Castles vs Council Estates: Where do writers come from? By E.R. Murray

Finding a writing tribe, made up of people at the same level as me, as passionate and determined as I was, proved the ultimate breakthrough.

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Writers were rich and lived in castles and could never, ever, come from anywhere like the council estate I grew up in. This was what I believed as a child. I was an avid bookworm in a house without books and I had never met an author. But I had dreamed of being a writer; from a young age I loved poetry and when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say a teacher or a poet. And then, my audience would laugh.

Looking back, why wouldn’t they? It was hilarious that a kid in Thatcher’s Britain, queuing up at the food bank for free slabs of butter and cheese wearing hand-me-downs, would dare to hope for such a thing. People were out of work and fighting to get by; they weren’t meant to dream or aspire. ‘Put up and shut up,’ was an everyday motto. But it was never a mindset I could comprehend.

There is always room for daring, even when others are trying to stamp it out of you.

I soon learned that if I wanted to break free from poverty, education was my way out. That became my sole focus. I wanted the freedom that an education could provide. I was the first in my family to get GCSEs, and then A-Levels. I continued to love books and poetry and to write. I even got a poem published but was too poor to buy the anthology and had to beg the college bursary for funds to get a copy. Writing wasn’t an option if I wanted to improve my life.

I went on to study Classics, working full time while studying full time, and then I became a teacher.

I talked to pupils about dreaming big and reaching for those dreams – I didn’t want them to be laughed at for their aspirations – but at the same time, I was ignoring my own.

As working life and financial worries took over – trying to pay back student loans while keeping on top of bills – I stopped writing altogether, but I never stopped reading. And oh the places those books could still transport me to.

Many years later, in my late twenties and onto my third career, I was made redundant. Suddenly I was in a reasonably stable financial situation with time on my hands to figure out what to do next. Unexpectedly, I began to write. Badly, and in secret, but it brought me joy that I hadn’t experienced for many, many years. I hadn’t felt that kind of freedom and satisfaction since penning murders, mysteries and modern myths as a kid. Plus, all the other life lessons – both good and bad – fed into my work and gave it grit and sparks.

But something else had happened that made writing more accessible: the internet.

I was living in Spain at this point and the internet becoming a normal, household entity opened up many opportunities that previously hadn’t existed. I could read about and listen to other writers, contact them with questions, devour journals from all over the world. I could interact with writing and writers in a way that had never been possible before. This led to setting up a blog and, as my writing improved, I began to send it out.

Over time, short fiction, haiku and poems were accepted. And I began to make friends with other aspiring writers.

Finding a writing tribe, made up of people at the same level as me, as passionate and determined as I was, proved the ultimate breakthrough.

When I returned to work, writing had become a habit and part of daily life, so this time, it didn’t slip away. Entering competitions and submitting to journals was met with increasing success, and writing gripped my heart stronger than ever. I thought about how much books had always meant to me, and on a whim, I tried the NanoWrimo challenge of writing a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days.

It was difficult and tormenting and exhilarating and I was hooked.

But when work took me to Ireland, that’s when things really took off.

In Ireland, the writing world opened up to me completely. Firstly, when I opened my mouth, my accent did not position me as part of Thatcher’s ‘underclass’, so there were no preconceived ideas or a lack of expectation. I was now financially secure – in a job I hated –and there was a huge community of real, flesh and blood writers; the first I’d ever met. These writers were friendly and encouraging and not just dreaming – they were writing.

I remember the day I realised that I could be a writer. I was standing in Grafton Street, staring into the window of Dubray books as one of the staff changed the book display. And I thought, imagine that, having a book published.

And then it hit me – why imagine? Why stay in a job I hated when I could be using it to fund a (potential) future career as a writer? So that’s exactly what I did.

I attended workshops, launches, talks, readings, and I saved. I immersed myself in the writing world, writing draft after draft, while building up money in the bank to sustain me for a while if I was ever brave enough to take the leap and focus on the one thing I really wanted to do. I was in my early thirties and my dedication produced a book that was good enough to secure an agent.

So I finally leapt and the writing world swept me up. It all took off from there.

It was a calculated risk, and it paid off. I now have four books on the shelves and some awards and shortlists under my belt. I workshop with children, teens and adults and also teach online. I provide reader reports and travel to interesting places on residencies to write. But I still attend workshops too. I continue to listen and learn. And all the while, I work while I write. And I see this as a gift, because it means I am not reliant on my books for a living and there’s a certain freedom to that.

And guess what? Having a tougher upbringing prepared me for the pitfalls of the writing life and helped me stay strong. Life had taught me to:

• handle rejection

• manage on a small budget

• expect not to win first time

• multi-task efficiently

• keep going when things get tough

• trust in hard work.

They say there’s no such thing as an overnight success and I agree. Behind every writer there are many years of hard work and grind, learning and losing and picking up the pieces when rejected time and again.

The strength to choose to do what you love can only come from inside you, and no matter your circumstances, it’s up to you to find that strength and direct it towards what really matters in your heart and soul.

It took a long time for me to find a way to support myself to write, but I believe that if you want it badly enough, if you trust in yourself enough and work for it, you’ll make it happen.

Writers might live in castles and they might be rich. But writers can also come from council estates and cul-de-sacs, caravans and inner city high rises, and more than ever, I think we need to hear these voices – so why shouldn’t one of those voices be yours?

Bio:

Elizabeth Rose Murray lives is from Southbank, Middlesbrough and now lives in West Cork, Ireland. She writes short fiction, essays and novels for children and young adults. The first book in her Nine Lives Trilogy, The Book of Learning, was the 2016 Dublin UNESCO Citywide Read for Children. The second, The Book of Shadows, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards and the Irish Children’s Literacy Association. The third, The Book of Revenge is published on Feb 14th 2018. Her young adult book Caramel Hearts was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. She has been published in multiple anthologies and journals in Europe and Australia, and recent short story publications include The Elysian: Creative Responses (New Binary Press) and Reading the Future (Arlen House).

A Bright Spark, Buried Deep by Lee Stuart Evans

Books and films and music, the clothes and trains and moody girls, slender threads which have somehow been pulled together to capture and captivate him.

‘What’s wi’ all the big words an’ talkin’ posh? Who d’yer think y’are, Shakespeare?’

‘Do you mean Bob Shakespeare, off Bentinck Terrace, or the chap who wrote Hamlet?’

‘Think you’re right clever, don’t you?’

‘One tries, you know.’

It is not with the benefit of hindsight that he realises how lucky he was not to have had his face punched in by one of the hardest nuts in town, three bleak school years older and a good foot taller than he was then, aged 13. He was a cheeky little sod, and he knew it. How could he not? If it were not the verbally-befuddled big lads telling him what he was, it was his teachers. Not all of them. At best he infuriated no more than say 80% of those whose organisational or disciplinary paths he repeatedly pissed upon, but as regards his future prospects, they were all 100% in agreement.

“He’ll never get anywhere, the way he carries on”He’s a fool to himself“He could do so well, if only he’d put his mind to it”,

chimed his school reports, topped with the not entirely disheartening summary of his academic abilities: Year Grade: A. Group Grade: A. Overall Effort: E. Yes, he would think, if only I would put my mind to it.

He was what in the pit villages of north Nottinghamshire they called “a clever lad”. One who hated school, hated being told what to do, and what he would, or more likely would not, one day become, and yet he loved learning. Not that he’d have recognised it as that at the time.

It was just reading, nothing more, his own private escape chute which lay hidden between the covers of a book or a magazine.

With quiet envy he’d followed the Famous Five through all 22 of their ‘super’ adventures, taken abridged dips into the children’s classics and joined the Beano Fan Club for the badge and a sense of belonging. Aged 11, there’s a brief flirtation with David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, and some more focused investigations into the lives of frogs and toads, which would result in the needless half dozen corpses discovered in the bread bin in the back yard. Normal lads, whose dads were still around, seemed to find refuge in football, but he could never see the attraction, beyond the fleeting charms of a sticker album.

No, the thing that did for him were the railways. A train-mad uncle, himself newly divorced, took to relieving his sister of the eldest of her three kids on Saturdays, whisking him off at the crack of dawn on cheap day returns to Liverpool, York and Crewe. The railways are full of history, the uncle would say, pointing out another marvel of Victorian engineering or the location of a World Speed Record. This is the engine from The Great Train Robbery, 1963. I’ll lend you a book about it. There were lots of books loaned, none of which ever needed to be returned. Gradually the net widens to include not only books about railways, but also glossy profiles of classic cars and aircraft, photography, the biographies of long-haired rock stars. The boy’s interest in music grows. The uncle can lend him some records too, if he’d like, The Eagles, The Stranglers. He gives him an electric guitar, a slim book of chords and a baffling set of tuning pipes.

Sometimes, at weekends or during the school holidays, his mum would let him stay up late and watch old films, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Alfie, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, Billy Liar. Black & white, mostly. He likes the clothes, the cars, and the girls, the steam engines always whistling in the background.

He likes the bitter old ladies and daft young men, but best of all he likes the words, the angry, rebellious words.

This was a best-selling book in the Sixties, his mum had said, so the next day he borrows it from the school library and never takes it back. The author, according to the jacket, was a working-class lad from Nottingham, who’d left school aged 14 to work in a bicycle factory.

His uncle didn’t like The Smiths, a bit too wet for his tastes, he preferred Cream and Hendrix, but he appreciated the sound of a Rickenbacker, said it reminded him of The Byrds. That kooky looking girl from A Taste of Honey is on the cover of a new Smiths single sung by Sandie Shaw. These books and films and music, the clothes and trains and moody girls, slender threads which have somehow been pulled together to capture and captivate him, he feels are a sign that he might be onto something, on the right track, so to speak.

But is he still that cheeky little sod asking for a thick ear? Actually it appears he gets worse before he gets better, only this worrisome side of his personality he reserves almost exclusively for the classroom.

It’s not the trouble he relishes, resulting in detentions, lines, and canings, it’s the words, the language he’s trying out, the smart-arsed, silly voiced back-chatting childish insolence, of behaving like someone else, someone smart, someone clever, that’s what drives it.

Well, there’s no father at home, is there? No discipline. And then you’ve got all those daft buggers on the telly, Rik & Ade, Stephen & Hugh, Dawn & Jennifer, and Rowan, Pamela, Mel & Griff, all carrying on like deranged animals, such language and vulgarity, and properly educated too, most of them. Also, when you come to think about it, that uncle was no stranger to a Silly Walk or to answering his mother’s phone as Bluebottle or Inspector Clouseau, and him in his forties.

At this point in the story it would be nice to say the boy suddenly recognises he’s fallen madly in love with literature, with the power of words and the idea of writing himself a future inspired by the fictions of the films and the vinyl he devoured, the pages of Sillitoe, Waterhouse and Hines that kept him up far too late for his 5.20am start on his paper-round. Perhaps if he’d put his mind to it. But he never did, at least not at school. He jumped as soon as he could, aged 16, mildly ashamed of the handful of O-Levels and CSEs which in late-Eighties money bought you a place on a government Youth Training Scheme scheme, £27.50 a week, tax-free, working in the parts department of the local Ford cars dealership. After he’d paid his mum £10 board there wasn’t much left, enough for an LP a week, and a couple of pints and fish & chips on Saturday night. Or Sunday morning.

By now he was too cool to watch trains, and too colour-blind to ever be able to drive one. But he still saw his uncle, and he never stopped listening to music. Around that time, he read mostly about cars, guitars and rock stars, some alive, some dead, others who drifted somewhere between in a three-parts-pickled rock n roll limbo. Lloyd Cole was almost 24 when he had his first hit. Jim Morrison was dead at 27. The boy began to wonder if he’d ever be able to write a song, a whole song, three or four minutes long.

He liked the idea of writing something entirely of his own creation. And perhaps he would do, one day, if he were to put his mind to it.

****

Lee Stuart Evans was the first boy in his family not to work down the pit, though not the last. He spent 7 years in the motor trade before returning to education aged 24 and starting a new career in television. A full-time comedy writer since 2002, he’s worked on many hit shows, including 8 Out of 10 Cats and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, The Jonathan Ross Show, The Frank Skinner Show, 10 O’clock Live, A League of Their Own and I’m A CelebrityGet Me Out of here!

His first novelWords Best Sung, published by Arundel Books, is available from waterstones.com, fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk, arundelbooks.co.uk, nottinghambooks.co.uk and amazon.co.uk

Words Love Them Hate Them by Meg Kemp

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

The shelves seem to go up forever. I look up with both delight and fear at the wall of books. The floorboards creak alarmingly and the gaps between them seem cavernous. There is a musty but chocolatey smell of foxed paper, dust moats float around.

Standing in the reading room with Grandad … is one of my earliest memories.

Life at Nan and Grandads was full of anecdotes and reminiscing.

How she met my granddad; dropping her glove on purpose so he’d retrieve it for her.

How Mrs Baily next door lost her brother overboard during the Second World War.

The holidays they spent in London, visiting the Victory Club on the Mall.

We would go through her jewellery box; there were lucky rabbit’s feet!  Jet broaches and strings of fake pearls a story went with every item.

Sitting on the bus damp and steaming we would eaves drop on the sagas of others.

I was constantly transported to other realms.

There were books at home. I read in my own way. Sometimes I could not pronounce a certain word but could guess its meaning by looking at the context of the other words in the sentence.

I have never had trouble falling under the spell of the worlds that lie behind the covers of books. The Famous Five and Secret Seven, given for Christmas and birthdays appealed to my wild independent nature I could feel the hardness of the beds in the Ring O bells public house and feel the sea spray on Kirrin Island.

The excitement and danger was compelling but I remember feeling prickly when ‘poor children’ with scuffed shoes were always the wayward ones, who needed showing the proper way to behave.

When I was thirteen Grandad gave me a subscription to readers digest condensed books. I slept with the colourfully bound books under my pillow.

I moved on to paper backs smuggled from the attic; Valley of the Dolls and the Mallen trilogy

It was at ‘Secondary’ school the problems started poor eye sight, pink national health glasses, grey socks and cheap shoes were not worn by would be writers. Too self-conscious to sit at the front yet I couldn’t see from the back.

No matter how I tried I could not get to grips with the written word, I spelt the same words wrong in different ways in the same paragraph.

My writing was illegible the pen didn’t sit comfortably in my hand making it ache and I could not keep up with note taking. I had no organisational skills.

My work was literally held up by teachers has an example of how not to write an essay.

Don’t tell me the dog did your homework this week, Miss Worrell: home economics.

Did you use the most creased piece of paper you could find, Miss Smith: English.

Useless, useless, useless, Mr Parker History: as he threw the exercise book over my classmates’ heads aiming for either me or my desk. I was never sure.

Yet still I read. When I found Wuthering Heights at fourteen, the flow of the text seemed inextricably linked to the tumbling and sparkling moorland streams.

Words that gathered momentum picking up boulders and rocks, depositing them with great impact: you could feel the how precious each word had been to the author.

I scribbled scripts for Starsky and Hutch and songs for the Bay City Rollers.  One day I came home from school to find them torn to shreds dumped in the kitchen bin with mouldy tea bags and vegetable peelings.

‘They were disgusting,’ my mother screamed, ‘where did you learn words like that?’

‘From Valley of the Dolls’ I replied; the slap was quick leaving a hand print that lasted for hours.I still can’t read or watch the scene from ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ where Mrs Winterson is burning books in the back yard without crying.

I did have access to books at home at my grandparents, at the school library.

The library van came once a week; the same man drove it for years.  It parked in the bus stop near the swings.

I preferred going in the winter months so I could sneak in without being seen.

What still haunts me, giving me the chills was me the apathy:

Nobody likes a clever clogs’ or ‘There’s sum ‘at wrong with that one always has her head in a book.’

‘Don’t get above yourself my girl’.

A fortune teller said there would be a family member who would have some success with the ‘written word’.

‘I was told it must be your sister, it couldn’t’ possibly be you could it?

In my forties dyslexia was diagnosed like a woolly mammoth in my brain, that was being  uncovered in an archaeological, dig, bit by bit until all the pieces fitted together.

This explained lots of things that had dogged my school years, my poor spelling, uncoordinated handwriting, lack of organisation and poor memory and exam performance. In doing an online Open University course, a degree especially chosen so I do not have to meet other students face to face very much.

Stan Barstow was the first author I read who I felt wrote about my world. I was about nineteen when I discovered him.

I still write but hide my work.

Only this year when listening to ‘Where are all the working class writers’ on Radio 4 I realised that it’s okay be from a working class background and have the temerity to want to be a writer.

Okay to have an opinion, to speak out, to listen to Radio 4 and Radio 3.

There are others like me.

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

Bio I live in Lancashire, I have lived on a narrow boat working and traveling the system. My favourite water ways are the Shropshire Union canal and the Upper Thames but all canals have their unique beauty. My passions are nature, reading and writing and … Jack Russel terriers.  I have a degree in psychology and English.

Twitter: @megski1

Firstly by Douglas Bruton

I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means…

Firstly, (and there will only be a ‘firstly’ for reasons that will become clear) I find it hard to know which class I belong to. My parents were brought up in the poorest part of Edinburgh and they were not educated – my father was bright enough but his poverty held him back… he had three jobs by the time he was fourteen and there was no money for school and no time… he joined the army when he was twenty as an escape from poverty and as an escape into some sort of education.

My mother kept a house that was clean as a new pin and my brother and I were always turned out smart – she’d have been mortified if we weren’t. Debt was never countenanced and we never bought anything we did not have the money for.

Education was held up as the golden ticket into a good future. Everything was sacrificed to my education – including my place in the family.

When my father was posted to Germany at the end of the 1960s I was forced to attend a forces subsidised boarding school for two years. Then after this I stayed with my uncle in Edinburgh so I could finish my education all in the one place – my uncle was a refuse collector (we called them bin men in the 1970s). I wore second hand clothes at high school; my school bag was a rescued miner’s haversack that had seen better days; I washed and ironed my own shirts, and cooked (if frying potatoes can be called cooking), and I slept in an unmade bed that held my shape like a nest. There was no money in my pockets and no money in the house I lived in. I did not really feel I belonged there.

Then a teacher and her husband adopted me in 1974 and seeing the potential in me they steered me successfully into university.

They were middle class – he played the Bassoon in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and she was a graduate form Oberlin college in America.

I did not feel I belonged in their house and I did not feel I belonged at university either.

I did not think I was clever enough or from the right background – mostly because my background by then was quite blurry.

Now I own my own house and I have been a teacher for all my working life and I have two degrees and I am as far away from the boy I was growing up as I could ever have imagined – as far away from that wee boy as my father could ever have imagined for me. I am broadly socialist in my thinking and work hard for those who need a leg up in life.

But I cannot be said to be working class in any conventional definition of what that means. Indeed, whenever I think of class I have a crisis of confidence…

the same crisis of confidence I had as a kid living with my uncle and four male cousins and again as a fish out of water at university –

because I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means… does it have any meaning or relevance in today’s society?

Is it to do with money or education or what school you went to or who your parents were or who you vote for in an election or the sound of your voice or what you eat or drink or manners or cleanliness or life expectancy or culture or what?

Seems to me that nothing is as fixed as it was and everything is in transition.

So, you see, I am stuck on that ‘firstly’ of my opening paragraph and not knowing if I am being a fraud to say I come from the working class. It is not a quiet shame that holds me back from taking ownership of the right class; it is a genuine misgiving about whether this division by class is in any way real in our modern multicultural society.

The impact of my origins on my writing: There were no books in my house (except a copy of a biography of Scott of the Antarctic, which my father kept on the top shelf of his wardrobe, a prize he won at school and never shared with me). My parents were not into books and any contact with reading that I had was through school. The quality of that experience will always be dependent on the teachers you have. I had a great Primary school teacher in Miss Keeble and she read lots to us and I fell briefly in love with books: ‘Stig of the Dump’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Family From One End Street’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – a wonderful year. Then later at high school when I wasn’t reading again another brilliant teacher said I should read Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’; I did and that led to me doing a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. Somehow I knew that I wanted to be of the world of literature, even in Miss Keeble’s class, but I always thought that was as a reader… until one day I got a computer and wrote a whole novel in snatched time over six months and there were moments when it was nearly as good as sex; I was thirty-one by this time.

I think I had to get an education in reading before I found I could write, as though I was catching up on what was not part of my background growing up.

I write about people and I hope I write with a universal compassion and maybe that is somehow tied up with not being rooted to one place or one people but being of all people.

Estates of Mind by Karla Neblett

It’s a manor house. Half of which is rented by a university to teach postgraduate students. Rectangular lawns lead up to it. They’re trimmed short, with perfect straight edges, and a path runs through the middle that tolerates the only sound, your scuffing Timberland boots. There are peacocks, of course, wearing single blue feathers as crowns and they stare at you, wondering.

Where are you from?

A council estate in Somerset, but dad’s is a nice one because the houses are brown brick, not painted in that giveaway social-housing-terracotta and even though the half of the road who have bought their homes don’t speak to each other, they drive nice cars, plant freesias and mow the grass. Mum’s estate isn’t pretty. Walls are grey, wire fences are fallen, bushes overgrow and number eleven still hasn’t moved that mattress from the driveway. People don’t talk there either, but they know how to argue about the bins and parkingspace.

Deep breath in when your tummy turns as you near the country manor which is ten windows wide, four in length and has frowning gargoyles which stick their tongues out at you. The type of estate that has history, where the family knows its family tree and the rooms are filled with books, exotic ornaments and singing instruments.

You can guess what’s inside because your mum’s cleaned posh houses and you helped her out a couple of times, understanding why she developed tennis elbow.

Not a life you wanted.

You wanted more.

Teachers drummed that in at school. Thirteen years ago you took your first loan and studied for an undergraduate degree. You were afraid to speak because of your accent and wondered how you could have anything intelligent to say to the learned classes? These were students who debated economics and politics at home, but you’d left your family shouting about X Factor results. Others on the course asked you what your parents did for work and you answered, ‘Mum’s a cleaner and dad’s on disability.’

The father of one of your course mates owned one of the most popular brands of crisps in the country, and for the past ten years you’ve remembered her chiselled chin each time you opened a packet of lightly salted and crunched, happy that on Facebook, she’d become a therapist.

You hadn’t. Back then loans didn’t exist for postgraduate study so psychology was out the window, not that you particularly enjoyed it. You’d just been told that it would be easy to create a career with. Undirected, you hopped from job to job, miserable. Watched your three younger brothers work in trades and earn more than you. Celebrated university friends’ promotions to thirty grand a year and seen their parents help them secure mortgages.

Your nan’s always had a spare bedroom, there’s no room at mum’s, so that’s where you live at thirty-two.

Nan has a porch full of tiny china cottages and a front door that squeaks in the winter when you have to yank it open because the wood swells.

The huge black door at the manor house is closed. A sign directs around the side of the building. You pass a tree whose leaves drape to the floor, not a willow, something else, and there’s space beyond the leaves to hide, but you can’t. Today’s the day for a writing workshop.

At thirty-one you’d had a smidgen of a breakdown, asked your old uni friends for advice, and left a support worker job to work in HR so you could ‘move up the ladder’.

Three months later you walked out, but not before winning a short story competition at the company, which made you remember the first thing you ever wanted to be when you grew up.

A writer.

You? A writer? Seriously? People like you weren’t novelists. But you’d always written bits; diaries, poetry and recently, short stories. Wasn’t it a secret fantasy to be a novelist like J K Rowling? Not that you write make-believe.

You write about working-class things, real life. People call it ‘gritty’.

Finally, you were only left with your dream to chase, and last year you were accepted onto a creative writing master’s degree. You’ve been studying for six months. In the politics module there was a discussion about appropriation.

The teacher himself assumed, ‘We’re all white, middle-class.’

You retorted that you were working-class and in fact, mixed race. He snorted. And you burned red, heart pounding, as another student jumped in, in your defence because you don’t articulate in debates.

You’re used to keeping your uncouth working-class mouth shut around the middle-classes for fear of proving their preconceptions about your uncontrolled self-expression.

At the side of the manor house there’s a large square button with a wheelchair on it. Press. The heavy door whirrs open. You’ve been attending writing events to learn about the industry, where people snigger when you say your manuscript tackles drug themes, and sometimes it makes you think that you don’t want to be a writer. There’s too much snobbery. But then you decided to be your own kind of writer, writing stories that anyone can read without any fancy words and just hope the industry will be interested. Because you need to make money for yourself, and for mum. And you have a voice fighting to be heard.

You step onto the worn stone, wondering how many others have walked through these doors hoping the same, and if in a year’s time you’ll be able to submit to agents. Surely this degree has to be more successful than the last? It’s practising what you love. Crafting a skill that will enable you to communicate in a powerful way.

This is it. And you know as sure as blood runs through your veins that writing is what you’re meant to do because of your background.

So a month ago you started a story about something familiar, forcing readers to look at lives like the ones you know.

ABOUT ME:

Karla, from Somerset, decided to write seriously in January 2016. Along with a bachelor’s degree in psychology she has worked in various environments supporting teens and is interested in the motivations of people and barriers they face. She decided to write about topics she knew and issues experienced in her social demographic because she felt there was a gap in current literature. Her first novel draws attention to the reality some young people face who are, unfairly, labelled. Of her first draft, completed on the Bath Spa MA, Lucy English described it a ‘dark piece of social realism.’ Karla graduated in 2017 and is currently working on the second draft. Until her website is finished and published, Karla can be contacted by email: karlaneblett@gmail.com or on Twitter @KarlaNeblett

Monster Boy by Jack Hook

Asking scuffed-shirted, pack-lunched me to be a writer was like asking Batman to have a nice sit-down and a cuppa with the Joker.

I was maybe nine or ten when I first wrote a story. The fiction bug had already bitten me a few years before, I was a voracious reader. Mostly horror stories, or the juvenile equivalent. Anything with slime or fangs suited me fine. My teachers had noticed this of course, mostly because I would spend half of every class holding that day’s gory story open under my desk and constantly bobbing my head down to read. I thought I was the pinnacle of subtlety. It was also impacting on my schoolwork though, gifting me a budding vocabulary and the crudest possible form of wit. I remember the beaming pride I’d felt when I used the word “dilemma” and was congratulated for what may have been the first time in the entirety of my education.

The result of all this was that I was drafted into a “Gifted and Talented” class, wherein a few children would get sat down on a Thursday afternoon and given rudimentary lessons on how to write fiction.

I got to skip a maths lesson, so that was a plus. Other than that, I didn’t really know why I was there. I didn’t know what a writer was.

Writers weren’t people you’d meet on the street, not round my way. Writers were off in the nebulous somewhere, inhabitants of another world that didn’t intrude on mine.

Asking scuffed-shirted, pack-lunched me to be a writer was like asking Batman to have a nice sit-down and a cuppa with the Joker.

In hindsight, I was a lucky little bugger. Just a decade before, when my brother had started at that same school, they had to warn the kids not to pick up used needles off the street. Now they were trying to poke daydreaming little sprogs like me into actually using the creativity that would otherwise go to waste. So I wrote. I had my first brushes with drama and comedy and fantasy, all in a little terrapin hut at the far-end of the playground. I’m not usually one for memories but that poky portable classroom is still vivid and always shining.

Those first few times I scrawled out a story, it felt like I was casting a spell.

Maybe I was. By some occult definitions, all a spell requires is intent and effort. The effort was there and the intent, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, was to simply escape. I had this idea that writers, wherever they were, prodded at the walls of reality, stretched them just a little bit. Without even realising it, I was beginning to do the same. If I was older, and even more achingly pretentious, I would’ve said that I was suffering from ennui.

When facing down the existential barrel of a life filled with limited prospects and endless terraced mazes, children fantasise.

Being lost-lost royalty or saving the world with your superpowers, these are the things that sustained us. As I continued to fill my schoolbook with loose vignettes and strange characters in that stuffy classroom, I started to become aware that what sustained me could also save me.

Not too long after, there was a writing competition in the school. Participation was mandatory for the students of the Gifted and Talented class. Tiny, burgeoning anarchist that I was, I tried to worm my way out of that one without much success. There was no real reason to, I’d fallen in love with writing by now, but I just hated anything that was compulsory. That impotent spirit of revolution is probably what inspired the story I ended up entering for the competition. A young boy moves to a new school, in which almost every student is vacant, docile perfection. A night-time trespassing reveals that the headteacher is a hideous lizard-being, hiding inside the skin of a middle-aged man. Our intrepid protagonist is taken and eventually converted into another ideal student. Like I said, pinnacle of subtlety. Yes, if you’re wondering, I did think I was a punk visionary sticking it to The Man. The Man was apparently into that sort of thing because the silly story only went and won the competition. It was a bizarre feeling, standing up on stage and being handed a certificate. It didn’t matter that it was just a piece of laminated paper, didn’t matter that the teacher said my brother’s name instead of mine (A common occurrence, he a was a much more memorable student), didn’t matter that this would be forgotten by the next day.

I had discovered something, a rudimentary door to that other far-flung world where all those writers lived.

What’s more, I had been rewarded for it. This child had only excelled at one thing before, getting into trouble. Making a mess is what was expected of me. Tousled and grubby working-class kids aren’t usually taught that fiction can be an outlet. Honestly, we’re not given many outlets at all. Not ones that are legal, at least.

To learn that there was something inside me capable of creating rather than just destroying, something that I was good at… I hate to sound cliché but it truly changed my life.

Annoyingly, I can’t remember the names of those teachers now. If I did, I would thank them here. Those nameless wonders gave me the means of production, if you will. They showed me that I could do better than borrow other people’s worlds for a temporary escape –

showed me the art of flailing wildly at a page and presuming it’ll be editable later.

I hope that those teachers influenced many others over the years and are still doing so because they don’t know it, they probably never will, but they took me by the collar and flung me onto the road that I’m still travelling down today. It’s not well-lit or very well-paved, someone should probably talk to the local council about that, but it’s got a certain charm to it. It feels like home.

—-

J.H. Hook is still raging against the machine and still hopelessly obsessed with monsters. He was born and raised in Liverpool and can confirm that Penny Lane is not worth a visit. He and his published stories can be found at @MrHookman, ignore all the tweets about underpants and Twin Peaks. He’s currently writing The Cavendish Files, a short story collection about a hardboiled P.I. facing Lovecraftian horrors with nothing but bare knuckles and sarcasm. Your pirate jokes do not amuse him.

—-

Wild horses of Suburbia by Astra Bloom

I got hold of a laptop and began again, one finger typing till I had 756 pages of mildly promising chaos.

Jennifer MorrisonMay 2004 I found myself alone and bedbound in a motel in Dorset. I’d been struggling with a traumatic, debilitating illness for two years, feeling a bit stronger, I’d hoped to manage a camping holiday with my family. Shortly after setting up our tent I collapsed.

For three days I slept, stared at the wall and cried.

I thought, not for the first time, of ending my life. Instead, not for the first time, I took up my pen.

I started a novel which has just been longlisted for the 2017 Mslexia novel award. For years I was so ill I only wrote for twenty minutes a day. I showed no one my writing for ten years.

Every day I shooed away voices in my head – You can’t even put enough money on the gas metre, some days you can’t walk to the end of the garden, how the hell can you write a book!

The finished novel was handwritten in fifteen giant, kid’s sketchbooks from the pound shop. I got hold of a laptop and began again, one finger typing till I had 756 pages of mildly promising chaos. Then I began again. Writing for longer and longer periods, I took breaks by writing poetry – on days when nothing could help my pain – poems got me through.

I’m working class, I expect slog and boredom with flashes of joy or wonder.

I learned that stories are wonderful, great, whopping lies with seeds of truth at their core. I fell in love with this realisation pretty young. Now I can only shake out my naked-truth-back-story if I sort of jig it, clapping and stamping as I go – it’s a survival thing, a need to turn pain and ugliness into beauty – or at least something new. ‘Make your worst art,’ someone said – so please, if you fancy it – see below.

First of five. Suburbs London. Big sister. Weird one.

Teach him read. Teach her dance. Teach her run.

Father 60’S Mod. Slog stress shout.

Jobs long shifts left school fifteen.

Telegram boy butcher house removals airplane cleaner mini cab driver.

Mother 60’s Beehive Girl.

Angry grieving mad times bad times chase-hit-scream.

Telephonist cleaner pub cook. Nineteen pregnant baby me.

Nan bought me blue pocket dictionary.

Words!

Dynamite!

Mine!

Taught me to write

my name

flow-loop-deep-blue in this spell book.

Kind-worn-hot-butter-toasty sunflower in a Socialist badge.

Nan showed me Ladybird Books on the paper shop twirling rack.

Then everything

fell –

including me –

Splat! –

when she died suddenly.

Early school crayons-books-smells-colours. Teachers are Posh-

still, a tall kind one teaches me to read on her lap. And.

Wait a Minute! No one can bash this new sense out of me!

Even if. People in books are posh, like doctors and people in posh houses and people with posh voices. Even if posh is better. Even if only common is not better. Even if Mother says I am common if I say Aint. Even if I get my head smashed against the sink for bringing Aint home from infant school cos Aint is one of her only rules.

Even if we are a house in chaos and we don’t have friends round.

We play war in the streets, on the heath. Mum says she could have got an exam but she wanted to leave… She likes some books like Valley of the Dolls. Later time I discover she loves Laurie Lee.

Dad reads the Daily Mirror and The Sun – I hate big bosoms. Women are for tits not for words. I hate some words, tits is my hatest. Dad buys us Kit Kats or Curly Wurlies when he comes off night shift.

Mum says Don’t Tell Tales about what you see, hear (one day I will). She whacks me with a carving knife, chases me with a rolling pin – I’m fast but you can never be fast enough (remember that) – I get used to getting knocked down, who cares, I get used to getting up.

Mum says I’m No personality Not funny Not a looker, and if I was any of these I might have a chance of Friends and a Rich man.

I watch her and I listen and I hurt deep to my toes through the earth to its core.

I do quiet-sad, quiet-angry, quiet-scared; school calls these Shy, Cat Got Your Tongue, Learn To Contribute, Moody. But I learn like I drink. Thirsty-quick-quick.

Posh kids have books, bookmarks, happy-slept-faces. Parents want to them do homework, learn piano which costs Youmustbekiddin.

Grandad did house removal, tea chest of old plays – a foreign language – angry – no one to explain them to me.

But Library in town is beautiful. Oh wooden twirly stairs! Oh shelves polish and deep! Oh paper is important.Oh Thank You to the trees!

Dad takes us from under her feet – he’s late returning things – down bear-brown stairs, away we troop, dad shouting about fines he Can’t Won’t Pay. Looks so shamey I ache for him. Tear up our tickets. Who cares, no one from our street goes libraryin anyway.

And soon I have a school library – safe – ah – space and back and back, stretching soft light and quiet ticktick time. Only a librarian, brush of her rough tights, squeak of her stamp; only children – mouse ones, tired ones, frumpy-handkerchief-up-sleeve-teased ones, brain boxes, ironed-grey, slim-flick-page-fingers. We put down bags, sigh, sigh, eyes flick over each other like light. No Oi Tramp, Oi Lesbo, Oi Frigid, Oi Wierdo in the library.

Always secret scribblin. I hide my dear diary. New place each day. Mother finds it, tears out pages about her, puts it back. Tore at my skin, now she’s goin at the paper me.

I give up this thing I love. Remind myself of Jesus from junior’s assembly. Inside my head is a holy sanctuary. Flush away diaries, she Will Not take my words from me.

Watch listen remember create. Watch listen dream create.

But. It’s a killer, I hate big school. I must write my worst in English, I put A for effort and creativity into stoopid-dimbo-mistakes and dull-idiotness. Can’t afford to be a Swot as well as a Freak.

Fifteen, dad says Work. No. Had jobs since I was 12 gotta save for pads, bras deodorant, magazines. Pennies don’t go far when you turn woman.

Teacher says A levels.

Dad says Thinkyou’rebetterUselesspieceof

Air Stewardess is better – but you have to be…And languages, and taller,  says mum.

Still. I turn A* Girl in my ripped tights and eyeliner. Hardy, Orwell, Shakespeare

blow my weirdo mindo! I’m waking up – this might be happiness.

I dream one night of daffodils opening. Dreams of a future, I have, but no not hope.

Hope is for Luckies with hope already. Dreams are wild horses, beautiful-unrealistic.

No more waste of time school. Dad wants me out from his roof, not a kid anymore.

Mother going to court for shop lifting. I’m a tear-face every morning. Teacher says

University. I want oh I want. But mum is never home, baby brother’s depressed alone.

How can I stay? But how can I soddin go?

Exam. Freeze. Hand writes name. Then only sweat streaming.

Only ticktock End of University. Nice teacher spits

Stupid girl!

Thinks a Teenage Rebel’s let her down.

Can’t explain. She won’t talk to me.

Soothed by Katherine Mansfield kept from the school library. I run.

Paris. Useless au pair. Sleeper on floors, lover of a boy, keeper of a notepad God.

An acher of pain in London. Homeless. Bin bag of clothes. Two books – K M’s short stories, Great Gatsby. Sleeping in a phone box, and a doorway. Squats. Penniless. Waitress. Shops. Airport. Evening classes. Fashion biz. Magazines, shoots. Can’t speak to the PR girls, that skin those teeth, they’re posh gloss. I am nothing.

But

Maya Angelou. Oh my god, Maya Angelou.

Emily Dickinson. Oh, and The Beat Poets. The bloody Beat poets!

And Woolf! And so many! I chant their names. I love my angels and my angels love me.

Partner. Babies. Happy. Play. Parks. Ducks. Stories. Childminding while home educating my kids. Partner long shifts. Running, always running. Writing till 2 in morning. Want to be everything my mum wasn’t – till everything stops with sudden illness.

Bang!

Bedbound, housebound, can’t hold a toothbrush. Can’t sit up, walk, write or read…

And years.

Till a bursary. A Creative Writing class.

Where this tutor man tells me

The difficulty is you write from your imagination.

Also

You have a willful disregard for convention.

Is he venting cos I don’t write from the right class and learning?

You must think of your reader, he says.

I wrote to survive – I was my reader.

Now I think of my reader. Hah! My reader will probably not be him…

I’m not middle class, no degree, rarely go to the theatre, not been skiing…

Still, one day some women and one man listening; all tremble-sweat,

I dare to share a story. They say Love, they say Good, and Wow.

And so before self-doubt can stop me

I  must  run  free  with  all  my  wild horses.

Astra Bloom has won and, or, been shortlisted in short story and poetry competitions, including Bare Fiction, Bridport, Live Canon and The Brighton Prize. She has poems forthcoming in Magma and Under the Radar, stories forthcoming in A Wild and Precious Life (an anthology about recovery of all sorts) and two novels sitting on the Mslexia novel award longlist.

 

She loves this poem.

Late Fragment BY RAYMOND CARVER

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.