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A Place for Writing

In these days of cutbacks and quick results, the notion of the writing residency may feel like something of an indulgence. How can organisations find the money to fund an extra worker who, by their nature, will produce such a nebulous result? And who’s got the time to float around a place waiting for inspiration – aren’t we all supposed to treat our writing like a ‘proper’ job?
I’m all for the idea of treating creative writing as a profession: for training, for some measure of standards and for daily productivity. But once in a year, for the last four years, I’ve taken part in a short writing residency with no guarantee of results. And every year it’s stimulated something surprising in my writing.
The scheme is Write Around the Toon, funded by the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts and open to creative writing students and alumni at Newcastle University. It places the writers at venues in and around the city – theatres, libraries, art galleries, or museums, for two days. For the first two years writers not only produced a creative work, but also left, as legacy, a site-specific creative writing prompt or exercise, still able to be used by anyone who happens across the place.
My first residency was at the Discovery Museum, where staff needed someone to write a story involving one of its ‘characters’  – a pirate – to be used for the school groups who come to visit. I’d never written for such young children before, so this was as much an education for me as it was for the kids who got to hear the piece.
Last year, after a noisy and mind-boggling afternoon at the Shipley Art Gallery, I produced something I almost never manage – a poem, read out at the celebration event. As a committed prose writer, this result is probably the biggest surprise of any of the residencies.
This year I am lucky to be based at Bessie Surtees’ House. For the non-Geordies, this is the part-medieval house close to the River Tyne where Bessie, in the seventeenth century, climbed out of a window to elope with her lover, who later became Lord Eldon. It is a house that speaks to you in creaks and groans as you walk its skewed floorboards and peer through the time-warped glass of its leaded windows.  I’m waiting to see what comes out of this.
But every residency has resulted in a piece of writing that’s unexpected or in a form/genre I’ve never tried before. Why is this? Because I am away from my usual environment. Because a tried and tested way to ‘unblock’ a writer’s imagination or refresh a tired work is to go and write somewhere new.
So here is my challenge: set up your own ‘mini residency’ by choosing somewhere you’ve never visited before. Go there for an afternoon (or two) and give yourself a deadline to produce something from it. And just see what happens…
Where’s the most inspiring place you’ve ever been and what did you write as a result of it?

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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5 thoughts on “A Place for Writing

  • This is really interesting Barbara. New places do encourage the creative process. I have been visiting a National Trust property in Cornwall for the past couple of years and have an idea for a novel. Interestingly in a genre that I hadn’t any intention of exploring! I bet you’ll have fun with Bessie Surtess!

  • This is great advice! I went on a camping holiday to France recently and there I visited the war museums, cemeteries and memorials of Normandy. I’d never been in such a place. Standing on the Omaha landing beaches, looking out to see, imagining the soldiers running at me and being cut down in the process inspired some grave stuff.
    Then, in contrast, visiting Le Mont St Michel and reading up on the old myths and legends of the place got me in a medieval mood, thinking up characters with the powers to move the sea.

  • I’m a creative writing 1 student as well as a visual artist. I struggled at first to fit the course into my life, but now I go to a gallery every Thursday and do my ‘homework’ there. It means I get to see a show each week, and also I find the liminality and strangeness seems to unlock something creatively.

  • Your post has made me think, for the first time in years, of an hour I once spent in Tate Britain drawing a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in felt-tip pen in a tiny notebook I happened to have with me. I did it because I had mis-read a poster about an exhibition at the gallery and wanted to do something productive as I was there anyway. The surprise: that I could draw at all! All down to being in an unfamiliar place .

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