remember clearly the moment I saw you in the shop. You were in a box of other spoons but somehow you stood out. I knew immediately that I had to have you. I left briefly to try to summon up my courage and to question whether I had enough money. But it was no use; I was totally tongue tied when I pulled you away from the others. Could you really be mine this easily?”

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3. Now for the meat of this piece. What exactly are the things you love about him/her/it? This is a seamless shift from the memory above to right now. You can say something such as: “And here we are ten years later, I’ve got rid of three wives in the meantime but you have always been steady and there for me.”

4. Tell him/her/it all the concrete things you love. I would make a list first, or freewrite. Some suggestions would be physical characteristics, character, all the things he/she/it does for you. Why you love him/her/it? Then simply turn your list into sentences. “I love the whiteness of your exterior. I love the way you light up when I open your door. I love how you are full of treats that never fail to cheer me up. I love the shivers you give me when I stand too close to you. I’m so grateful for everything you do for me, from keeping me well-nourished but also never moaning if I have another beer.”

5.  Explain how your life has changed since meeting him/her/it. “These last few years have been the happiest of my life. I feel that with you I always have my best friend by my side.”

6. And now end with a line that really sings out your love. “I can’t wait to grow old with you.” “My love for you will never end.” “You are my best friend and soul mate and I will love you until the end of our lives.”

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You can of course use exactly the same stages above for a real person. In fact, do and I dare you to send it.