Mentoring matters

Mentoring matters

I set up The Middle Way Mentoring Project, a two year professional development scheme, to support early-career writers take the next step in their writing career.

Through my work managing a small press I met plenty of ‘nearly there’ writers who weren’t able to take the next step. These writers are often stuck in an endless cycle of attending workshop after workshop, while some go on to doing an MA while never quite making the leap to publication, others simply give up.

Being a writer based in Leicester, I know first-hand the challenges of trying to sustain a writing practice when there is little infrastructure to support your endeavours. With only a handful of organisations to turn to for help, it can be tricky to find your tribe. I noticed that little was being done to boost the skills of writers who were like me: from culturally diverse backgrounds outside of the capital who were at an earlier stage in their career. I began to explore what writers needed to develop their craft and build a sustainable writing practice.

I discovered that there was no shortage of talent in our region. Writers I spoke to had ambitions to write, in some cases had been writing without much success. They often lacked two things: the confidence to understand what they were trying to achieve, and little or no access to professional networks that might help support them.

The idea behind The Middle Way project was to bring together new voices with established writers in a space that focused on craft and process. The scheme consisted of monthly masterclasses and a twelve-month long mentoring programme modelled on the guidance set out by Sara Maitland in her book, The Write Guide: Mentoring.

Masterclasses led by mentors, gave writers the opportunity to try out new creative approaches and offer some respite from the work they were developing with their mentors. Some of the sessions were purposely designed to help 'unlearn' what they'd picked up about what it means to be a writer. In the second year classes focused on understanding how publishing works. With no focus on a genre or form, novelists worked side by side with short story writers and those who were writing their memoirs.

Writers met at the University of Leicester's CAMEo offices, a stone's throw away from London Road – a mile-long strip of restaurants and dessert parlours where the cohort occasionally gathered. Buddying up and tea breaks where writers shared their experiences was enhanced with the use of online tools, such as Slack which helped them to connect outside of formal classes and cement their learning.

There was no expectation on writers to produce a substantial work, though we did produce an anthology showcasing new and original writing produced during the scheme. This was an important aspect of the programme’s design. Without the burden of having to produce a longer work, writers were free to push their practice and take risks which they might not have done otherwise.

The programme was managed as an individual project to help us all connect as peers without the hierarchal structures that can sometimes stifle creativity. I was conscious that such spaces can sometimes be overwhelming. It was therefore important for writers to feel in control and take creative risks in the context of a supportive environment. As a mentee-led scheme, writers were in the driving seat when it came to arranging mentoring sessions, as and when they needed them. 

I’m not sure what success looks like for a scheme such as this but now it has come to an end, the cohort continue to support each other. Recently, one of our mentees secured representation with a literary agent, another was chosen to take part in the DHA Open week. They’ve all left with a feeling that their writing ambitions are within reach.

Writers need support at an early stage – not only to help them develop their writing skills but to give them the confidence to navigate their careers. But sadly, industry efforts to develop writing talent from culturally diverse backgrounds remains heavily focused on writers who are almost ready for publication. This seems like a missed opportunity because those who may not see themselves reflected or call themselves writers oftentimes have exactly the stories we are looking to publish. Without access to the right support network it is inevitable that many of these writers will simply give up and their stories will remain untold.

If publishers are truly committed to serving a diverse readership than they must begin to support grassroots projects such as ours, forge new collaborations, and invest in the new voices who are at the heart of their business.

The Middle Way Mentoring project was funded by Arts Council England and delivered with a number of regional partners, including University of Leicester, Writing West Midlands and Writing East Midlands. Visit the project website at http://middlewaymentoring.co.uk/ and contact Farhana to support the next round.