Creative Writing and Archive Records

2019 Festival of Creative Learning: Creative Writing and the Archive, Finding Inspiration in Asylum Records

In this week’s post Access Officer Louise shares her experience of hosting a creative writing workshop…

As part of the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning, I helped run a creative writing workshop that invited students to learn about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and to write poems and short stories using archival records as their inspiration.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on the day by Ellen and Natalie from the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing and publishing society PublishED. Ellen and Natalie were a tremendous help and took over when it came to the creative aspect of the day by producing a series of tasks designed to get everyone in the creative mindset.
We started the day by asking groups to list words that they associate with asylums and had an open discussion about what they perceived to be the treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era.

I then provided some context and discussed what we can learn about the conditions and treatment of patients within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital from the collection held within our archive.

We looked at a variety of records including photographs of the building interiors/exteriors, patient photographs, letters and clinical records as well as extracts from the patient magazine the Morningside Mirror.

To kick start the creativity Ellen and Natalie led two short exercises designed to get everyone writing (including myself and our recent intern Emma). The first of these was to write a bad poem in one minute using nouns picked out from the following picture showing a hallway within Craig House:

A number of people were brave enough to share with the rest of the group what they had written (and it was at that point that I realised that only I had written a truly bad poem).

As well as sharing out loud with the group some people were also kind enough to leave their writing behind and I have included some extracts below:

Others shoot and hit, yet I am always falling short,
not cut out for any sport which follows precise lines.
I take comfort in the ice the brilliance of crystals
perched against one another, stacked close,
like cell mates joined in the suspended flow.

Asylum Photographer

Stand still. Please allow me to capture you,
Let me take those harrowed eyes, that sour frown,
Move not, lest you blur in time and in mind,
Suppress those shivers; please dull down your twitch,
Talk not, the shutter retains no sound

My friends,
The time has come. The days are short and the odds are long but let me be clear: there will be no miracles here. We have long been told that change is coming, long held out for change that is coming, long put faith in change forthcoming. Change will come when we create it. A system built to subdue and divide us cannot stand if we do.They want to keep us hidden because we do not conform to their definition of “normal”. Because we do not conform to what is acceptable. Who are they? The rich? The educated? The powerful? Why should they be the gatekeepers of society, of what is normal, of what is allowed.

The feedback from the event was very positive and as it was my first writing event I asked people to comment on what worked and what didn’t work so that we can put on a similar and even better event in the future!

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