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.

 

 

Open a castle door, and you never know what you might find inside! I’ve just had a wonderful afternoon planning my creative writing workshops during the Chiddingstone Castle  Literary Festival on Sunday 5th May.

Part of the joy is that we’ll be in the castle library –  where else? – and I’m already planning inspiration around all the beautiful books we’ll be surrounded by..

and the views surrounding us, both inside and out…

and, of course, personal obsessions…

and did I mention the tactile glorious books lining every wall…

There are two workshops in the library, and they are £25 each:

10.30-12.30 – Getting inspiration for your writing, and

2.30-4.30 – A practical workshop on how to get your short stories and poetry published

You will need to book tickets – numbers are limited and places are already going because this is a very special venue. Click here to get book your place, and I’ll see you in the castle!

It was Julia Cameron who came up with the idea of making an official artist date in her book, The Artist’s Way. She calls it, ‘a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you.’

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Looking all angles

I made a list last year (it’s at the bottom of this post) of more than 50 possible artist’s dates that I could do. I’m a big one for lists like this because I find the more I write possible activities down, the more ideas I have, whereas if I suddenly say, ‘it’s Tuesday, it’s been a week and I need to go on a date’, then I just freeze and can’t think of anything to do. And of course the key words in that quote above are ‘something that interests you.’ Not something I should be doing, or other people think I should be doing.

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So how did it go? And what did I learn? Well, I didn’t get a tattoo. Not yet. But I did make a pinterest board of what I might be like when I’m 80, I went on a guided walk, sat in on a jury trial, planted seeds, learnt a poem by heart, enjoyed a (more than one) excellent breakfast, and many more things. I’ve picked out those above because I don’t think I would have consciously done them if it hadn’t been for my list.

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Did it make me a better artist? Not sure, but here are five of the things I think it did give me. All of which are important, not just for an artist, or a writer, but being alive!

  1. It made me try something new and that was good for me. 
  2. I was aware more while I was doing it – I didn’t just go to a cafe for example, but chose the cafe carefully, chose what I was eating. I was generally more mindful.
  3. I travelled out of my comfort zone – which allowed me to realise I could do that and not actually die. Always a plus.
  4. Writing the list in advance and choosing what to do gave me have an element of control over what I did want to do, and what just felt like a nice idea.
  5. I could do these things on my own, and that gave an element of spontaneity which I liked.

Most of all though, it got me making things – wonky, odd, not perfect things (like my plates below) just for the joy of making. I must admit I was surprised to realise I hadn’t been letting myself do this for some time.
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So dive in… the water’s lovely.

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You can write your own list or copy mine, and I’ll be cheering you on. 

(These wonderful girls above are supporting their team at the Women’s Hockey – something that wasn’t on my list and I’d never have gone to if it hadn’t been for this idea! I’ve kept this video and imagine it’s me they’re shouting for whenever I’m starting something new! Let me know how you get on.)

Sarah’s list of Artist’s Dates for 2018… 

  1. Write a list of 100 things that would terrify me to do (eg do a stand up comedy act)
  2. Have a fancy cocktail in a bar on my own
  3. Pick a letter – any letter – and go for a walk to take photographs of things beginning with that letter.
  4. Bake bread
  5. Swim in a river
  6. Swim in a lido
  7. Make a herb garden
  8. Take my yoga mat to a park and practise under a tree
  9. Buy five books from a charity shop, write a note in each and leave them for others to find
  10. Go to a new café and enjoy an excellent breakfast
  11. Pack a yummy picnic and a good book to go to a new park, roll out a rug and enjoy
  12. Visit the RFL poetry library and choose five books at random to read
  13. Make a list of London libraries – go to one I’ve never visited
  14. Join in on a life-drawing class
  15. Make the kind of dressing up box I wanted as a child
  16. Take a selfie dressed as the main character of a book I’m reading
  17. Make biscuits and give to friends
  18. Go to a public lecture about a subject I know nothing about (not hard!)
  19. Visit a cemetery I haven’t been to before and make notes
  20. Write a fan letter. Send
  21. Enjoy an afternoon watching TED talks
  22. Go to a concert of a completely new music to me
  23. Take a boat trip
  24. Paint or draw a self portrait
  25. Write a letter to someone I haven’t seen for ten years
  26. Make a playlist of music I haven’t listened to for ten years
  27. Plan a road trip round childhood haunts
  28. Make a list of 100 things that make me happy
  29. Make a miniature garden
  30. Go to a candlelit concert at St Martins
  31. Learn a poem by heart
  32. Record myself reading poetry
  33. Go on a guided walk
  34. Go to a café and plot out a novel I’ll never write
  35. Dance
  36. Go foraging
  37. Make a list of at least five strangers I speak to today
  38. Plant seeds
  39. Buy seeds (or visit a seed swap) and make beautiful seed packets to send to friends
  40. Got to a chocolate shop and spend a long time choosing just five chocolates to buy
  41. Have my own indoor fireworks show
  42. Make a photo book of the photographs that make me happy
  43. Get a tattoo
  44. Go to a matinee
  45. Create a vision board on Pinterest for me when I’m 80
  46. Create a playlist to give to a friend
  47. Buy a second hand book and create a Blackout poem
  48. Go to 5 Rhythms dance
  49. Go to a park and identify five trees – make a zine
  50. Try on an outfit I’d never be able to afford
  51. Sit in on a jury trial
  52. Go to the opera – research fully beforehand
  53. Go to a lunchtime talk at the National Gallery
  54. Go to the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities
  55. Find the perfect red lipstick
  56. Go to Strawberry Hill
  57. Take note of, and research, the statues I walk past every day
  58. Go to a market – choose interesting looking items, make a still life. Photograph it.

 

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ONLY THREE SHOPPING DAYS LEFT BEFORE CHRISTMAS…. but I had the loveliest free present this morning: a dear friend, John Prebble, recorded himself reading one of the shopping poems from my collection, Transaction, and sent it to me. He read it so beautifully it took me some time to realise it was my own poem! Enjoy the recording just below…

And here’s the poem….

Transaction

If it’s going to be too sudden,
then I’d rather it didn’t happen.
if there’s not going to be any tenderness,
I’ll just leave now before we both regret.
If we’re not going to try to share,
laugh about it, make it something rare,
I won’t do it. It’ll become too hard.
But if, when I hand over my card,
in that moment of flesh brushing flesh,
meeting of eyes, cheeks burning fresh,
if in that moment, I feel the waves
inside subside, no longer a slave
but a master, all bad thoughts funnelled
into this, then it’s worth it. I’m lulled,
everything that’s gone before a sign,
and it’s more than perfect, it’s sublime.
I’m already longing for the next time.

John and I met properly through The Poetry Exchange, so do listen to some of the podcasts there if you are longing for some poetry discussions over Christmas!