The creative archive: teaching creative writing with online primary sources

In an interview with The Guardian, the novelist Hilary Mantel spoke about the importance of the archive both for the novelist and the historian: “the historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail.” But the creative writer performs what Mantel calls “another act”: they “put the past back into process, into action, free the people from the archive and let them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade”.

1Often, these paper trails can be discovered in the archive, and digital primary source collections are increasingly being used not just by students of history, but also in creative writing programmes as sources for stories, characters and dialogue.

Online primary sources for creative nonfiction

“WRITE 297: Introduction to Nonfiction” – a half-year, introductory senior course in writing literary nonfiction prose at the University of Alberta taught by Professor Christine Wiesenthal – is one example of a class where students were encouraged to use creative writing to “put the past back into process, into action”. One basic aim of the course was to provide students with exposure to, and an opportunity to experiment with, a variety of nonfiction forms and voices as students experiment with a range of basic skills, including description, narration, dialogue, analysis, character and setting. To achieve this aim, before the Covid-19 pandemic, one assignment was built around a visit to a physical archive. As classes were moved online, “in desperation”, Professor Wiesenthal said, “I re-designed my ‘Pandemic Edition’ writing workshop to incorporate a virtual field trip to a digital archive.”

1 Hilary Mantel, “Why I became a historical novelist”, The Guardian, 3 June 2017).

This collaborative initiative turned out to be a highlight of the course for my students and me in an otherwise very constrictive semester.

Professor Christine Wiesenthal, Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta

To introduce the students to archival material they could access online, Professor Wiesenthal collaborated with AM’s Outreach team, who ran a session for the students on five online primary source collections, Migration to New Worlds, Gender: Identity and Social Change, Slavery: Abolition and Social Justice, American Indian Newspapers and Food and Drink in History. The AM Outreach Team ran a virtual session to introduce students to different material types like diaries, oral histories, cookbooks and court records, and the opportunities and challenges these material types might pose when imaginatively engaging with the past.

Seed stories

After the session, each student could explore a collection of their choice to locate seed stories. The example of a seed story Professor Wiesenthal used in the context of creative nonfiction writing was Truman Capote’s 1959 novel In Cold Blood, which Capote wrote after coming across a newspaper clipping of the Clutter family murders in 1959. The students could choose any primary source that inspired them – an oral history, a postcard or a map, a letter, an old news story or an advertisement – to think about the potential story treatment of their seed material. Does the primary source contain intriguing or complex characters or buried stories behind the surface story? Where would the student, as an author, want to begin and end re-telling this story, and why? What themes or dramatic tensions and conflicts coalesce in the seed material?

The aim of the virtual tour exercise was to encourage young writers to expand their storytelling horizons.

Professor Christine Wiesenthal

The students came back to class with a wide range of seed stories found both from the five collections covered in the seminar and from other AM collections, which the students found from their University of Alberta A-Z database list. One student wrote about 1960s music festival ephemera, connecting the primary source to the new appreciation of the cultural significance of live music during the pandemic. A second student wrote about a mid-18th century recipe book and how these could be reassessed from a feminist lens. A third student wrote about a passage from the diary of a WWI surgeon, saying this was “the only source I found which humanizes brown soldiers”. By bringing these and more unique seed stories discovered from online primary source collections, the students achieved the aim of the course, which for Professor Wiesenthal was “to encourage young writers to expand their storytelling horizons”

I feel like I have more liberty to peruse a database at my own leisure, and find more things that I find interesting. I just think there’s more freedom sometimes with digital archives.

A student in WRITE 297 at the University of Alberta

Depth, texture and impact

Another aim of the course was to highlight research “as an element crucial to craft” in creative writing. The benefit of the online primary source collection was its ability to “provide writers new to creative nonfiction with an opportunity to add depth, texture and impact to their personal stories by connecting them to larger events, timelines, social issues or cultural mythologies”, according to Professor Wiesenthal. Four students used their seed stories in a longer piece of writing submitted as the final assignment for the course. These works were all different in form, tone and perspective, but all combined the contemporary viewpoint of the narrator and the historical nature of archival material in innovative ways. One student wrote about her own experiences with concussions and brain injury in connection with WWI reports on shell shock from AM’s Medical Services and Warfare database. A second student imagined the journeys of three war brides to Canada based on oral histories in the Migration to New Worlds database. A third student created an experimental collage inspired by the different meanings of the word “rumination”. Her collage piece combined writing about mental health and “rumination” as obsessive, repetitive thoughts with a veterinary manual on a cow’s digestive system sourced from the Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 database.

Another student, Saloni Sharma, wrote a long piece titled “The Empire Is Not Your Priest”, which you can read here. Saloni is a third-year undergraduate student pursuing a double major in English and Political Science, whose parents are South Asian immigrants. This was her first creative writing class, and she wanted to write about the Indian diasporic experience. Her piece explored her personal experiences with colonialism in response to encounters with 18th and 19th century manuscript images in AM’s India, Raj and Empire, which she found browsing the Image Gallery section of the database. Her piece wove together reflections on the geographical transportation of these manuscripts and personal experiences of the difficulty of migrating across cultures to a new continent. Her piece was an excellent example of how the critical and the creative can come together in the archival encounter and how, echoing Mantel, a writer following a trail of evidence in the archive can “put the past back into process”

About the author

Christine Wiesenthal is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada. She is the critically acclaimed author of The HalfLives of Pat Lowther, a biography shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction. She has published numerous works of nonfiction and poetry, including Instruments of Surrender, a collection shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephannson and the Gerald Lampert awards in 2001 and 2002. Her recent work includes poetry, creative nonfiction and critical essays on creative writing pedagogy.

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