Thank you for so many kind comments after my post about spending time in hospital as a result of Covid-19. I’m so grateful that it proved useful to so many people, and as well as the things suggested in that last post, I hope this second  post answers some of the many questions I’ve had from people worried about being admitted themselves, or for their relatives. And that some of these links might help you – they seem quite trivial but sometimes the little things make all the difference because they are what we can actually control. And just as reassurance, I’m on the mend now. Here I am outside in my garden yesterday:

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Yes, I could take my phone with me. I’m not sure if this is the rule for all hospitals now, but it was a definite comfort blanket because it was a way of keeping in touch with home as I obviously had no visitors. Luckily one of the paramedics who took me to hospital told me to take my charger, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought about it. Looking back, it feels almost funny that I took my phone charger but not my toothbrush or anything useful. However, the hospital provided me with a plastic toothbrush and sachets of toothpaste, shower gel and shampoo. I didn’t brush my hair for the whole time I was there but I don’t think anyone cared. I certainly didn’t.

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I have had so many questions about breathing and I keep having to repeat that I’m not an expert – what’s true is that when you are in this situation, suddenly everything you take for granted somehow feels more difficult. Now I’m recovering I’m finding this youtube video by a Qigong teacher called Peter Deadman so helpful – I can’t remember who passed it on to me, but thank you.

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There wasn’t much nature around in my hospital room funnily enough. But I started to hunger for it, so I listened to birdsong recordings and watched bird videos again and again. There are lots out there, but these two were ones I found and which really helped me.

  1. The different birdsongs from the British Library website here.
  2. And this one was just lovely and long so I didn’t have to keep pressing anything  – here 

 

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Feeling grateful at this time felt so counter-intuitive but I know how important it can be from my work in writing and wellbeing. So when I was ready – and I did have to work through resistance! – I made gratitude lists in my head. Small things at first then bigger and bigger then in no order at all – the jug of water by my bed, the oxygen I was on, the nursing staff who were keeping me on track, the scientists who invented all the machines I was plugged into, the person who had thought of painting on of the walls bright green, having nurses and doctors from the Phillipines, Kerala, all over the world – even one from the same street as me… I can’t tell you how much it helped.

 

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Another thing that kept me going was singing to myself. Now, I’m not a singer, perhaps this was an advantage of being in isolation, but I would recommend knowing the words to a song or hopefully two. You can even pick something a little more sophisticated than mine which ended up being Wind the Bobbin Up! This was partly because I’d received this beautiful video of my little grandson listening to his uncle Joe play it to him just before I went in. I sang it again and again, using all the gestures – even pointing to the window and the door, the ceiling and the floor. There was definitely something about the containment of getting to the end of a song, and also the rhythm that was so soothing. I’m not sure if I can listen to it again for a little while though.

 

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And lastly, I’ve been interested in how my point about being careful about the messages you send has resonated with so many others who’ve similarly spent time in hospital. I want to make clear that I did love getting messages, I just didn’t have the energy to respond, or even actually read them especially if they were long. The ones I particularly loved were simple photographs of friends and family having a nice time – although many people said they were worried afterwards that might make me feel bad. But I wanted signs that life was going on out there. I wanted trees, funny dogs, babies, flowers, the sea and I particularly yearned for people smiling. All the things that weren’t really happening in my room at the time.

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So, don’t be like Sarah – take your toothbrush and hairbrush as well as your charger. Breathe lots. Learn some songs. Listen to birds outside while you can as well as recordings. And don’t judge yourself. We’re all doing the best we can, and if you want to watch nearly all of Love is Blind, well, at least you know that you are not alone.

love is blind

 

But mostly, of course, I really hope that none of this is needed for you. As everybody keeps saying, stay at home and wash your hands. And know how lucky we all are that we have such wonderful doctors, nurses, nursing staff and support staff in the NHS ready to help us if the worst happens. As well as our delivery drivers, our supermarket staff, our pharmacists, our police, our warehouse workers, and all the other really important people who are keeping us going right now.

THANK YOU ALL.

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t a post I’d ever want to write, but it’s also a post I’m delighted to write. Because I’m now home from hospital after recovering from serious virus-related pneumonia. I’d been ill for a week beforehand so had – luckily – been in isolation, I’d felt I was recovering but then started coughing non-stop, became breathless and eventually dialled 111 who sent paramedics.

I’ve been trying to work out how I can usefully share this information with everyone – I certainly don’t need sympathy now. Yes, it was one of the most scariest, loneliest and grim experiences I’ve ever had, but I’m one of the lucky ones. SO LUCKY.

However, there are things I learnt which I can share – so please do feel free to ask any questions you may have. I know there’s a difference between reading cold information and talking to someone who has been through it so I’m happy to talk if I can, although it  does feels important to say that this virus affects people in completely different ways. There’s not one answer to anything, but I’ll be happy to share my personal experience if it might help you. So here’s some of the things I learnt or was told…

  1. When you’re coughing, sit up if you can. Yes, it’s exhausting, and I just wanted to lie down and wait until it’s over, but as soon as I was told by a clever nurse to sit up, I could feel it was the right thing to do. I’m sure there’s science here if anyone wants to share, but one thing was that it allows phlegm to form which is better for your lungs.
  2. Drink water, water, water. A raging thirst was one of my symptoms but it’s also essential to get better.
  3. Have Vitamin C, as much as you can healthily stuff down you. I’ve developed an obsession with oranges.
  4. Do as many breathing exercises as you can bear. I love my yoga so I thought I’d be fine here, but the breathing it seemed I needed to do was through the mouth (now counter-intuitive to me) and out through pursed lips. One of the things I learnt is that breathing is everything. Everything.

And if you have a friend or relative going through this, here’s what you can do.

  1. Be careful with the messages you send. I was getting many concerned messages from friends and relatives that I just didn’t have any energy to deal with.  The truth was that I was concentrating on my own journey, rather than wanting to reassure others, so I either ignored them – sorry! – or sent a quick xx. The irony is that I loved reading most of them, often again and again, but I couldn’t manage answering SO be aware of this. Don’t overwhelm with your concerns, however well-meaning, but – if this is a close friend – do stay in touch. Just a picture of a tree, a dog or a sunset was magic, together with a quick line to say I was being thought of, no need to reply. One dear friend whatsapped at 3am to say she was awake and if I was, then she wanted me to know I wasn’t alone – that helped more than I can probably ever manage to tell her. MAKE IT CLEAR YOU DON’T EXPECT HEALTH UPDATES OR REPLIES, and if this isn’t a close friend or relative, then wait until they come out of hospital. Harsh of me, but I didn’t have the space to become part of someone else’s drama.
  2. Don’t expect them to bounce back. I’ve been home three days now and can only just manage walking up and down stairs without needing to rest. I might even think about reading a book soon – I certainly couldn’t have written this before. Recovery is a disappointingly long journey.
  3. Let them talk about what they’ve been through if they want. You’re all alone in the hospital room for what seems forever. Things go round and round in your mind, not all good. I’m very aware that there’s a temptation sometimes to want to draw a line under an experience like that, there are narratives we want to hear and those we don’t. I’m lucky. I have a partner and friends who have let me tell them exactly how scared I was, without wanting to immediately turn it into a ‘well, thank goodness you’re OK now’ story. Yes, I am OK, but all the dark stuff is somewhere inside now too.
  4. You don’t beat Corona. This isn’t a war story – you can’t be plucky and brave and fight it off. I might have thought this once, but I know now that I’ve lost my confidence in my own strength. I hope it comes back eventually, but the truth is that once the virus gets you – and it doesn’t seem to discriminate – then you just have to wait it out. Some people will have mild symptoms, others more ferocious. Never make someone feel as if they should have done more not to get it. BUT ALSO STAY HOME. This is serious.

AND LASTLY, oh God the NHS. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. Those nurses and nursing staff at Pembury Hospital were amazing. I could tell exactly how scared they were to come into my room – I was a danger to them after all – but they still did. Every time. With kindness and compassion and professionalism. I will never stop being grateful to them. When this is all over, let’s not forget who it is exactly that we can’t live without.

 

Well, what strange times we are in. And although I’m one for seeing the silver lining wherever I can, I’m struggling at the moment. Small kindnesses, for sure. I do like your hat…

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So it’s good to see some of the creative responses that are happening. Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, for example, are offering free creative writing prompts here, and writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke is planning an online literary festival via twitter.

My friend, Sally Beazley-Long and I have paired up to play a little game using her art history expertise and my literary passion. I’ve been giving her poems and stories to match with paintings, and vice versa. We thought it would just be fun, but the results have been wonderful. A whole new layer to both the painting and the poem. Here are some:

For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still…

cindy

I matched Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call.

And for William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, Sally gave me Marc Chagall’s Le Champ de Mars, 1955…

chagal

We paired Ellen Bass’s Eating the Bones with Jan Steen’s The Fat Kitchen. OF COURSE WE DID!

Steen, Jan, 1625/1626-1679; The Fat Kitchen

There are more that we’ll share over the next few weeks, but it’s such a lovely way of looking a bit closer than we might otherwise at both the poems and stories AND the paintings.

These are seeds that can only grow. And tomorrow I’m going to be planting real seeds out in the garden. Even in the rain, actually especially if it rains!

igYwebGnTzGRrRBvrk3ctg

 

 

I have been reading all the wonderful letters in the Dear Poet initiative on Poets.org – I find every one touching, both the questions from the school children and the care taken by the poets in responding.

writing letter

The correspondence from Alice Ostriker to her poem, Move, though was really moving. I wish I’d had a poet to write to when I was growing up – particularly one who would offer this lovely image: “I was not at all like the salmon or turtle that has no doubts–I only wished I were.”

Do read the poem before you read the letters, as many of the images are reflections of ‘Move’. And also because, although this project is for children, I think we all want to be:

Thirsty for a destiny like theirs,
An absolute right choice

And it’s got me thinking. Which poet would you write to, and about which poem?

 

 

 

Here are some upcoming courses and events:

Starting Wednesday 11th March, 10-12.30 at the University of Kent, Tonbridge Centre – I’ll be running a four week Reading and Writing Flash Fiction course. There are still a few places left, contact the centre for details.

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Saturday 14th March – Kent and Sussex Writing and Wellbeing Network – Clowning Around with Words and Playfulness Rebellion in Hastings. Contact jon@boom.co.uk for more details.

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Sunday 10th May – I’ll be running two creative writing workshops at the Chiddingstone Literary Festival in the castle’s library. More information on the festival’s website.

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Tuesday 12th May – writing and yoga is such a happy mix for me, so I’m delighted to be running a poetry workshop for the wonderful trainee yoga teachers at FLOW.

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Starting Wednesday 1st July, 10-12.30 at the University of Kent, Tonbridge Centre – I’ll be running a four week Reading and Writing Memoir course. Contact the centre for details.

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I also run a weekly Reading Round group in Tunbridge Wells on Thursdays for the Royal Literary Fund. We read and study a short story and a poem each session, no need to read in advance. The group is currently full but do contact me if you would like to be put on my mailing list.

I’m just back from two weeks writing in the Sahara Desert.

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I KNOW!!!

The experience was every bit as extraordinary, memorable and above all, productive as I could have hoped.

 

We slept out under stars, ate amazingly well, rode camels and wrote wrote wrote. I’ve come back with a full notebook, and can’t wait to untangle my words. There was something magical about the silence, the space and also … the lack of internet….

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I was staying at Cafe Tissardmine, with the wonderful Karen, a writer and artist herself, who was featured on Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild. She hosts artists and writers throughout the year. In fact, my friend, Linda Cracknell, who invited me this time, will be running a writing workshop there next year (2021). All I can say is GO!

 

This time last year I was still on a high from giving a TEDx talk – possibly one of the scariest but best things I’ve done in my writing career. You can watch it – In Praise of Everyday Words –  here.

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In fact I was so inspired by the AMAZING team putting the whole event together, that I volunteered to help put on this year’s event. And I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve told me that they’d wished they’d known about the day, so this is a little bit of a public service announcement – the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells event is on this Saturday, 1st February at the Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells.

YOU’VE NO EXCUSE NOW and you are not too late. The organisers have just released an extra tranche of tickets because of demand.  Do come and say hello if you’re there. I’ll be one of the people in TED t-shirts showing people where the loo is.

You can see the speaker line-up here (hence the subject heading). I’ve been in on some of the conversations and I can tell you that they are going to be amazing!

ted

But back to me.

My talk last year featured the Oxford Word of the Year, and as the one for 2018 was TOXIC, I hoped that 2019 might be more positive. Well, folks, it’s CLIMATE EMERGENCY. Hmmm. One of the things we did last year was invite the audience to think of their own words – but sadly hug, hope and authentic didn’t make the grade.

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Anyway I’ve updated the poem I wrote for my talk to include Climate Emergency – the other words of the year are in bold or underlined with their year beside them.

I like the idea of doing this every year from now on, with a poem that gets longer and longer….

 

Icarus vapes over a dictionary (2014)
by Sarah Salway

The weather was post-truth that summer, (2016)
we lounged in our gardens,
took selfies in lycra. (2013)

Those sunny Sundays,
while we could still pretend
Climate Emergency was just for cranks, (2019)

and even us squeezed middles (2011)
could imagine ourselves gods –

with music breaking through walls
and us dancing,

a rest from the omnishambles (2012)
of so many toxic headlines, (2018)

and if sometimes we looked up
in the hope
that it might never end,

perhaps we were waiting
for the promised youthquake (2017)
who would build us a Big Society(2010)

a term many of us still liked the sound of
but few had ever understood –
if we were completely honest …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

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…

instructions1

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.

short stories

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