Lesson Five: Find Your Crew
Why a writing community is so vital
Last week, I started looking at secondary schools for my nine-year-old daughter. This seems a strange way to start a newsletter about writing, but here goes. As I was leaving one school, I was chatting to the headteacher about this and that, and when I mentioned I was a writer he told me about his son who is at university and has written two novels. He asked me if I had any advice for him. My answer? He must absorb himself in a community of writers.
You see, writing is a very solitary trade, it is mostly just sitting at your kitchen table in your pyjamas. It involves 50 per cent scratching your head and staring out the window, and 50 per cent fingertips to keyboard. But what you need more than anything is a crew.
Let me tell you why these people are so vital, and a little about how I have found mine over the years.
Firstly, it’s because times are sometimes tough. In those moments, when the writing isn’t flowing easily, or you find yourself all tangled up in plot, there is nothing more helpful than a pal who will help you untangle all you’ve got going on in your head.
I actually did my first writing course after I’d already ghosted my first book. I joined the Faber Academy’s six month Write A Novel course. I can’t in all honesty say I learnt a huge amount on that course, however, it did find me my first writerly community. It was a big investment then for a single mum (quite a few thousand pounds, I seem to remember), but I emerged from that course with the seed of an idea which would turn into my debut novel, The Imposter, and with three brilliant friends who have stayed with me since. When I was writing my second novel this summer, two of them read over my shoulder as I was writing, caring about this new book that was being born into existence as much as if it were their very own. This kind of support is invaluable.
By the time I enrolled at UEA for my Creative Writing MA, I think I was four non-fiction books in, but again that experience was invaluable in terms of completing that novel I’d started three years before, but more importantly it gave me a year of immersing myself in fiction, in reading, in mixing with like-minded individuals. Again, it was a huge financial investment for this single mum, I worked full-time ghosting and looking after my then five-year-old daughter, and commuting once a week up to Norwich from Tunbridge Wells to attend my lectures and workshops. But it was worth it. It also mended that chip on my shoulder that I had carried around with me after leaving school at 17 with the minimal formal education. I had gained a Masters of Arts – it turned out I wasn’t thick after all!
When my debut novel was published in April this year, I also found another crew in the Debuts 2021 Group that was set up by the wonderful Kate Sawyer, author of The Stranding. Now I will admit I’ve had a mixed relationship with this group. Not the authors – they are all absolutely great – but there have been times when it has been hard to celebrate their own individual successes without wishing you had some more to share of your own. I’ve written before about envy, and so if you are a regular here, you’ll know what I’m referring to. But yesterday, one other member of the group was brave enough to post how vulnerable she had been feeling of late, and it resulted in a great outpouring of stories of others – including my own. There was a collective – palpable – sigh of relief that others felt the same way, that even though, viewed through the lens of social media it seemed as if others were getting on just fine, it wasn’t necessarily the truth. Many of us struggling with similar issues, and yet it took just one person brave enough to share that gave everyone else the space to open up. It was quite lovely.
And that brings me to last night, my first evening spent with my three working class mentees, and oh what a pleasure it was to hear about their projects, to be able to provide some answers to the many questions they have floating around in their heads, and hopefully, after our half an hour one-to-ones, I sent them off ready to tackle another week of writing until we meet again. I know how much it means to have someone to talk to about your work in progress.
We will continue their weekly one-to-ones, and at the end of the month we’ll get together for a group zoom, but in the meantime they also have a closed Facebook group where they can chat, support, share anxieties and achievements. And this group isn’t just there for the time we’re working together in October, this is their group now, a place that each month I hope to add more mentees to – the start of a new writing community. This was only made possible this month thanks to a person who wishes to remain anonymous who sponsored two more places in the October group. But in terms of community, what that sponsor did by her one generous act will prove to be invaluable to these aspiring writers.
A reminder if you would like to be part of our crew, you can apply to join the working class mentee scheme each month. Next deadline is October 31st, you don’t need to have a fully finished work in progress, something a little bigger than a seed of an idea counts too, and you can find more details here. If you would like to sponsor a mentee, please do get in touch, and authors reading this, if you could spare half an hour I would love it if you would be willing to offer your time to come support my mentees with a little Q and A at the end of their month of mentoring. I’m sure they would love to pick the brains of another author.
So that’s my advice this week, find yourself a crew, be part of a community, and if you can’t find one… well, there’s nothing wrong with starting your own.
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