On The Word Factory and my mentorship with Vanessa Gebbie

Divya Ghelani was a Word Factory apprentice in 2016 – a year of political upheaval. She recalls how she experienced some seismic shifts of her own.

If 2016 was a year of political apocalypse, it was also, for me, one of personal discovery. I spent many days in isolation, reading and writing in Leicestershire libraries and coffee shops, and working on a slow trickle of freelance copywriting that still makes up my bread and butter. I’d experience the what-are-you-doing-with-your-life frowns at family gatherings, while enjoying the crazy-happy beating of my heart whenever I received news of a short story acceptance.

Amid all that, the novelist Jacob Ross suggested I apply to be an apprentice at the Word Factory. “You’re doing well,” he told me, “but you need to get out there more.” I thanked him, but told myself I didn’t need a mentor – I was writing at least 1,000 words a day. Besides, wasn’t the whole point of writing that you found your own voice? I wasn’t keen on a stranger imposing theirs onto my own, especially as mine was beginning to bloom in confidence.

Weeks later, as I was struggling with another chapter and too much coffee, I looked up the Word Factory online and saw a photograph of a group of people at Waterstones Piccadilly listening to and talking about short stories. They looked like they were having so much fun. I saw that the Word Factory ran a series of masterclasses and evening salons with established writers; chosen apprentices gained free access to all that.

I thought hard about my own short stories and screenplays. My novel seemed to have swallowed me whole and my self-isolation meant that I rarely submitted to publications in the way others did. My short stories were never finished to satisfaction and I didn’t have much of a writing community or audience. Despite my three literature degrees, my publications and wins, I felt very much alone.

After I won a place on the scheme, Cathy Galvin, the Word Factory’s director, emailed me to say that she and the novelist Paul McVeigh had placed me with a mentor based on the tone and style of my winning entry (a story entitled An Imperial Typewriter), about the Leicester black workers’ strike in 1974. My mentor’s name was Vanessa Gebbie, a prizewinning novelist, poet and short story writer.

I was nervous about meeting Vanessa. I had been taught by a long list of excellent writers at UEA, but an apprenticeship felt different, more intimate. I wasn’t sure how Vanessa worked, if her teaching style would be suited to me, if we would get along. And so I started reading her novel, The Coward’s Tale, about a nine-year-old boy sent to live with his grandmother in Wales, who befriends the town beggar telling stories outside the cinema.

I was taken by the lyricism of Vanessa’s prose, her web of stories within stories, her natural ability to evoke forgotten histories and places. I felt an affinity with her as a storyteller, and liked the idea of being mentored by a woman. She has a light touch, is gentle and kind, and her eye is where the magic is; incisive, sharp, quick to challenge. Vanessa asked me to address issues of balance in my stories, and encouraged me to take my narrative to brave places. She seemed genuinely excited by my weirder, more experimental stories. She advised me to follow my voice and my ideas, and not hers (unless my heart told me to).

I once told Vanessa I was struggling to get away from the noise of daily life and paid work to focus on my book. She read a full draft of my manuscript and recommended me for a stay at Gladstone’s Residential Library in Wales. For a period of deep and magical silence I worked on my manuscript, cheered on by the mystics and saints that line its library walls. Vanessa’s kindness and encouragement came at a time when I needed it most.

The Word Factory had become that supportive writing community I once craved; my brilliant fellow apprentices are now my friends. I was glad to have been part of the Sublime Women Word Factory theme because I learnt from the likes of Marina Warner, Dubraka Ugresic, and was reacquainted with the teachings of my wonderful former UEA writing tutor, Michele Roberts.

Prior to the apprenticeship, my unpublished manuscript had received an Honorary Mention in the Harry Bowling Prize and was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award. During the apprenticeship, it was further longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize and shortlisted for Penguin Random House’s WriteNowLive competition. I also had new short stories placed in Litro India magazine edited by Shashi Tharoor and Bare Fiction’s upcoming anthology.

Now I experiment with greater confidence. I finish things. I apply to more competitions and am cool with knock backs, because that’s how I learn. It’s all part of a shift I feel inside me, a greater sense of my own rhythm. I’m full of hope as I finish my book and send it into the world, and I fully intend to build a writing future filled with many more novels, short stories, essays, articles, and film scripts.