Local writers inspired by the Garden share their top tips
and practice exercises for honing your creative writing skills.

Writing in a Winter Wonderland

Main Walk

— Garden writer Jackie Bennett will be running two Writing Workshops at Cambridge University Botanic Garden in 2014 (7th March and 5th September). Her book The Writer’s Garden (Frances Lincoln) will be published in October 2014.  Here she gives her New Year’s Writing Resolutions.

Kick-start your ideas

  1. Write about what you know. A garden you know best is always a good place to start. Your own, or somewhere you visit regularly like the BG in Cambridge.
  2. Timescale.  You could write about something that happened today, a year ago, or even further back in the past. Make sure the reader knows the timescale.
  3. Whose story? You could write about yourself, a friend or relative. For example, let’s say your grandmother used to push your father in his pram through Cambridge Botanic every day. Will you tell your grandmother’s story, your father’s story – or your own?  It could be all three.
  4. Writing about plants. Maybe there is one plant in the gardens that you always admired. Find out as much as you can about that plant or that group of plants – via the internet or library. You could write about its history and how it got to this country – or into this particular garden.

Try this Exercise

Write 250-300 words entitled Winter Wonderland. Write a piece about winter at Cambridge University Botanic Garden. It can be written in the 1st person or 3rd person. (see below).  You can write about the whole garden or just one part of it, or even one plant.  Stick to the world limit – this is a good exercise to make you think carefully about your choice of words.

Technique: f
irst or third person?

Garden writing can either be in the first person eg. “I have always loved this place… I first came here when I was six years old.. etc.” This style is often used for diaries and blogs and is very immediate and allows the writer to convey emotion.

Garden writing can also be in the third person eg. “The Cambridge University Botanic Garden had one of the first Winter Gardens in Britain.” This style is often used for magazine articles and journals. This kind of writing can still include the impressions or feelings of the writer, such as “On a clear winter’s day, with the sun sinking low, there is no better place to be than the Winter Garden at Cambridge”.

When you’re finished, check it over and share with friends for feedback. Then why not submit it to the Anthology section of this Voicing website for publishing?

The vignette

Kate Swindlehurst interviewing for Voicing the Garden

— Kate Swindlehurst is currently writer in residence at the Botanic Garden, an opportunity made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.  A local writer, Kate has completed a novel, a short story collection and a collaborative memoir.  She hopes to use the residency to pursue her interests in memory and the therapeutic potential of the garden, and is working on a book recording her experiences.

Writing Exercise: the vignette
A brief evocative description, account or episode

This is an opportunity to respond to place in prose.  These days it often goes by the name of ‘creative non-fiction’.

  • Choose a spot where you can observe comfortably without being distracted by cold, heat, noise etc.  I usually aim to sit for up to an hour, and prefer to save note-taking until later, though I might jot down the odd word and sometimes take a few photos which I can use to jog the memory.
  • Aim to immerse yourself in this place at this moment, clearing your mind of the day’s preoccupations as far as possible.
  • Deconstruct your observation process: the writer’s job is ‘to look hard at something that is not ourselves’ (Tim Dee).  I usually work through the senses, trying to peel back the layers of each to get at the essence of the thing, as if I am experiencing it for the first time.  For example, what exactly is the sound this bird is making?  Which letters best mimic the sound?  Avoid the familiar (‘chirp’).  Stay with the sound, letting it resonate.  If it helps, find a comparison, something it reminds you of (all ready-made similes are banned!)  Go beyond your usual ways of ‘seeing’ – think especially about textures, the feel of a leaf on the skin…
  • Use your imagination as a sixth sense, letting it wander.  You might think of someone who sat here before you.  You might hear voices from long ago.  You might want to give a voice to the stones or a tree (Alice Oswald’s long poem ‘Dart’ speaks in many voices, including that of the river, and Jacqueline Gabbitas has written an entire poem sequence in the voice of the grass).
  • When you come to translating these impressions into a piece of writing, aim to share with your reader your own unique experience; to defamiliarise but also to make accessible.

Scratching the surface

Clare Crossman is a poet and writer living in Hertfordshire.

Top tips from Clare

  • Writan (Anglo Saxon) literally translated means: to scratch the surface.
  • Make time for your writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s an hour or less.
  • You need to work on your notes. It’s a space in time with your paper, lap-top or pens. If nothing happens it may the next time.
  • When reading you will find out who you admire. They will tell you something about your pre-occupations, your style.
  • Remember there are many poems on every subject. It’s all been said before.
  • You can say, you can make it new.
  • Sometimes just writing down whatever is in your head without stopping for 10 minutes will reveal to you where your interest and imagination lies.
  • When you are ready, go out and find other poets you feel you can share with.
  • Groups and formal workshops will somehow always help you with the craft of poetry.
  • Feel, observe, imagine, love language.

Permission to be

Ann Gray for thresholds

— Ann Gray grew up in Cambridge and was educated at the Perse School before going on to nursing training at St Barts.  She now lives, writes and works in Cornwall where she has a care home for people with dementia, in a three acre setting of therapeutic gardens and orchards.  Ann was selected by Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to be poet-in-residence at the Garden from January to April 2013 as part of Thresholds, an Arts Council funded project to establish poets working in the collections of the University of Cambridge.  Ann emphasises the need to let your mind wander and make creative connection in response to the Garden environment

Writing recollections from Ann

Writing in the Botanic Garden was a huge privilege.

It was time out from a working life, permission to simply sit and think and be.

Several visits meant I could see the garden in different weather, first under a blanket of snow, then green as Spring made its way through the borders and trees. This freedom of time and place meant I could let my mind wander, then tie all sorts of different strands of thinking and day dreaming together.

I grew up in Cambridge, had known the garden as a child, thought about the pull of place, the fact that, however beautiful Cornwall might be, Cambridge, the fens, this strange flat land, tugged at my heart with a belonging that was inescapable. I thought about howI travelled in and out to the Garden with taxi drivers from all over the world, many professional men, usually men, who were here to feel safe, to keep their families safe, to get an education for their children. Many were homesick and when we talked about this, all spoke passionately of the land where they were from. Some encouraged me to travel, to visit; they spoke of mountains, trees, flowers, rivers, birds. It was this that had begun to fascinate me. What if, I wondered, however beautifully the trees were cared for, they missed their land, the place they should properly be?

I was drawn to the beauty of the Persian ironwood tree. I began to research Persia, where would its normal growing place be? What animals would lie in its branches, what birds would sing there? It seemed natural to write a Ghazal, a poem of longing. This meant wrestling with a form I hadn’t used before but the very necessity of the couplets and refrain and rhymes meant my imagination was again stretched to find words I hadn’t thought of using.

I then took it further, visiting the Persian rooms at the Fitzwilliam. I knew when the tree had first arrived in the garden as I had seen the entry in the beautifully scribed Accession Notebook. I thought about Persia at that time. I looked at decorated bowls, swimming with fish. I thought of the leaves of the tree having the same movement. I found another couplet unexpectedly.

Time out was the key. Time to think in a multi stranded way, time to stop, look, to listen, to discover, to be open to new ways of thinking about things. To let my own life into other places in different ways.

The Botanic Garden is an extraordinary place. A collection with weather, living things changing with the seasons, trees you can touch, cones and leaves you can gather, flowers, bees, glasshouses, stretches of quiet green. Arcadia.

The metaphor

KADDY BENYON was born in Cambridge in 1973 and grew up in Suffolk.  She worked as a television scriptwriter for a number of years, penning over 70 episodes of Hollyoaks and Grange Hill, as well as three young adult tie-in novels.  After completing an MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in 2011, Kaddy won the Crashaw Prize with the manuscript for her first collection of poetry, Milk Fever, (Salt Publishing, 2012).  She is currently Invited Poet at the Polar Museum in Cambridge and is funded by Arts Council England to research and write her second collection, Call Her Alaska, a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen.

Writing Tips:

Write every day for as long as you can, or want to.

Read, read, read.  No good writer isn’t also a good reader.  Some days you won’t feel like writing, read instead.

Have a notebook dedicated to your writing.  Use it to contain ideas, words, lines, pictures, cuttings, quotes, research, reviews, character profiles – in short anything that is a stimulus for your writing.

Give yourself permission to take yourself seriously as a writer, others around you will follow suit.

Write about what matters to you, not what you think an agent, publisher or editor might want to read.  Authenticity wins over zeitgeist every time.

Keep a dream diary by your bed – some great stories make themselves known through dreams.

Writing is a solitary business – join a local workshop for regular feedback, support and camaraderie.

Go on a writing retreat if you have the means to do so.  If not, find a library, café, shed, museum or anywhere that lends itself to peaceful solitude – the Garden?

Understand how much of the writing life is spent re-writing.  Nobody conjures perfect prose on a first attempt.

Never edit something on the same day you wrote it.

Exercise: metaphor making

Take two unrelated objects: a beehive and a pound coin, for example.

Write ‘beehive’ (or your chosen thing – perhaps something at the Garden) at the top of a piece of paper.

Underneath, note down any words you associate with a beehive, for example, honey, sticky, pollen etc.

Next, write ‘Pound coin’ (or your chosen object) at the top of a separate piece of paper. Note down any words you associate with a pound coin for example: golden, heavy, round etc.

This is what I call word harvesting.

Now try to describe the beehive with the language you’ve harvested from the pound coin and try to describe the pound coin with the language you’ve harvested from the beehive.

Some startling and unusual images will begin to arise.

Challenge: can you use the metaphors you have made in a piece of creative writing of your own?