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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Writers’ Residential

Three writers are collaborating on a book. How does that work? They began in 2014 and send perhaps twenty or thirty emails to each other every week. And they must meet two or three times each year to keep the processes of writing on track and in synchronicity. They must write about 70,000 words, on the topic they indicated to the publisher, and in a coherent manner that adds to the world’s knowledge of the subject. Simples! [Add your own ironic Meerkat cheek squeak.]

Our book is non-fiction. It is concerned with the effects of people living longer and it challenges ageist assumptions and exclusionary practices. We show how the population changes concern everyone, partly because everyone who survives will get old, but also because society, families and local communities need to adjust attitudes and practices.

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

Postcards from the Look at Me! project: www.representing-ageing.com

We are due to deliver the completed manuscript to the publisher in early March. We have just finished our final three-day residential in Devon. I was not anticipating that the final stretch would feel any more creative than a slog. But our three days made us energised and keen to get on with our allocated tasks. What on earth happened?

Looking after ourselves

230 StoverWe haven’t lived this long without knowing that caring for ourselves is very important. We are good at celebrating successes, knowing that the Prosecco shortage may be due to our frequent celebrations. We kept ourselves warm, in front of the open fire in the evenings and enjoyed good food. We got some some fresh air and exercise, on this occasion a walk round the lake in Stover Park, and kept good hours.

Our agenda

We had planned for these days, exchanging ideas for our agenda by email from early December. The key thing about this meeting was that we had received feedback from three readers on all 14 chapters. We knew they would say the writing needs to become more consistent. But we wanted to explore how to do that as well as address their other observations and comments. And we needed to plan everything to be done before sending our manuscript to the publisher. We began with a list of all the things to be done and began each day by setting the day’s timetable.

230 TT

Key work on vision

Our publisher had asked us to sharpen up one particular aspect of the book: what needs to change. We decided to use the end of every chapter to do this as well as keeping it in mind as we revise the chapters. And we had planned a short final chapter to encapsulate all that. This became the key work of the residential, achieved jointly.

Mostly we talk, go through our many pages, make notes, but sometimes we write together. We do this with one writer at the keyboard, and dictation by the others, or the keyboarder reading aloud and adjusting and amending, sentence by sentence, over and over again. Eileen and Caroline have worked like this before, but it is much easier with two than three. But in the end we cold not see the joins and were inspired by our own vision of a future in which ageing is not assumed to be a problem.

We have found on previous occasions that the idea of a manifesto is helpful, even if it doesn’t appear in the book in this form. Creating a statement of what the book is about is a dynamic or iterative process. Working on the manifesto, shapes the book and the writing of the chapters moves us towards the manifesto in its strongest form. Ours has emerged gradually over the two years of writing,

I remind myself that I should have trusted the process. I realised how important our vision has become when I found myself describing the book differently the following day. ‘What are you writing?’ I was asked. ‘It’s a book arguing that demographic changes do not need to be seen as problematic and how we can achieve this.’ It sounded good to me, even if the words were not what I would have said even a week ago.

Creating excitement and new stuff from dialogue

Working collaboratively with other writers helps achieve these new understandings. It is a key process in writing together. Through dialogue everyone participates and you end up in a different place, one you would not have arrived at if you had been writing alone. And usually where you arrive is at a better understanding of what we want to say and why. This is sometimes called interthinking.

Try it some time. You need tact, patience, trust and an open mind to do it. And you get better the more you do it. Reviewing the process from time to time also helps.

That tricky and elusive title

The publisher wanted us to get to a better title. We have the one from when we proposed the book: Ageing Now. And a revision as a result of an earlier writing session: Living Longer Together. These are not considered satisfactory by the publisher. But she needs it now for the American catalogue. The three of us have been brainstorming away since December when she told us we would need to do this. We had asked her for suggestions, knowing that our previous publisher had suggested the title that was exactly right: Retiring with Attitude. No luck this time.

101 RWA coverBut we tried several ways to agree a title, including looking at the final chapter, our vision. In the end we sent her our two least bad titles. I expect she will favour a variation of one of them. I would have liked to give you the title, so you could run to your bookseller and reserve a copy of this book, but I can’t.

I think we have found the title harder than any other single aspect of the writing of this book.

Future posts about writing this book together

We plan to post every month about the progress towards publication in September. We think that there are some good things to share with other writers: how we write together, the stages towards publication, working with feedback, marketing and so on. And here’s some advice for free – keep celebrating and laughing together, even if it results in a celebratory selfie that casts doubt on the authors’ sanity.

230 3 writers

From left to right: Eileen Carnell, Caroline Lodge and Marianne Coleman.

Related posts

On the tricky topic of titles on this blog in November 2015

Published today: what our editors did for us in July 2014

 

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