If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.

My ‘Create a Life you love this year’ 2020 diary….

And oh how I’ve laughed when I look back at my plans for this year…. although actually there has been a lot of laughter in 2020. A lot of crying too. A lot of looking at the wall and wondering what it’s all about. A lot of putting down books because I just didn’t have the concentration. A lot of giving up. And a lot of hard work. A lot of hard writing. A lot of heart searching. And hurrah hurrah, a lot of getting better.

Perhaps most of all, an awful lot of ‘well, what a year’s’, and ‘unprecendented times’, and ‘in this strange period,’ and has that cliche of ‘take care, take safe’ ever meant so much?

Anyway normally at this time of year, I’m enthusiastic about looking back and making plans for the future. I’m a Virgo. Alphabeticised lists of goals are what we dream about, but somehow that seems a little rash at the moment.

But then I started to get a little sad about whether I’d achieved anything this year (apart from surviving my covid induced hospital stay back in March, of course) and it turns out I’m actually pretty proud of myself. My own field of research is the power invested in the stories we tell about ourselves, and that we let others tell about us, so it felt more than a little of a ‘physician heal thyself’ moment.

Imagine my surprise that it turns out this year has NOT been a total right-off. And I don’t necessarily have to remember it as just the year I survived Covid. I really do suggest you do something like this too – sometimes we are so focused on what we need TO-DO that we forget what we actually have DONE.

So here’s my DONE list. I’ve written about some of these before, so bear with, bear with… and do forgive me tooting my own horn a like this, it also gives me a chance to thank some of the wonderful people I’ve walked a little beside this year. These are in no particular order (see that’s me throwing caution to the wind)…

  • I HAVE managed to get back to some kind of normality health-wise. And am so grateful to have a raft of people helping me – so here is my ‘team’ who all come thoroughly recommended: First of all, of course, the amazing staff at Pembury Hospital, who continued to keep in contact with me after my ‘release’, especially lovely nurse, Alice King. Then there’s Anja, masseur extraordinaire. Emma, Reiki master and friend. My therapist Rachel, who managed to move me from a place of extreme anxiety about nearly everything to being able to admit that I needed therapy, Helen, who kept me (sort-of) bendy, and lastly Uli, the homeopath who asked all the right questions and listened to the answers.
  • I’ve written every week with two poet friends, Jill Munro and Sian Thomas. We’ve given each other the oddest prompts including tomato ketchup, Shepherd’s pie, running socks, and post-it notes – and still managed to make poems out of them. Many of mine have since even been published, including a highly commended in the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Competition (that prompt was Bubbles)
  • I’ve had two books accepted for publication next year. Let’s Dance will come out with Coast to Coast to Coast in the spring – these are beautiful textile pieces of art, highly limited numbers, and I’m already in love with the gorgeous golden yellow silks my poems will be wrapped in (see below). Yum. And a book of very short fictions, Not Sorry, will come out next year with Valley Press.
Some of the golden colours for my forthcoming collection, Let’s Dance
  • My Reading Round group for the Royal Literary Fund has continued weekly on-line. The model is simple but so effective, I read out loud a poem and a short story I’ve chosen, and then we discuss. As one member said in quite possibly my favourite quote ever, ‘Belonging to the Groucho club could not compare with friendship from all the warm, clever members of the Lit.group.’ I agree.
  • I contributed a module to The Literary Consultancy’s Being A Writer programme. This was on Dealing with Self Doubt and Imposter Syndrome – a subject I’m passionate about, so expect to hear more in the future.
  • I’ve also taken loads of (for me) small creative risks – including hanging poems outside my house, writing about my experiences with covid, sending work to the New Yorker (I KNOW!), taking part in a wonderful on-line course on playwriting with Live Canon, and inviting my neighbours to dress up our frogs for Christmas (we live in Frog Lane)…
Freya the Frog relaxes in her finery outside Nash House

So what next? Do I dare… HELL YES, I DO. I have plans!!

First of all, this website is being revamped completely very very soon. I’ve been working with Kate and Hanna at BGSD who have created something very special. Watch this space. Literally this space…, the website address will remain the same. There will be free stuff too – including a 30 day prompt challenge to take whenever you want!

I am also missing teaching. As some of you reading this will know, the University of Kent shut the Tonbridge campus where I did most of my short courses, so I’ve been thinking about other options.

First off, I will be launching a newsletter through Substack which will be like a monthly workshop, with prompts, reading suggestions and writing thoughts. The first will be come out in the new year, and will be free with a turbo charged subscription open. Sign up details will come shortly.

And then all going well, I’m also moving house. Our new home is in need of some serious care right now so we haven’t moved in properly but it has the perfect teaching space. Look… and imagine… hopefully I’ll see you for a workshop there soon.

Sarah’s studio

I have news…

After months of hearing, thinking and talking about only the one thing, it is completely wonderful to be able to share some good news with you.

Firstly, I’m delighted to be one of the winners of the Coast to Coast to Coast pamphlet competition with my manuscript Let’s Dance. This is the brainchild of poet and artist, Maria Isakova Bennett and her books are a little bit special, as they are all handstitched in silk covers.

coast to coast

And also this feels even more of a celebration because some of the poems in Let’s Dance began last year as part of a writing residency at the Alde Valley Spring Festival, and this year I’m very proud to be part of the Summer Festival there too, working with the artist Perienne Christian. Her work is stunning so I’m already inspired, and hopefully we will be able to meet in person at the Festival in Suffolk later this year. The Alde Valley Spring and Summer Festival is a very special event, and this year it has gone online so do take a look. Here’s a memory of writing at that time…

A third thing to say is something that has been so important to me that I want to mention it now but come back to later as I’ve so much to say! It was a real honour to be asked to write a module for The Literary Consultancy’s Being a Writer programme. My module centred around Dealing with Self Doubt and Imposter Syndrome – something I wonder if writers ever get over. Perhaps not as this quote from John Steinbeck illustrates:

I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.

There are things we can do though to help us keep going, and it was so interesting to explore all these, and to work out which were the best ones to fit into the programme. It was fabulous to work with the team at the Literary Consultancy, and I quickly found out how much they cared about the whole project so I do hope it helps people. If you have done the course, do let me know how you got on with it, and if you haven’t, it’s here! 

And lastly, one of the ‘other’ things on my mind recently, as I’m sure it has with you, are the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. It really is a time for me to listen and read and learn more. Here are just some of the books I’ve been turning to, and would recommend:

However, as this great article shows, there is a danger that ‘When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs” so I’m also happy that, through a favourite ex-student at the LSE, I’ll be mentoring two black students on their academic writing. I’m lucky that I have transferable skills, but also fully intend that any mentoring is two-way.

It’s a privilege to be able to write all of this post, but also it’s important for me to recognise that I’ve been working hard to get to this position. One of the things that being in hospital and yes, recovering, has shown me is that I need to do what’s important to me – poetry, words, art, nature, sustainability, learning and being part of helping everyone reach their potential. I’ll be learning to say NO more this year if things don’t feel right.

Oh, and I forgot cake. Here’s another reminder why I’m so happy to be part of Alde Valley again this year…


What they don’t tell you about recovering from COVID pneumonia…

That for the first few weeks after you get out of hospital, you’ll turn into Bambi, wobble on your legs, trip over your feet, tremble at every loud noise. Even as you think you’re getting stronger, there will be days when you fall back until it’s as if the words stay alert have been written on your heart.

That you won’t be able to stop thinking about your hospital room, and who might be lying in the bed now, and how their family might be feeling. Even when you’re doing other things, you are still half in that room and half in the world. You are not sure which feels more real.

That your hair will fall out in handfuls. You’ll look it up on Google, and feel better when you see this is probably a result of those high fevers you suffered. You’ll even pull out the clumps in your hairbrush for the birds to use in nests, until later you’ll start wondering if your hair still contains the virus, if you’re contaminating nests, if birds will start dropping down dead from the sky.

That it’ll all be your fault.

That you’ll feel continually ashamed as if you’re contaminated, dirty.

That people will whisper about you as you go by. She’s the one who… Even when strangers come up to you in the park and say how happy it made them to know that it’s possible to recover from the virus, you’ll hear the whispers. She’s the one who…

That the night before you have to go back to hospital for your six week x-rays, you can’t sleep at all. You’d thought you were getting over it but you realise that the whole thing happened so quickly first time round – the ambulance, the oxygen, the visors and PPE that the nurses had to put on to even bring you some water, the messages from people who still didn’t realise what was going on, the lack of any control you might have on the situation – that it might just happen again.

And even though you go to where you are told to go in hospital, even though you have all the right forms, the radiologist still casually looks at your notes before spotting that one word ‘covid’ and shouts, STAND BACK, and then makes you walk at a safe distance behind him. The rest of the waiting room stare at you, shuffle a little away from the chair you’ve been sitting on. There’s no point in saying that you’ve had two negative tests and you may be the safest one there because you still feel ashamed, and you understand their fear. How you understand that.

That your fingernails have ridges on them now and you can’t stop looking at them. It’s as if your body has been tattooed with where the virus got you, and it’s strangely fascinating.

That you will find yourself surreptitiously judging how much your friends and family can take when you talk about what you went through, how you feel now, what still makes you scared.

That you’ll keep saying, I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky, but actually you’re thinking, why me, should I have dieted more, was I too careless, what did I do wrong.

That you will feel you have to relearn so much about how to be alive, and especially how to breathe. Having to rely on oxygen has made you lose confidence in your body’s ability to do it on its own. You buy an Oximeter online, and catch yourself sneaking off far too often to test your oxygen levels. 

That, medically, you’re left on your own. You have to get your information from Google, from survivor forums, from the articles your friends send you and you wish you hadn’t read but that you’ll pass on. You realise no one knows anything, not even the doctors, and that forever in the future, you’ll wonder if every illness, every pain you feel, is due to the virus.

That you feel a strange connection towards everyone who has been hospitalised like you, and you realise it’s the same connection you feel when you hear a Bedfordshire accent. It’s as if all survivors belong to the same landscape now, the maps of your life have been redrawn.

That you remember when one of your best friends was diagnosed with cancer and he told you that he felt he’d entered into a different world, he’d crossed a line. That was then, he said, this is now. I don’t belong in the ‘then’ any more. You’d thought you’d understand properly what he meant. Then.

That to begin with you will think people are mad when they tell you that you might have PTSD. Because surely that’s for soldiers who fought in Vietnam, people who have suffered serious abuse, everyone who has gone to the edge. Even after you agree to talk to a therapist, you’re still apologetic – it was nothing really – until in one of the sessions, you admit to yourself for the first time how close you came to dying. And then you cry with the relief of not having to hold it in anymore.

That you will realise that you don’t have to be anything, do anything to make other people feel better. You will go a bit crazy – order rose wines, Liberty fabrics, hardback novels, poetry books, dark chocolate – just because YOU feel like it. You’ll drink champagne in the park and not care if you’ve turned into a character from Absolutely Fabulous because you want to celebrate being alive.

That you’ll take it for granted that you can breathe without thinking.

That there will eventually come a time when overhearing how really it’s just like a bad case of flu, that it’s been so positive for us all, that wouldn’t it be lovely if it could go on forever, does it even exist, will no longer make you shake. Instead, you’ll find something to agree with there. Because it has been good to slow down. You grow seeds, make a dress, send handwritten letters, write poems. You take it gently, and you laugh again. So much laughter. How good it feels.

And that one day you will be able to hear an ambulance go by, to think of that hospital room, the nurses, and you won’t immediately flash back to your experience. You’ll have created enough distance to be able to stand back and wish that person well. With all your heart. And you’ll make sure that you do that – every time and with all your heart – because whoever they are, you and they belong to the same landscape now. It’s not the one you’d choose but it’s yours. You’re making a new map, and you have no idea where it might take you.


On feeling whelmed…

When I was talking with someone recently about feeling ‘over-whelmed’, I had the sudden urge to look up what ‘whelmed’ means.

Definition of whelm
transitive verb

1: to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2: to overcome in thought or feeling : OVERWHELM
whelmed with a rush of joy
— G. A. Wagner
intransitive verb

: to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

Hmm… somehow I thought it might be more positive – like we all hope one day to ravel ourselves together, or to become hibited, or to have our spirits pressed. But no matter, it danced its way into one of the many lockdown poems I’ve been writing recently about what’s going on right now. I’m going to share my practice on here more – there, if I say I’m going to, I’ll have to do it. Enjoy!

Top hat and tails
Sarah Salway

When we ask each other what we miss most
the answers spin off like arabesques:
crowded pubs, hugs, a train to nowhere
essential, evenings in sold-out theatres
forgetting real life, planning holidays.

Then there are the second drink answers:
enough years to play with grudges, politicians
who aren’t out to kill us, a tomorrow
where we might finally make that difference,
but maybe the more interesting question

is what we will take with us into new normal:
having time to pick up a dictionary and look up
whelm – to be swept beneath by a wave. Over
under, we’re cheek to cheek now, swimming
into the future, backwards and in high heels.