A Sense of the Past: Archives and Creative Writing

The merits of using archives in the history classroom go without saying:

  • They – imperatively – help students understand the basic tenets of source-based research: what archives are; potential biases; gauging reliability of sources.
  • They encourage students to get excited about the past. This, for me, beats any conversation about the principles of historiography (no offense, historiography; you are still important).
  • The immediacy of archives allows students to take a hands-on engagement with histories of individuals, places and situations that are often relatable to their own lives.

However, archives can also play a significant role in a less obvious aspect of the curriculum: the creative writing strand in Literacy.

A few months ago, Professor Dominic Wyse delivered his inaugural professorial lecture here at the IOE, on the topic of creativity and the curriculum. He touched on the potential danger of replacing the creative writing process with didactic, rote grammar instruction. While grammar instruction is an absolute necessity, what is also a necessity is providing students with dedicated time, opportunity and encouragement to simply write creatively.

I apologise for this interminable introduction to today’s topic: archives as a catalyst for creative writing.  Take, for example, the role archives played in one musician’s song writing.

As a transplanted Canadian living in London, I am prone to nostalgia and sentimentality about anything related to Canada: maple syrup; Alice Munro; ice hockey (I don’t even like hockey); excessive friendliness; etc.

But really, what better incites a wave of nostalgia than music? Enter Canadian musician, John K Samson, also of the band, The Weakerthans. Through each of his albums, Samson scatters his lyrics with references to Canada (the loonie, GST, curling and his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba), in songs that are quiet, loud, melancholy and sweet.

Image via CBC

On his most recent solo album, Provincial, Samson took to the archives as inspiration for his lyrics. Samson describes the research-based approach he took for the record:

My idea was to research four different stretches of road in Manitoba and write three different songs about each of them and use techniques and research as well as exploring the places themselves and just try to use different strategies to try and get a sense of each of these places.

Samson went about creating a ‘musical map’ of Manitoba. He ‘talked to relatives, friends and strangers; he visited archives, a tuberculosis sanatorium-turned-RV park, a forgotten cemetery’ (johnksamson.com). With visits to the Archives of Manitoba, Samson was drawn to ‘the way the places were framed by someone’s eye back then. When I visited the sites they were different but unchanged. It gave me a richer idea of places’ (CBC).

We all know archives do their job when it comes to academic, historical research. But a well-referenced thesis or book doesn’t have to be their end point. At the heart of any archive collection is its potential for users (and writers) to piece together a sense of a given point in the past.  Whether it’s exploring a person (characterisation), place (setting), or event (plot), archives can both inform and inspire the creative writing process.

Educators, you can find creating writing prompts in our archive learning resources. They can be used in conjunction with current areas of study (equal rights; women’s movement; etc.)… or as a stand-alone writing exercise for those days you need a last-minute lesson.

Lastly, even if you’re not Canadian, go take a listen to Samson’s Provincial.

A personal favourite is ‘Ipetitions.Com/Petition/Rivertonrifle’ – the title is an actual online petition to get Reggie Leach inducted into Canada’s Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Again, I don’t even like hockey.  If you like hockey, Canada, or simply a bunch of Canadians in toques, watch this video on the project: We, the Undersigned.

And since we’re a university archive, for the grad school students: ‘When I Write my Master’s Thesis’ (with a nod to cotton gloves in the archives).

References:
CBC ‘Manitoba artists find inspiration in the archives’
johnksamson.com

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