Fear of Words by Helen Donohoe

Writing and publishing is overwhelmingly a world set apart from the working class. But show me a profession that isn’t? So much needs to change and publishing has so much to gain.

There were barely any books in our home. Once a year the comic story books Oor Wullie and The Broons would arrive in the post from family in Scotland. There were Blue Peter annuals at Christmas and my Irish mum must have had a Bible tucked somewhere. But we didn’t have ‘proper’ books. There was no bookshop near my hometown. What money my dad earned from shop-fitting and my mum from cleaning jobs and factory night-shifts occasionally brought in the Daily Mirror, but no more.

So I grew up surrounded by stories but intimidated by the written word.

We had the classic Irish and Scottish tradition of verbal story telling in abundance – mine was a huge, sociable and funny extended family. I was also brought up by the narratives of folk and country music.

I learnt to tell a good story, with comedy timing, but I couldn’t spell, my grammar was (and remains) atrocious and at school I was kept at the back of the room with the other scruffy kids.

We weren’t allowed pens (pencils only) and it was assumed we didn’t do books. We were written off before we’d had a chance to get started.

I was curious though. Despite my appearance (a school-dress wearing football obsessive who was regularly chastised for beating up boys) I wanted to know what books had to offer. So, as I approached my teens, I quietly accumulated a few books via jumble sales. Something made me afraid to read pure fiction, so I started with Every Girls Judo and A Beginners Guide to Fishing. I read both, not with ease, but I became better at fighting and catching carp. But, they weren’t enough. I wanted stories. I had a curiosity about other people’s lives and how they compared to mine. So, I acquired battered books about Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Pippi Longstocking. Those three sat proudly on my little shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to read them.

Whenever I picked up a novel I would read the first line then turn immediately to the back page to see how things worked out. It took me years to break that habit and it was a revelation when I finally enjoyed the evolution of a good book and saw how an enthralling story develops and grows.

The first novel that allowed me to do that was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. The honest, concise writing, with words that I could relate to and understand, was an inspiration. From there I scoffed up every word he’s ever written.

I saw that stories about vulnerability and human relations are valid and can be built from personal experience and, if I were to ever write, it’s okay for me to write about human struggles as well.

My head, however, still said no. Writing was for the privileged, those with independent money, the confident and connected. People that I’d never met before.

But it eats away at you. I’m an introvert with things to say and writing is my natural home. So, for many years I tried to read more. I read books about reading, books about writing and, from the safety of my kitchen, I signed up to an online writing course. It was affordable and pretty much anonymous; a perfect introduction to the terrifying prospect of having somebody else read my writing.

It remained a sideline while my paid work, young children and dependent parents were my priority. I had a job that in many ways fulfilled my need to tell the stories of the disadvantaged. I worked for Action for Children, a charity that with some of the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK.  Nonetheless, the itch to write, to create complex characters and take them on a journey, would not fade.

There were a number of catalysts that led me to a single minded determination to get on with it. I turned forty. My Mum was diagnosed with a serious illness and having snapped my Achilles, I spent months in bed.

From there I read extensively, but also burned with rage as I listened to the middle class monotone of Radio 4 and kept asking myself, where are the people like me?

So, with blind courage, I walked into the open evening at City University. Did I have to be well-read? Did I have to be published? Did I have to be… I asked of the course Director. Whatever he said must have reassured me. I applied. I blagged the interview and through a process that felt like jumping out of a plane without parachute, I put the fees on a credit card and took the plunge.

The City University creative writing MA requires a complete novel manuscript to be written. I needed that discipline. The environment was competitive but collegiate and my fears of humiliation were unfounded. My tutors were inspiring and exasperated in equal measure (I struggled with grammar and some novel writing basics). However, they saw in me, not finesse, but a decent story and a determination to tell it.

From there Birdy Flynn arrived in her naïve, vulnerable but fighting glory. I wrote the story that I wanted to read when I was thirteen with honesty and realism.

I won the course prize. With that came representation and with much more work came publication through Oneworld, a publisher with proven commitment to diversity.

Birdy Flynn was turned down by many more though. It was ‘too dark’ for some.

It’s not dark, it’s real and actually softened up. I was astonished to be asked, ‘do people really live like that?’ Yes they do.

Throughout that process my suspicions and fears were confirmed.

Writing and publishing is overwhelmingly a world set apart from the working class. But show me a profession that isn’t?

My career in the charity world has been just as fraught with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

Tragically, social mobility in this country is whimpering.

So much needs to change and publishing has so much to gain.

An industry that depends on original, compelling stories must open its eyes to the rich seam of authentic working class voices that it has yet to mine.

Helen Donohoe

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a personal coach.

My debut novel, Birdy Flynn was published by Oneworld in March 2017. It’s set in 1982 and covers three turbulent months in the life of a feisty twelve year old.

Pre-order Birdy Flynn at Amazon

I’m passionate about personal development and so I teach creative writing to children and provide one to one mentoring to adults who want to write. I also practice as a personal coach for individuals who want to make the most of their life, be it career based or creative, or both.

My roots are Irish and Scottish but I have lived in north London for over twenty years. I’m interchangeably obsessed with curry, Arsenal FC, good Guinness and books.


Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

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