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Stories and creative writing change the conversations that people have. They impact on the society we live in and the culture we share. They open up people’s imaginations, ambitions, aspirations and knowledge. Stories matter.
There are multiple barriers for writers from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds to having the time and space to write and getting their stories heard. This means that, despite operating in one of the most diverse and creative cities in the world, we do not get to hear stories that are reflective of its citizens’ voices. Most writing reflects a narrow, and largely privileged, selection of views and experiences.
Spread the Word is a charity supporting and advocating on behalf of London’s diverse writers. Through a core programme of workshops, development opportunities, bold initiatives and creative sector partnerships, they help London’s writers make their mark on the page, on the screen, and in the world. They do this by kickstarting the careers of London’s best new writers, and energetically campaigning to ensure that publishing truly reflects the diversity of the city.
It’s not easy to make a living as a writer. In a November 2017 survey by the organisation, only 11% of writers engaging with them make a living as a writer. In the UK, average author earnings are £12,500 (which is below the minimum wage for a full-time job of £18,000 and well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard of £17,100), and many writers are not even reaching this level of income from their writing. Lucrative contracts and advances are very rare, and income from royalties continues to fall.
A respondent to their survey a year earlier said that the organisation’s ‘support has been very important to me. I think London writers (unless they’re from very privileged backgrounds) are under-served by the industry and have no-one really rooting for them. Spread the Word essentially caters to the writers who don’t fall into the ‘metropolitan elite’.’
Having the time, money and space to write is just one of the ways that Spread the Word help people. Their workshops and events are deliberately low priced, making them accessible to people on low incomes, and in 2016 they helped writers access numerous paid opportunities and grants to support their work. They run numerous free and low-cost events in the most underprivileged boroughs, and last year 31% of writers working with them identified as being from marginalised socio-economic background.
One of their most popular initiatives is the London Short Story Prize, which each year sees hundreds of entries. Clare Fisher won the London Short Story Prize in its inaugural year in 2013 with her story Living It Edgeways. As part of her Prize, Clare received a Professional Development Planning session with Spread the Word’s writer development manager Eva Lewin, supporting Clare to navigate her writing practice and maximise and discover the opportunities available. The team have supported Clare in finding an agent, and her debut novel All The Good Things was be published by Viking in June 2017, with her short story collection How the Light Gets In out in early 2018.
Clare says, ‘Spread the Word have been central to my development as a writer over the last few years. Winning their short story competition in 2013 hugely raised my profile and my confidence as a writer, and the on-going support and opportunities they’ve given me since have been just as important. From career advice, the opportunity to meet other writers and publishing professionals, write articles and give editorial feedback to other writers, Spread the Word’s continued belief in me has given me the courage to just keep going.’
Their work focuses on some of the most underrepresented groups in the city. This is important as research conducted by the organisation found that only a fraction of publishers and agents believe that there is any diversity in publishing. For example, white authors are much more likely to have an agent than BAME authors. Over a third of those working with Spread the Word are from BAME backgrounds, and the organisation support writers of all cultures to tell their stories.
Warsan was also a member of the prestigious and highly effective Complete Works II scheme, a talent development scheme for BAME poets at an advanced level that was started by Spread the Word in 2008. Since then she has appeared on Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade and her popularity continues to soar internationally from both critical and fan bases. Warsan was also the first Young Poet Laureate for London in 2013.
The Young Poet Laureate has now grown into the Young People’s Laureate, in recognition of the outreach role that the poet in tenure plays. The Young People’s Laureate’s mission is to give London’s young people a voice through poetry, by raising the visibility of poetry, engaging and inspiring young people with poetry, and supporting the development of London’s talented young poets. Caleb Femi was the first Young Poet Laureate, from October 2016, and through workshops, salons, residencies and commissions, as well as the launch of the Young People’s Poetry Prize, has been inspiring young people in the capital through poetry. Through the Young People’s Laureate Tour across libraries, young people aged 13-25 across the city have had the opportunity to experience and engage in poetry.
Libraries are central to literature, and central to Spread the Word’s work. City of Stories is a series of free workshops and a competition in London’s libraries, that aims to offer people across the city the opportunity to engage in writing and be inspired by the short story form. By supporting the development of writers and engaging London’s diverse communities with telling their own stories, it shares the voices of people who are often underrepresented. Many of the boroughs that the project runs in are London’s most underprivileged.
This year they launch one of their most ambitious projects – the London Writers Awards. This brand new programme will support thirty emerging writers from underrepresented backgrounds over a twelve month period, providing masterclasses, critical feedback groups, mentoring as well as networking opportunities with editors and agents. To make the step change from emerging, unpublished writers to being agented, writers need good sustained professional input and quality feedback to produce work that will be published. The London Writers Awards responds to this need by putting in place an ambitious annual development programme for London’s emerging talent, with the overt objective of fast tracking and increasing the number of talented diverse writers being taken up by agents and publishers. It will help launch the careers of new voices in fiction, poetry, YA/children’s and non-fiction.
‘As a writer just starting out, one of the hardest things is knowing how and where to go to turn the raw ability and talent that you think might have into something that can draw the attention of agents, editors and publishers. And that process can be harder still when most of the writers you see don’t look like you,’ says Rishi Dastidar, Chair of Trustees at Spread the Word. ‘That’s why I’m delighted that we’re launching the London Writers Awards. I expect it to lead to increased diversity in not just the authors of books published, but the stories those books tell. I’m especially excited that we have the opportunity to bring many new voices from London into the world.’
Because really that’s what it’s all about. Bringing new, emerging and diverse voices to the world. Sharing the stories that matter. Having more diverse writers being published by publishing houses and other media will mean that readers and audiences experiencing a greater range of writing produced by London’s writers. By spreading the words of the writers it helps, Spread the Word is changing the way that literature is both written and consumed.