I can't be sure when it happened, only that it did. While I was busy doing something else - in my case fretting, most probably - a literary movement had snuck in the back door, made itself at home in the kitchen and helped itself to a large glass of wine.
Every morning, it's waiting for me, bursting with ideas and random surprises, quite beyond my control.
Its name? The Word Factory. Its raison d'être? Supporting excellence in the writing, performance and enjoyment of short stories.
At least, that's what I thought it was.
A literary movement smiles. It shares. It inspires. It goes its own way.
In truth, though an appreciation of short stories has created a foundation for this movement, its heart and soul is good writing wherever it’s found; its lifeblood, writers themselves and what they want.
You recognise a movement, rather than an organisation, because – well, it moves. It has a life of its own, a spirited independence, a relaxed lope of a presence that a top-down, business-planned organisation lacks and secretly envies.
A literary movement smiles. It shares. It inspires. It goes its own way. Its spirit is drawn from what Keats referred to as negative capability, a term he applied to the writing process and writers ’capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
What could be more uncertain than the world of the short story? Yet, reaching beyond reason, here are some of the mysterious facts that measure the robustness of this unpredictable presence in my life.
- The Word Factory is loud. Where, at the beginning, it reached an audience of 20 a month, it now reaches 20,000 through our database, website and social media: writers speaking to writers about what has become a year-long series of interlinked live events, providing work and mentorship for hundreds of emerging and established authors.
- The Word Factory is fertile. Writers who have worked with us often develop linked literary organisations of their own – Zoe Gilbert at the London Lit Lab, for example, or Jane Roberts, Fran Harvey and Bernie Deehan at Literary Salmon – and these writers remain part of everything we are doing. Zoe and Sophie Haydock now run additional Word Factory 'response' salons, selecting new work to be read in addition to a popular short story reading and critiquing club.
- The Word Factory is liked. It has grown because writers, including Lionel Shriver, Hanif Kureishi, Adam Marek, Ben Okri, Alexei Sayle, AS Byatt, Joe Dunthorne and Kevin Barry wanted it and enjoyed the relaxed, reciprocal atmosphere of the early salons and the seriousness of the intention to highlight quality work.
It’s possibly foolish to guess why what started nearly four years ago as something larger than a whim and smaller than a plan - a simple instinct, if you like – has taken off in this way. But here’s some of the background.
I started The Word Factory as a monthly short story salon at the Society Club in Soho, a free event where two or three writers at a time would read and I would lead a general conversation about their work and practice. I called it The Word Factory as a nod towards my father, who spent his working life in factories, and to the idea that we are given freedom by the act of making words into stories.
Literary agent and bookshop owner Carrie Kania provided the venue. I provided initial funding for a website from Tony and Corinne Oulton of Baskerville Design and Peter Clarke of Tangent Films provided film of the subsequent readings and conversation – now a considerable archive of significant, profound, funny and insightful moments.
This initial support followed my departure from The Sunday Times Magazine, where I had worked as deputy editor for many years, introducing fiction to its pages and co-founding the Sunday Times EFG short story award with the then-chairman of EFG Private Bank and former chairman of Faber, Matthew Evans.
Some of the original, intimate ethos of those evenings in Soho remains. Event attendance at Waterstones Piccadilly is kept to under a hundred – and often no more than 15 for a masterclass, to preserve serious conversation and individual attention from our authors. In the past six months, those authors have included Helen Simpson, Kirsty Gunn, Deborah Levy, A.L. Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Neil Gaiman, Tobias Wolff, Tracy Chevalier, Helen Dunmore, Esther Freud, Joanna Briscoe and David Constantine.
In a class earlier this month, Constantine discussed fiction as a state of creating consciousness, sentence by sentence. The writers who make up The Word Factory have done much the same – creating a safe space for other writers to create, step by step.
This team of people gives to each other with a freedom I haven’t experienced before in my working life, informally advising on work and publication. There are now around 15 of us and a core of friends, bound by what we have grown between us as our own writing has also developed.
Paul McVeigh, whose acclaimed debut novel The Good Son was published this year, has overseen social media strategy, offering his help at the very beginning of The Word Factory project and now working closely with Lauren Addicott and Laura Knowles. Zoe Gilbert, a winner of the Costa Short Story Prize, publishes her first collection soon – as does website coordinator Alexa Radcliffe-Hart, working with Eloise Wales. Alison Hitchcock has been writing her first novel and completing an MA at Birkbeck, University of London, while managing our membership scheme and offering important insights into what post-graduate writers need.
Adam Marek, Stella Duffy, Alex Preston and Nicholas Royle have all given their services for free as mentors to writers selected for our annual ‘apprentice’ award – with wonderful results and award recognition for their work. Former apprentices Kerstin Twachtmann, Holly Dawson, Uschi Gatward and Rebecca Swirsky are still a prized part of The Word Factory family. This year, Rebecca has been published in the Economist, Financial Times and Times Literary Supplement and is developing a series of podcasts for us.
As the result of a new membership scheme and the generosity of patrons, our current mentors – Vanessa Gebbie, Jacob Ross, Paul McVeigh and Ailsa Cox, are being paid for the first time while we have been able to support our apprentices more fully, offering one-one one mentorship, our classes and events and residencies.
This ‘uncertain’ movement has developed a range of partnerships with others interested in the short story and we are always open to sharing new ideas. Those we work with include the Small Wonder festival, Royal Society of Literature, Cut, Spread the Word, Writers’ Centre Norwich, Vanguard, the Special Relationship, the Edge Hill Prize, Birkbeck’s Kit De Waal scholarship, Mslexia magazine - and we have been delighted to have been awarded ACE GfA funding.
These associations have also changed my life. After thirty years as a features writer and newspaper commissioning editor, I’ve recently graduated with an MA in Writing from Warwick University and begun publishing non-journalistic work, particularly poetry.
what happens of value isn't measured in terms of numbers alone, but in moments that makes a difference to someone's writing life
Movements can, and must, come and go as the individuals who create them adapt. The future of this particular one depends on what writers want it to become. It belongs to every writer who has made The Word Factory happen, who has had some fun and learned something along the way.
What I’ve learned is, however hard, to trust that negative capability.
At times, I’ve been tempted to force The Word Factory to lay down its glass of wine and knock it into some sort of sensible hierarchical shape - for the sake of ‘sustainability’ and because that’s how I learned things work in my journalistic career.
I‘m glad I resisted the temptation because what happens of value isn’t measured in terms of numbers alone, but in moments that make a difference to someone’s writing life, moments you can’t control and which ripple out to others, moments which come back to you in unexpected ways. Like when a man approached me and said, ‘I spend every lunch time with you’ – he meant watching our videos of readings and conversations. Or when a woman told me she was using us as a free resource for teaching creative writing.
I've also learned strong audiences, readerships and constituencies grow from the ground up. They recognise authenticity.
Some call this kind of movement ‘cultural activism’. Whatever it’s called, The Word Factory movement has happened because writers have made it happen. Clever, collaborative, creative, entrepreneurial writers, working beyond convention.
And so, Word Factory workers: we have come this far and we have the inspired work to show for it. Let’s lift our glasses and wonder…