On Tuesday January 16th we had our first gathering for the So: Write Stories archives-based creative writing project.
In advance, I had done some online research on writing activities that use historical events or experiences as prompts. But I found these didn’t quite do what I wanted. Most of the “historical writing” prompts I found picked iconic historical events, and asked the writer to imagine a particular character encountering them. The events and situations were familiar ones to us all and the perspectives offered were obvious ones. I could see a whole line of stories coming out of these prompts: all with the same characters, the same backdrops, the same plots.
I realised that I didn’t actually need these prompts. In fact I think this is the wrong way to go about writing literary history and historical fiction. It’s top-down and too obvious. It inserts the story into the event, rather than bringing the meaning of an event into being through individual and the personal experience of it. But if you use archives as prompts, and you listen to them carefully and allow them to inspire you, then stories flow out organically from them.
This is how I came up with the story for my book: a few key images and extracts stayed, floating about my mind, until they evolved into quite an unexpected fantasy story. The newspaper cuttings and images I collected of lascars in nineteenth century East London, the Southampton Oral History Unit transcripts from their 1980s-2000s, Polish and African-Caribbean projects: these contain more inspiration and original stories than “macro-historical moments” such as “D-Day” ever could. Archives capture unique moments in time and space, in a range of media, from specific perspectives and points of view. Photographs, diaries, letters, interviews: all of which may indeed reference those huge historical events like the World Wars, but do so through embodied, lived personal experiences. If you start with these, and engage with them empathetically, and apply a little imagination, you can’t help but tell a unique, meaningful story. This is, at least, my hypothesis for So: Write Stories as a project.
As it was the first workshop, we started with a longer getting-to-know-you conversation. I didn’t use ice-breakers – just biscuits (food is under-appreciated as the original, ultimate ice-breaker) and an invitation to talk about what brought everyone to the group, and their own writing/reading loves and experience (if any). I just felt that ice-breakers, in this context, would be silly and gimmicky and perhaps not sit so well with some of the older participants. I wanted to open up conversation, rather than restrict the introductions to irrelevant, quirky facts. Biscuits were enough: everyone felt comfortable enough to share some thoughts with us about why they had come, and what they liked to read or write. Some were attending because they loved local history, and wanted to write historical non-fiction. Others were poets or artists, looking to expand beyond their current practice. Others simply came along because it sounded interesting.
This unstructured initial conversation was incredibly rich. It is wonderful what happens when you simply provide a safe, intimate space in which to talk and to share stories. This is something that is coming out as a key element of my creative practice, facilitating these kinds of spaces. The conversation – and there was interaction and cross-fertilisation of ideas even from the very beginning – touched on a range of relevant, fascinating issues. We considered whether art has to be “secretive” about its meanings in order to be good (something which has arisen in another context by the furore provoked by Rebecca Watts’ recent article on populism and poetry), or whether clarity makes for good art (as a children’s writer, and Philip Pullman disciple, of course I go for clarity over secrecy almost every time). We talked about Brexit, sanctuary spaces and this plaque which greets Art Gallery and Central Library users every time we enter the building:
We discovered a tragic story about a merchant naval ship that sank following its departure from Southampton, all those aboard drowned because they had been instructed to tie themselves to their beds during a storm. This provoked a reflection on the ordinary, everyday tragedies of the sea and why so much historical focus, particularly in Southampton, has been upon the Titanic, when so there are so many other tragic naval stories that need to be told.
I then displayed all the short quotes that I had selected for my previous Hands on Humanities day drop-in workshop for everyone to choose a quote from, one that jumped out, spoke to them, and invited everyone to then write to those quotes. What they wrote was up to them – it could be a continuation of the quote, from the speaker’s perspective, or a story or poem inspired by it, or a personal reflection.
We wrote for half an hour, broke for some reflection and wrote for another fifteen minutes. To end, we shared these, with some reading out their pieces, others describing what they’d chosen to do. What a range of different genres and ideas there were! Discussion of recipes in one quotation resulted in a range of different “what if” scenarios (prompted by talking about Stephen King’s “what if” plot generator”: ranging from fantasy to grisly crime stories, all centred around the inheritance of a grandmother’s recipe book by a granddaughter. We experienced an incredible moment of synchronicity when one participant’s evocative reflection of Kingsland Market in the 1960s, and a hippie hat-seller, provoked another participant to remember the same market, and then find the hat-seller in a book on Kingsland Market that I had brought along. There was an impassioned personal reflection on the intrusiveness of the “national identity” questions we are all obliged to tick on forms, stemming from a quotation where an interviewee was refused to call himself British, because he was black, and was told to refer to himself as West Indian only.
These are such promising beginnings. They show the different kinds of stories we can tell from archives: polemic, memoir, crime and fantasy were all started in the room this week. Next week, we will be united with the longer interviews that the short quotations came from. What happens to our stories when we are given more historical and biographical detail to work with? Do the stories we started contract, or expand? We’ve built an idea of the speakers, a “character” from these short quotations: what happens to this character when we hear more from them? I can’t wait to find out.
The next session is on Tuesday 30th January, 10.15-12.15pm in the Seminar Room at Central Library, and new participants are always welcome.