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  • Alan Ward

Writing Dorset: from Weymouth to Gillingham and back

I’m not alone in my residency at Gillingham Library. I have a counterpart, the poet Sarah Acton, who’s working on her own simultaneous project at Weymouth Library. Knowing Sarah’s there, going through a similar process to me, has been reassuring. Our paths have crossed, and in meeting we realised we had unique insights into the behind the scenes world of libraries in Dorset.

We share some thoughts on our projects below – with each other and, now, with you…

Sarah: When I first arrived at Weymouth Library I was excited by the behind the scenes access. The mechanics of the system itself. Lots of staff busy in the engine room at the back packing crates and stacking and trolleying books as loads come and go. It reminded me that many years ago, when we went on holiday the pilot invited me into the cockpit to say hello. They don't do that anymore, but I remember standing behind his shoulder admiring the dashboard and how much activity was packed into such a tight space. He seemed very relaxed considering we were mid-air. There are less buttons at Weymouth Library, but we do have a spiral staircase and a dumb-waiter lift to take heavy loads up and down the stairs.

Alan: Getting into the bits of the library the public doesn’t get to see is one of the best things about being a writer in residence. I’ve been fascinated by Gillingham Library’s collection of lost bookmarks, and, even as a volunteer in my local community library in London, the novelty of playing with the date stamp hasn’t worn off. Gillingham Library’s cockpit would be the area behind the front desk where the staff field calls and take questions from visitors. I’m constantly impressed by their professionalism – nothing at all phases them.

Sarah: I think it was Stephen King who said "Read a lot, write a lot", I think I'd say "Read well, write well". I'm deeply comforted to be surrounded by books at home and I've always used libraries. I sometimes get as many books out at once as possible, and I don't know about you, but I couldn't possibly buy all of the books I like to use for my own reading and to prepare for events. I enjoy writing with piles of books on the desk to keep me company. I have curated a few bookshelves in Writer's Corner too; books with writing tips, books loosely about the sea or coastline, and books I just like and would recommend to others. The Owl Service falls into this latter category, simply too good to leave off my shelf.

People visiting Weymouth library read lots, many seem to be active writers and thinkers, they come for events, to use the computers, to meet and to find community. It is a warm and friendly space but you can be anonymous here too, just getting on with your own thing but part of the living throng, there is a background hum of activity. I like being here on Tuesday morning for the bounce and rhyme session, the high ceilings carry voices and laughter, and it's really quite joyful!

Alan: In Gillingham Library there are lists on display of popular books across the Dorset Library Service – both fiction and non-fiction. The library actively seeks donations of these most-in-demand titles. The lists give a tantalising insight into the reading habits of the people visiting the library. Crime novels are ever-popular (they were in Hastings too), and this is also reflected in the layout of the space, which pushes them to the front.

This year I’m trialling a new strategy for getting through my to-read list without spending a fortune on new or second-hand books. I’ve worked out which of books from my list are available from the library and every few weeks I select a few at random to order in (even going as far as using a random number generator). This means I’m getting through a list of books I’ve wanted to read for ages and not spending a penny – I’m quite smug about it!

The work I’ve been doing with attendees of my workshops has focussed on their writing (writing authentic pieces of fiction using memories), but we’ve inevitably ended up talking about reading a lot too. I’m a reader first and a writer second, and in my one-to-ones I’ve been pointing people in the direction of writing that’s like their own. I’ve also been collecting people’s memories about libraries, and, though most of them focus on reading, there are a few entries about studying and writing too.

Sarah: When I'm not running 1-2-1s, reading cafes or workshops, I'm talking to people about my project Weymouth-on-Sea. Like your project, everyone has a memory or story about Weymouth's beach and shoreline, or one about any seaside. I'm trying to capture these to create a community poem at the end, leaving blank postcards for visitors to fill in and leave for me. Some visitors I talk to think I'm looking for something neat and tidy, a clever pithy answer. In fact I like rambling distracted answers, and mysterious fragments that take us some other place that probably doesn't exist anymore – memories aren't neat and tidy are they? They seem to be tied up in ropes of emotion, layers of overlap and possibly with the soundtracks of knowing resonance added later.

Alan: I tailored my project around memory after speaking to people in the library. They wanted to share bits of their history with me, and it got me thinking. In the workshops I’m running we take a series of memories and shape them into the opening of a story. The outcome is remarkably vivid writing, with much more detail and authenticity than you can usually expect to generate during a short workshop. At the end of the residency I hope to display some of this work in an exhibition titled Book Windows (a title inspired by the Rachel Whitehead sculptureUntitled (Book Corridors)). The work on display will give a tantalising snapshot of different worlds or events conjured up by my writers. This will be available for the public to browse from the 23rd March.

Sarah: I like the sound of your public finale! I am also planning a small exhibition of work 28th and 29th March that has been created as part of the residency; mine and the work of local writers in our workshops and through the invitation to leave me work to display. I'll be writing a community poem, and something of my own. Time is ticking though.

At the end of the residency I'll hope to pass on the baton of positive artistic collaboration to help the library continue to flourish with versatility and vision as a cultural hub in the local area, accessible to all ages and abilities. I'm excited by the diverse nature of events I've seen on offer (mine, yours, and many others currently programmed), all opportunities for learning and to explore creativity. I'll be leaving my physical legacy here - a free leaflet 'Staring Writing' and the exhibition and poems, but I hope also that staff and visitors will enjoy and remember the playful, stimulating offering of the installation, Writer's Corner, which during the residency provides a space and materials to write, and a platform for local writer's from now until end ofMarch.

Alan: Looking towards the end of the residency, I hope some of the people I’ve spoken to in one-to-ones and workshops will be inspired to carry on writing. The installation and memory book will live on in the library for a while, but once they’re gone there will be some new stories out there in the world, written by people who attended the events Gillingham Library offered as a cultural hub. There’s also been interest from the people I’ve met in founding a writer’s group, or joining Gillingham Library’s existing group if Tuesday afternoons suit, and that too would be a great legacy to have seeded.

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