Launching a Membership Service During Lockdown
Being a Writer was launched by The Literary Consultancy (TLC) in May 2020 as an online membership community for authors spanning interdisciplinary learning, research, podcasts, and digital content. It follows a first-of-its-kind new and experimental responsive programming format, allowing the writing community that engages with it to be its co-curators. In a world where competitive industry standards mean that the focus is often on what is written, ‘Being a Writer’ has been designed to help writers explore why they write, and offers creative and practical solutions to help them keep going.
Twelve months before Coronavirus gripped the world, I met with the Director of The Literary Consultancy, Aki Schilz, to discuss the qualities of character which empower and enable authors to persist and complete full-length works. On the cross-country train journey to meet Aki, I created a mindmap of the challenges I felt were most pertinent to me in my twenty year career so far as a writer and to which I had to discover solutions by trial and error.
The kinds of challenges I’d faced over the years have varied widely – from finding that, after several months of repeated visits to write in my local copyright library, the National Library of Wales, the atmosphere had become ‘antiseptic’ and it no longer inspired me (this would inform my approach in the course I went on to create for Being a Writer, Making Time and Space to Write). While in my 20s I was beset by imposter syndrome and, in the event that I had gathered up enough amounts of self-belief to submit my poetry to journals or competitions, I would feel dispirited by rejection and I didn’t possess the qualities of character which would have enabled me to bounce back. I had also fallen foul of what Maureen Freely once explained to me was ‘The Tyranny of the Novel’ trying to shoe-horn writing that was resisting the form of fiction. It took me years to trust my artistic impulse and write that work-in-progress in the form that it suggested to me, rather than the form I was imposing onto it. As the train pulled into Euston Station it became increasingly clear to me that being a writer is as much about a state of character and mindset as it is an ability to write…
TLC is the UK’s longest-standing editorial consultancy, working at the coalface of writing development since 1996 with its core services: editing, mentoring, and literary events. At the time of our meeting, TLC was also a consulting partner on a survey on the needs of writers, led by the Royal Society of Literature (A Room of My Own, published June 2019). The survey went on to show that the greatest challenges faced by writers are a lack of money (68%) and time (67%) to write, as well as a lack of confidence in their abilities (54%) and a lack of information about the support available to them (53%). Even though the results of the survey had yet to be published at the time of that first meeting, it was already apparent that there was a need for a much bigger conversation to emerge around the quality of resilience needed in order to be a writer who can truly flourish creatively.
The kinds of questions we wrestled with in that initial meeting included: What is writers’ block? Does where we write affect how we write? Why is it that in writing courses we concentrate on technical questions of craft and technique, but not the qualities of character that sustain an ongoing writing practice? How does fear affect our creative process? Could it be that listening to the impulses in both our minds and our bodies lead to catalysing creative works and making artistic breakthroughs? And finally, what kind of interactive platform could best serve for writers at any stage of their development to gently explore these questions within an online community? This was it. We’d started to co-curate ‘Being A Writer’.
TLC is no stranger to either innovation or spotting opportunities for deepening conversations within the publishing industry: in 2012 it hosted the first conference that put publishers and writers in the same room discussing up to the minute issues, ‘Writing in a Digital Age’. It has hosted book hacks, brought together string quartets with poetry, and its Director has been nominated for awards for her work championing inclusive practices in the book industry. However, it was clear that further scoping was needed for this new idea.
What excited me most about this project was that, back in 2005, I had left publishing to work as a social entrepreneur. At the time, I was disillusioned by the pace of change within the publishing industry; it was also unclear as to how I could progress meaningfully beyond my entry level job which I’d been in for over two years. However, I’d also been volunteering for one day a week during those two years to discover more about environmental and social change. On leaving my job, I became based full-time in London’s first incubation lab for social innovation, the prototype ‘Impact Hub’, in Angel Islington. It sounds quaint now, but back then, along with the social innovators I shared desks with, we were among the first to use Skype and to join Facebook! Futurologists flocked to visit what we were doing.
We were talking about disruption, emergent processes and theories of change in a vocabulary that I had never encountered in the publishing industry. I decided to make up my job title, and I launched a new career as a Thought Pilot; my mission was to guide organisations and individuals through creative processes using my imagination, intuition and creativity and was contracted by Tate Modern, NESTA and Impact Hub. This was an industry that embraced the challenges of social and systemic change by using innovation and taking risks to develop new models of working. Nearly fifteen years later, in TLC, I felt I’d found an organization within the publishing industry which wanted to use its platform to engage in meaningful discussions around what it truly meant to be a writer at a deep level in a changing world. It was also small and agile enough to innovate.
We got to work with research. While there were podcasts, magazines, physical retreats, events, books and YouTube videos to be found, we couldn’t identify a digital membership service in the UK which addressed resilience for authors in the way we imagined. There were some writing for wellbeing courses, but nothing looking at creative resilience in a non-specifically therapeutic setting. TLC, as an organisation which has worked for over two decades in holding the space for authors in the embryonic and emergent stages of the creative process, was well placed to offer this service and by doing so support the wider publishing ecology.
The proposed intervention, then, would address a gap identified around cultivating and safeguarding literary creativity. The space provided online would be one where writers could address such topics as how to surmount the profound spiritual challenge of persevering and seeing their project through to completion, whatever that might look like. This was to be a space which would be about process rather than product, about the inner dialogue writers have with themselves, rather than the dialogue they might type on the printed page.
In fact, by June last year it felt palpable to us that there was more of a risk if we didn’t pursue this line of enquiry, now that the figures from the RSL study were back, and were so shocking. Given the global pandemic we are now undergoing and under which the programme was launched in, the statistics are sure to be even starker. It feels a timely, if unintended, moment to be offering Being A Writer to the writing community online.
In October 2019, we held the first Being A Writer event, an Interactive Forum at Free Word. Poet Yomi Sode, Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, novelist Dean Atta and activist Nathalie Teitler all shared the stage and presented for ten minutes to different themes, incorporating audio, video, and images. Using the Menti app on mobile phones, our audience’s contributions and feedback were used to inform the content of the first phase of the programme.
We sketched out three online courses based on the needs expressed by the writers we talked to: Making Time and Space to Write, Dealing with Self Doubt, and Breaking Through Writers’ Block. We curated a series of podcasts on topics from Dealing with Rejection to Balancing Work, Family and Writing.
Collaborations with course creators and other contributors quickly followed. TLC called upon cutting edge holistic practitioners and authors whose expertise lay not only in writing but also the avant garde of self-care to answer the themes which came up in the interactive forum. Wellbeing expert Sarah Salway, poet and Buddhist Sascha Akhtar and novelist Julia Forster wrote the course content; Poetry Pharmacy founder Deborah Alma created bespoke ‘creativity pills’ which are generated with a single click; and TLC devised a Digital Scrapbook interface which allows members to upload inspiring images and snippets of text to share with others. Further interactive features, to really build on the community as it grows, are in the works. Members can feed in suggestions for new templates, resources, even book recommendations on the digital Bookshelf page. An Entry Questionnaire asks a series of questions with each sign-up that are then exported into data sheets for the team to monitor and use to build new content. We don’t yet know what these might look like, and that is both a challenge and a reward of the project; Being A Writer has been made to be agile and dynamic, and it’s an exciting time to be experimenting to see what works. Will it be webinars, ebook resources, a forum, or something entirely new?
‘Being a Writer’ has opened up a space for writers to feel heard and to support one another in an online space that is genuinely co-creative, which can respond to the changing demands of the writing community and at a time when writers need this service most. As retreat centres, creative writing groups and other bricks and mortar spaces for these kind of dialogues between writers may be closed or in restricted use for some time to come, ‘Being a Writer’ is one provision which serves to address this emergent gap, albeit one which the team never could have predicted at the outset of the project.
The impact that Coronavirus will have on every sector of society will be far-reaching and profound; the interactive aspect of ‘Being a Writer’ means that the writing community can co-engineer a service which is responsive to their needs from the safety of their own homes. We might not know what comes next, but we’re really excited to find out, shoulder to shoulder with the writers we serve.
Being A Writer is available on a low-cost subscription basis to writers at all levels (£12/month or £99 annual fee) and has a 30-day free trial, as well as offering discounts on services from TLC and select partners.
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