I’m running a FREE summer workshop at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists on August 3 which aims to offer writers new inspiration for their fiction and poetry.
Held at the RBSA Portrait Prize Exhibition the class will explore how paintings can provide a starting point for new writing. The gallery’s commitment to offering free places means this workshop is available to all.
A third of writers responding to a recent Royal Society of Literature survey cited low-cost or free workshops as important to their development.
Dr Lisa Appignanesi, Chair of the Royal Society of Literature Council, said: ‘Literature is a space of vibrant ongoing conversations. These can counter loneliness, boost the fascination of the everyday, and make its sufferings more comprehensible.’
Engaging in workshops is just one way to boost your writing and meet fellow writers. The August class will give attendees the chance to create stories prompted by the portraits around them – writing takes place in the gallery.
The ‘A Room of My Own’ survey found two thirds of writers value peer support and emotional support as much as having their own space and financial security.
And if you experience social exclusion or barriers to publication, writing can be even more of an uphill struggle.
‘…people with a disability or long-term health condition, people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, people from particular geographic regions of the UK, and people who self-identify as working class are disproportionately affected by the conditions of a writing life.’
This free and informal session is open to everyone and is designed to provide a few hours’ escape from the isolation or stresses of everyday life. There is no pressure to have a fully formed masterpiece by the end – it’s all about flexing your creative grey matter, meeting fellow art and literature lovers, and enjoying some productive creative mindfulness.
This work is part of a ‘Combating Loneliness in Later Life’ project funded by the West Midlands Museum Development Fund, which is managed by Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust with funding from Arts Council England.
The first in a series of blog posts examining how the publishing industry is engaging marginalised writers. We examine the role of development agencies and how bursaries only go so far in addressing the inclusivity issue. We also hear how one publishing professional believes more understanding is needed, particularly regarding complex health issues affecting writers…
Creative Future was launched in 2007 to increase opportunities for underrepresented artists and writers.
The organisation describes itself as ‘a bridge from the margins to the mainstream, a catalyst for individual change, enabling people to use their creative talent to change lives.’
It provides access to opportunities, empowers people to achieve positive change, and encourages greater diversity in the arts.
But what is the reality on the ground, day-to-day for a development agency like Creative Future? How much change have they seen? And what more can be done, not only to bring new art and writing to new audiences, but to persuade the publishing industry, and creative industries at large, that underrepresented voices need to be heard?
Matt Freidson, Deputy Director of Creative Future, said: ‘In terms of publishing, it’s a learning curve. They need books that are going to sell, but at the same time we’re seeing that they seem increasingly interested in engaging with people who are marginalised, and that is a major positive.
‘They are very interested in new voices.’
But it isn’t just a straightforward case of increasing the number of inclusivity schemes or offering bursaries and scholarships to find those new voices.
‘There are multiple issues going on with writers who experience ill health or disability or who are marginalised in some way,’ Matt says.
‘There’s often a cost to attend literary events, and so organisers will introduce bursary schemes. But applying for bursaries can be complicated, or even somewhat demeaning. And every time a writer wants to go to an event, they are going to have to apply. And sometimes that writer will feel they can’t go through the application process again.
‘Also, even with half price places, even with no cost at all, without travel reimbursement a writer may not be able to attend on the day—particularly for a prestigious festival or opportunity which might be halfway across the country.
‘Confidence is another huge issue. Someone said to me recently about a workshop we were holding, ‘I wasn’t sure if I was going to come… even this morning I wasn’t sure.’’
Creative Future have come up with a very simple solution. They phone everyone who has booked onto one of their workshops, before the class, to see how they are.
‘We find that people feel so much better for a call, and will be more likely to attend because we phoned them.’
It’s offering that small gesture of encouragement that can make all the difference, because these are people who are affected every single day by physical illness, anxiety or depression.
Stigma at events can also be an issue, because even though organisers may have done what they see as being ‘the right thing’ in offering a bursary scheme, the reality on the day can be uncomfortable due to pockets of ignorance.
‘It’s not like you have a sticker on you saying you’ve had a bursary, but people may nevertheless feel embarrassed or left out,’ Matt says. ‘They may not have that much in common with other people at the event they’re attending. And if people have an invisible disability, it can be even worse. We had one person speak to a box office, and the ticket seller turned round and questioned whether they should be getting a discounted ticket.
‘I mean, seriously?’
This reaction is quite common, apparently.
‘Publishing professionals may question how someone can get on a stage to receive an award, or speak so articulately, or have such an impressive talent.
‘Are they supposed to go up on stage in a potato sack?’
Although there can be some very progressive schemes, and certainly increasing attempts at engaging with marginalised groups, problems remain. And the problems seem to be to do more with a lack of understanding than anything else.
So, what is at the heart of this inability to ‘get it’? Why are people in publishing, whilst on the one hand clearly trying to reach out to marginalised writers, also less than understanding in some situations?
The problem, Matt believes, is with the complexity of the issues at stake.
‘Disability is too much of a blanket term. It’s far more complex than that. And within publishing there can be a lot of bandwagonism around diversity. Ethnic minorities are one example, and working-class writers are another.
‘At Creative Future, we find mental health is our biggest group, but you don’t see a lot of support for writers with mental health issues out there.
‘And sadly, we find that putting on ‘special’ events, awards and workshops doesn’t necessarily lead to mainstream inclusion. One of the reasons for this is that the industry defines ‘underrepresented’ as just one thing, when of course, it is many things.
‘And there’s a clear lack of understanding. I saw a situation recently where a group of writers with mental health issues were each asked to produce a 500-word bio in three days. You can’t champion the work of people with high levels of anxiety and mental health issues by directly exacerbating their conditions.’
But aren’t aspects of event organising, preparing for readings and launches, inherently last minute?
‘Well, I think we could still give people a schedule, and then they can plan ahead and know what is happening. This is especially the case with people with mental health problems. You need to work with them more closely.’
Is training the answer?
‘Training is always specific and bespoke, and so there’s no umbrella approach,’ Matt observes. ‘One day I could be getting a request for training from a theatre on awareness of physical disabilities, and the next day a writing agency on mental health awareness. Designing training becomes extremely complex, because there’s no ‘one size fits all’. You can’t just go in and give a basic diversity workshop.’
Centralising certain systems would help, Matt says.
‘I keep coming back to how every bursary scheme with an application process requires proof. Is it impossible for there to be one national central registration process, so people only have to do it once?
‘But increasingly I’m realising the publishing world and the development agency world are two different things.
‘The publishing industry has greater relative resources than writing development agencies. Development agencies need high levels of motivation to secure funding to advance diversity in very straitened and competitive times.
‘As funding is usually time-limited, initiatives have the tendency to be one-off rather than part of ongoing, mainstream work and programming.’
What is encouraging is the gradual sea change in society. We are seeing more disabled people in storylines on television and in film, more people with disabilities in advertising; people being themselves, rather than some preconceived notion of what a disabled person should be, or what role they should play.
Some of it – particularly in the advertising world – is cynical virtue signalling, Matt agrees, but he observes:
‘Even if there are cynical reasons for doing it, it’s cool that they’re doing it, right?’
And one thing is very clear to him.
‘Uncovering the stories that haven’t yet been told is the way forward.’
When I first became ill in 2005, I didn’t cope very well. It was like a car crash, followed by a long spell of bereavement as I struggled to adjust to altered physical and mental functioning.
Misdiagnosed more times than I care to remember, I was eventually told what was considered to be wrong with me. I had ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For a while, it consumed me. I built a whole new identity around this seemingly important information.
I joined a support group, got all the leaflets, read up on research… and became a crashing bore.
I was isolated and extremely lonely, and found that people who had previously been good friends just melted away. Eventually, when I rediscovered my equilibrium, many of them returned. They will tell you I was very, very angry. At everything.
One thing that helped enormously in the months and years that followed was blogging. I blogged about my battles with the NHS and adult social care, about being a single mum, about my legal fight to stop my son becoming a young carer, how at times I felt my son may be taken away from me.
I blogged about my 18-month wait for a wheelchair, about negative reactions in the street once I had one, about indifferent agency workers who would belittle and humiliate me in my own home.
And I blogged about identity. Who was I now? It took me many years to work that one out. I progressed to blogging about disability politics, eventually writing for BBC Ouch.
Encountering the Social Model of Disability led to a new and enduring take on my own health. The Social Model position is that people are disabled by society, not by their illness.
This discovery, which led me away from the doctors and away from reading up on ‘my illness’ had a profound effect, and marked a total shift in my sense of self. I ended up leaving the support group. To this day, I don’t read anything about ME although I am aware I still have a propensity for fatigue.
I used the wheelchair for as long as was necessary, and then put it away. I had a Motability car, and gave it back when my health improved. My condition fluctuates and is invisible, two reasons why many people are turned down for disability benefits. I’ve always had to fight for mine, like many other people in Britain today.
The Social Model also helped me conclude that I am an incidentalist. I believe more people with disabilities should be visible in art, in films, on tv, and in books. But not through an able-bodied lens or playing to the usual types. They should just be around, as they are in daily life, being themselves.
And being yourself with an illness or disability, to me, is about being who you have always been. I am my own incidentalist. I try to keep my Self at the fore, and my health as a not-very-important background detail.
For others, disability is very much part of their identity. People have different ways of interpreting who they are, and how they exist in the world. The one thing I learned from all those years of blogging is that ‘people with disabilities’ are not a single entity. People within each individual disability are extraordinarily different.
Of course they are. Of course everyone is different. And just as working-class writers will point out that they don’t have to write to a preconceived set of ‘working-class preoccupations’, so writers with disabilities should similarly be free to write about whatever they like.
We are all gloriously imperfect, contradictory, multifaceted and unique.
And so art and writing, film and television should reflect this every time disability, like class, is part of the narrative.
I am proud to be one of a group of writers who created this site to explore how ill health, disability or caring responsibilities can impact on your writing life. And I remain certain that it is negative perceptions – how disabled people are treated in society – that need tackling more than anything.
But there’s also individual work we can all do to improve how we look after ourselves, how we relate to ill health, and how we can all find new meaning in the everyday.
By offering a space away from the fast lane of social media, we hope you’ll find much to think about within these pages. And we hope a little of it helps.