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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It was a real privilege to be allowed to stand on that famed circle of red carpet last weekend as part of TedX Royal Tunbridge Wells. ‘One for the bucket list’, a friend commented and indeed it was. Friends who know me well will know that this was a BIG THING for me, getting up on a stage and talking (let alone to over 1,000 people). But if I did it, then so can you. So if you’re ever tempted to do something like this here are some of the things I learnt and that helped me prepare, and which might help you too …

1. Do have an idea that you really do want to share. I don’t think anyone should want just to do a public presentation, they should need to share something, and it can be anything – we heard about flesh eating parasites, the power of climbing trees, and the importance of bearing witness to grief. However each of the talks had a point to them, they weren’t just a meditation on a subject.  Thinking hard about the one thing I wanted people to do as a result of hearing me speak – to realise that the words we use everyday can have an impact – really helped me prepare. To be honest, my first draft was just a lecture about dictionaries.

2. Read a book. YAY! Who even needs an excuse?  The two how-to books I found particularly helpful were Viv Groskop’s book How to Own the Room and Caroline Goyder’s Gravitas. There’s also the ‘bible’ – Chris Anderson’s TED talks.

3. Do voice exercises as part of early preparation.  I’m used to reading my work on stage but even so, I always find that my breath goes higher and higher up my body when I get nervous so I end up squeaking even more than usual. What worked for me most was when my actor friend, Michael Shaeffer, suggested I concentrated on the consonants rather than the whole words. Amazingly something as simple as this helped stop my words running into each other AND made me feel more purposeful. It’s so strange how it works, almost as if Michael knows what he’s talking about. We also practiced reading in different accents, the more ridiculous the better. Laughing took away some (not all) of the panic because it felt playful, and this playfulness helped to give me back my voice.

4. Edit, edit, edit so your script is easy to understand. One of the useful points made in Gravitas is to make sure you know exactly how your points link to each other. I’m used to writing for the page so I found I twisted and turned all over the place in my first draft, coming back to certain points again, digressing into others. That’s OK on the page because people can refer back to the paragraph before, but not when it’s being spoken. And when I found myself freezing, it was always when there wasn’t that clear link between one point and the next. I also took away several of the million points I felt I absolutely had to make and guess what – I didn’t miss them.

5. Make the language fluid, and fluent. Reading it out aloud (not just in my head) was the best editor I could have had. I kept asking myself, could I make this easier for myself to read? And every time, I could. I wasn’t quite at ‘unaccustomed as I am to…’ levels but my early drafts did get perilously close to a sermon written by the most pompous vicar you’ve ever heard.

6. Use all the resources available. I was so lucky because the whole team behind Tedx RTW are AMAZING. Just knowing I could call on them was such a comfort, so if you’re doing a talk, then make the most of what the organisers of the event are offering. They are the professionals, they know exactly what they’re doing – and when to do it!

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7. Respect your audience. Imagining the audience naked or on the loo doesn’t work for me BUT thinking that every seat was occupied by someone who wanted me to do well was a great help. I think there’s a temptation, especially when you’re nervous, to imagine you are about to enter a gladiator ring with the audience baying for blood (!) so instead I concentrated on how I might explain it to my mum instead, knowing she’d be interested and on my side but still needed to know what it was I was actually on about. She wouldn’t have let me get away with just mumbling, and  besides I wanted her to know what I was saying.

8. Rehearsals are for failing. During the proper technical rehearsals on Friday, I froze, couldn’t remember my words on my first attempt, and actually walked off stage during my second. Reassuringly we were all the same. However, on the actual day everyone was fluent and got through without stumbling – I’m sure there was some magic involved.

9. Practise, practise, practise. I’ve never learnt a script like this before, and for weeks I have been walking around mumbling to myself. I’ve woken up reciting it, recorded myself as I’ve run, performed it to friends via Skype. Only to find that half an hour before I went on stage I COULDN’T REMEMBER ONE WORD. Not one. I thought I might actually die. But muscle memory is a marvellous thing – as soon as I was on stage and I’d said my first sentence, the next came. And the next. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I do know it was as a result of all that mumbling. No amount of practising is ever too much.

10. Remember it’s you speaking, and that you’re enough. As I said, my first draft was a rather turgid lecture albeit filled with hundreds of ‘interesting’ facts other people had found out, and with very little of me in it. Thinking how I would say this to a friend I’d just met up with was helpful – did I really need to go through the whole history of every word ever spoken in order for her to believe me? So once I had my ‘bones’, I went back through and added as much of ‘me’ in it as I could, even if it meant giving up the ‘expert’ role. There is a terrific vulnerability in that. I went through hours of sweating over all that unhelpful ‘who am I to say this’ stuff that the inner critic loves so much. But, going back to point 1 here, ‘Do have an idea that you really do want to share’ made me see that just getting across why I loved and cared about words was enough.

And because of all this, to have people share their own words later made me cry because yes, let’s really make a better word for 2019 than last year’s toxic. We really do deserve better. And on that note, welcome to my TED talk…

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