Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Erin Wahl: Jumpstart Your Writing at the Archives

Rare poetry books in the University of Arizona Poetry Center's archives

Our thanks to Erin Wahl for an informative and popular series of six posts on how writers can make good use of archival materials. In this final installment, she suggests writing exercises using archival materials.

I sure have loved sharing what I know about archives with everyone. As a final farewell post, I thought I’d give you some ideas for quickie writing exercises to do in an archives. These are things that I do when I visit archives. I can’t claim to do them every day because I’m at work and not writing at that time, though I do save things up in my memory and write about them later on. As you can imagine, doing this work is a gift and a curse for someone who loves to write from primary resources. Anyway, try these the next time you go to an archives with the intent of peeking around at things. They may just jumpstart a great piece.

1. Time Machine
Pick a subject, place, item,  whatever strikes your fancy. Go to an archive and find photos of this thing throughout many years. Take for example the subject of radio. Find photos relating to radio from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, etc. Either write in the archives, or take your photocopies home and spread them out on the kitchen table. Use these photographs to write a piece on this thing through the years. The world is your oyster.

2. Spectator Love
Look for photographs that include crowds. Figure out the who the central figure of the photograph may be. Then pick someone else from the crowd and write something from their perspective. Maybe it includes that central figure; maybe not.

3. Running Theft
This one is popular in general, so why not try it in an archives? Instead of stealing from published works, look for original manuscripts or unpublished manuscripts. Throw in even the stuff that’s been crossed out. Heck--cross out the things you wrote but keep them in the final draft. You might find yourself with a work of art as well as literature.

4. Diary Theft
Similar to a running theft exercise, but exclusively using diaries found in the archives. Take the juiciest parts from all of the diaries you can find and craft a tale of madness.

5. Circle of Friends
This one can get intense and requires some work. Take some time at home to search the archive’s catalog before you go in. Learn a bit about some of the families who have substantial personal paper collections at the archives. Go into the archives and get to know these families on a personal level. Look at diaries, correspondence, bills, everything. Then imagine that these people (no matter when they lived) were good friends. Let them interact in the piece you create and see what happens.

6. Death Becomes Her
This is more dismal exercise. Start with a character, either one you’ve made up or someone you’ve discovered in the archives. Kill him or her off. Then pick up their story using a piece of someone else’s life you’ve found in the archives. Diaries are good for this, as are personal correspondence. Kill your character as many times as you see fit, or till either he/she or you have learned your lesson.

7. Back to the Future
Choose any archival material you like: maps, photos, manuscript collections—whatever. Then pick a time far in the future (Bonus points if you convince the archivist at the reference desk to help you by choosing the future time). Write a few paragraphs about what you think life then will be like, then take a look at the materials you chose through the eyes of a person living in this time. What still makes sense? What doesn't? Have things taken on new meanings?

8. The Way you Wear your Hat
I actually got a good poem out of this once...choose a photograph with a great article of clothing in it. A lot of things make a piece of clothing great...maybe it's unusual, maybe it's a great style, maybe it's the way the person in the photo is interacting with it, or the context in which it's being used. Choose a good one and use it as the inspiration for a piece of writing. Maybe it's an ode to the adornment, or correspondence between said object and its owner, or a story of its travels.


If you have a favorite writing exercise for archives, please share it in the comments section of this post. Just remember: If all else fails, just Write. Find something beautiful and write. Let the materials lead you where they may. As for me, I'm headed back into the physical world, but if you ever have a pressing archival question...you know who to call.

A rare book kept in a special acid-free archival box that folds in to protect it

Supplemental Readings:
Have you signed up for Poets & Writers’ The Time is Now feature? You can check it out on their website when you need a good writing prompt, or get it delivered to your inbox every week.


A friend of mine writes a blog I love about writing called Our Lost Jungle. Join her on any given day for writing prompts, fun reflections on writing or check out her Submit-o-rama challenges to kickstart your submission process. I think you’ll end up loving her as much as I do.

6 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks, Erin! I enjoyed your posts!

Nancy Lord said...

This was a terrific series. Very helpful, very fun to read. Many thanks for all of it.

ARNE L. BUE said...

Very informative! I am working on a memoir and this is great. You know, I just finished "Invisible Ink," an anthology from Homer writers (which I won!! during Alaska Book Week!!) which is to me a wonderful book. It serves as inspiration to me to continue working on my little memoir. I mailed this book today to my daughter-in-law Patty in Homer. She can hardly wait to get it.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great post, Erin. Really excellent prompts!

Erin said...

Thanks everyone! I had a blast writing for the blog. You're so lucky to have such a great community of writers surrounding you every day.

ARNE BUE said...

Erin, I'd been struggling for some time locating an archived document. After reading all of your posts, I was able this morning to find it online. Thanks again.