Furor Scribendi is a canal barge travelling the Leeds & Liverpool canal that is also a beautiful extensive library of short stories, offering readers and writers a space to sit, read, think, dream, explore, create… Can you think of anything lovelier? Thanks to Becca, one of the fantastic team at Comma Press, for setting up a writing residency for me on this remarkable boat.
Furor Scribendi, translating as a mania or positive rage for writing, is named after Octavia Butler’s essay in her 1995 collection Bloodchild and other Stories. The boat-library is a huge collaboration project between Super Slow Way and artists Heather Peak and Ivan Morison at Studio Morison (who designed and created this gorgeous boat), Canal and River Trust, Lancashire Libraries, particularly Accrington Library, British Council, Coventry City of Culture and many other contributing parties.
The project is still in its infancy – I was actually the first lucky writer to spend time aboard. And I had no template or previous residency experience on how to approach this. In typical Schofie-style, I decided a schedule that way outstretched reality or achievability (anyone else do this? I habitually put far too many items on my to-do list and finish each day feeling like I’ve failed… I’m working on it! I decided that each day of the residency would begin with some reading, then free writing and the afternoons would be dedicated to developing two new pieces of work. The reading bit was fairly easy (actually a complete treat and luxury). My intention had been to read works and writers I was entirely unfamiliar with. But actually, for the first couple of days at least, surrounded by the odd intensity of the boat’s interior and the sensation of being on water, slightly unstable and adrift, I craved familiarity – like trusted companions on an uncharted journey. I went towards Larissa Boehning’s Swallow Summer (Comma Press), Celia Fremlin and Daphne Du Maurier. I dipped into Refugee Tales (Comma Press, 2016) and Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection Homesick For Another World, curious having only read her novels before.
As for free writing and developing two new works… That didn’t go quite as I hoped. Having small children at home (at home an awful lot more during lockdowns and isolations) and a full-time creative writing lecturing job means my own writing gets squeezed to the edges – sentences scribbled on post-its, phone notes while nursing late at night. The thought of having whole empty days – the richness, the extravagance, was incredibly exciting. But things didn’t work out quite as I’d predicted. This is what I wrote in my journal on the second day of the residency:
Furor Scribendi is madly beautiful – distractingly beautiful – and I should have guessed I’d feel like this. An echo chamber, a busy silence…I hear the geese slurping at the green algae that floats on the canal meniscus. A dull thud from the bilge pump every few minutes. It punctuates. It cuts short a drifting thought… Debbie [one of the project managers] has shown me which button to press to stop the regular ‘kerthunk’ noise, but right now it is helping to ground me.
Every tiny detail onboard Furor Scribendi is gloriously considered and entirely bespoke. From the crockery and lampshades, all ceramics cast from detritus found in or around the canal by the artists Heather and Ivan, to the colour schemes and beautiful brass writing desk. Here’s another extract from my residency journal:
This place is hugely distracting… I am overwhelmed by the collection of books on the boat, by their overstimulating presence, the artistry in the boat’s design and details, by the light and sound and oddness. And yet, wanting to be present in the oddness. I am inside the minds of the artists. Every detail needs logging and storing. I might just have got the hang of this by Friday when the residency ends…
Within a couple of days I was beginning to feel more able to approach writing. This is what I wrote in my journal:
I arrived today feeling calmer – my shoulders are down. I can sit and think in a singular direction and I am aware of my breathing. I have made coffee and taken my shoes off. These small acts make me feel connected and grounded. It occurs to me that the very act of being onboard feels performative. There are people passing on the towpath. Some want to interact. There are geese and ducks and ducklings, there are swallows nesting in the eves. There is busyness and life. Not so dissimilar to home!
I did get some writing done eventually! I’ll write a separate blog post about that, if you are interested to read about it. If you are creative in any medium or field – writing, reading, thinking, visual arts, textiles, knitting… I’d be intrigued to hear about how you approach the distractions of new, unfamiliar places or circumstances. I find this fascinating and conversations about this feel important, particularly in the current climate where the arts, creativity more widely, are being squeezed on many fronts, yet are so very vital.
I wanted to leave something tangible behind when I finished my residency so I donated some short story collections and singles. These are all stories, collections and writers that I admire hugely, but each was also selected specifically for the boat, for a host of reasons. I left The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova (Fitzcarraldo), The White Road by Tania Hershman (Salt), Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, ‘The Neva Star’ by CD Rose (Daunt). And three Nightjar Press single limited editions; ‘Cocky Watchman’ by Ailsa Cox, ‘House Calls’ by Vlatka Horvat and ‘Shannon’ by Angela Goodman.
If you get a chance, do get onboard Furor Scribendi to read, write, talk about stories, life, narrative… It’s a perfect space to share these things. Being on the water, surrounded by these incredible collections of stories is an intoxicating and inspiring medium. For all its beautiful bespoke artistry, this is a public library – welcoming everyone. An element that was key in its creation for Heather Peak, was the aesthetic and purposes of Accrington Carnegie library and a desire to ‘make something good and make something beautiful’; functional and openly inviting to everyone whilst honouring every visitor with exceptionally beautiful design and artistry.
A huge thank you to Heather Peak and Debbie Chan who welcomed me onboard and took me out along the canal from Rose Grove, through the Gannow Tunnel to a winding hole just beyond Sandygate Bridge. And to all who have made this incredible barge exist for everyone – a precious and delightful gift to all. For full details of where you will be able to catch up with Furor (she doesn’t move too fast!) and get onboard, see the Super Slow Way website.
There is also this wonderful podcast, The Reading Ramble, produced by Robin and Heather from Lancashire Libraries. They talk about Furor Scribendi in some of their episodes and interview people involved with the project, amongst other lovely, interesting all-things-bookish content.
This was my first residency and I hope to do more. If you have undertaken residencies, I’d love to hear your thoughts or approaches to making the most of it. I’m on Twitter – @saraheschofield. For updates on Furor Scribendi’s adventures see Facebook, Instagram or Twitter #smallbellsring.
Sarah Schofield’s stories have been published in Lemistry, Bio-Punk, Thought X, Beta Life, Spindles, Conradology and The New Abject (all Comma Press), Wall: Nine Stories from Edge Hill Writers (EHUP), Best of British Short Stories 2020 (Salt) Spilling Ink Flash Fiction Anthology, Back and Beyond Arts Publication, Litfest’s The Language of Footprints, Synaesthesia Magazine, Lakeview International Journal, Woman’s Weekly and others. She has been shortlisted on the Bridport and the Guardian Travel Writing Competition and won the Orange New Voices Prize, Writer’s Inc and The Calderdale Fiction Prize. Sarah is an Associate Tutor of Creative Writing at Edge Hill University and runs writing courses and workshops in a variety of community settings. Her debut short story collection, Safely Gathered In, will be published by Comma Press in 2021.