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By Emily Priest, Gale Ambassador at the University of Portsmouth
Emily, otherwise known as Emily the Writer, is a Creative and Media Writing (BA Hons) student at Portsmouth University with interests in travel writing and creative marketing. She is also a freelance writer and performance poet. After her degree, she plans to take a Digital Marketing MA and pursue a career in marketing or journalism.
When I tell people that I am studying a Creative Writing degree, they always look at me with squinted eyes, furrowed brows and a twisted mouth that questions, ‘does such a thing exist?’ It is a relatively new degree, and only a few universities in the UK offer it, but surely it isn’t that strange? When I get this reaction, I think people are more confused by why it exists – and its place within the academic world.
Creative Writing seems to live on the fringe of academia. Although creative writing students read as much as any other, there is less focus on journals and articles and more on prose and poetry. Our submissions include short stories or poetry rather than long essays and our marking criteria relies on subjective opinion. It’s certainly fun but seems less serious. This poses the question – where do us writers fit within the academic world? Can we even fit in it at all?
Of course we can, but not in the same way as other students.
Gale Primary Sources are key to this, but when I first used them I was lost. The databases, including 19th Century UK Periodicals and Archives of Sexuality & Gender, were interesting but seemed irrelevant to me as a writer. What could I learn from them? I rummaged around but I couldn’t find tips on metaphors or hints on narrative structure. Feeling defeated, I felt as if I was excluded from the fun, but I soon realised I needed to approach the archives differently. Writing is more than just the writing itself. It is research, inspiration, history, world-building and more.
Let’s say you are writing a fictional piece on Victorian England but it is set in a steampunk world. Although there are limited articles on steampunk itself in Portsmouth’s Gale databases, there are over 2,000 sources when searching ‘Victorian’. You can find unique, primary sources from databases such as The Times Digital Archive and the Illustrated London News Historical Archive. You can find manuscripts on minorities and sports and newspapers discussing issues current at the time, such as the mining industry. Although this may not directly link to my steampunk focus, or help me explore how other creatives describe the Victorian era, these sources are still fundamental to my writing. They provide a wealth of facts, stories, people and events which I can base my story on. I can create a world which is in-depth and credible, which my audience can relate to, but still retain my creative freedom.
The Term Clusters tool is also useful to both academics and creatives. This feature visualises words and subjects which frequently appear within your search results and can allow you to explore different avenues and dimensions you may not have thought about before. When using the same search term as before (‘Victorian’), words such as ‘lesbian’, ‘letters’ and ‘women’ appear in the Term Cluster. Before this, I associated ‘industry’, ‘Dickens’ and ‘Jack the Ripper’ with Victorian England, so I now have new terms to explore and develop. From the Term Cluster, I can see which sources mention which words and can expand my research further. I can also narrow my narrative focus and introduce elements of gay lifestyle or women’s rights to my piece.
Images can also be found to help with visualisation. By narrowing the search down to one database, the Illustrated London News Historical Archive, you can find primary source images that you cannot get elsewhere. They are a fascinating and fundamental look into the past, for both academics and creatives, and reveal fashion, culture and landscape from this time.
Gale can be used for more than just research however. For a writer, it is also interesting to see how literature has evolved over the years. Gale’s State Papers Online provides papers from the Tudor period up to the eighteenth century. Although at first this may seem to only be of use to History students, State Papers Online can be equally as useful to a Creative Writing student. These sources show you different styles of writing and lexicon, and provide key pieces of background research when writing historical fiction. And, on a personal note, they give you a new appreciation to the craft.
Even if you start writing with no focus in mind, browsing Gale’s resources can give you the inspiration you need to get going. A quick search can provide a fundamental insight into history, society, community and culture and can inform your characters and setting, adding depth and a solid foundation to your writing. Browsing the extensive range of sources, you can be inspired by real events, people and stories.
Consequently, though it may at times seem like creativity does not exist in the academic world, and creative writing is more about storytelling than fact-checking, primary sources are still needed. Research techniques used in academia can be transferred to creative writing and help add new depths to your work. They are more important to the arts than you may first realise. When you start to see the link between academia and creativity, you start to see treasure troves of information and inspiration waiting to be tapped into and fictionalised. Writers have always existed in the academic world but, like all things, you have to read between the lines to really see how.