Last week, an author sent me a publicity questionnaire from her publisher so I could review her answers and insert a few sparkling adjectives wherever my name appeared. But then I reached the part where the author was asked how she got into writing, and I stopped cold. Here’s how she began:
I don’t come from the kind of background where people become writers.
I don’t come from that kind of family; I didn’t go to that kind of school. If you’d said you wanted to be a writer, people would have looked at you like you were nuts . . . but you wouldn’t have said it in the first place; the idea that you could do that just did not exist.
[Creative Writing wasn’t even a possibility at A-Level] The thing I wanted to do most in the world was not available. It did not exist. Writing stories was obviously not an option as a career choice. Writing stories must be a thing only kids did, like skipping or playing hopscotch. Writing stories had no value.
That’s how I felt about it – I didn’t know any different – and I was devastated. I tried to forget all about creative writing and very nearly succeeded. For a long time after that, my own life didn’t fit me.
This struck me hard: the idea that someone might have to fight against all expectations and circumstances just to start writing. Writing can be a lonely pursuit at the best of times; how much harder must it be for those who have no support?
Later that same week I went to a seminar at the London Book Fair led by Malorie Blackman, who was asked how she felt about the racial diversity of children’s authors and books. This was something that she believed had regressed over the last few decades – there seem to be fewer black or Asian writers for children now, and even fewer main characters for readers to recognise and relate to. Does writing as a career seem like less of a possibility if you’re not white? (It’s worth listening to this episode of Woman’s Hour in which authors Tanya Byrne and Phil Earle discuss this further.)
The questionnaire and seminar both made me all the gladder for having signed up with the WoMentoring Project: the brainchild of Scottish author Kerry Hudson, WoMentoring aims to offer help to female writers who would otherwise not have access to support. Although it’s a project set up to redress a gender imbalance in publishing, my personal hope is that it will act on other imbalances too – race, class, household income, cultural tradition, schooling – because there must be some overlap in the perceived lack of opportunity there.
Launched yesterday, WoMentoring now has around sixty mentors from all spheres of publishing – writers, editors, agents, consultants, teachers – ready to offer their expertise for free. There are of course plenty of other fantastic resources for aspiring writers, but it feels important and beautiful to also have this tiny steam-powered project do what it can for those who think perhaps they can’t.
And what happened to the author who didn’t come from the kind of background where people became writers? 100 odd jobs later (and I mean 100, and I mean odd), she decided enough was enough: she saved enough money to take some time off, sat down and WROTE. In two months, she had a first draft of a YA novel that within another two months had been sold in a bidding war to Macmillan UK; she now has publishing deals in the US, Germany, France and Turkey, and you can read Virginia Bergin’s THE RAIN when it comes out in July this year.