Striving to be a Writer
Guest blog by Shazia J Altaf
As a kid I would spend my afternoons in a nook of Middlesbrough library eyeballing a book. The books were like penny mix ups sweets to me, I’d devour them quickly, and greedily, beadily eyeing the next ones I would come for. Like a demented vulture who only eats stale library paper.
The deliciousness of books is that they don’t care what street you live on, or what university you went to (or didn’t), or what job you do (or don’t do), any connections you may have (I had none), your background… they just want you, your ears, eyes, brain, any parts that’s working.
But they were not really written by any working-class writers, or brown or black writers, I soon started to notice. Books had taken me quite far by then; I had skipped continents, slipped inside people’s homes (uninvited), intruded on personal conversations, been that pesky fly on the wall, cut across classes, sat on shoulders, heard whispers, read beautiful and wretched minds. But when the spine snapped shut, that was that. I was the bobble on a jumper, not the silky thread who could glide across paper like others to write a book. Are you having a laugh? That was for other curious beings.
My parents came from Azad Kashmir – the Pakistan administered part – in the 1970’s. I was born in the old ‘General’ hospital in Middlesbrough in the 1980’s. My mother took us to the library. Though she couldn’t read or write herself, she knew the unique powers of books. That’s a debt I’ll never be able to repay. The books I read growing up, I adored: the quirky Brontë sisters roaming gale-forces on the beautiful looming moors; Stephen King’s Carrie, the sinister undertones charged with rage more electric than her telekinesis abilities; Austen’s charming Fanny in Mansfield Park, anything, anything I could get my mitts on. But there didn’t exist any characters or families quite like the ones I knew and recognised inside literature’s dusty shelves. Until quite recently I would argue this was still relatively true, and remains perplexing.
I didn’t know any writers at all. I am just starting to know a few now, but it’s still quite a solitary job. It’s you versus the page. And there is a fight to be had on the page. I never really showed my work properly to anyone until quite recently, though I do remember sending a piddly child thing off once donkeys years ago, but that’s about it. I come from a world where writers didn’t exist except for the shadows they cast in their books. In a town like Middlesbrough, like many other towns, child poverty is growing in recent years. I was one of those kids on free school meals growing up. I didn’t want to write that last line if I’m honest, it feels slightly uncomfortable, but then I’m writing it for anyone who has come from difficult circumstances, and thinking it might help. Who knows…
Anyway, I wasn’t part of any writers groups or anything like that. A writing group is something that would be laughed at in some quarters: are you having a giraffe? You want to be a writer? I did it alone, and I worked on my debut novel, Jammed Ascent on and off for over a decade (in between part time jobs in a library, birthing two kids and all the rest…). I think in that time I was also afraid of writing… that was holding me back, it was a pin I was afraid to pull. I didn’t know quite know what I was doing, as I tried to figure it out, as I’m self-taught. What was this thing I was creating? I was afraid of it.
Once I’d written this blobby flesh of a thing – this ‘loose baggy jumper’ as one of my favourite writer’s Zadie Smith called novels in early gestation – I got a grip, found some bottle, and decided that I needed to try and get this thing out and push it into the world. But how to do this? That was the scalp scratching part.
a) I know no one in this field.
b) I’m a nobody.
c) Have no connections whatsoever unless they take a club card and even then I’m not sure mine would work, I’ve mainly lost them or they’re out of date…
d) Ain’t really got the right background for this lark, statistically this being a distinctly middle class and upper-class shenanigans thing.
e) Repeat b.
‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Let’s get something clear and straight off the bat: if I could write under a pseudonym, I think I honestly would, happily. But brown writers barely get noticed with their own names let alone adopting an alter ego. So that really isn’t going to work for me. I’m happy to stay a nobody, if some people read the work, but that isn’t exactly how this strange beast works. So, I got some grit and started to send it out to some agents and surprisingly got some interest with two full manuscript requests. However, the trail went dead as a door knob for a long time and as cold as Santa’s butt crack on Christmas. I was also trying to apply for Arts Council England funding and getting close but ultimately hitting a brick wall. So, still with no connections whatsoever, with disillusionment creeping its wretched claws in my soul, I thought to myself, you know what I’ll write some short stories in the meantime. So, I did that for a while and started firing them off for competitions and got into the word trenches. After adding the eleven years working on the manuscript, I give myself one year to get somewhere with it. An unrealistic tall order, I know, I know looking back now. Anyway, time was tick tock ticking.
Faire et se taire.’ Translation: ‘Shut up and get on with it.’
Rejections are like a wasp’s sting. Even though I had belief in myself, the sharp tail was starting to pierce. I was starting to wonder if this was really something I could do? Who was I kidding? I am a complete unknown. I entered competitions to build confidence but the rejections were breaking it. I thought a long listing, a writing credit might help. I remember a quote of Maya Angelou’s quite affecting me at the time, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. Those words and that agony kept me going. And equally ‘Faire et se taire.’ Translation: ‘Shut up and get on with it,’ by old Gustave Flaubert in my early years seemingly also did the trick.
On my Creative Future prose piece (adapted from my debut novel), I thought to myself, rejections mounting like fires burning dreams to crispy ashes, if this short story isn’t good enough for something somewhere, for a long listing for something, just even a mention for God’s sake! then I definitely don’t know what is anymore. And I told myself and ‘writing’ that day, staring at the piece I’d written, at the words, a bit upset, I had done all I could, and I had come to a point where I could do no more. (Disclaimer: I probably would have carried on, who knows… but that’s how I genuinely felt at the time.)
Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to acknowledge help. I always thought I was a one-woman band, I had to carry the heavy bag alone, like one of those sad donkeys you see saddled with bricks on charity adverts on tv. But sometimes letting someone else carry a brick is the right thing to do. Story Machine did that for me with the Arts Grant application. Sam’s brain is wired and drills down to the minutiae of grant applications, whereas mine is naturally wired on cake and crisps. Grant applications can be as difficultly complex as the project itself, but good advice can help you get it right, to get it where you need to go. He kindly helped when I had lost hope. There are good people who will help, sometimes you can get help from places you don’t quite expect, but you have to be brave enough to raise your hand. And if when you reach out for whatever reason they are unable to, try another route, another person, a different place, someone somewhere will raise their fingertips back.
Fast forward eleven years and a year after I submitted my work to the incredible Creative Future Writer’s Award, it was awarded the winning entry of the prize. I was astounded and refused to initially believe it. Shortly after, I got my Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant application approved. A little later, I got the right agent. But that’s a whole another story…
Don’t give up.
About Shazia J Altaf
Shazia J Altaf is a writer from Middlesbrough, in the North East of England from a working-class background. She is currently working editorially on her manuscript Jammed Ascent with The Literacy Consultancy, received through winning the Creative Future Award 2021, Platinum prize for her short story Essential Thread. She was published in this year’s Creative Future Writers’ Award anthology, and performed at the Southbank Centre. She has been listed in the Exeter Short Story Prize 2021. Her Debut novel, Jammed Ascent was short-listed for the Primadonna Prize 2021. Shazia is represented by literary agent Olivia Maidment at the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV, and Film Agency.