“Get up earlier.”
Of all the advice shared by writers at the recent Words Ireland Writers Series in Belfast, Ian Sansom’s was by far the most direct.
The event, at the Crescent Arts Centre, was the fourth in a series of nationwide meetings where writers and illustrators can share their experiences of sustaining a creative career, with the aim of beginning a national debate on the future of literature resourcing and funding in Ireland.
Or, as chairperson Patsy Horton of Blackstaff Press put it, “it’s a listening exercise”.
So what did Belfast’s writers have to say?
The need for more information for writers – and better networks for sharing that information – was a wish voiced by many participants, who said they often didn’t know where to find out about writing opportunities or tax information.
Others stressed the experience that they’d built up over the course of a writing life, and said it would be useful to find ways of sharing that knowledge with others.
Perhaps inevitably, social media was raised as a useful way of building networks – with the Women Aloud NI Facebook group cited as an example of best practice – but many also felt they needed training in how best to use social media for publicity or self-promotion.
There was a sense, too, that authors are being asked to take on more roles, and that many would welcome basic information on, for example, rates of pay or how to get on to lists of mentors or tutors.
Some participants also felt that it was difficult to break into established networks, and that festival organisers or programmers often hired the same people rather than seeking out new talent.
Instead, more should be done to promote what was described as “grass-roots writers” who don’t come from an academic background.
Perhaps inevitably, given the Belfast setting, the uncertainty around the border following the UK’s vote to leave the EU was also raised, with one writer saying that it was now more important than ever to keep the border porous and to emphasise the solidarity between writers North and South.
Concern was expressed about the lack of statutory funding, and the suggestion was made that the North’s government should be lobbied for money to support access to the arts.
There was almost unanimous support for a central organisation for writers or writing in the North, though many acknowledged that a lack of financial resources would make this difficult.
Overall it was felt that Northern writers needed to set their own agenda and embrace those organisations – such Words Ireland and the Irish Writers Centre – willing to organise and deliver workshops and training in the North as well as the South.
As novelist Lesley Allen put it, “I’m thrilled to bits that Words Ireland came to Belfast, and I’d like to see more arts organisations doing the same”.
The issues facing writers, as raised at the Belfast meeting of the Words Ireland Writers Series
Patsy Horton, managing editor, Blackstaff Press and chairperson, Words Ireland Writers Series Belfast
In Northern Ireland you have access to different markets, you have the opportunities of the UK and then you also have the all-island market which is great, but the infrastructure here isn’t as strong as it would be elsewhere. The infrastructure is still developing, and I think a lot of the time for training we depend on opportunities outside the North, so I think it would be good to see more organisations with an all-Ireland brief delivering training here. The Irish Writers Centre is doing some good work here, and I think the Arts Council is aware that there is a gap, but I also think that we in the North need to take ownership of some of these things ourselves. We need to make sure that we are driving the agenda for the kind of training and development and opportunities that we need for writers here.
Maria McManus, poet and playwright
I think the networking between writers as a whole is critical to feeding the life of writers and the connectedness between them, and there’s something about maintaining a flow of people and the connections that is important. I grew up on the border and that feeling of a need for connectedness actually predated the Brexit crisis.
Now, more than ever, we need to keep the border porous.
We need to be alive to the work of writers on both sides of the border and we need to support each other and we need to keep that dialogue going.
Geraldine O’Kane, Poetry NI
I’d like to see somewhere where people could be taught how to sell themselves as writers. A lot of writers don’t do that, even though they may have a host of other skills as well as writing. They may be proof-readers or editors or facilitators, but they don’t sell themselves as such. I’d like to see some sort of central hub that showed off what Northern Ireland has to offer in terms of writers.
Lesley Allen, novelist
I think until I sat down and started listening to the meeting today I didn’t realise how much I needed to know. For example, there was a lot of talk about how to spread the word about your work and how to make links with festivals and schools and libraries. I’ve been approached by schools and libraries and I don’t know how much to charge them, and I sometimes feel a little bit embarrassed asking someone who is already established in case they think you’re treading on their territory or being nosy, so it was great to talk about these things.
Bernie McGill, short story writer and novelist
I think it’s so important as a writer to use social media nowadays, we’re always being told that and publishers are very clear about that fact. I’ve been using it for a while and you do connect with people on a personal level sometimes so it can be great fun as well, but I think most of us who are using it are completely self-taught and we don’t actually know what we’re doing. I know there are more effective ways to use it so if Words Ireland are in the business of providing writers with the tools they need to do their job then I would be interested in training on that. I think it would be fantastic if we had an organisation in Northern Ireland that supported writers and delivered training but we don’t have the funding, so if Words Ireland are the people who are here and are making it happen I’m delighted. Let’s all attend and learn.
Colin Dardis, Poetry NI
Being a writer is a solitary enough enterprise, but if you come up through an academic background you have a framework and contacts behind you, and institutions outside of Northern Ireland or Ireland can use that as a reservoir to tap from if they want to get a Northern Irish writer. I think it’s a shame there isn’t more effort made to connect to those other people who maybe didn’t come from an academic background or who are out striking for themselves. A large part of being a writer these days is that you almost need a business degree to put your stuff out there, the writing is the easy part and reaching your audience is the hard part. Yes you need persistence, but you also need the people who are commissioning new work or organising festivals to make a bit more of an effort not to go to the old familiar places that are tried and tested when looking for writers. I do find it very encouraging that Words Ireland are here. In Northern Ireland you can be isolated as a writer – sometimes it feels like you’re in no man’s land - and I’m very excited to see what Words Ireland do in the future.
The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland. The Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators continue in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick in 2017. Admission is free but booking is essential. For more information visit wordsireland.ie