Stuart White, a Glasgow writer of YA and Middle-grade began a free summer mentoring programme for children’s writers from around the world. He called it #WriteMentor. The scheme paired agented writers with those looking to submit their manuscripts to agents. The ‘pay it forward’ mentally was attractive to those who wanted to gain experience as a writing mentor and those who may not have been able to afford or access expensive children’s writing programmes or mentoring which costs hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pounds.
Stuart has created an online community that offers support, practical advice for getting an agent and also a space where people with disabilities and mental health issues can feel included. By using social media and online forums, Stuart has levelled the playing field for writers who may be disadvantaged by financial means or physical/mental health issues. Many of the larger well known courses for children’s writers involved travelling to large cities and spending thousands of pounds. For carers, parents, those working full-time or those who are housebound, #WriteMentor and it’s new online conference has been a breath of fresh air.
Fast forward a year and #WriteMentor has grown substantially. Stuart has created an online conference for children’s writers. Thank you to Stuart for answering a few questions about the exciting new conference that is accessible to all.
Wow-Con 20th-22nd September 2019
Why did you decide to do an online conference for children’s writers?
One of my good friends was chatting to me about the frustrations of being a children’s writer but never being able to go to conferences or agent 1-2-1 events because of a chronic illness which means she’s housebound most of the time. My personality is very much, if I can fix something I’ll do it, so I organised the online con, so ANYONE (with a computer!) can attend a conference.
What kind of things can people expect from the conference?
We have 8 excellent speakers, 20 superb and varied workshops and 12 blog posts on topics ranging from mental wellbeing to physical health obstacles and how to still be a writer, while managing all of those.
We also have an online pitch contest on the Saturday, WOW-PITCH which will be judged by 3 literary agents in 3 different categories with prizes for those winners. We also have a recorded video of a discussion panel on the benefits of mentorship and we talk with 3 graduated #WriteMentor programme mentees who have now got agents and book deals since the 2018 programme.
Has your own health and personal experience influenced you to do things like #WriteMentor and Wow-Con?
I personally suffer from two autoimmune chronic illnesses and while I’m not massively physically impaired, I live in Glasgow, so getting to any UK conference is difficult, due to money, family responsibilities and working full-time.
How much is Wow-Con and how can writers book a place?
It’s £10 for a general admission ticket – that gets you all 8 speakers, the 12 blog posts and a chance to take part in WOW-PITCH.
The workshops are £10 each, and last 1 hour, all online and via a text platform, so no need for your face to appear on video!
And agent 1-2-1s (which are selling fast) are £25 for 15 minutes on Skype (or equivalent) where the agent will read your opening pages and give you feedback.
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.’
Meet George Bastow, a writer, blogger, journalist and all-round creative type who rolls through life on a rather snazzy set of wheels.
To learn why he navigates the world on four tyres as opposed to the standard two-footed method, we need to go back in time to the pre-smartphone era of 22 years ago…
On 11th January 1997, I made my entrance into this wonderfully chaotic world of ours in a fittingly chaotic manner.
Thanks to a long list of complications and more medical drama than a Holby City Christmas special, I was born 11 weeks prematurely and starved of oxygen at birth. When the doctors removed me via emergency C-section, they discovered that I was in fact quite dead. Tiny, tinged blue, and utterly lifeless.
My prognosis was extremely stark and my mum was told that on the off chance I did pull through, I would be nothing more than a “vegetable.” Clearly political correctness hadn’t quite caught on back then. Fortunately, I managed to survive but, as predicted, I was far from unscathed.
As a result of the traumatic circumstances surrounding my birth, my newborn brain suffered considerable damage, leaving me with a condition called quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
CP is very complex, and it affects each individual differently, but in my case it means the part of my brain which is supposed to send signals to my body, telling it to operate in the traditional mobile manner, is thoroughly kaput. My disability affects every muscle in my body, all four of my limbs and makes me a full-time wheelchair user. The most obvious aspects of the condition are my inability to walk and severely limited motor skills, however these are merely the tip of my CP iceberg.
The complex neurological and physiological complications of my disability mean that my body and mind feel, and often behave, like they are in constant conflict. The mind and body of your average non-disabled person work together like a classic showbiz double act, performing in perfect professional unity day in and day out. My mind and body are like an old married couple, incessantly squabbling for the sake of habit. This analogy makes itself apparent in CP’s multitude of side effects that include muscle spasms, weak immune system and intense bouts of fatigue.
Muscle spasms are particularly irksome things. They can occur at any time and execute a reign of malfunctioning terror upon whichever muscle groups they wish to target. Spasms can take many forms, depending on their level of intensity and chosen body part. For example, when getting a spasm in my arms, one or both of them will begin to twitch violently causing the unsuspecting upper limb (or limbs) to shoot upwards or side ways in a frantically uncontrollable fashion. Any bystander would be forgiven for thinking I was trying to direct imaginary traffic or signalling the pilot of a low-flying aircraft to make an emergency landing. If only the reality was that interesting.
The spasms in my lower limbs are equally unpredictable. My legs will suddenly wake from their usual lead-heavy sleep and begin to frantically convulse, sending sharp muscular vibrations from the top of my hip to the tip of my toes. They can do this singularly or as a duo depending on the mood of my permanently disgruntled body. Sometimes the spasms are isolated to my ankle and foot. When this happens, my foot (or feet) will start knocking mercilessly against the footplate of my wheelchair. I often wonder whether this is my body’s way of thoughtfully tapping out an impromptu jazz solo to add a frisson of culture to my day.
Another consequence of my premature arrival was respiratory distress syndrome. A diagnosis that roughly translates as ‘born too soon, lungs underdeveloped, best of luck for the future.’
It has left me with asthma and a low immune system that mutates every sniffle into a full-blown chest infection and enables the smallest tickly cough to metamorphose into a rasping hack. All my life, germs have gravitated to me like moths to a candle. I’ve had more viruses than a reconditioned laptop and I practically have to be quarantined during flu season. I can’t venture beyond my doorstep unless I’m wrapped up like Scott of the Antarctic. I may have shockingly lacklustre internal defences, but my winter wardrobe is the envy of mountaineers the world over.
Fighting a constant battle against all known germs (as well as most unknown ones) can be exhausting. And then there’s the dreaded fatigue.
I have High Tone. In plain English this means that my body is in a constant state of tension. Even when I’m fully relaxed or fast asleep my muscles are naturally rigid. This perpetual stiffness is just another reality of my condition that I have grown up with and adapted to over time. It’s no big deal, at least until fatigue kicks in. The dastardly devil hits me with all the force of a tidal wave and as if by magic my muscles transform from being stiff as a poker to floppy as a fisherman’s hat. Every ounce of muscle memory that I have retained through a lifetime of physiotherapy suddenly disappears, and I become a wobbling pile of human-flavoured jelly. In this state, even my speech (the one physical ability I seem to have mastered) deserts me, and I start slurring and sputtering like a Shane McGowan tribute act.
Fortunately fatigue isn’t quite an everyday occurrence and it can be avoided, providing I get enough sleep, don’t get too hot, too cold or do anything that pushes my physical form beyond its fickle limits.
As you can see, CP stops me from doing many things. I’ll never be able to walk, run, dance or take a leisurely Saturday afternoon stroll around B&Q when I’m forty. But that’s okay because none of those things really matter. Even with CP I can still do everything that makes life worth living. I can think, feel, love, laugh, and perhaps most importantly of all I can write.
With the help of some very cool voice recognition software, I can use the written word to make sense of everything. Writing allows me to express myself coherently and definitively in a way I could never achieve physically. It enables me to make peace with and transcend my difficulties. It gives me a purpose and helps me find order amidst the chaos of life. But best of all it means I can connect with awesome people, just like you.
There are “Sliding Doors” days, and I know – every atom of my body knows – that there will be “Sliding Doors” days forevermore. They affect everyone – and everyone else around me – to greater and lesser degrees.
My “Sliding Doors” days involve a myriad of thoughts, mostly “what ifs” regarding things I may, or may not, be able to control. It is the sudden imbalance of everything that niggles. The seasick feeling of tottering – between what I am doing, and what I am not doing.
Fear. Fear that what I am doing is wrong, that what I will do forevermore will be wrong. Fear of everything suddenly ceasing to be before I have even made a commitment.
This is all natural. For me, it is even more natural. My thyroid began to fail maybe a decade or more ago with the stealth of a silent assassin, or a thief in the night. Adages, proverbs, metaphors – my magpie mind doesn’t always know which to pick from the treasury now, or even how to remember in the correct order.
A damaged thyroid and autoimmune system can send your body to places you never dreamt you would go. I am trying to pick up a fallen deck of cards, whilst attempting to play a hand of poker on a different table to the other players in the casino…and win. I have never played poker. But that doesn’t stop one from trying.
My body began to fail me when it looked relatively normal. I have looked better and worse, and better. I have lost some functions and regained others, and may lose those once more. Regardless of anything on the surface, I’m now left with complex issues that mean I have to choose what I invest my time and energy in.
How do you carry on? I can only tell you how I have adapted, and I have to be brutally honest.
The trick is to stop wasting time on the moments you can never regain, the actions you haven’t taken, the person you may not become. The “what ifs” are not the “right nows”. They are the indulgences that lurk when you are struggling. But the hard fact is this: you may not even know you are struggling, and you may put these “what ifs” down in your mental bank as dreams. They are not. The dreams we hold are actually ambition cloaked in “what ifs”. Sometimes those ambitions are overly large for our circumstances, sometimes they are expertly tailored. It isn’t that you should not have aims and ambitions, but you need to adapt them to your means and abilities. It is impossible to climb a mountain in one attempt, especially if you are not equipped for the ascent. There are no prizes for reaching the apex and dying on it.
If today is a day when you cannot move your body much, it might have to be a desk day. If your mind becomes fogged up by extreme distraction or pain, then – face it – it isn’t a desk day either. Maybe on some days we have to take away the “sliding doors” and put up some walls. It doesn’t have to be permanent. But it could be one of the best decisions you have made in your life. The decision NOT to do, the decision to linger a while and recharge.
The imbalance. The tottering. The seasickness. The reaction to sudden events or ideas. Yes, the suddenness. These feelings are occurring because you are in denial.
If you are dithering between one project and another, have the courage to invest in the one idea you can back with your whole heart and soul – even on the days when everything else is impossible. Properly invest and you will reap the dividends.
There is no universal “right time”. Even in disaster films, there is no right time to save the world…
Things happen. And **** all happens. But you don’t want **** all to happen. That would be a waste of the grand plan. And by The Grand Plan, I mean Your Grand Plan. Because that plan has now been explained to me – and it’s pretty much this: it’s the fact that we are alive that’s the miracle, not necessarily the grand gestures or epic feats. Living, and being alive, is pretty damn miraculous. And complex. It should never be taken for granted.
My theory is that it is better to spend a little of your time out of other people’s race and try to locate your own rhythm, your own space. But don’t turn it into your own race. That would be counterproductive. As soon as you impose ridiculous restrictions on your creative work and beyond, you will find yourself disappointed at not achieving those milestones. You will eventually find yourself crushed by the prospect of your lack of ability. Which is in itself ridiculous.
Not only do we all have our own individual rhythm, we all owe it to ourselves to really locate that rhythm and work with it, in line with it, not against it.
My body began to fail because it chose to. Very little to do with lifestyle or other factors, albeit possibly some genetic factors. However, I failed my body when I stopped listening to it. I thought I was getting old in my early thirties! I thought, I thought… I should have listened.
As creative practitioners, the very least we can do for our work – from idea to page and beyond – is to zone out from the this and the that, and focus within. Find your own time. Don’t say it, do it. In this instance, words mean very little. The action is what is required. Tailored action by you for you, not the bestselling author so-and-so, not your best friend, not the man behind the deli counter. You. If you can’t face you, the chances are you don’t much like the prospect of looking at the words you’ve written on the page.
Understanding you, your body, your mind, your time, your space – this is the voyage of discovery. But the basics are sometimes the hardest to learn. No rushing. Go at your own pace. Imagine the slide of a metronome. You can speed up or slow down – it is all down to you. Your preference. Your natural rhythm. Take back control of what you can control. It will bring you endless moments of calm authority – perhaps spreading out onto the page before you.
And when you want to emerge from behind your walls, who said you cannot go through the skylight rather than the sliding doors? Find your own approach to your new situation. Because, trust me, it will all be new. All of it.
This has been written by someone, who is not by any means a success and has only just succeeded at staying alive during the course of the last couple of years. The words come from behind the walls and – on some fantastic days – from outside a skylight. All metaphorical, because, the truth is, I don’t have an actual skylight.
I was asked to speak on a panel at the National Writers Conference because I had opened up about my struggles with mental health, the double demons of depression and anxiety. Even writing that phrase ‘mental health’ makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I have never been accustomed to admitting that I was having issues functioning as a human being.
The reason I had never felt I constituted someone who had mental health problems was because I had spent a large chunk of my life supporting other relatives with their mental health journeys and in comparison, I felt what was going on with me paled in comparison.
My dad had depression for much of his life and was clinically depressed (meaning severe bouts of depression: 24 hours in bed, not eating, attempted suicide, totally cutting off from the whole world). The first time I remember him being hospitalised for depression was when I was around 8 years old. He was admitted to Rubery Hill Hospital. I was too young to really understand what was going on. All I knew was that we had to get the 63 bus up the Bristol Road to visit him. The hospital was more an asylum, with white brick walls and long ominous corridors; not the modern psychiatric units named after flowers.
A familiar pattern emerged, when a family milestones was due to happen (my brother’s impending wedding, my university graduation and my mum’s untimely death) my Dad just would shut down. This meant that one of us would have to call the GP and have him sectioned for ‘his own good’. When my mum was around, she dealt with his mental health, but when she passed away in 2003 the role passed to me. It was one I didn’t want, one I resented and one I took on until he died in 2017.
What does this have to do with my own mental health and writing? Well, it meant that for many years I could not write at all. I had the time. I was living at home with my dad and not working. I totally could have written; I could have written a lot. However, my headspace and my daily struggles meant that my creative life was non-existent. Even though I was an aspiring author in my mid-20s, the mental and emotional turmoil of having to be responsible for my dad took it’s very real toll on me. However, I never thought I was depressed. I could get up, function, see friends but it was hard to hold down a job when he was in and out of hospital and I would often have to put my dreams aside to look after him ( I flew back from living in Taipei because he had been taken by the police and sectioned).
I talked about becoming a writer for two years before I wrote anything, not only from the fear that what I would write would be absolute rubbish, but because I was grieving, a carer and really too young to be dealing with being the head of the entire family at 25 years old. My eldest brother stopped coming to see my dad when our mum passed away and the other one had disappeared from our lives many years before. I think this is the legacy of being adopted children, we were damaged from birth and our coping mechanisms involved running away from problems. But how could I run away? I was the only one left to hold everything together after mum died.
The only reason I managed to begin my writing journey in 2006 was because I moved out of our council house when Dad had been diagnosed as bipolar. I moved in with a Buddhist friend who gave me space to explore who I wanted to be. It felt like a new beginning. That was one lesson I learned at that time. If you need to change something, a situation or yourself – sometimes you need to remove yourself from the negative situation. Moving out meant I could look after my dad but from a distance.
During his manic episodes he would perform for everyone, buying rounds in the pub for strangers, asking women on the street out. He was having the time of his life in his 70s. I didn’t realise at first that he was ill, I assumed he was better and the six months he had spent in a psychiatric unit being treated for clinical depression had worked.
One of the consequences of having those experiences with my dad meant that I pushed down my own feelings and emotions. I couldn’t possibly be depressed could I? I had seen depression close up in my dad and that’s not what happened to me. Yes, I cried every couple of weeks, couldn’t hold down a job, kept flying off on holidays to visit friends to get away from my situation. But I kept telling myself I wasn’t depressed. Even when occasionally I would feel what I can only describe as despair, I would never tell anyone that I was depressed or seek help.
In 2017, I turned 40, had a wedding in Spain, moved house and country; and my dad died – all within two months. There were other stresses such as sorting out nursing homes, small car accidents, driving on the wrong side of the road when I reached the new city I was going to be living in. That was on top of other situations in my personal life (partner was sectioned multiple times with psychosis which meant more psychiatric facility visits, finding and un-finding my biological parents) that had caused me pain and the daily grind of being a housewife and mother. They sent me over the edge. In 2018, I basically had a nervous breakdown. My body was shaking probably from an overload of cortisol. I couldn’t drive the car because of the anxiety of crashing (from driving on the wrong side of the road and a few small incidents I had when my dad was ill in hospital during his last few months), I had paranoia about everything – I wanted it all to stop.
Writing, for once, was my saving grace. It was the activity that could go with me anywhere. I had cultivated more regular writing by having a mentor, Leila Rasheed who chose me as one of five writers for Megaphone and also doing The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron) when I moved to Glasgow. I had secured a great agent who believed in my writing and I really wanted to make something in my life work.
When a writing friend committed suicide in January 2019 during my own mental health crisis, I out-ed myself on a writing forum that we were part of and said I was struggling. There are some writers like Matt Haig who are well known for talking about their mental health. They get book deals from it. I didn’t necessarily see myself as any kind of mental health crusader. But I am a wellbeing advocate. I realised from opening up that nearly everybody has something going on; ‘life is suffering’ as Buddha said. We hide our real selves on social media for fear of reprisals and we carry on even though we are suffering.
I am looking forward to writing more blogs about the ways I cope when I am feeling down and how being a writer is both a blessing and also an anxiety-inducing profession.