A guest post by writer J. A. Sutherland
Every writer needs a discipline, some inspiration and sometimes, a bit of healthy competition. Back in 2011, as part of the 26 Treasures exhibition, National Museum of Scotland invited members of the public to write a 62-word ‘sestude’ on their chosen ‘treasure’ from the Museum. This, I figured, ticked all three boxes. I spent a while wandering until, suitably inspired, I scribbled a handful of sestudes and sent them in.
I didn’t win.
But I was undeterred, and figured I’d been given a good idea for a project. Needing little excuse to spend more time in one of my favourite buildings in Edinburgh, I decided I would write my own selection of 26 Treasures, and post them on my blog over the course of 2012. Well, every writer needs a challenge.
A sestude, in case this word is unfamiliar to you, is a newly-coined literary form, created by the ‘26’ collective. As 26′s Sara Sheridan suggests in her blog post, it is a ‘reflective study;’ a free-form piece, somewhat poetic in character, comprising only one stipulation: that it must be exactly 62 words in length.
Now that’s some discipline.
Practice, as we all know, makes… well, not perfection, but as I practised the form, and worked and re-worked the early scribblings, I realised that the sestude was, and is, an extremely versatile thing. I played with various forms; some with conventional shape, rhythm and rhyme, some dramatic or conversational, others concrete, free or formed in the shape of the object that inspired them. For example, this half-hour-glass, belonging to Walter Scott:
Choosing the objects was itself a challenge. Sometimes it was simply what caught my eye; other times I sought out something fitting a theme, a date, an anniversary, or the product of an overheard conversation. On the whole I stuck to the Scottish part of the Museum, and selected only one of the chosen objects from the original exhibition, the Gown of Repentance.
With 52 weeks in the year, the plan was to post on my blog once a fortnight. This occasionally slipped because I was keen to reflect particular points in the year. There was an unlucky profusion of Fridays-the-13th in 2012, which gave me the chance to write about superstition, witchcraft, and charms. Saint-days, liturgical feasts, and the Bard’s Birthday provided more inspiration, and in the Festival Season, it was not just the Treasure in the Museum that fuelled my pen.
Visits to other Museums, such as the Writer’s Museum, The People’s Story, and Edinburgh Art Galleries; street signs and plaques, people, and pieces of poetry – all of these were part of the process, not to mention spending some time in the Museum’s Research Library. I even visited the Museum of Childhood in London, where another 26 Treasures project was on display. But as the year progressed, I became increasingly concerned with a nagging question.
Would I achieve my 26-target?
In fact, I knew that I would – I’m far too stubborn to give up. The difficulty, as the year drew to a close, was deciding what to omit. I had selected many more than 26 objects, and had a book-full of scribbled ideas and half-completed sestudes. One of my aims, besides boasting a word-count of 1,612 (not including titles) was to use these ‘Treasures’ as a basis of exploring deeper themes of Scottishness.
What, if anything, does history teach us; what does it mean to be Scottish (especially for those who were born in England); what part do Institutions and Establishments play in our culture; what is our ‘Identity’ – whatever that means? For personal reasons, I consciously avoided choosing anything with a military connotation. This is because I strongly renounce all forms of warfare.
When, in 2014, our Nation will need to consider the questions above, the clamour of Bannockburn will be ringing in the background. I find that rather sad.
Consequently, I chose for my final item something that isn’t in the Museum – or anywhere at all. For the whole year there was an empty glass case awaiting completion. It now houses a splendid revolving optic. Into this empty case, I placed an entirely amorphous treasure: the Future.
So what were the items that didn’t make it into the mix of my 26? A dainty, silver wax-jack and snuffer, the bannock toaster, an enamel cross designed by Phoebe Anna Traquair, and a firm favourite I was sorry to leave out: the Salter’s Duck.
This duck does not quack, but water flaps its beak-like shape to generate power from the sea. With opinion sharply divided on the proliferation of wind-farms, it cannot be denied that Scotland has wind and waves in abundance. This may be the thing, rather than the battles over our land, that will decide our country’s – and our planet’s – future.
Handle it with care.