The Imagining History Programme UK

On the first anniversary of the unprecedented announcement of the UK’s first National Lockdown, Imagining History UK is proud to announce the publication of an anthology – Times Shifting – New Voices from a Changed World. This collection showcases the writing and thinking of 15 writers aged between 14 and 24 from across the world. Between May and July last year, as the world experienced a remarkable and collective upheaval, the writers were mentored by a faculty comprising a professional writer, an academic historian, a digital content creator and an arts educator. Following a programme of guided exploration, discussion and writing, they were commissioned to write 2,000 words in a genre and style of their choosing, to reflect their journey through this very changed world of ours.

Imagining History UK, as does its sibling The Young Walter Scott Prize, invites young writers and historians to follow the example of Walter Scott as a young man. Driven by curiosity, he travelled as widely as he could, read as much as he could, and listened to and spent time with people who had a story to tell. From the understandings thus gathered he built the foundation of his life’s work, initiating amongst many other things the genre of Historical Fiction.

Central to the project was the possibility of an exchange of information and ideas between writers from diverse backgrounds and differing national contexts. We invited the writers to share with one another their thoughts, insights and writings on their experiences of lockdown. But TImes Shifting had an additional, counter-intuitive demand to make of its participants – study your present from the point of view of a historian studying events, live your present with the awareness of a writer looking for inspiration, then approach your writing write from a point of view some time in the future looking back and trying to make sense of it all.

What sets it apart from similar projects is that this is not simply an attempt to encourage teenagers to write for writing’s sake, but it is also trying to create historical evidence for the future which adds a unique level of depth to what is being created.

Joseph

Historical records are partial and often lacking in first-hand on-the-ground detail from which to build clear hypotheses about the way people actually lived. By converting the present into the past, our young writers of Historical Fiction suddenly had a hugely valuable primary source for their writing.

Times Shifting is designed and led by a team skilled in techniques of historical exploration, creative writing, digital collecting/presentation and somatic and intellectual learning. The writers first had to develop the categories necessary to create the kind of historical source that their writer’s mind would begin to feed off. Tasks taken from techniques of mass observation and the development of dramatic characters in the theatre were interwoven with creative thinking and writing tasks that live in the moment just before a story emerges. It was important to develop their understanding of themselves as writers in the moment of perception of our suddenly changed world.

For Walter Scott the exploration of his world – both natural and imaginative – was a way of mitigating and calming the troubles that life threw in his path. He writes tenderly and candidly about his mental health following major disruptions to his own life. And he allows his insights to help him develop his characters and story lines. At the heart of the Imagining History UK process of working is the sense that a young writer’s voice will develop at pace if we hold the creative space around them in a non-directive way free from the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to do things. For our writers and for the good of their psychological future it is important to find as many different kinds of pleasure in doing what they feel confident in doing. Our mentoring process integrates exercises in the understanding of historical processes, writing tasks that assume that an idiosyncratic voice will emerge and invitations to explore that perhaps alter the lens through which the writers might see their world.

Along with the irresistible prospect of writing again, the chance to meet new people and explore creative processes as a healthy outlet and escape from everyday life was a big draw to the project

Rosi

As Scott himself well understood, a different kind of curiosity arises with the realisation that the everyday might carry historical significance. Observations of worn patches in a garden, the changing significance of doors to the outside, the sensation of deserted school grounds or the intrusive everyday diet of public statistics amongst so much more are transformed into a source of inspiration for the mind of a speculative Historical Fiction writer.

No-one has expected the wheels of history to rattle round the way they have. In editing their work, we gave the writers a chance, two months on, to reflect upon their writing and their writing selves during the project. My colleagues and I are deeply proud of the depth and incisive care of the insights contained in both their writing and their reflections. With their feet in two pivotal historical moments, they have been able to respond creatively to one, then at a later point with clarity in hindsight, to respond to themselves responding. We could not have predicted the richness of Times Shifting, from both a creative writing and a creative living perspective.

Our writers first dig where they stand. In their own lives, events and relationships they find threads that, like the underground communication fibres in a forest, connect them to farther and wider visions.

There has been a shift in the way I think, I am looking at the way in which we interact with each other in a different way

Molly-Rose

Times Shifting- New Voices from a Changed World is available to buy for a very reasonable £5. Contact IHUK for details.

During the time of Covid19 The Imagining History Programme has an extra-special online offer for writers 15 years and up.

The view of young people living in times of change is often overlooked, even side-lined. What we live through as teenagers affects us for the rest of our lives. IHUK wants to give young writers the chance to explore, examine and reflect on what is happening right now, from the point of view of how it will be seen when they are looking back.

Times Shifting is a mentored writing project exploring how to build a historical archive of current events, and then to begin to write a piece of Imagined Historical Fiction written from a point of view in the future and telling a story of now. It is a collaboration led by Dr Dina Gusejnova, Assistant Professor of International History at LSE, University of London and the writer and journalist Elizabeth Ferretti.

It sounds complicated, but actually your brain will work it out pretty quickly. Then your imagination will nail the idea. Now becomes then as we move faster than ever before towards a future we might never have imagined at the beginning of 2020. Hopes and dreams are flying around our heads as physical freedom is limited. Truth is stranger than fiction they say! Just look around the world and see how true this really is…..

We’re in the world of EM Forster’s visionary story The Machine Stops, or the hypnotic There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, or the dangerous upturned worlds of JG Ballard. How this current world is seen from the future depends on those who are growing through it understand it. Times Shifting is a project that aims to explore this understanding, adapting Imagining History UK’s innovative workshop process in a virtual environment.

Read more about TImes Shifting here

Curiosity, Movement, Memory and Writing.

Creative non-fiction writer, Malachy Tallack in his autobiography of exploration, 60 Degrees North writes

Human beings have always moved from here to there…with a combination of memory, acquired knowledge and curiosity

He goes on to talk about the internal maps that guide us and that are often passed down from one generation to another. Such maps give a sense of powerful physical and creative identity to those who hold them in mind.

To write within the historical environment is to make new maps inspired by what we experience in the moment and the knowledge of past generations that is shared with us through the place itself. At the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel, visitors are told that they have now been inhabited by the souls of those who died during the Holocaust and that those departed souls will speak through them to tell their stories. As we map the historical environment as writers, we find that it holds voices who demand to live on the page.

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The writer’s map is idiosyncratic, it is created out of their present personal circumstance infused with the focus of their research. It therefore comprises as much the physical energy of the writer’s curiosity as the historical facts.

The concept of Curiosity could be used to describe the innate, hard-wired creative faculty that calls the brain into shape as we develop in the womb. From the moment that the finger-buds differentiate themselves from the hand-bud of an embryo they start to move. The touch sense begins to process the world and to build brain capacity – our first movements creating our first memories creating our first recognitions. And uniquely for humans, that movement can be put to use to create writing, amongst other forms of communication, further enriching intellectual and creative potential. The faculty of curiosity drives us to move, touch, explore, build memories, knowledge and wisdom. Curiosity is the engine-driver of us as skilled humans.

The Imagining History UK programme has been developing the use of the historic environment as an field classroom for creative writers since early 2015. At the heart of the programme is the devising of ways to energise curiosity. We surround young writers with creative partnerships that allow them to extend their exploratory, analytical and language skills in places that are filled with incitements to physical discovery and questions to their intellect.

Imagining History UK workshops take advantage of the hard-wiring of the human brain to be ever-moving forward and ever-building knowledge.  We have found that young adult writers are naturally innovative and keen to find new forms of expression by building on what they already know. They move and think in rangy, impulsive and often surprising ways. They are also driven by an ethic of satisfaction, ready to take their creative work seriously as they discover their world. We give them the opportunity during the hours of an IHUK workshop to be rangy, impulsive and to astonish themselves. This is frequently reflected in feedback that has, after four years, become commonplace… I was amazed that I could come up with so many ideas.

IHUK workshops take place within a vibrant atmosphere where all facts are fiction in the moment when they are discovered for the first time. Historical places are functionally astonishing, rich in real-time objects, facts and hidden corners inviting sensory engagement. We have developed innovative processes of guiding and mentoring a young writer’s first contact with the historical – linking the senses with writing in immediate and energetic ways. Our work celebrates the developing thought processes of young adult writers – we question but do not push for answers, believing that time will tell.

Young writers come to workshops having been trained in technical aspects of understanding history, literacy and imaginative story-construction. Our aim is to complement this learning by giving a guided free-form atmosphere in which they can experiment with their developing knowledge. There is no pressure to write a story during the workshop. Feedback from participants supports the observations that our young writers are ‘in the zone’ and coming up with material that is allowing them to feel satisfied with their writing. Over the course of several hours we offer them a space in which they can further develop their creative thinking and writing in an entirely idiosyncratic way.

We are constantly developing new ways of engaging and nurturing young creative writers through working in the historical environment. Our project in Cornwall, in partnership with the Sir James Smiths Community School and the North Cornwall Book Festival, has grown so successfully that our school-partner has agreed to commit school funds to extending the project further into the academic year. In Norfolk, we have just begun a pilot collaboration with the Norfolk Museums Service and Horatio House, exploring how writing in the historical environment can open up lines of personal and creative satisfaction for students alienated from standard schooling.

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IHUK is the education programme of The Young Walter Scott Prize(YWSP), the UK’s only prize for young adults writing Historical Fiction. We shortlist and award writers who transport readers into historical worlds, often unexpectedly but always completely. YWSP and IHUK celebrate young writing and thinking about the historical, and perhaps the modern, world.

Young adults who come to an Imagining History UK workshop are encouraged to scale up their writing to enter the Young Walter Scott Prize. Whether they win or not, each one is given feedback from the judging panel, chaired by Elizabeth Laird and made up of writers, educators and literary agents. We value and reward the act of preparing an entry itself, and we award those writers who write with panache and courage, all the while respecting the historical sources of their work.

The novelist, broadcaster and campaigner for the written word, Damian Barr writes: 

I think this is a great prize and your approach to it is refreshingly rigorous but also open-ended. I would so have loved to enter something like this when I was a kid.

Alan Caig Wilson – Director of The Young Walter Scott Prize & The Imagining History UK Programme.