Writing is a solitary endeavour - but the Emerging Writers’ Programme is like filling your room with friends

When I sent in my application, I thought: I am an academic. My destiny is to write obscure articles that have a readership of 10, max.


Top view of the workspace and office of a female translator working on a document and checking some references

April 06, 2022 11:54

On a cool Sunday morning last month, worried WhatsApp messages were exchanged: “Is anyone else nervous as all get out?” “Yes. Sitting in my flat in my jimjams having a little meltdown.” “Thought I was chill until I tried putting my shoes on the wrong feet” (facepalm emoji). There we were, the inaugural cohort of the Genesis Jewish Book Week Emerging Writers’ Programme, about to emerge as writers in a public setting: Jewish Book Week, London’s oldest literary festival. 

Jewish Book Week, which has run for seventy years, always features luminaries. The literary giant David Grossman spoke this year, as did my favourite journalist, Jonathan Freedland. Claudia Roden talked about her latest cookbook. Howard Jacobson launched his new memoir. And to our credit, our session also had incredibly famous writers on board. Among them were A D Miller, whose novel Snowdrops was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize; the poet and translator, George Szirtes; Kavita Puri, journalist and broadcaster; artist Sophie Herxheimer; novelist Ben Markovits; Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator; and Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring and nine other books. But here’s the amazing thing: all of these well-known figures were there in supporting roles. The stars of the panel, by comparison, were virtually unknown.

Perhaps that will soon change. In our session, we listened to a burgeoning novelist, Madeleine Dunnigan, read a stirring passage about a young woman enduring a breakup; Sophie Dumont, a poet, describe her declining granddad; Philip Glassborow, a playwright, mourn the war in Ukraine; Eleanor Myerson, a PhD student, revive a centuries’-old shipwreck; and Sara Doctors, a festival producer, crack us up with her shtetl tale. Julie Noble, who is writing about abuse and the legal system, talked about what the programme has given her. Sophie Herxheimer performed her mentee Linda Ford’s poem exploring the natural world; Linda, along with Guy Stagg and Fiona Monahan, couldn’t join us. I read an excerpt from my own novel-in-progress, choosing a scene set in Haifa in 1908 that I promised was both carefully researched and also sure to irritate historians. 

We all discussed our mentorship and peer support, which were orchestrated by the lovely head of production, Sarah Fairbairn, who has worked at Jewish Book Week for a decade (though, she told me, people still feel the need to explain to her what rugelach is!).

The Sunday morning was neither the beginning nor the end of our programme but, rather, the pinnacle. The programme began last July and is still running; each month we look forward to seminars and master classes with writers, publishers and editors. The Genesis Foundation — which has supported young artists for over twenty years, partnering with leadings arts organisations — is funding it. Some of the mentor-mentees pairs have been featured in their podcast, “Artistic Minds”.

Writing can be the most solitary endeavour. You sit there, an open screen in front of you, fingers on the keyboard (hopefully intact – my ‘e’ has gone rogue, which is not fun, I promise), and you wait for magic to happen. Sometimes it does. And sometimes it really, really doesn’t. Hours have gone by, and you look over what you’ve produced, and you think, Wow. That is absolute dreck. Or maybe you read it over and you wonder, but really can’t be sure—Is this dreck?? You might ask the question aloud, but no one’s there to answer and then you just feel like a crazy person (who also is or isn’t writing dreck).

Knowing that you are sending your chapter to your mentor — or sharing it with your cohort — can be like filling your writing room with friends. You’ll have conversations with them in your head. “What do you think of this bit?” “Where’s the drama? Nothing happens!” or “Oh, I love the way you compare your narrator’s experience with pregnancy to Kuato in Total Recall” or “I’m a little lost in all your imagery — can you streamline your paragraph so that we can tell what is occurring in real life versus in her imagination?” (honest aside: no one liked my Kuato reference, and it landed on the chopping board). 

This week, a new call for applications for the Genesis Jewish Book Week Emerging Writers’ Programme has opened. Are you an aspiring writer? When I sent in my application, I thought: I am an academic. My destiny is to write obscure articles that have a readership of 10, max. Just because I desperately want to write a novel doesn’t mean my application will be selected. Then again, what did I have to lose? 

In one of my Facebook groups — a wonderful coterie of supportive Jewish Academic Mamas — we have a mantra. It’s generally meant for academic jobs and promotions but it works just as well for a programme like this one. When in doubt, “Apply. Apply. Apply.”

April 06, 2022 11:54

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive