aAh! student journalist Jane Ashworth reflects on her experience at the 2022 National Creative Writing Industry Day at Manchester Met.
Writing, it turns out, is a reflection of life. You need to know where you want to go and, once you’ve decided, it’s up to you to make it happen.
The right attitude is vital. We must take responsibility for our choices and live with the consequences, so said Vanessa Onwuemezi in her keynote speech at the 2022 National Creative Writing Industry Day on November 19. She really summed up the writing life, and I was lucky enough to continue the conversation in the afternoon.
What I love about meetings like this is the way they fire me up. It can be the speakers, the panellists, or the other attendees, and at this event, all three chimed with me. Returning to its in-person format at the Manchester Writing School following lockdown, the sessions were friendly and engaging. It was a pleasure to attend, and everyone I spoke to felt the same way.
Writers are a lovely lot; everyone is keen to share knowledge and experience, and this was no different. No one was more approachable and open than Onwuemezi, sporting a beautiful vintage black top she was happy to chat to me, a writer at the bottom of the pile. She has had a similar experience to me, gaining a creative writing MA later in life and fully embracing the entire student workshopping and writing experience. We both started our courses full time and dropped to part time in order to savour every moment.
We were both pushed out of our comfort zones in the safe environment of writers’ workshops, me boringly with first and third person, Onwuemezi with experimental form in poetry. Her talk reminded us that we only improve by making mistakes, by failing, by pushing on and trying again to capture that sentence, that line, those words that contain the yearnings of our hearts, the story we have to tell. Failure is good. It’s an essential part of the learning journey. Progress, on the other hand, can be uncomfortable. It’s scary. I need to remember that when I’m pissed off that no publishing house bidding war has broken out over my novel (yet.)
Aren’t the best things in life worth striving for, spending time on, not just given?
All writers want time to craft the words, offer up the best version for publication. Onwuemezi discussed feeling dissatisfied with some non-fiction pieces she has produced due to time constraints (I bet it was brilliant). It was interesting to hear that even prize winning, published writers have doubts sometimes and still need feedback and guidance as much as us lesser mortals.
In her keynote speech I’m sure we all gleaned comfort from learning that even Steinbeck felt guilty for succumbing to distractions – his was the rodeo. If you want to succeed, you have to put the hours in. It’s like being a runner: whether you are starting out at couch to 5k level or are a gold medallist, you run. The only way to get better and faster is to run better and faster. Keep doing what you’re doing. I felt lucky to be chewing the fat with a true Olympian!
It was also good to hear that sometimes she has no idea what she’s doing as she writes her first novel (join the club), and that although she’s well chuffed to have won prizes and to have been published, she is the same writer that she was before all that validation. Also, winning The White Review short story prize on her third attempt, in retrospect, felt like the right time. She acknowledged that her winning stories were the best set she had entered. She had hit her stride as a writer.
I agree with Onwuemezi in that writing has taught her how to live, how to accept criticism, how to have a goal and work to achieve it. We all need to develop confidence and resilience in and out of writing. We must own our writing journeys and be kind to ourselves. Everything Onwuemezi said in her speech and then reiterated one to one absolutely resonated with me. I was inspired to go straight to my desk and pour myself into my writing, excited that only I can write my story, in my voice. How fantastic.
Aside from the wonderful Onwuemezi, the panel on publishing was invaluable. It was a relief to be encouraged by agents and publishers to show some personality in cover letters, and not to just stick to boring formalities; welcome news for all who had experienced rejection. The agents and publishing panel were human, showing a genuine interest in writers and their idiosyncrasies. It seems to be a matter of finding the right agent or publisher for your work at the right time.
We’re all writing stories, however short or long; they connect us to each other, they elicit a response. I hope my novel about a fifty-something woman experiencing a second flush, a late blooming, will encourage others to decide what they want and to go for it, another life after the chores of marriage and motherhood. Life is for living and writing about. Saturday reiterated this and filled me with renewed energy and enthusiasm for both.
I am a writer.