Having the right support can turn writing from a daunting and solitary process to one that is enjoyable and flowing. Cecilia Knapp is a poet and theatre-maker who is currently finalising her first novel. She explains how having a mentor changed everything.
I’m writing a novel at the moment and it has to be one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Luckily I have an excellent mentor who’s making it seem much less terrifying.
When I was younger, the thought of writing a novel was so abstract, so impossible. In fact, the idea that I could ever make my living from writing never even occurred to me.
But I did always love to read. I was a regular at the small library in my home town. It was my way of escaping my own life. It taught me empathy. It also helped me seek out the stories that resonated with my own experience and made me feel less alone.
The leap from reading to writing happened quite naturally when I was a kid. I got hold of a notebook, I wrote down how I felt. I wrote down little stories about ordinary people. I imagined them going about their lives. It made me feel less alone. Writing was just something I did in my spare time. It felt good. It felt like I was claiming something. I didn’t ever consider that anyone would want to read it, that my writing could do for others what books had done for me.
I only started to realise that I was a good writer when I became part of a community. I joined a course for young poets at the Roundhouse in 2010. Every week, six of us met and were mentored by writer Steven Camden, also known as as Polarbear. We improved as writers and we grew in confidence, largely because we had what we’d been missing, encouragement.
Most of my writing up until now has been poetry and theatre. The longest thing I’ve ever written was my play Finding Home, an hour-long theatre piece about my life growing up which includes my older brother’s suicide. That was quite a grueling thing to write. I had to go to some intense emotional places to get that piece of writing out of me and then work really hard to get it ready for the stage (with the help of an amazing creative team.) But ultimately, Finding Home is only 40 pages long and 8000 words (roughly.) A novel is a very different beast.
Finding Home did compound for me what is important to me in my writing, what is essential and what motivates me; real every day stories that shine a light on people like me and stories that are often more hidden. People who grew up in unconventional settings, with not much money, people who feel the pinch of austerity and lack of mental health provision. These are the stories I want to read and the stories I think will unite and inspire compassion. They are sadly stories I don’t see as much in mainstream literature but some fantastic examples for me would be Zadie Smith’s NW, my mentor Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan and Kate Tempest’s debut novel The Bricks That Built the Houses.)
Finding Home showed me I could draw attention to stories such as mine, to talk about suicide candidly, to discuss loss and grief, the chaos of growing up as a woman. By bringing these conversations centre stage, we can help those alienated by their circumstance as well as encourage empathy in others. I wanted to carry this intention into a different form, this time, a novel. Characters built from combinations of people I knew growing up in Brighton kept arriving in my head. I’ve heard a lot of writers say this, that their characters just landed with them one day, and I never really got it until mine popped in.
“Hello,” they seemed to say. “We’re here now and we want you to hear us, make us real, tell our stories.”
That’s when I started writing.
But a novel is so so massive. The sheer scale of it is enormous. I’d never done anything like it before. I’d been writing poetry, a form dependant on meticulous detail, distilling a moment and certainly less concerned with narrative. Now here was something in which plot was essential, momentum imperative and detail less so.
I struggle at the best of times to have confidence in my writing. I get imposter syndrome, think I’m silly or unrealistic for pursuing this life, I doubt my intelligence, and I compare myself to others. Several times during writing this book I’ve wanted to give up.
But having a mentor stopped me from throwing in the towel. I was lucky enough that Kerry Hudson, beautiful soul and alarmingly good writer, agreed to mentor me. We share a lot of concerns in our work, namely representing lesser-heard voices in literature. I devoured her first novel, a beautifully written, funny, compelling story about a girl growing up with a single mother on a series of estates and various B&B’s.
Kerry helps me with the practical aspects of writing a novel, helping me see it as a whole and drive the plot forward. She gently calls me out when the writing becomes clunky or convoluted. One of the things she asked me to do was to provide her with a detailed timeline so I knew exactly where I was going with the book and could get there in a reasonable time so the reader maintains engagement. She helped me raise the stakes, increase tensions; she flags red herrings, questions whether characters actions are believable. She helps me cut bits out that aren’t serving the plot (I’m a sucker for getting too bogged down in back story and detail.) She is the perfect outside eye to help me strengthen the draft of this book. She’s done it before, she’s been through it all (she’s on her third book!)
Because our interests and styles are fairly similar, she can relate to my glitches and struggles and brings it back to her lived experience, giving her feedback a tangible humanness, which I love.
Most importantly, she is the greatest source of encouragement. She bigs me up and helps me to keep going. She genuinely enjoys my writing and makes that known. She is there when I want to give up, gently pushing me to persevere. I sometimes think that the book isn’t good enough, that the ideas and the plot aren’t gripping. I often wonder who will want to read my book with its very ordinary characters where not much really happens. But Kerry helps me see through the fog and re-connect with my intention, why I set out to write it. That’s the most valuable thing ever.
Novel writing is a long, intimidating process but having a mentor breaks it down. Each month, I submit ten thousand words to Kerry and she feeds back on it. We speak on the phone and I drop her emails when I have questions or doubts. The monthly deadlines help me take the process incrementally.
I feel incredibly grateful for her mentorship, and the support of Spread the Word in helping me fund this book and find Kerry (as well as my fantastic agent Becky who has read fairly terrible early drafts.) The road ahead is still long, to use a literary cliche, I’ve only just finished a first draft and there’s so much left to do but I could have never have got here on my own.
See Cecilia speak about her experience of being mentored at a special London Writers Network event on Thursday 15 November.
Photo by Charlie Carr-Gomm.