Archival Work and Writing

Being an archivist influences how I write stories–the subject matter, how I think about the world, and even plotting. (Not sure what should happen next? Throw in some archival documents!)

It’s common advice to write what you know, but I’ve never written about archival processing, and it’s uncommon for me to use the archives as a setting.

Instead, I find myself thinking about broader issues, like how memory works and the relationship between the present and the past. I’m interested in what constitutes a document and how our idea of history changes over time. I’m interested in artifactual value (which is that awe you might feel in the physical presence of something really old). I want to think more about our sources for historical knowledge and the differences between oral and written histories.

These were all issues that interested me in my day-to-day work, but that often got shoved out of my head while I sorted correspondence by date or researched the particulars of the Burma Walkout.

Now that I’m not working with collections every day (due to being a full-time mom), I have time to process (pun intended) some of these ideas, which are coming out in my fiction.

Often, if I’m stuck on a story, I just have to think about archives, and suddenly it all clicks.

Publication at Freeze Frame Fiction

My flash fiction piece “The Sound That Carries Across the Ocean” is up at Freeze Frame Fiction.

If you like reading about sea monsters and drinking songs, you might enjoy this one.

The story is illustrated with some wonderful art by Luke Spooner of Carrion House.

Levels of Distance in Writing

I recently read The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardener. The book contains a good deal of practical advice mixed with some interesting thoughts on the purpose of literature and its relation to truth.

The tone of the book is both encouraging and stern, and Gardener’s thoughts for the new writer go much deeper than a simple list of rules. He assumes that the young writer is serious about learning the craft, so he presents the difficulties of writing in their full complexity. However, the book is geared toward newer writers, with a list of common n00b mistakes and some basic plotting structures.

I found his discussion of psychic distance particularly useful. He defines psychic distance as the distance the reader feels between herself and the events in the story.

Here are Gardener’s examples, from greatest to least distance.

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snow storms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes…

Gardener also notes that the writer may use different modes in the same story, depending on the action.

I’ve been thinking more about distance in my own writing, especially as it relates to character voice. Perhaps the trickiest part is knowing when to dive in close, hoping that the reader can feel what the character is feeling, and when to back away, giving the reader some space to think.

Inaugural Post

Hello, world! It’s my first post here, so I’ll talk a little bit about my background and why I started writing.

I’m an archivist by trade, with a degree in Information Science from the University of Michigan. I’ve cataloged the digitized letters of Theodore Roosevelt, processed the papers of Edward Teller, and handled some really amazing materials–photographs of the Burma walkout taken by a WWII soldier, letters from Herbert Hoover concerning the Commission for Relief in Belgium, and the flight logs of Jane Spencer, a pilot of the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

Every day as an archivist is exciting, because you never know what you might find in that manuscript box sitting on your desk.

Currently, I’m a full-time mom to two wonderful twin girls. Although I miss the archives, caring for my children makes me the happiest I’ve ever been. I’m so grateful that I get to stay home with them.

I started writing a few months after my kids were born. (Which is a little bananas, because writing is hard enough without being sleep deprived.)

I enjoy writing because it gives me something to think about, wherever I am. Each story is like a grand puzzle that I’ll never fully solve.

I’ve been writing steadily throughout the year and hope that this trend continues.