Thursday, 1 December 2011

Finding the Right Network: Overcoming the Barriers to Engagement for the Next Generation

[Note: This article was originally commissioned as a provocation for NALD, as part of their investigation into the future of young writers, and what the challenges are for the current generation to engage and support the next.]

Young people working in the literature sector often find it difficult to discover the networks which will support them. You'd think it would be as simple as typing something into Google, but in fact, most young writers and literature activists will be looking for the wrong things (writers instead of young writers, international instead of local, money and success rather than training or development opportunities). Because of this, unless the young person is already inside the literature networks, he or she will miss the opportunities available and be drawn into the morass of websites dedicated to offering 'advice' on writing (where quality varies and there might be little in the way of peer review).

I found these networks by accident. I was already about 20 when, at a dinner party where I mentioned I was writing a book, a man at the party said he knew a person in publishing (at the nearby Peepal Tree Press). I eagerly made contact with this local publishing house, only to discover they didn't really specialise in the genre I was writing in at the time, and then did not make contact again until, two years later, the woman I had spoken to (Kadija George) began recruiting for their writer development programme, Young Inscribe.

Let me say that my experience is by no means unique. I had been Googling opportunities for writers for years, reading articles about the craft of writing, and taking part in online workshops and discussion groups. And yet the literature networks designed for young people evaded me. Leeds Young Authors, Route, The Writing Squad—I didn't hear about any of them until I had first, purely by chance, discovered and began building up a relationship with Peepal Tree Press. After I was introduced to the networks that were already there, the opportunities (thankfully) came often enough.

Google is therefore of little help if you don't already know what you are looking for, because of the glut of competing articles, and a lack of clarity about what young writers must search for (I, for one, had no knowledge of specific opportunities for young writers and therefore sought out only general opportunities for writers).

It makes sense, then, to target young writers through the spaces they use: bookshops, libraries, schools, but also online networks such as EditRed, Red Room, Critique Circle, etc (which are very easily found by writers). There has been an effort to promote these things, also, through Facebook and Twitter, which should continue and expand. This has perhaps already made accessing literature networks easier for even younger writers, who have begun their writing journeys more recently.

Also of particular interest is the need for funding. As a young person who has been modestly successful with funding applications, I feel more needs to be done to help young people access the funds which will enable them to focus on and develop their work. NAWE's Young Writers' Enabling Fund is a definite step in the right direction. However, there should be opportunities to develop skills in writing applications for funding, and greater accessibility for organisations such as ACE.

When I took over Dog Horn Publishing in 2008 and established Polluto Magazine, I had looked into funding, and was immediately put off by the language and complexity of the application process, which on the surface appears to exclude and discourage those not versed in the language of bureaucracy. It was only with the guidance of those more expert in these matters that I was then able to 'decode' the requirements of funders' guidelines and begin to experience my own successes in accessing funding. It is the responsibility of those who have already reaped these rewards to share those skills with the Next Generation.

The Young Writers' Hub and Enabling Fund are working. Due to money from the Enabling Fund, I will be working with Alexa Radcliffe-Hart to develop an imprint which is committed to making sure 25% of its output will be created by emerging writers from the North. Dead Ink Press will also open opportunities, connected as it is to The Cadaverine. Leeds Young Authors' annual slam and writing festival, Off the Shelf and Pick Up Your Pens suggest a movement towards a Yorkshire-wide programme of youth literature events and should be applauded. Young Inscribe and various other writer development programmes offer Arvon residentials. Yorkshire, especially, caters well for its youth.

The goals for supporting the Next Generation should be continuing this great work. It is especially important to provide the time and space for writing, and I encourage any scheme that offers free or low-cost places at writing retreats (such as Arvon and The New Writing Centre in Wales). These retreats are invaluable in developing a portfolio of work, or starting a longer project (such as a collection or novel). The weekly costs for such retreats, although less than £500, are still restrictive for young people.

It would also be helpful to offer those writers over 25 (and in some cases only 18), who in some programmes are no longer considered 'young', continued opportunities. Perhaps they might be given bursaries to act as peer mentors to other young(er) writers. Or perhaps they will see an increase in the kinds of placement I had (an Arts Council-funded arts management placement) with proper compensation for their work and an opportunity to pick up invaluable skills and on-the-job training from the current generation of literature activists.

Finally there needs to be a greater recognition of the changing face of literature. A written work may now include multimedia and be interactive. There is a continued blurring between writing and performance, writing and art, writing and music. Often young people think they should be either novel writers or short story writers, or poets, or playwrights. I also began my journey believing I could only be one type of writer. It was only much later that I decided I could be any and all of them, and that it was only my willingness to experiment and explore or not that would hold me back. Making a living as a writer or literature activist can be hard—those who are most successful look at it in holistic terms. There's more than one way to make money in the industry, and so we see writers becoming publishers, facilitators, teachers, journalists and producers. This should be encouraged and celebrated. This is how the Next Generation will create their own opportunities and support themselves.

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