It’s just over a year since I heard Kit de Waal on Radio 4 asking "Where Are All The Working Class Writers?". The show so precisely laid bare the two big blocks to working class writers getting their stories told: the internal problem of shame and their invisibility to an elite metropolitan industry. After crying at the radio I got it together enough to float the idea of a working class writers’ collective on Twitter. There was a big electric 'YES' pattering from keyboards across the country and the thing we most talked about was 'what can we do right now?’ but it’s taken me a year to find the answer: make a plan.
I know, it doesn't have that revolutionary twang to it:
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
"It’s not a deadline sort of thing."
Like the beginning of a story, a plan starts as a breadcrumb trail into the woods. What I hope is that many folk will follow the plan together, sharing experiences so that the breadcrumb trail becomes a path for more of us to follow and in this way we form a ‘collective’.
I’m meeting folk, gathering stories and trying to get to grips with what being working class means now to find out what writers need. A big part of the solution is a plan but it can’t just be a goal setting exercise. The barriers aren't only about industry—they are personal. There is an unmistakeable pattern in the writers’ stories I’ve heard: the need to escape into books, secret reading becomes secret writing and just as the creative-self emerges, it gets damaged. The embryonic writer is told "this is not for someone like you" or worse, they cut off their creative self to get a ‘proper job’ or break themselves trying to break into the edifice of the industry.
In fairy tales we call this moment the ‘wounding’, the maiden’s hands are cut off or the selkie’s skin is stolen. Fairytales show us how a hero must learn to work with the damage. In story transformation is supported by structure, in reality we need a plan.
Last year I attended a lot of events for emerging writers and it was when I stopped talking like a writer and put my development head on that folk really started to listen. It was at Penguin Random House’s Write Now event for underrepresented writers that I first floated the idea of a development plan. I’d been asked "what support is out there for writers?". I stalled. There was lots of support but why don’t writers, including myself feel we can ask for it? Because coming from disadvantaged backgrounds we first ask for permission to write. Asking for permission is not the same as asking for what we need. It’s always a compromise. We ask for what will cost the giver the least not what will meet our needs. So the question then becomes how do we work out what we really need? Answer: a plan. Using my skills as a development fundraiser I’ve designed a simple plan to help us focus on what we need and how to get it. With my writer-head on I’ve built in the personal as well as the practical dimensions to the journey.
I want to help to give you a route map through the writing woods but as in all fairytales, we can’t do as we’re told and stick to the path because there isn’t a path for us yet, we have to make it together. If you want to go for it then we are starting as lost children willing to follow just a breadcrumb trail into the woods, leaving our own experiences behind us until the trail becomes ‘the way’. So I really need to hear from you if you take part, of it works for you, if you have your own plan: let me know @Kalamene. (Although I’ve based this on my needs as a working class writer, the model lends itself to all writers who, for whatever reason, do not feel entitled to be a story teller.)
So here it is…
The Writer’s Plan
Over the next five weekly blogs we'll be taking these steps into the woods:
1. Where am I now?
2. Where do I want to be?
3. What’s stopping me?
4. What do I need to do to get there?
5. Who can help?
The plan is best done with a writing buddy, every Hansel needs a Gretel, a trusted someone who will encourage you to be proud of all you’ve achieved and to dream big about what you really want. You can also swap and be their buddy, pooling your knowledge and experience. Book a time and a place to meet for each question, ensure that it’s somewhere you can talk openly. You will also need biscuits and some form of warm beverage, writing paraphernalia (yes you can get a special new notebook) and now you’re ready work through Step 1.
The Writer's Plan Step 1
1. Where am I now?
This step is all about lists, I love a good list. You’ll be charting and celebrating where you are starting from to properly inform what your next steps will be. It’s so important to see all of the skills and lessons you bring with you from within and beyond the writing world. These are the skills you’ll take with you to make your writing happen. Think of this step as packing your bag for the journey with everything you need.
What to do?
List what you have done so far, even if it’s ‘I submitted a story but didn’t get placed.’ I purposefully say 'done' here and not 'achieved'. This section is about the work you've put in not about whether it's paid off in the form of prizes and publications. One of the biggest threats to getting going is focusing on what you haven't done, and as my Irish mum would say 'I wouldn't start from here if I were you'.
All of the work you do contributes to becoming a stronger writer. I entered New Writing North’s Northern Promise Award three times before finally winning, each of those entries pushed me harder to write better.
List any learning or development activities you took part in last year, the big lessons, breakthroughs and what worked well for you.
List the writers (a mix of past and present) that inspire you and what resonates with you about their work (a top five will do or this may turn into a full packet of biscuits task).
Very few writers have the luxury of just writing, we have day jobs, family, commitments and we steal time to write. All of these experiences equip us to be good and uniquely forged writers. So you’re going to list your full spectrum of skills. Draw three columns. In the first column list all of the jobs you’ve done (yes, even the ones you leave off your CV like that bar job in that dodgy club) and this includes being a parent or carer. In the second column list the skills, experiences and knowledge you've picked up from these roles (I know a lot about bouncers now). In the final column copy the skills and bits that cross-over and can feed into writing: e.g. stamina, good preparation, good with people. There will be many, especially if you don't censor yourself, so talk your experiences through with your buddy and include all that are relevant.
When I look back now I realise that I write the way I do because I'm channeling of all of the experiences I've had into it. Even my year and a half as a chocolatier taught me to invest the greater part of my time in preparation.
By the end of Step 1 you'll have an overview of where you are now, the skills and experiences that you are starting with. It's not an exercise to work out your gaps, it is a celebration of who you are as a writer and what unique perspectives you bring to it.
Yay! you’ve packed your bag full of all of the writer equivalent of dry socks, emergency chocolate and base layers you need to set off. Now celebrate having completed Step 1, get the good biscuits out.
Kickass reading for section 1: Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys.
If you want to be part of an active community of writers working together then please share your planning highlights using #thewplan or @Kalamene.
As a extra incentive to get going I’m offering a one hour Skype call to be your writing buddy and get you started. Tweet #thewplanbuddy to @Kalamene and I will select a winner at random.
Next up Step 2—'Where do I want to be?’—on 19th February 2019, where we will plan our route into the woods.
Carmen Marcus is a working class writer and performance poet from North Yorkshire. Her novel How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017, it won New Writing North’s Northern Promise Award and was long listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018. Her poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. She is a creative practitioner and speaker who regularly delivers events and workshops on writing craft and industry. She is dedicated to sharing the voices of under-represented writers, you can find out more at nowriterleftbehind.wordpress.com. She is currently working on her second novel The Bait Boy and her ACE funded poetry project The Book of Godless Verse.