A landmark moment last month has got me reflecting on my journey as a writer…
And that is the launch of emerging young poet Warda Yassin’s debut pamphlet, Tea with Cardamom, with the Poetry Business, at Sheaf Poetry Festival. Moving, tender and authentic, Warda’s work is a joy. I urge any lover of contemporary poetry to get hold of a copy (which you can do here). You won’t be disappointed.
I first met Warda on a wellbeing and creative writing course I was running in November 2012. Although an avid reader, it was Warda’s first time writing outside of formal education. She was 19 and nervous. And, despite the fact I’d started teaching creative writing groups, back then, in truth, I was nervous about the idea of becoming a writer too. As a working-class woman, who left a dysfunctional home life at 15, with various undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions, imposter syndrome still had a firm hold on me well into my adult years.
Unsurprisingly, I shied-away from a childhood love of writing because I didn’t think someone like me was allowed a seat at the table. I studied visual art at uni and found joy and purpose in helping others in creative community projects across visual art, photography, film and animation. I remember my first workshop with teens, in 1998 at the end of my degree, and how it hooked me on seeing people grow and self-actualise. I saw a use for my ADHD enthusiasm (although back then I didn’t know that’s what it was).
I also didn’t know that it was no casual thing that I gravitated towards being a freelancer, which allowed me the autonomy and flexibility I needed to stay outside the tick boxes and innovate in my own way (cog-in-the-machine structures are something that many neurodiverse people struggle with). And, as creativity has the amazing power to do, after a few years, it inadvertently started bringing me back to words, with the purpose of engaging young people to use their voice.
But even then, my first job in writing, running a young people’s magazine (Cube), I was often overworked and overwhelmed, not understanding my impairments enough. So much great stuff was happening in the work I was doing with others, but I had no headspace to even think about investing in my own development.
Somehow I’ve always known my wiring, if at times seemingly faulty, has also been one of the things that’s helped me succeed and flourish in many areas, and in supporting others creatively, and eventually myself. Now I understand a combination of factors – early independence in the world, my neurodiverse brain (things like big picture and divergent thinking, an autodidactic drive for creativity and what I call autistic precision) fuelled what I could do with my creative skills and the potential I recognised in others.
The final key to locking myself fully as a writer, believe it or not, was breast cancer. I was diagnosed in January 2015 and had a year of treatment. You better believe that nothing will get you to reassess and reframe things more than an egg timer turned on its side, and you not knowing how quickly it might go one way or the other.
With it came time. Time off, time writing, time thinking, time to myself, to evaluate, to take stock. I realised what I had achieved, how far I’d come, and marveled at how the hell I’d done it, given my rocky beginnings. The narrative that had followed me since leaving home at 15, the one I had made things fit to, that was when I said adios to it fully.
Coming out of cancer treatment, I set up Hive South Yorkshire – a regional project developing and supporting young writers. Not only had I fully realised that my knowledge (of how something like Hive could work) was more than I’d given myself credit for, I also knew I was now a writer and mentor at a stage where I could really support younger writers to advance. I’m proud to say, 3 years on, I’ve helped many with next steps through Hive, including seeing them achieve accolades such as the New Poets Prize, Young Northern Writers Award, Foyle Young Poet of the Year and the Ledbury young poets competition.
And the loveliest part that all this and particularly that Warda reminds me of – it was actually this work with young people, my commitment to offering them the guidance I learned the value of through its early absence in my own life, that rather beautifully brought me back to my love of words, strengthening my skills, and allowing me to see my own value and potential.
In many ways, Warda and I started our journey of self-discovery together. Warda knows my story, and I know hers. This has led to a special connection and we continue to champion each other on our writing journey knowing how far we have both come to get our seat at the table. (Or perhaps we’re creating new tables. There’s an idea!)
I’m not sure how I would have found my way back to words, or perhaps in the way I have, without my years working creatively with young people. And there are many of you I have to thank – some who are, like Warda, fully-fledged adulting now. And when I see you, I smile. Thank you for enriching my life, and for appreciating what I have offered. And yes, it took a while to get here. But, good stuff came from that long journey. Not least, supporting others to say ‘I can’ quicker than I was once able to myself.
For me, this is a story of how the gifts we give can come back to us.