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manuscripts or unpublished manuscripts.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 thoughts on “Erin Wahl: Jumpstart Your Writing at the Archives”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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