Event Report: Online Creative Writing Workshop: Books and Borrowing

On 31 August 2022, I had the pleasure of attending the Books and Borrowing Online Creative Writing Workshop, hosted in partnership with the National Library of Scotland, and led by the wonderful Linda Cracknell. The idea of the workshop was to inspire people to think about how they might use library borrowing records, and archival materials more broadly, as prompts for their own creative writing. Like our other recent workshop, this one was based on the Chambers Circulating Library records, and made use of our new interactive Chambers Library map, designed by Alex Deans and Brian Aitken. We began with a brief introduction to the wider project, where I also introduced the Chambers Library, explaining a bit about its history and social context.

Linda then encouraged us all to get writing immediately, using the following prompt:

Write down the first few words below and then keep writing for 5 minutes . Write quickly without reading back or censoring – anything that ‘comes’, BUT perhaps you can work a library book into it….

                                ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’

Afficionados will no doubt recognise the famous first line of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830), chosen because of the popularity of Bulwer Lytton’s works in the Chambers records.

Mrs Grant of Laggan borrowed, among other things, volumes of Bulwer Lytton’s ‘Pelham’ (1828) and ‘The Disowned’ (1829). Detail from the Chambers’ Circulating Library, Library Register, p. 86

Workshop participants scribbled madly for five minutes, and then we posted our favourite sentences into the chat, and enjoyed seeing how quickly people had got into the spirit of the thing. Linda told us all about some of her own experiences working with the Innerpeffray Library borrowing registers, and the archival records of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, before encouraging us back to our own writing, with a task that this time was focused directly on the books of the Chambers Library. Providing us all with a list of the ten most borrowed books (see below), we had to write a brief piece in the voice of one of the books.

The Ten Most Borrowed Books from the Chambers Circulating Library, 1827-1830

  • Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1807-1905).
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton, Pelham; or the Adventures of a Gentleman (1828).
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Disowned (1829).
  • The New monthly magazine and literary journal (1821-1836).
  • Elizabeth Strutt, The Borderers. An historical romance, (1812).
  • Edinburgh Literary Journal (1828-1832).
  • Edward Bulwer Lytton, Devereux. A tale. By the author of Pelham. In three volumes (1829).
  • Catherine Grace Frances Gore, Hungarian Tales. (1829).
  • Reverend George Croly, Tales of the Great St. Bernard. In three volumes (1828).
  • John Richardson, Ecarte; or, the Salons of Paris. In three volumes

The task was to choose one of the books and then to think ourselves into its character. Linda provided some further information on the books in a document attached in the Zoom Chat, rightly guessing that these titles would not be particularly familiar to most people, and encouraged us to think about the book’s materiality – its colour, binding, size, state of disrepair, and so on. She suggested we might like to think about what adjectives might describe it if it were a person (e.g. haughty, humble, grumpy, etc), and then told us to write what it would say if it could address its readers. My book, Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Pelham, was extremely cross, and asked its readers to stop spilling candle wax all over its pages. Contributions from others ranged from the comic to the lyrical, and it was a joy to see how engaged people became when they started thinking of the books as both material objects and sentient beings.

Our next writing task was focused on the Chambers Library map.

Chambers Library Map: https://borrowing.stir.ac.uk/chambers-library-map/

Linda demonstrated how the interactive map worked, and then gave us all a little time to have a play with the features, and to choose two borrowers whose names or locations particularly appealed to us. We then had to describe a journey that our book took between those borrowers, thinking about how it would travel, the sights and sounds of 1820s Edinburgh that it would encounter, and how it might feel. We could do this in either verse or prose. My book, Bulwer Lytton’s Pelham, travelled quite some distance, from Mrs Anna Durham Calderwood, who lived in Polton near Bonnyrigg, to the heart of the New Town, where it was borrowed immediately on return to Chambers Library, by James Walker, living on Queen St.

We were then shown some pictures to help us visualise the ways in which men and women of the period would have dressed. A particular favourite of mine is the picture below, Four Specimens of the Reading Public (1826), reproduced here courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Libr

Satircal print of early-19th century readers. Romancing Molly asks, 'Hav'nt you no Rum-ances in 5 Wollums?' Sir Larvey Luscious asks, 'Have you the last of Harrite Wilson?' Political Dustman says, 'I vants a Cobbett', and Frank a la Mode asks, 'Pray is a Waverley's new Novel out?
George Cruikshank, Four Specimens of the Reading Public (1826). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Following this, our writing task was to imagine that something had been left behind in the pages of the book by a previous borrower. Linda asked us whether we’d ever found anything surprising in the pages of a modern library book, and I was astonished by the range of things people mentioned – from feathers, dried flowers and tickets, to a marriage licence!! We then returned to the task, which was to write a letter from the second borrower to the first, suggesting what might happen next to the object found in the book. Would the borrowers meet? What would happen next?

I decided that Mr James Walker would find a £100 bill in the pages of Pelham, and rush to restore it to Mrs Calderwood. As an upright and honest lawyer, he was horrified to think that a member of her household might be suspected of stealing it, and so wanted to return it to her immediately. Not having been introduced, though, he was wary of approaching a lady of somewhat superior social status, and his letter would therefore need to reflect both his probity and his embarrassment. This exercise was a great way to get us thinking about how you could develop both plot and character very quickly and simply in this way.

In break-out rooms, we discussed each other’s work, and I very much enjoyed hearing how people were developing their own lines of thinking about the books and borrowers. By this stage, though, time was ticking on, and it was time for our final writing task, which was to choose from the map an Edinburgh street with a number of borrowers, and to write a conversation between two neighbours, based on how and what they were reading. Linda suggested that we might think about the ways in which people talk about books – would our characters be genuinely interested in the books, and each other, or would they be competitive in sharing their reading? Might someone pretend to have read a book, or have been changed by a reading experience? The task was then to show the reader how.

George Cruikshank, ‘Monstrosities of 1822’ (1822), reproduced here from Wikimedia Commons

Linda showed us this picture, and it’s certainly possible to imagine the competitive conversations that these ladies and gentlemen, caricatured here as the ‘monstrosities of 1822’,  might have been having about their reading!

Sadly, technical difficulties intervened as we were all writing our final conversations, and Zoom decided to kick us all out of the meeting and not let us back in! Despite the valiant efforts of our colleagues at the National Library, we weren’t able to restore the meeting until after the time at which the workshop was due to end, so I didn’t get to hear the final pieces of writing from the workshop. Nonetheless, it was clear that people found the workshop both enjoyable and stimulating.

I’m hoping that some of what was written last month will find its way into our forthcoming Creative Writing competition  – details to be announced soon – and that we will be able to showcase as much of it as possible on our website.

Grateful thanks to Linda, for running the workshop, and to our colleagues at the National Library of Scotland, in particular to Kenny and Beverley, for all their help in the organisation and running of the workshop.