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A Short and Eventful Journey on the Inscribe Writer's Programme

I can scarcely believe it was almost eight months ago, on a cold, dark December day when I made a trip I wasn't sure about. I was waist-deep in boxes, packing up my house to move. And the following day I was going travelling for two weeks. Feeling emotional and frazzled, it wasn't the best time for a Christmas party. But then being freelance, I don't often get invitations to these. So I thought, why not?

I arrived at Peepal Tree's office in Leeds and headed upstairs, ushered in by Hannah. The familiar face of Dorothea creased in a smile and I got a wave from Adam, who I knew from attending a few workshops. The rest of the small group were strangers to me. I wondered if I'd made a mistake coming, as the assembled writers and publishers were chatting comfortably and tucking into the nibbles on the table. Half an hour, I thought. So I got a drink and sat down. Introductions were made and I realised the man opposite me was Jacob Ross. I'd devoured his book The Bone Readers of which I'd been given a copy to read for an upcoming workshop with the author. I was going to be away for the workshop, so I was delighted I had Jacob right there. We had a stimulating time discussing the feminist tone of the book, the influences which had led to the feminism, the characters in the book, and the choices the author and characters made as the story unfolded.

I chatted to some of the others and around six o' clock, having had an absolutely lovely time, said my goodbyes. As I gave Dorothea a hug, she said she would be seeing more of me. I was mystified until she explained that the programme managers had decided to take me on for the Inscribe Writers Programme. I started spouting gibberish along the lines that I would work hard, that I wouldn't let them down and that they wouldn't regret taking me on. Dorothea reassured me with a big smile and still in a daze I left the building, just about managing to drive to my friend's to share the news.

In February 2017, I came along to the Annual Inscribe Writers' day feeling very proud to be part of the programme. Kei Miller was there as guest speaker. I thought we would probably write at some point of the day. But Kei had other plans. He spoke with fire about a controversial article ridiculing a gay man. Kei had written a counter to it on his blog and had had a few run-ins with the author of the article since. Under other circumstances, I would have thought that this was a conversation for half an hour at the most. (Notice my favourite time span!) But we spent the entire morning debating and discussing all the facets of the issue, the psychology on both sides of the picture, the writer and the written about, and of course the responsibility every writer carries towards their subject and the world at large. We have a calling to speak up about injustice and shine a light on things that need to change. We will not be silent bystanders on political, social or economic topics. Kei left no doubt about that!

This energising opening gambit of the programme was followed by another challenging workshop a couple of months later. Nick Makoha talking about writing the 'Metic' experience. I reached for Google to look up the meaning of the word, only to see Nick had helpfully provided the definition on the event description. Nick started by letting us rifle through his belongings to build trust. He asked us to think about all the places we belonged to. Then he demanded that each of us write six poems over the next three months about our experiences as displaced people, people who had made journeys through their ancestors, and by themselves, to end up living where we were now. I hate to admit I haven't written the poems as yet, but I have written other ones, and I've incorporated the concepts into my novel-in-progress. One day those Metic poems will rise to the surface from under the bedrock.

In June, I went to the Debden Centre in its idyllic setting in Epping. Jacob Ross was supposed to run part of the Crafting Fiction weekend, but to my great disappointment it didn't work out. Instead, we had Romesh Gunasekara. Booker-nominated Romesh, whose books I hadn't read (is there no end to my ignorance?) looked very much the writer with his shock of salt and pepper hair, linen jacket and faraway look in his eyes. Within minutes he had the room eating out of his hands, and with each exercise he got us all furiously scribbling away. Cracking a whip of velvet! Romesh was kind enough to listen to my (brief) rant about the pressure on the first thirty pages for an unpublished novelist. And I laughed out loud in recognition at a comment he made about the start of his writer's journey. For years he'd been frustrated that nothing was happening in terms of writing success, until he realised nothing would happen unless he made it happen. Romesh had articulated in almost the exact words a feeling I'd had a few years ago before I came to the very same conclusion. How life follows arcs just like characters in a satisfying story!

Of course, I've since been to a Jacob Ross workshop at one of the monthly meetings run by Inscribe in Leeds. There was more whip than velvet on that, but I loved every minute of it. Now I wonder what next? Which other fabulous writers will I get to pick up pearls from? I look ahead with excitement and am so grateful for the opportunity. I realise this all sounds very gushing. But I've never met a bunch of more talented, committed, humble, warm and funny people. They put so much work and heart into progressing the writers under their care, it's incredible. All I can say is thank you Inscribe and Peepal Tree Press!

Barsa Ray

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