I’ve enjoyed these tweets from different writers who’ve shared their stories of not being straight out of the cradle when their writing received recognition. Here are a few of them:
The writer Joanna Walsh (@badaude on Twitter) has written this article on The Guardian books blog, arguing that “all awards for young writers amount to discrimination” and pointing out that “authors under 40 get disproportionate support and their valorisation tends to push women and minorities to the margins.”
Other people on Twitter have pointed out that it would be better to think about “new writers” or “early career” writers rather than “young writers” since writers “emerge” at all ages!
Age restrictions often exclude people who are disadvantaged or who have been disadvantaged in their youth. Increasingly, it seems ridiculous to include age restrictions at all.
Lots of people have mentioned that The Turner Prize has just scrapped its age limit, with exciting results.
I thought I’d write something about my own writing journey which, again, is proof that it’s never too late to put pen to paper. It’s also more evidence that people who start off from a less than privileged beginning don’t always have the opportunities to develop their talent when they are young. In addition, people with caring responsibilities (often women) need time, and help, to reach their potential.
I come from a low-income family which fell apart a bit when I was twelve and my mother died. I left school when I was sixteen with very few qualifications and worked in many different jobs until I was able to return to full-time study at the age of 30 in 1992. I would never have been able to return to study if I’d left it any later. In 1998, tuition fees were introduced in the UK and I know that I wouldn’t have considered being a student if I’d had to take out student loans.
As it was, my tuition fees were paid and I received a maintenance grant from my Local Authority. I first signed up for a degree in Film and TV Scriptwriting at Bournemouth University and then transferred, after a year, to an English degree at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now Chichester University). Amazingly, I was allowed to change courses without forfeiting my fees or grant.
Although I’d always written or “tried to write” from a very young age – I still have some of the notebooks to prove it – I’d never completed a piece of writing or seriously applied myself to writing anything in a committed and organised way. Now, as a student, I had to finish pieces of writing – poems, scripts and short stories – for various Creative Writing assessments which formed part of my degree! For the first time in my life, I received feedback and advice about my work in progress, from my tutors and from other people in my writing workshops on my course. I was massively encouraged by brilliant, kind, supportive and resourceful tutors at Chichester (wonderful Alison MacLeod, John Saunders, Hugh Dunkerley, Vicki Feaver, Hugo Donnelly, and others).
During my second or third year at Chichester, I began to submit stories to competitions and for publication. I was lucky enough to win First Prize in the Ian St James Awards in 1996 (and won £2000 which was a lot of money back then – a lot of money now, in fact) and I had a story broadcast on BBC R4.
I knew I wanted to continue writing, so I was encouraged by my tutors to apply to study for an MA in Creative Writing. With their help, I applied for and was awarded a Studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. With this grant, I was able to take up my place at UEA where I completed my MA.
I had a stage play, Jocasta, produced at The Chelsea Theatre in London in 1997, and my radio play, The Songs that Houses Sing, was broadcast on BBC R4 in 2000. By then, I’d married Andrew (in 1997, at the age of 35, always late for everything) and by 2001 we were parents to two children. I wrote another radio play, sent it to the BBC and was called in for a few meetings at Bush House, but I didn’t get another commission. Another couple of stage plays were shortlisted in calls for new work but didn’t get any further. I really wanted to keep writing but I lost my momentum.
I was full-time carer for the children and trying to find part-time paying jobs that fitted in with their schedule. I worked as a Teaching Assistant in a local comprehensive school for three years, and taught Creative Writing in the local Adult Education College. It was while I was a TA, and working with students studying for their GCSE in English Literature, that I began to read and write more poetry. In 2010, a whole ten years since I’d last had any kind of writing success, I sent my poem ‘Honeymoon’ to the Bridport Prize and it was a Runner Up, winning £50 and published in the anthology. I’ve been writing every day (more or less) ever since.
My first poetry pamphlet was published when I was just a few weeks short of 53, in November 2014, and I will be 56 and a half when my first full collection is published by Nine Arches Press next June. I feel that I’m only now really getting going with my writing. My children are 16 and 18, so much more independent, and my financial situation is reasonably secure. I am aware that I am now in a privileged position, in terms of household income and security, and this has helped me enormously.
This proves nothing, of course. Every situation is different. But I’ve been heartened by the many stories of late success. Do share your thoughts and experiences if you’d like to.