Amy Stewart won the Word Factory Apprentice Award 2021 as part of the Northern Writers’ Awards. In this blog, Amy recounts what she has learnt under the mentorship of author Catherine Menon, and the impact this experience has had on her writing life. 

 

Embarking on my mentorship with Catherine Menon last July was both incredibly exciting and slightly anxiety-inducing. I was so aware that to have an established writer you respect and admire dedicate their time to helping you improve as a storyteller is such a rare and valuable thing. How, I wondered, was I going to make the very most of this? I resolved to be open-minded, to not be precious with my work and to experiment with new ways of working that I might not have otherwise.

As my mentorship draws to a close, I wanted to share some of the things I learned – and unlearned – along the way.

There is no perfect way to write a story.

When Catherine asked me to describe my writing process, I realised that I held a lot of preconceptions about how I felt I should write, and how a story should come about. Without realising it, I’d placed a lot of value on the kind of story that comes out all in a rush, urgent and self-aware before it even reaches the page. These, I’d thought, were the truest and therefore the worthiest. But waiting for these kinds of stories to occur – the ones written in a matter of hours, then barely touched after – is like waiting for a lightning strike. Very exciting, but not very productive.

During the mentorship, I was encouraged by Catherine to sit with ideas and let them settle. To not be impatient when they didn’t instantly materialise into complete and nuanced pieces. I wrote my way into stories multiple times, exploring ideas then discarding them, extricating promising gems and seeing how they shone in new contexts. It was a less romantic process and more of a mechanical one. I was aware of the purpose of every character and interaction. While I was convinced any reader would be able to see through the skin of the story all the way through to its carefully constructed bones, Catherine assured me that the stories I’d written in this new way were some of my strongest. There is merit, I realised, in not dismissing a story because it didn’t arrive fully formed.

The seduction of setting.

I’ve always known that a lot of my stories are inspired first and foremost by place. It’s the element that comes to me first, and feels most convincing – a lonely beach, a sun-seared island, a woodland teeming with hidden things. I have a background as a travel writer, and it’s almost as if I need to know the cloth of the world I’m writing in before I can see anything else about it.

Working with Catherine really brought this to the fore, and she encouraged me to push setting even further in my stories, to really dig into the details of each one. Catherine’s insights and feedback helped me to realise that when I have a good handle on the specifics of my setting, I feel more confident in the world I’m creating, and as a result, the stories read as more assured and developed. I’m now more conscious and accepting of this as my starting point, using it to anchor myself when I get lost in a story. Where are we? And why are we here, of all places?

How comforting and necessary it is to write, and to talk about writing.

The months of my mentorship were quite stressful and tumultuous personally. My meetings with Catherine became something to look forward to; a regular appointment which I knew would provide a blissful hour to do nothing else but talk about story with someone who’d been kind enough to immerse themselves in my work. It made me realise how truly nourishing writing can be in hard times, and what a lovely thing it is to talk about with others who feel just as passionately.

I come away from the mentorship with a short story collection fragile in its completion, a renewed dedication to my writing, and a new recognition of how integral the practice is to how I process and cope with difficult things. I’m so grateful to have had this experience to reflect, develop and transform as a writer, and am excited to keep applying the lessons I learned with Catherine to all the stories I’ve yet to write.

 

The Northern Writers’ Awards are produced by New Writing North and supported by Northumbria University and Arts Council England. The Awards support writers creatively as they develop their work towards publication, as well as helping them to progress professionally and navigate their way through the publishing industry.

The winners of the 2022 Northern Writers’ Awards will be announced in July 2022.