Ask any writer and they’ll agree, these are strange times to be telling stories.
This is the era that is increasingly being defined by its crises; financial crisis, housing crisis, social care crisis, refugee crisis. But with a worldwide backlash against a perceived elite, the emergence of fake news, and the dynamics of public narrative constantly shifting and shocking us, writers are in a unique position to tell the stories that the world needs to hear.
Like most writers, I started my apprenticeship young. At the time, as a six year old writing stories in my exercise book and illustrating them with quirky cartoons, I didn’t know that writing could be a noble art. It helped me make sense of the world, and let my imagination run wild, and as a child that’s all you can ask for I guess.
When I was a teenager, I’d learnt the joy of consumption as much as creation. I’d consumed both classics and contemporary fiction, and unbeknownst to me at the time I was learning how to construct characters, how to give them feelings and fill them in with colour, and how to provide them with adventures to go on, obstacles to overcome, and hardships to face. When I was 16, I wrote what I now know to be a “daisy chain novel” for my friends as a keepsake for all of us. It was a pretty trite one in all honesty, with a large debt owed to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. In a similar style, it retold our adolescent misadventures in glorious technicolor. “The Social Club” (as it was called) proved to be a good rehearsal for things to come and taught me the importance of discipline and focus.
By the time I hit university, I was moving into my pretentious phase. I wrote a short story collection called “The Exiled” – the name a revision of a James Joyce play, of course – and fought off criticism from tutors that saw me as an imitator rather than a creator, by printing off copies of it in the library and paying a fiver each to have them bound.
In my early twenties, I wrote two more dreadful novels, both unpublished still. And apart from the odd short story competition, and of course my blog (details below!), I remain unpublished.
But the writing continues.
The first germs of my #PeerPitch came long before I knew about the competition. In the middle of the night sometime in 2016, with my wife pregnant and the future very much on my mind, an image of an elegant young Muslim ballerina came into my head. Her name was Zamira, and she was from Syria. She was a ballet teacher who had been forced to flee her homeland after the civil war had broken out, and the country had descended into chaos. Leaving behind the rising threats of ISIS, government forces, rebels, and criminal gangs, she had travelled across Europe and ended up on the shores of England.
This idea, of a human just like any of us thrust into impossible circumstances and facing overwhelming struggles, shackled my writer-brain, and gave it a much needed shake.
Before long, I knew that her family was missing. I knew that she had a young son. I knew that she bumped into Sam, a psychiatric patient recently escaped from a hospital and searching for his own lost family. I knew they shared their dignity, their humanity, and their determination, despite their stories being so different. They were an unlikely union.
And then the Scribblers Blog came along with their fantastic #PeerPitch competition. I tweeted some drafts, and got some amazing feedback. I also chatted to other writers and entrants, and their enthusiasm gave me enthusiasm.
I entered my idea, which by now was growing into a proper story, and lo and behold it won! And I was reminded again of the strange times we live in.
We tell stories to understand each other. We exchange information, we pass on memories, we take lessons, we learn feelings. Writers are empathetic in nature.
And in a world that increasingly sees such uncertainty, such separation, such division and such conflict – a world that is in truth ripe for storytelling – we should all heed the writers call, and become custodians of the written word.
We should all be telling each other the stories that the world needs to hear.
EXTRACT from THOSE THAT ARE LOST
The air around Zamira was hot and wet with the sweat of a dozen other women. Her sticky head pounded with exhaustion.
The floor rumbled and rocked beneath her as the lorry sped along, and she clung tightly onto unseen shapes to keep steady. The darkness was so thick that she couldn’t see her companions; only hear them, whispering prayers, quietly calling out to their families.
Rain clattered against the sides of the lorry like gunfire. They turned a corner, and Zamira lurched sideways with the other women. Their bodies fell to the floor with a thud. The driver shouted back at them to be quiet, but they could hardly hear him over the grinding of the wheels.
They huddled closer together, trembling. Zamira held out her hand, and another, smaller hand reached back. She squeezed it tightly. In the blackness, the hand could have belonged to anyone. She wished it could have been that of her son. But wishful thinking wouldn’t bring him back to her. Wishful thinking wouldn’t bring back those that were lost.
The hand pulled away from her, and she cursed under her breath. They hit a bump, and water splashed up onto the sides of the lorry. Zamira buckled, and fell forwards. Exhaust fumes filled her mouth.
Outside in the busy streets of London, sirens sounded. She heard the younger women begin to whimper and pray again. The driver pounded on the back of the cab with his fists. The lorry slowed.
Though the other women were scared, Zamira felt a strange comfort. The sounds of the sirens were like a flame in the darkness, telling her that they were not alone. They gave her something to push against. They forced her to have courage.
She lifted herself back up and steadied herself. The lorry would stop soon, and if they had all survived the journey then she would be one step closer to her family. She turned from the other women, and waited.