It is a natural extension of our work over the past twenty years of supporting, encouraging and creating pathways into publication and performance for writers and artists from working class, diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.
It is inspired by two visits by WoW’s co-Directors, Mike Morris and Madeline Heneghan, to the writing centres 826 Valencia in New York and San Francisco, founded by novelist Dave Eggers, and Fighting Words in Dublin, founded by Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle.
The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has created a sense of urgency to find ways to support the health and well-being of communities across the north-west region, the result being that, rather than The Bloc being a live, physical writing centre as originally planned, it is being launched as an online space for writers and artists to come together, gain support from professional writers, and build a creative community.
The Writer’s Bloc is needed now more than ever as a place for the community to connect, be creative and feel supported. This unique opportunity from WoW is for anyone, at any level of creative engagement or career stage, to develop their relationship to the arts and the arts industry. We know the transformational potential of creative writing for individual and community health, both immediately and long term.
There are many fantastic initiatives taking place to increase the number of writers from diverse and working-class backgrounds being published and recognised for their work. These include the Common People anthology of working class writing, a project led by novelist Kit de Waal, with the subsequent publication of a PDF report ‘Common People: Breaking Through The Class Ceiling in Publishing’, by Professor Katy Shaw, and Liverpool based publisher, Dead Ink’s, Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class.
Writing on the Wall recognises that one of the most important things that can be offered to new writers is a pathway of professional support and exposure to publishers. In 2006, in recognition of the difficulties faced by working class and diverse writers in getting their work published, Writing on the Wall launched the Pulp Idol competition for new novelists. It has been hugely successful, with eleven collections of first chapters of the finalists of the competition published, which equates to approximately 120 new writers, and distributed and promoted to publishers.
As a result, many new writers have had their debut novels published by mainstream or independent publishers, with others acknowledging the key role Pulp idol played in getting them commissions for new plays, gaining the attention of agents who have gone on to publish their subsequent work, some of whom have had their work published in five languages.
Success stories from the winners and finalists include: James Rice signing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton, who published his acclaimed debut novel, Alice and the Fly, Deborah Morgan’s debut novel Disappearing Home published by Tindal Street Press, John Donoghue being signed by an agent, and subsequently having his best-selling debut novel The Death’s Head Chess Club published; Clare Coombes’s debut novel Definitions published by Bennion Kearney; Ariel Kahn’s Raising Sparks published by independent publisher Blue Moose Books, which went on to become runner up in The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. From our latest 2020 collection, three writers have already had agents contact them to read their work.
We adopt the same approach of publishing, or arranging performances, of the work of new writers, of all ages, throughout our projects – ‘What’s Your Story’, ‘Write to Work’, ‘Superheroes: Words Are Our Power’, ‘From SS Orbita to orbital’, ‘Liverpool Young Writers’, Life of Grime’, ‘Moving Forward’, and from our Creative Heritage projects ‘The George Garrett Archive Project’ and ‘Great War to Race Riots’, and many more. All the writers benefit from professional support throughout, including mentoring and editing, and receive a huge boost from seeing their work in print, taking part in showcase launch events, and often use it as a platform to develop further work, both within WoW’s other projects and in other creative areas.
WoW took their first step into publishing novels with Bess by Rose Thomas. A beautiful novel, set in Liverpool, that tells the story of Bess, a young black woman negotiating race, employment, love and family, between the 1940s and 1980s. It is both a sad and yet hugely proud achievement to note that by publishing Bess, Rose Thomas became the first ever Liverpool born black woman to have published a novel. This itself is indicative of the lack of pathways into publishing, and by the white dominated London-centric publishing industry.
‘Disconnected: Social Mobility and the Creative Industries’, a PDF report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) highlights how entry into professional occupations is largely dependent on parents’ careers, with children from professional backgrounds 80% more likely to go into a professional occupation such as law or medicine than their less privileged peers, thanks to their connections and their stronger educational qualifications.
It went on to point out that ‘publishing is whiter than the general population – 93% compared to society of 90% white people. As with gender, we know black people are less likely to be in senior, powerful positions in creative jobs, and they are likely to face stereotypes and constraints on their creative freedom when compared to white colleagues.’
While the road to publication for many new writers without contacts, which the report identified as being ‘very important for getting into the sector because word-of-mouth recruitment is more common than formal recruitment methods’, is opaque and mysterious, when they do get through they find that the world of publishing and those within it, bears little relation to their own lives and experiences.
The Black Lives Matter movements has, in the space of just a few short weeks, moved mountains of perception that has resulted in the arts world and publishing looking inwards, and finding it is wanting in relation to diversity and class. There have been some incredibly positive developments – in 2019 Bernadine Evaristo became the first ever black woman to win the Booker Prize with her novel Girl, Woman, Other, and Reni Eddo-Lodge has become the first black British author to take the overall No 1 spot in the UK’s official book charts with Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
There are now some brilliant independent publishers in the north, including Dead Ink, Bluemoose Booksand Comma Press, all of whom have had their authors featured at writing on the Wall’s annual WoWfest literary and writing festival in Liverpool, and companies such as The Liverpool Literary Agency (formerly The Liverpool Editing Company), who are working with WoW and others to offer professional support to new writers.
There are positive signs too that the mainstream are now making practical efforts to attract writers from diverse, working class backgrounds – just this week the WoW Co-Directors had a meeting with Genevieve Pegg, the new Publishing Director for HarperNorth, an imprint of Harper Collins, who are setting up an office in Manchester and working to develop a list more representative of the north.
But there is a long way to go in bringing Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and working-class writers into the mainstream. In publishing Common People, Kit de Waal, Writer and editor of the Common People anthology and intro to the Common People Report, said; “My original aims were that Common People would be a showcase for working-class writers, new and established, that the industry might take notice of the talent on offer…”
“The second part of the project was to facilitate a route into the industry for the new writers, to put them on equal footing with more connected, middle-class writers and, of course, if possible to get them into publication.”
These two aims align with those of Writing on the Wall and The Writer’s Bloc.
The Common People report quotes the 2017, Arts Council England (ACE) commissioned report, Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction. The report concluded that UK literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’ that are ‘so established that the reality of breaking into these areas still proves impossible for many writers’, and…unless we recognise ‘a need for more support and new models of support’ then we run the risk of ‘returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves [and this] should be a source of deep concern’.
What is required is the vision, the ethos, and the practical offer of professional support to ensure the writers can develop their best work, and clear pathways for their development and exposure to both independent and mainstream publishers. None of this excludes self-publishing, but that too requires support and guidance, as the writer here will also have to become an expert in promotion and distribution if their work is to stand any chance of making a noise in the vast sea of self-published and traditionally published works.
Our online centre is led by a ‘Writer on the Bloc’, the first being remembered author and lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, Yvonne Battle Felton.
The Writer on the Bloc will lead workshops, drop-ins for writers, and offer one-to-one mentoring sessions.
A series of ‘What’s Your Story?’ projects will run weekly session with writers exploring racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, domestic abuse, and mental Health and well-being. With all the writers on the courses having their work published in a series of online anthologies.
We are also bringing the work of our school-based Superheroes: Words Are Our Power project into the Bloc and are offering writers from Diverse backgrounds a training course to develop their skills for working in schools. This runs alongside the development of a new book of diverse stories for children that we have commissioned a range of writers to contribute towards.
The work of The Writer’s Bloc, through supporting all five ways to wellbeing: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn and Give, will contribute to people’s health and wellbeing in this difficult time, when many people’s mental and physical health is under threat, through offering a safe, supportive space that would allow people to access professional support from both creative and health practitioners. Where appropriate, it will signpost participants to relevant support services where need was identified through engagement with The Writers’ Bloc.
The need for The Writer’s Bloc comes too from an evidence base  that shows the following:
We also have a strong body of evidence and feedback of the positive impact of our projects and events on participants. An example of this is the quote below from Rebecca Gorman, who is part of PSS’s (Person Shaped Support) Turnaround group, for woman who are in the criminal justice system:
‘The best thing for me was this writing course was a coping mechanism that I didn’t even know existed until we done it and it was only when I was getting ready in the morning, something to do with probation to do with my conviction didn’t seem like a daunting task, the one thing I will take from this is I know now I will never stop writing. Thank you very much Writing on the Wall.’
Within the Bloc people would be encouraged and supported to use their creativity to empower, inspire, develop new skills, and to write, create and share new work through workshops, performance and publication. We aim to use the space to develop a creative community of writers, artists and performers based on local people, with an emphasis on engagement, wellbeing and community. It would also play a powerful role in developing a new generation of writers, encouraging creativity generally, and supporting literacy for adults and children.
WoW has worked with many communities through our courses and projects, including those with experience of mental ill health, trafficked women, stroke survivors, the long-term unemployed, young carers, women with experience of the judicial system, and many more vulnerable or marginalised communities. In doing so we have partnered with, among other, Person Shaped Support (PSS), Liverpool Mental Health Consortium, The Liverpool Stroke Association, Manchester Young Carers, and CAMHS, to deliver our two flagship projects, ‘What’s Your Story?’ and ‘Write to Work’, that feedback indicates have had a dynamic impact of individual’s health, well-being, social engagement and pathways to work.
Feedback from our projects, before and after being moved online, is phenomenal. Ashley Crookall, a woman on probation, from our project working with Person shaped Support (PSS), is now employed full time at a men’s probation hostel. From being ‘broken’ with ‘no hope for the future’, her life has been radically transformed by a creative approach, unlocking her a potential. This is the impact our projects can have.
Other feedback includes:
‘Just wanted to say thank you so much for the daily writing bursts, it’s the most productive I have been for quite some time being creative is definitely helping me during lockdown.’ (Write Here Write Now)
‘I can’t stress enough what a total tonic the writing burst sessions have been for me during lockdown. ‘ (Single Parent)
‘I am so grateful to have had the chance to participate in Write to Work. Please stay safe, not least so you can continue with your life-changing work.’
‘The Moving Foreword team have put together a very diverse program that is inclusive of all artistic genre… a great program run by professionals.’
It is clear from the above the importance and impact of our approach using creativity to inspire and engage through our projects.
In this time of social fragmentation, arts, culture, writing and creativity can go a long way towards creating community cohesion and individual and community pride in our achievements.
There is also a very strong economic case for developing new ways to underpin the region’s arts sector, and through creating business opportunities and funding support for creatives and freelancers, develop and maintain a viable and thriving sector.
A PDF report for Arts Council England published in July 2019 on The Economic Value of Arts & Culture in the North of England, and based on the Centre for Economics and Business Research’s 2019 study showed that:
This is a unique opportunity, appropriate to the time we are in, which can play a role in meeting a definite need for creative activities that engage people and give them a strong, meaningful connection to a diverse community of people like them. The strength of this proposal is in the value of both the artistic offer, and the offer to local communities, to celebrate creativity, community, the arts generally, and the impact they can have on the creative and artistic life of local communities, and upon their health and well-being.
The launch of The Writer’s Bloc has been made possible by the generous support of our funders:
The National Lottery Reaching Communities Fund, Liverpool City Region Covid-19 Emergency Funding and The Steve Morgan Foundation.
Mike Morris & Madeline Heneghan, Co-Directors, Writing on the Wall.
 The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society, an evidence review, Arts Council England
This has been made possible with support from The National Lottery Reaching Communities Fund, Liverpool City Region Covid-19 Emergency Funding and The Steve Morgan Foundation.