Something very unusual has been afoot at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham. Every other Saturday morning for the past year, writers have been turning up and sitting in a circle with a woman called Angie. Therapy? No. Or perhaps, in a manner of speaking, yes. This was the Now in Then: Contemporary Writing from History course, and the writers – myself included – were giving themselves permission to spend a whole morning thinking about nothing but writing, alongside other writers. And for people who usually work with only a computer screen for company, that was therapeutic indeed.
But this was no ordinary writing course. As you might gather from the title and setting, we were actively – very actively – encouraged to take real historical events, people and traditions and create with them something fresh and new. The course was divided into three, eight-session seasons, covering wide-reaching topics: Lives in the Landscape, World War One in Wiltshire and Leisure and Games. For each session, Claire Skinner, senior archivist at the History Centre, provided copies of archival material for us to work with.
Sometimes, we also had access to original documents and artefacts in the ‘quiet room’, including heart-wrenching letters sent by WWI soldiers to family in Wiltshire. This was ‘now in then’ indeed – the voices leaping from the pages of letters written 100 years ago were as fresh and immediate as our own. It was clear that as writers, we need never be stuck for something to write about again – the historical treasure trove here is a fabulous source of inspiration.
What we did with all that wonderful material is where Angie (aka Angela Street, writer, script editor and dramaturg who wrote a guest blog in October last year) came in. She, as our tutor and mentor, and several guest writers, did writing exercises with us to jump start us into working in genres outside of our normal practice: monologue, writing for radio, TV or theatre, journal writing, letters, social media, micro plays, short stories, flash fiction, poetry… If that sounds exhausting, yes, sometimes it was. And being given five minutes to write a drama about sleeping top-to-toe above a mediaeval inn certainly puts you on the spot. But it produced exciting results.
My poetry has suddenly, through a kind of creative osmosis from Angie’s enthusiasm for the spoken word, started sprouting scraps of dialogue – to very good effect. I’ve even started to do what for me, as a dialogue-phobe, was unthinkable, and write a radio play.
Other writers on the course have also caught the dialogue bug, some have written short stories for the first time, others have started to consciously set time aside at home for writing, two have started work on a collaborative project, and several have simply found they have started writing again after a long break. “It’s a tap that’s been opened. It’s given me the inspiration to write,” said Yvonne, who joined the course in Season Three.
But the biggest benefit has probably been being part of such a warm, supportive group – like-minded people whose different approaches to the same material has been a real inspiration.
Course member Karen summed it up. She said: “It’s fun, we have a laugh. It feels like time well spent.”
Work by writers from all three seasons of the course will be on display in the foyer of the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham from Tuesday 10th March to Saturday 11th April, while on Saturday 14th March at 2.30pm, professional actors will present pieces of work written by participants during the course. Call the Centre for more details on 01249 705500 or email email@example.com
Dawn Gorman, project participant.