Citizen: Meet Eleanor Thom

Author Eleanor Thom is one of our writers-in-residence on Citizen, a new long-term creative programme produced in collaboration with partner organisations across the city, including North Edinburgh Arts. Read on to find out about Eleanor, her initial experiences in Muirhouse and how you can get involved, share your experiences and help build special events for the Book Festival and beyond.

Preparing for Art(ichokes)

Welcome! This is my first post to introduce myself, Eleanor Thom, and to let you know about the Citizen project, a collaboration between the Edinburgh International Book Festival, North Edinburgh Arts and a number of other organisations across Edinburgh. Citizen has now officially begun at North Edinburgh Arts, and will soon be beginning at WHALE Arts and Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre as well.

I am a community writer-in-residence, and if you have been at North Edinburgh Arts recently you may have seen me there. But perhaps you don’t know that I am looking for people to work with, anyone who likes telling their own stories, or reading and writing. I’ll be working primarily with adults. Another writer-in-residence, Claire Askew, will be doing work with local schools and the younger age group. Since December I’ve been gardening and knitting, and talking to people, and for the next month or two I want to meet more of the people who use North Edinburgh Arts or live nearby. So I’ll be reaching out in search of anyone with a story to share.

You may wonder why a writer would go to a knit and natter group, especially because I admit I’m not a skilled knitter. The last time I picked up a pair of needles I was pregnant with my daughter, now nearly five. Suddenly there I was, flustering with a very tangled hank of yarn. But I’ve already met people at the group who like to chat and tell stories, even if they don’t consider themselves writers or storytellers (yet). This writing residency will be entirely about people telling their own stories. I will ask questions, provide prompts, suggest themes, and work alongside everyone who wants to take part, but the stories will belong to the storytellers, not me.

In May this year we’ll be holding a small showcase and some workshops at North Edinburgh Arts: your stories told your way. In August we’ll take this to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and you’ll be able to suggest themes and have a say in which writers are invited to Edinburgh in August.

North Edinburgh Arts has a wonderful outdoor space and a fantastic theatre, with great audio equipment which I am keen to make use of. I’ll be hoping to get lots of voice recordings done before May, because there are lots of ways to gather stories – writing, speaking into a microphone, drawing… actually anything goes. This blog will also be a space to share stories, and it’s here that I will write about the process.

So if you meet me at North Edinburgh Arts, here’s an example of a question I might want to ask: who taught you to knit?

And where did I learn to knit? I learned to knit from my aunt, and she learned from my grandmother, a refugee from Germany. So I knit in a way that’s a little peculiar: Continental style, with one needle tucked in my armpit. That’s how my grandmother was taught, probably by her Lithuanian aunt nearly a century ago. It’s an odd thread of my family story that has become part of the fabric of me.

This story about how I learned to knit sums up nicely what my own obsessions are, and what I like writing about myself: history, family, and the quiet things that shape us. I often use local history research, or genealogy as inspiration for writing. I’m happy to help others with this kind of research too.

The experience of joining the well-established knit and natter group, which meets every Wednesday morning in the café, has already brought unexpected benefits for me. Once I untangled that big hank of yarn and began knitting, I found myself thinking more clearly, listening better. I continued adding rows of knitting over the Christmas and New Year break, and when I got ideas about this project, and about writing, I felt more ready to untangle those too. Put simply, the act of stitching, and getting to know the community of knitters at North Edinburgh Arts, is also helping me.

Let me tell you a little more about myself. I live in Edinburgh and I have two children. I wrote a novel, published in 2009. I write fiction and non-fiction. I started out by studying creative writing in Glasgow, and I was part of a group of writers that shared work every fortnight. We helped each other shape and develop our ideas and hone our sentences. But fast forward a few years, and I found that belonging to such a community can be hard to sustain. Other responsibilities crop up in life or people move away.

My little girl was born with a neurological condition in 2014, and much of the past five years of my life has been dedicated to therapeutic treatments and bone surgeries. These have massively improved my daughter’s quality of life, but during this time I’ve mainly been part of another kind of community, a medical, sometimes anxious place. I adapted and continued writing and thinking in the smallest of moments, at nap time, during the two minutes while the kettle boiled, on the walk home from school, or on my lunch hour at work.

In my first few weeks at NEA I have time to cultivate another craft again, and be part of another community. It is only now, casting on my first stitches in years and drinking tea and listening to everyone talk, that I am fully grasping how this helps a creative practice. So while we are working on this project we will also be doing other things, like going on walks, painting, taking photographs, and recording sounds.

Here is my knitting so far:

While knitting this week we nattered about another kind of stitch: operations, staples, and recovering from surgery. I also spoke with a retired nurse who worked in Accident and Emergency. It got me thinking about stitches, and about the word ‘fabric’ and how people (perhaps politicians more than anyone) speak about the ‘fabric of society’. It’s an unusual phrase, if you think about it, so I looked up the root of the word ‘fabric’ and found this:

Fabric, from Latin fabrica, meaning ‘something skilfully produced’.

I like the idea that society, community, and citizenship, can be tied in with craft, something that must be created with care, with dedication, an investment of time and attention. That’s what ‘skilfully produced’ implies to me. And it turns out that text and textile are also close cousins, from the Latin verb textere, which means to weave. So I think we’re going to kick off with a few textile inspired questions and writing prompts.

Over the next few months I want to find local people to help me with two things:

First, I need people who are interested in the Edinburgh International Book Festival, who would like to suggest themes, and writers. It’s a chance to programme events that you yourself would love to attend. 

I’m also looking for people who have stories to share, with audiences at North Edinburgh Arts and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I’ll ask questions and get to know people, but nothing will be included in the writing showcase without permission, and writers may choose to remain anonymous. People can also come to me with a story they’ve already written or told before, a favourite anecdote, a memory, or a tribute, and we can record your voice or put your writing on the blog, or use an actor to perform your words.

Aside from knitting I have also been spending time in the garden, and I have met people who work to keep the plants healthy and the beds neat. Poetically, on my first visit we spent time ‘preparing the ground’. We dug a bed, turning the soil and removing stones, and then we covered everything with rich compost to allow Jerusalem artichokes more space to grow.

This project, in its very early days, is at the same stage. I’ll be based at North Edinburgh Arts for the foreseeable future, so we really do have time and space to produce some great work together and have fun with it.

To contact me about the project please email citizen.nea@gmail.com

Look out for more announcements about workshops, times to meet me, and a Citizen project box where writing ideas can be picked up and posted. The box will be made out of reclaimed wood with the help of participants at The Shed, a space at North Edinburgh Arts where people including myself can come to learn woodwork and use tools. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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