Monday, 20 November 2017

A workshop to explore the archives

As part of the Explore your Archives week, Ceredigion Archives are running a response project asking people to respond the archives in any creative way the choose.

Ceredigion Archives holds over 500 years of history in a large room on the first floor of the library – if you haven’t visited already then I can definitely recommend it. It’s a wonderful place packed with stories. For a writer it is the equivalent of being a small child in a sweet shop.

People visit the archive for many reasons, predominantly searching for information about their family, often trying to unearth the family secret that a mother, grandmother, father has kept from them. Other reasons include trying to find the history of a property they have purchased, seeking advice on an old document they have found, working on a school or university project, wanting to explore the history of a building that is closing to commemorate it, or they have found the story of someone and wish to find out more.

This is a workshop designed around my working process to create and develop an idea.

Finding a way into a story at the archive is the starting point of this – it is likely you will be quickly drawn to an idea and also very likely you will find yourself distracted possibly in the distraction you will find a potential idea. It’s a journey just go along with it and have fun.

I have set myself the challenge of finding five real people, five places/ buildings, five periods of time and five imaginary characters who enter the archive. I intend to use each of these points as potential starting points and see what connects with me.

You can explore the archive catalogue on-line and also many items have been posted to the archive blog.

Exercise 1
Sit yourself in the archive room and look about you. Think about the years of history of Ceredigion that sit in boxes in the rooms. Think about the people over the year who have given material to the archive, wanting their family history stored and kept for future generations to look through. Take a look at the books around you, collections of local history and how to explore local history books. Take a look through the displays. The photographs of the local men and women who died in the 1st and 2nd World wars. Think about what you already know about Aberystwyth history, buildings that have intrigued, people whose stories have been mentioned to you. Make notes of any that come to mind. Do you have any particular interests or hobbies that might be a starting point? Talk to the archivists and ask them to tell you their favourite parts of the archive.

Take 10 minutes and just write as many words as possible that come to mind, write as fast as you can and don’t really think about it. Look about you – what words to you see. Write those down. Create a page filled with random words that you think about in the archive. Think about textures, sounds, colours, smells.

Exercise 2
Create five characters who enter the archive. Make these characters varied in age etc. Try to create things in the answers that make interesting opposition from the other characters
Write the name of the character, their age, are they male or female, where in the country are they from, what do they want to find in the archive, what five things are districting them as they look through the archive, think of a secret they have, what do they want in life, what do they need, what is stopping them from getting what they want or need.

Exercise 3
In this exercise we are looking to find 5 buildings and 5 real people of history.

Explore the on-line catalogue. Search for any buildings, places or people that come to mind.
For me the names that come to mind are the buildings Kings Hall (I was a student in 1990 when it was knocked down so I remember it and have long been fascinated by the years of incredible events that took place there), The Pier (another iconic building that fascinates me because of the years of visitors and I love that the starlings have made their home beneath it), Gogerddan (I live in Bow St and walk my dogs in the woods behind it), Nanteos (another crumbling estate with a fascinating history made even more fascinating by its new lease of life as a hotel) and  Rummers Wine Bar (for many years a customer but recently the revelation that it was once a theatre has become an obsession for me).

Search for any people that come to mind and also that might have emerged from the searches through places. Remember we are trying to find five real people and five real buildings. For me, my fascination with the history of Gogerddan and Nanteos has drawn me to Margaret Powell, Rosa Powell (the mention in the catalogue of unhappy marriage and divorce makes it irresistible), Marjorie Pryse but I am also keen to find the people who worked in those houses so I want to continue to search for more names. 

Once you have that list then ask for the boxes. This is the magical part, boxes to explore, images to look at, handwriting of people who lived many years ago, people’s thoughts, people’s interests.

It will lead you down other searches.

Exercise 4
What’s in the box?

The material in the archive is all in boxes. Material will appear tied up in string with bows like presents. The very action of opening notebooks knowing that it was written so many years ago and that many people will have visited the archive through the years to look through it as you do now is quite magical.

Type something random into the catalogue search and  find a random box to ask to look through. It could be a lost property list, it could be someone’s scrapbooks, it could be lists of ships in the harbour, it could be planning permission drawings, parish records. But every box offers inspiration, offers stories. Think of the person who wrote it, think of the person who lost the property. Why did someone write this? Who left it to the archive? Who has looked through this material before? Now just write, write random sentences and words, just write anything that comes to mind. Write dialogue. Write thoughts. Keep writing.

These exercises should results in the beginnings of many potential stories that could be told. We will need to form these into performance pieces. But more of that later for now just have fun finding stories.

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