Finding Narrative in Unexpected Places


Building Stories is not your usual creative writing workshop. With two London landmarks, the Royal Institute of British Architects and British Library, as its focal points, it makes use of the architecture, public art and archives of each to create something new in the form of narrative text. We, London Lit Lab, designed the course, and are teaching it for the second time in a few weeks! In preparation, we reflect on how the first one went, in November last year.

Zoe and I wondered who would join us at the great boardroom table of the Aston Webb room at RIBA – writers or architects, or people who practiced both? We were reassured to see that the two forms have much in common – the construction of something that is separate from the maker, but encompasses his or her dreams and preoccupations, while also considering the audience.

The weekend went by in a rush, with so many different activities around the inner and outer spaces of both buildings. On the Saturday, we were based at RIBA and kicked off with a tour of this magnificent Art Deco building, with its elegant nods to the hard work that went into its creation, and the world that surrounded it at the time it was built, in the 1930s. It’s also rich with references to the life of architect George Grey Wornum and all that mattered to him. We asked our students not to note the facts of what they were being told, but their emotional and sensory responses to what was around them. Drawing on the moment and memory, we found whole poems emerging – the scent of leather in a father’s car, the history embedded in the building’s walls and floors, and its finely carved sliding doors.

This was followed by a talk about architecture, its language and its purpose, by curator Shumi Bose. Looking at a selection of unusual floorplans we learned more about the language of architecture and enjoyed the idea of the floorplan being a ‘philosophical manifesto of how space should be organised’.

At RIBA we also had the privilege of writing in the council chamber, the secret heart of the building, where plans are hatched in hushed tones, away from the public domain

By the end of the day, the group was chatting away, sharing their excitement about writing in this inspiring space. We did exercises in point of view, and discussed how different kinds of personalities, in varying challenging scenarios, might experience the space around them. We left delighted that day one had been a success.

We spent Sunday at the British Library, and in the dedicated learning centre, we started with a lecture from Toby Litt, published author and university lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. (This year we’ll have the wonderful Julia Bell doing our lecture.) Toby spoke about place in relation to genre fiction, how we envision it, and had us all sitting on the edge of our seats imagining a scary horror scenario. We followed this with a session in erasure, cutting up existing texts – in this case from the BL archive – and creating something new. We used text from Shakespeare and Dickens, Ted Hughes and TS Eliot. One of our favourite new poems went like this:

In the beginning wild beasts

Who dreaming Screaming

For precious Time

Lie Trembling in youth’s blacke night

Tied round the neck

Featherless Crow bleeds

Into the deathbed

Never Never Never

Our students then went on a tour of some of the public art on display, specifically Hepworth’s sculpture on the terrace, and the momentous Newton by Paolozzi in the front square. Art historian Linda Bolton got everyone thinking about the viewer’s contribution to meaning in art, priming us to write our own pieces in response to these visual spectacles.

The day finished with a real treat: extended writing time in among the ghosts of the reading rooms, otherwise closed on a Sunday. Tucked in a corner behind the books or spread out at a wide desk, everyone wrote, coming up with new ideas for stories, even whole first drafts. All were inspired by these two beautiful buildings and the creativity to be found in their public spaces and secret corners. And now we get to do it all over again!

Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert of London Lit Lab

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