Writer-In-Residence Salena Godden

In our latest blog post, author Salena Godden reflects on her Writer's Residency experience at West Dean College.

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For the first week of November I was writer in residence at West Dean. I went there to work on my new novel and scribble away on some new poetry ideas. The recent months have been tough, demanding, challenging and so it felt like a great treat and grand adventure to leave London and get a train to the lush Sussex countryside and be alone for seven days to just write. Looking back I feel so grateful for this valuable opportunity, it was such a beautiful week. 

For a while now I have been writing about death - I'm drawn to the macabre, mythical and magical and so the timing for this trip was perfect for such gothic drama and dark studies. I was at West Dean for the week of All Hallows, Old Souls Day, All Saints Day, Dia De Los Muertos and Bonfire night. I would be there for the time when they say that the veil is thin between the worlds. And I believed that such a grand old building must be rife with lost souls and ghosts and things that go bump in the night and so I braced myself for a deep delve into that part of my creative world. 

I arrived by taxi and as he drove us down the long drive, I felt like I was approaching the TV set of Downton Abbey. I didn't really know what to expect, and so this was my first impression, and also that it was the perfect setting for a ghost story or some horror writing. I was blown away by the place, the glorious architecture, landscape, and gardens. Everything was big, big trees in full autumn display, big wide open sky and the big grand house. 

I am a dawn writer – At West Dean I'd wake up early and make tea in my room, opening the window to listen to the black crows in the mist. I watched the sky change from a delicious dark lapis to the violet and copper hues of a November sun rise. I took lots of very early morning frosty and misty walks, watch first light, the fog lifting in the distance on white icy fields, explore glorious woods and gaze up at the light through the trees and the leaves. I tried to find words for this, there is a Japanese word Komorebi which roughly translates as “the scattered light that filters through when sunlight shines through trees” - There is something so fantastic about this to me, the low sun and the dawn mist. It was truly spectacular, to be alone to feel it all in all my senses and smell the autumn, to enjoy the colours, the frosty grass underfoot, the crunch-crunch of leaves under my old boots and all that air and light and time being in the present. I was so happy in that moment. 

I found a bench by my favourite kind of yellow tree and I sat writing and recording under there that week. The electric yellow leaves were breathtaking, bright and beautiful against the wintry blue sky. A bold little robin was my friend there each day. Hopping about me as I meditated or composed monologues, gazing up into the yellow and gold and heavenly skies. There is a myth that the robin will visit you when you are in bereavement, or that the spirits of loved ones visit us as robins, and I felt some strange comfort in remembering this. 

I believe it was Constable that wrote I have been doing some skying. And this was mostly what I did that one week: walking, writing, skying. I did not write of dead people, ghosts and loss, that week there at West Dean, I wrote about life, colour and vivid dreams. 

Image credit Sara Bryce Gordon

Halfway through my stay I met with West Dean's MA Creative Writing and Publishing students and tutor Mark Radcliffe to give a talk about my experiences in publishing and to share some of my top tips for writing. I stood on a stage in an old library and I read and shared some work from my debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death which was published this year with Canongate. It felt very special, and humbling, to read my efforts there with all those ancient books surrounding us. After the talk we had dinner and some drinks in the bar and shared vibrant conversations about ideas and writing and the business of books. I loved that evening and though I was enjoying my week of skying, it was so great to also do a few hours of chatting about life and books, drinking and laughing. I didn't make friends with any ghosts but I did make friends with a painter who shared the wonder of the magic and history of chocolate. 

It was the break I needed and I made leaps and bounds into some new writing and swore not to lose momentum when I returned to London: So far so good. That last night I watched the bonfire and this was the perfect way to end my week and last night there, shooting stars and fireworks. Thank you to Sharon and Mark and New Writing South and everyone at West Dean. It was a wonderful week. I came home to London feeling revitalised, refreshed and inspired. Thank you! 

Image credit: MJ Dearman Photography

Residencies at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

The College has been running residencies for the past 10 years, offering professional artists, writers and makers the opportunity to work on site for a period of one to three weeks. In 2020 we announced a new partnership with New Writing South to ensure that a minimum of 50% of our on-going Writers-in Residence (WiR) programme will support writers of colour. Writers-in-Residence also engage with students studying on our MA in Creative Writing and Publishing, this includes an artist's talk, tutorials and/or a seminar, workshop or group critique.