On Being a Rural Working Class Writer

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I recently applied for a very big thing, and didn’t get it. I knew I was punching way above my poet weight with it and not getting an interview shouldn’t really have bothered me, but it did. One of the things that bothered me about it is that I felt like I was too working class to apply. I applied anyway, and actually, in the application I attempted to make my working class background a positive, an asset, something that they would benefit from. I pointed out that, whilst I didn’t have a first class oxbridge degree or an Eric Gregory to my name (when I was still young enough to be eligible for an Eric Gregory Award I was working in a cake factory in Bridlington and hadn’t started my writing career. I didn’t start my writing career until I was in my thirties) and, in fact, didn’t have a PhD either because I couldn’t afford to pay my tuition fees, I had something else. I had a great deal of life experience, had worked in shops, cafes, factories, had been a scientist, worked in the NHS and put myself through university two and a half times (not including my NHS funded science BSc), whilst working full time, each time. I also pointed out that for the most part I worked with adults who were sometimes shyly trying poetry for the first time. I laid out what I would like to do in the position being offered, which would have been to look at what was important to the working class people living in the city at which the position was being offered.

Anyway, I did not get the position, along with many, many, others. But that working class chip is still there. Every time I find myself pushing out of my working class boundaries I think of this Sean O’ Brian poem: Cousin Coat .  I’ve probably shared it before. I know I’ve talked about being working class before. I don’t think it would matter how well educated I was, how successful I was, how much progress I’d made towards my goals, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling off that I’m too working class for certain situations and positions. I also feel a sense of guilt that I’m trying to escape that working class background.

And I’m the wrong type of working class at that. When you say ‘working class’ to people, they envisage inner city schools, industrialised city scapes with smoking chimneys and a hundred kids living in one room of a falling down tenement. It is all those things, but that’s not me. I come from one of the most beautiful places in Britain, nay, the world. I’m from rural North Yorkshire. I grew up in the countryside and on the beach. How idyllic! And it was, is, but my home town also has one of the lowest average incomes of the country, extremely high unemployment levels and one of the highest drug and alcohol related mortality rates in the country. Yet we also have one of the highest council taxes in the country. Scarborough is a mix of grandeur, kiss me quick hats and extreme poverty, it’s a weird place to live because everything is so geared to scraping money in from tourism, it’s not generally spent on residents. Added to that we have a lot of elderly people here (retirees to the seaside) and a stretched and underfunded local hospital. There’s a lack of identity for people living here. There’s a lack of confidence, it’s like the whole town suffers from low self esteem. People move here for a better life, poor people on the whole, because who wouldn’t rather be poor in this beautiful, beautiful countryside if you can choose?

Where am I going with this…how does poetry fit into all this. Well, people think of poetry as a means of self expression. But actually, poetry is a means of communication, it’s a language, it’s an ancient form of language which directly accesses parts of the brain that are related to emotional communication. It’s why we reach for it at times of emotional crisis, why we hear poems at weddings and funerals (which reminds me, I have an article in the latest Breathe Magazine about this) and it’s really important that everyone has access to this form of communication. But unfortunately, especially in rural working class areas, and especially on this side of Yorkshire (W.Yorks seems to be well served, poetry wise) there aren’t that many places to access it, especially if you don’t know how to get into poetry. As a professional poet and freelance writer, there are not that many opportunities either, so I’ve generally made my own opportunities. The thing is, to give people access to poetry and the arts in general, it has to be more than just offering open mic nights, it has to be about offering people a way in, and that means it has to be accessible to lower incomes. Most of the people I grew up around think of poetry as difficult, complicated, distant stuff, because that’s how we were taught at a school where the main objective was fitting you out for shop or factory work. They wouldn’t go to a poetry event if there was one, but if poetry workshops were part of healthcare in the workplace, maybe they would find a way in. I don’t know. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s really important to me that I am able to work with people with little or no previous experience of poetry including those on low incomes, and it’s important to me to be able to offer that in a safe, encouraging environment where they don’t have to ‘be’ a poet.

This is turning into a ramble, but I wanted to express the fact that rural working class people exist and deserve access to the emotional language of poetry. Which is obvious. I’ve had a couple of people tell me I should charge more for the online courses I’m running, but that would just shut doors to people who might not be able to access guidance and help to communicate through poetry. Having said that, I still have to pay my mortgage and my bills and the way I’m working at the minute isn’t actually allowing me time to write. I’m not just a workshop facilitator, I’m a writer, and I don’t want that to slip away. I’ve started writing a novel or a novella, I don’t know which yet, and that’s a big thing, it’s six months work (I’m adapting my play to be a novel, so the structure is already there, but I need to do more research and obviously actually write the thing) so what I’ve decided to do is add a ‘tip’ button on here, and on my courses, etc so that those who feel they’d like to offer a little more, can. It’s completely optional. I feel cheeky doing it, but wanted to explain why I’d done that. It’s not about keeping me in white wine and coffee, it’s buying me writing time. People have been very generous and I am grateful.

I’m rambling a bit again, apologies, it’s been one of those weeks. But other wonderful things that are happening this week include working with a new mentee, who is enthusiastic and talented and I’m loving reading her short stories. We’ve set a target for the end of the month and I have no doubts that she’ll make it. Next week I’ll be visiting an ex mentee to look at where we might take her children’s historical fiction book, it keeps coming very very close to being picked up by a publisher, I still think it will be, but we need to put a plan together to tackle anything that might be putting publishers off. Then it’s over to York Literature festival for this brilliant Poets on a Boat event, then an open day at Ebberston Studios where I’ll be running an Introduction to Fiction course in September, I’ll be chatting to perspective clients and might try and run some mini ten minute workshops to encourage people to join in and sign up. It’s a busy old month. And I’m about to edit my own manuscript for Valley Press so that we can get moving on the new book, which is super exciting. And now…I’m writing a novel too.  Oh and I went to see this fantastic play last week, read the review here: Glory review for The Stage it’s a touring production so go and see it, it’s brilliant. Worth four stars.

Oh! and, here’s a free poetry anthology of women writers, which you can download in PDF form, it has some amazing poets in it, and I have a couple in here too: Eighteen Working Women Poets

Here endeth the ramblings of a slightly hung over rural working class writer. Thanks for hanging in there. PS if you did want to buy me an hour of writing time, the button’s to the right >>>>>>>>>>>

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2 thoughts on “On Being a Rural Working Class Writer

  1. Thanks for writing this Wendy .. I was in the company of someone the other evening who told me that elitism and privelidge were essential to our country…needless to say I could not concur and have always felt that being from the poorer end of the working class is its own kind of privilege ..good luck with the booklet al x

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    1. Oh….wow. What to say? I imagine the person who thinks privilege and elitism are essential to the country probably comes from a privileged and elite section of society? On a positive note, I’m planning on writing another ‘rural working class writer’ post about how brilliant it is and yes, a privilege of its own.

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