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Archivists Who Write: A Primary Resource (Part I)

31 Jan 2023 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Denise Dale, Emily Lonie, Sonia Nicholson, and Sylvia Stopforth 

All archivists write. They compose everything from administrative histories to website content, from online exhibit narratives to academic papers. But some archivists are drawn to create and explore fictional landscapes as well. They may anchor their new worlds in scenes or characters that draw on their professional expertise, or they may go completely off-piste, delving into half-imagined futures or poetic fantasies. But wherever the imagination leads, the business of creativity is fuelled by support groups like ours, “Archivists Who Write.” 

In a recent In the Field ACA blog post, Amy Tector, another archivist/author, emphasized the importance of writing groups. We agree and hope that by sharing some of the who, what, where, why, and how of our experience we may inspire others to forge such connections. Here’s our story.

Once upon a time; or, how it all began … 

After nearly twenty-five years as an academic archivist and librarian, Sylvia Stopforth decided to take the plunge into writing full-time. At a regional gathering of British Columbia (BC) archivists, she reconnected with Denise Dale, another hybrid archivist-librarian, who works at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. When Sylvia half-reluctantly confessed her foolhardy plan, Denise confided that she was working on a script for a play. Sylvia took note. 

A little while later she noticed the name of Emily Lonie on the cover of a literary journal in which Sylvia had previously published a story. It appeared that in addition to serving as Coquitlam City Archivist, Emily also dabbled in writing short stories. And it turned out that was just the half of it! 

Sylvia reached out to Denise and Emily and suggested they meet to chat about their various writing goals and interests. They gathered over breakfast on a wintery Richmond morning in late 2019. The connection was effortless and immediate. They agreed to make it a monthly event and started sharing their work with one another, for discussion and feedback.

COVID silver linings 

And then … COVID arrived. It would have been easy enough to call a halt. Reconnect after the pandemic. (After all, it would be over in a few weeks. Months, at most. Hah!) But they’d already learned that there’s something addictive about sharing one’s dreams, and they weren’t ready to give it up. So, like the rest of the world, they shifted from in-person to in-pixel meetings. 

Then Emily mentioned a community archivist on Vancouver Island who had completed a novel and who might be interested in joining the group. Since they were now meeting online, the lack of proximity was a moot point.   

Sonia Nicholson turned out to be the perfect addition.

Clockwise from top left: Sonia Nicholson, Sylvia Stopforth, Emily Lonie, Denise Dale.

The “R” word 

Since then, the foursome has met nearly every month, life and schedules permitting, and all agree it’s been terrific. More than terrific. Necessary. 

Why? Here’s the thing … 

With few exceptions, writing is a solitary endeavour. This makes it ripe picking for that pesky internal critic—the one that keeps telling you that you are an imposter, your work is rubbish, and your most cherished goals are nothing but pipe dreams. A group of trusted colleagues can drown out that critic—or at least transform it into a useful part of a larger chorus.  

It’s incredibly encouraging to have friends with whom to share ideas, celebrate successes, and commiserate over rejection.

Oh, the rejection … 

There is so much of it, whether you’re submitting poems or short stories to literary journals, entering your play in contests, or querying a novel to find an agent who can connect the dots to a publishing contract. 

So having a writing/critique group is not just a nice thing. It’s a necessary thing. A PFD: a Personal Flotation Device for those who’ve decided to push out to sea on a craft made of their own words… 

How to connect? 

Keep your ears open for prospective contacts. Check out local libraries and independent bookstores for announcements about writing groups, book launches, or featured writer-visits. Seek out writing groups online. (We’ve provided a few links below to get you started.) Sign up for webinars or seminars offered by writers, local community groups, or your school district’s continuing education program.  

If the budget permits, attend a writers’ conference or a writing retreat.  

While it can be scary to step out of your comfort zone, to own the dream requires a certain willingness to be vulnerable, which helps others to open up as well. And without risk, it’s hard to build trust. 

So don’t be afraid to share. It’s amazing how a chance bit of chit-chat can open up possibilities. “Archivists Who Write” is a testament to that, so be brave!  

Finding the time 

For most of us, finding time is the biggest hurdle.  

On occasion, members of our group had no new work to share, because life happened. Family needs escalated. Ribs were broken (true story). Annual reports or grant applications followed someone home from the day job.  

Some time ago, a group member (name withheld to protect the slightly embarrassed) took nearly a decade to write an epic fantasy novel, with a sizeable cast of characters. At one point, the gap between opportunities to write was so long, she forgot a main character’s name. She also found it necessary to maintain a spreadsheet of characters she’d killed off in order to avoid any unintentional—and potentially awkward—resurrections. 

Sometimes small pockets of time can be sewn together. The average literary novel is 80,000 words in length. If you manage to write just 300 words five days per week, you could have the rough draft of a novel completed in a year! 

If writing a book isn’t in the cards—or doesn’t feature on your cherished list of writing goals—there are flash and micro fiction websites that publish stories anywhere from 100 to 1000 words in length. And many literary journals are looking for poetry as well as prose. 

The key thing is to begin. Get a few words down and keep going! 

Weaving the threads 

All four members of this group were drawn to the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. And all are serious about wanting to improve their writing craft, about producing work and getting that work out into the worldwhatever that looks like. So clearly, there are some common threads. But their differences are equally important and have a way of enriching and broadening one another’s creative horizons.  

In terms of their careers, they range from near-retirement to mid-career pinnacles. Some have children and some don’t. Some are fearless plungers, while others (names withheld to protect the cowardly) are reticent toe-dippers. Strong views are favoured by one or two, while others are quite comfortable, thank you very much, perched on the fence, considering issues from every possible angle. Morning meetings are welcomed by some, and taken stoically, with coffee thick enough to support a spoon, by others. 

This group provides proof of concept for that well-known saying about shared sorrows being halved and shared joys being doubled.  

Each member has benefited from constructive critiques, brainstorming sessions, and offers to make connections. They’ve generously shared ideas, tips, and techniques, so they’re not all constantly reinventing the wheel. 

In terms of the writing, some have strung together lopsided, sentimental stories since they could hold a pencil, while others have come to this dream more recently. The projects they are currently working on vary wildly and include a soon-to-be-published novel featuring a protagonist who happens to be an archivist.  

But more about those projects and “Archivists Who Write” in our next post to In the Field. 

To be continued… 

A few writing organizations to get you started:

Denise Dale (MLIS) is the Archives Librarian at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. An avid theatre-goer, Denise aspires to take her writing from the page to the stage. She is a member of Playwrights Guild of Canada. 

Emily Lonie (MA – Public History) is the Executive Director of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation and was formerly Coquitlam’s City Archivist. In her spare time (when she can find some), she enjoys inventing characters and crafting scenes for her screenplays. 

Sonia Nicholson (BA, French and Spanish) has worked in community and religious archives for fifteen years and is particularly interested in advocacy and outreach. Her writing includes everything from poetry to essays to short stories to novels.  

Sylvia Stopforth (MLIS) is a writer and word-obsessive who worked for more than twenty years as an archivist and research librarian in the post-secondary sector. Some of her short stories have been published, and she’s currently working on a novel. 

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