I came to The Festival of Writing 2016 with a novella born of ten years of wrestling and ranting and tearing my hair out. Just a novella but one from a decade of trying, of rewriting completely from scratch six times, six novels of the same story rejected and ripped up – a scratch of an idea and a whole heap of fear all wrapped up in a bundle marked Help. I submitted to Friday Night Live and Best Opening Chapter thinking, why not? I’m never going to get anywhere, it’s just good practice, even though a voice inside of me said, you might. I’d worked with the superb Andrew Wille through The Writers’ Workshop and he, clever man that he is, always said he thought the book had something, that it could be a novel again but I, being only used to rejection, thought, really? And then I got shortlisted for both competitions.
And then my world exploded. Jenny Savill, senior agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, was a judge for Best Opening Chapter. She asked for the manuscript, she asked for next draft as I developed it from novella to novel, she asked to see it all when it was done. Eight months later my debut is in her safe hands, I am signed and we are on our way to the next mountain, the next chasm, the next jump. I am still absolutely terrified. I don’t think that ever goes away. I don’t think I want it to.
It’s taken me most of my life to call myself a writer. Granted, for much of that I was a child who knew she was, an adolescent who had it figuratively kicked out of her, someone young who ran away from it and then an adult who couldn’t run anymore but still hid yet these things, this gift has eyes and nose as well as ears and when it gets a sniff that you might be listening, that you might have the guts and the heart it doesn’t let go. It follows you around. It followed me around until I couldn’t hide anymore and had to try, to really try to sit down with it and listen.
We are given stories – that’s how it feels to me. They circulate and fly above us, looking, looking, looking for someone to hold up their hand and say okay, me, I’ll do it. Once they see you’re safe, that you’ll work, that you’ll give it your all to get to the truth they don’t stop and nor, I found, could I. But I still hid. Not from it anymore – I began the novel that has now, finally found its feet – but I still hid from the world. I made my own little glory at the kitchen table where I would write and plot and imagine and send out and get knocked back and wonder why and cry.
Then my friend, Tor Udall – a trailblazer for me whose beautiful book, A Thousand Paper Birds, is coming out in June – told me how she did it, how she jumped the chasm from a thousand unknowns to being heard. Come to York. That’s what she said. Come to York, it’s brilliant, you won’t regret it, and I was faced with the reality that no matter how hard you work, no matter how brilliant your words if you don’t get out there and risk it, meet your people, connect, then all of it is just a thousand unknowns blamed on a world you can’t reach for lack of asking. But if you’re going to #FoW17 it means you’ve jumped, you’re in mid air, you’re going to risk it.
Ruth Stone spoke of how she would hear poems coming at her across the fields, that she used to have to run back to the house and grab a pencil, get there in time and sometimes she didn’t, sometimes they whistled on before she had time to write them down. Zadie Smith calls it a bear hunt – you go out for months, years into the wilderness and sometimes you come back with nothing and some people never come back. But without this bear hunt, this hearing something in the wind and running, there is no life at all and not just for us. Without books, paintings, dancers, voices, shapes made out of clay there is no life at all. This is our giving to the world. This is it determined to get through.
As Joanna Cannon calls it, writing for mental health. I’m going to put that on a t-shirt.
If you don’t hold up your hand or if you hide it won’t care. It will just find somebody else more willing and you will be left without. Maya Angelou says, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” and she should know.
So the only question to ask yourself if you’re thinking of coming to York is, am I a writer? and if the answer is yes then in great part, the jump is begun.