Ten years ago – TEN YEARS AGO! – I had a short story, Instructions for Reading This Story, published in the wonderful Defenestration Magazine. It was so much fun to write, but I must admit I had slightly forgotten about it until I got a message through my website from Miroslava who teaches English as a foreign language.

She’d used my story in her class, she wrote. Would I be interested in seeing some of the comments the students had made?

Yes, I would.

So here’s my story… and afterwards you’ll see some of the photographs Miroslava took of the work that came out of reading it in class. THANK YOU SO MUCH. It’s always exciting to see how other people interpret your words.

Instructions for Reading This Story by Sarah Salway

1. Do not assume that just because the story ends with the man and the woman not living happily ever after that the author has problems in her own relationships.

2. A cat can sometimes be just a cat. It is not necessarily a metaphor for death, or motherhood, or even Derrida’s theory of Difference. Perhaps a cat was sitting on the author’s desk and the author thought it would be nice to put it in the story because the cat was old and may not be alive when the story was published. On second thoughts, sometimes a cat can be a metaphor for death. But do not make the mistake of assuming you are clever.

3. Likewise the spelling mistake in line seven of the third paragraph on page two may just be a typo that by-passed the author, editor and copy-editor. It is kinder to ignore it rather than suggest students include it in their essays as deliberate faux-beginnerism. And especially not as an example of sloppy editing. In fact, don’t teach this story at all. But if you do, do not send the author your student’s comments. Unless, of course, they are very positive. And then send them straight away.

4. Please look at the name of the author carefully. Remember it. This person spent many hours chained to her desk when she would rather be out walking in the woods just so you could be entertained. So if you should ever meet her, you do not need to ask if she has ever published anything. This may be upsetting for her, especially if it has been a long time and she has just been dropped by her publishing house. But if you should forget, and you do ask her, never then request the name she writes under. It will be her own. You will just not have remembered it.

5. But if, by some miracle, you do remember the author’s name and you also remember she wrote this story, do not talk about that lovely cat – the so-called death metaphor, and how clever it must have been to be able to turn on the kitchen tap and drink from it. Or how sweet it was when it would lie on the one from bottom step just so it could catch the comings and goings of the household. She may still be feeling raw about its death.

6. OK, it probably is safe to assume that when the husband in the story is pushed in front of the on-coming car and the wife just stands by and laughs, that may be a small clue that the author’s marriage has not been a success. However, do not assume that the author is a man hater (see point 9).

7. Or that the fictional husband had a rough deal. He really did not. You remember that paragraph about how he’d smell his food before he ate it, and also the one when he comments in public about the size of his wife’s thighs. Think whether you could get that level of detail in prose without there being some element of truth involved.

8. When the woman throws herself on the bathroom floor and weeps, feel free to notice for a moment the carefully chosen colours of the expensive Italian tiles, the smell of the English lavender soap she inhales, and how clean that floor must have been for her to feel comfortable about lying there for so long. And then cry with her. Do not smile, or wish you could slap her face and tell her how the middle classes have no problems really, or skip to the next paragraph to see how the husband is doing in hospital.

9. That moment when the hot young Italian waiter tells the woman she is too beautiful to weep for a dead husband does NOT come too soon after the husband’s eventual demise. In fact, if anything, it has been years in the planning, involving many many nights of imagining.

10. The woman in this story does not necessarily have a problem with control. Nor is she a hard-hearted money pinching bitch. She may just find it hard to express her feelings. She is relying on readers to pick up her sensitivity through the old creative writing adage – show not tell. Look how much she does for her husband; even arranging a sudden death for him. Which is surely what all of us desire, and more than most of us achieve. Remember the cat. On second thoughts, do not mention the cat.

 

And from Miroslava’s class…

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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.

 

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‘If  one day, you have no companion…’ That sounds such a sad phrase, but was probably one of the reasons why I loved this book, Something To Do, so much, I think. It never presumed you were going to be surrounded by friends. Most of the activities are quiet and creative. I wonder if this is why when I posted this morning on Facebook about it, so much of the love has come from fellow artists and writers? Personally I’m sure it helped to build my curiosity and ‘can-do’ muscles.

It’s based round the months of the year (think Lia Leendertz’s Almanac but with more games) and  has a special place on my desk bookshelf. I’ve been reading it again recently for a larger – secret – project I’m involved with. And you know what? It’s still brilliant. I’m not surprised that on my Facebook people have been been citing pages and activities they particularly liked and remembered. So here, for Frances and Hilary, is the fudge recipe (obviously I’d cooked it a bit messily several times) and ‘something to do with cotton reels’…

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What a lovely thought that you might just have a wooden kitten needle and two spare cotton reels just hanging around!

It’s part of what makes this a highly comforting book: even though the authors, Septimus, are anonymous, they give the impression that they all hang out in each other’s kitchens (probably drinking gin and bitching about the kids, but who cares?), and the illustrations are by Shirley Hughes – how young must she have been then?

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But it’s also full of facts about nature – I actually remember going out with this drawing and identifying buds…

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… and it’s got poems in it – not as a chore to learn but offered as a possible pleasure!

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In fact, I might just try to grow myself a pineapple plant this weekend…

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Who else had it? And what do you remember doing from it?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written flash.

Actually that’s a lie. I always write flash, even when I’m writing novels, especially my first Something Beginning With which was written as a form of alphabetical flash!

Better then to say that it’s been a long time since I sent my flashes out as possible little sparks rather than keeping them tucked up in my journal so it’s been lovely they have been finding homes. And to have the further good news that two of them have been chosen for both the forthcoming 2019 Best Microfiction and 2019 Best Shorts anthologies.

Here are those stories if you’d like to read them, thank you so much to all the editors for picking them:

I’m also really happy that another story, Safekeeping, will be in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, and will appear there for its first time.

A special thank you to the legendary Meg Pokrass for helping me get my Flash mojo back and being so encouraging.

In other news, I’m getting ready to be one of the writers in residence at the Alde Valley Spring Festival next month. If you’re in Suffolk and visiting the festival, do get in touch to say hello. It looks completely magic and I am counting the days.

But before that, there are still a few places left in my writing workshops on Sunday 5th May at Chiddingstone Literary Festival. The castle is another beautiful writing home, bursting with inspiration for us all. The books at the top are from the library, where the workshops will take place.

And of course, if you haven’t seen it, my TEDx talk is now up – In Praise of Every Day Words – it’s written especially for  all of us word geeks and dictionary nerds.