Nazira Vania

It isn’t easy being a beginner writer trying to turn long-held dreams of a literary career into reality. You step into the world of writing to find that the literary landscape is vast, the goal you hold for yourself is sitting far off on the horizon, and a confusing tangle of paths is spread out across the plain that stretches between you and your destination. How do you know which paths will lead to the fulfilment of your aspirations? Where do you turn if you need help with plotting out your route or getting equipped for the journey? 

I was in this position back in 2018 when I applied for a place on the Middle Way Mentoring Project (MWMP), a two-year professional development scheme which aimed to advance the craft and careers of Midlands-based Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic writers. As I wrote in my application for the scheme, I had potential but wasn’t always executing my ideas very well because (a) aspects of my craft were underdeveloped and (b) I lacked confidence in my voice. Further, as someone that had spent decades secret-scribbling and shelving writing dreams because the whole being-a-writer business felt too daunting, I was also uncertain about how to navigate the complex world of publishing. My hope, therefore, was that the MWMP, with its combination of mentoring and masterclasses, would help me to ‘break through to my best writing’ and give my work a chance to succeed when it came to submitting it for publication. 

The programme, I am pleased to say, did not disappoint. Beginning with the mentoring, each mentee was allocated an experienced writer to mentor them one-to-one during the first year of the programme. My mentor was Kerry Young, author of Pao, Gloria, and Show Me A Mountain. How we utilised our mentoring sessions was left up to us, and I used mine to get targeted support with my work-in-progress, a novel (now) titled When You’re Smiling. For the first session, Kerry put lots of thought and time into understanding my vision for my novel, and for myself as a writer. We then spent each subsequent session focussing on different elements of my writing, which meant that there was continuous improvement in my craft and progress towards my goals across the six sessions. The quality of my story-telling and the authenticity of my writing improved noticeably as a result of Kerry’s input, and I really couldn’t have wished for a better mentor.

Moving onto the masterclasses, these took place across the two-year span of the scheme. Generally speaking, although there was some crossover, the first year of masterclasses were delivered by the mentors and focused on different aspects of craft and form, whereas the second year’s masterclasses were delivered by relevant industry experts and expanded outwards to cover a wider range of need-to-know subjects for early-career writers (such as the route to publishing, how to apply for funding, and how to edit your work). This included masterclasses from Farhana Shaikh, the programme leader, who also shared generously from her considerable experience as a writer, publisher, and arts leader in all of the sessions. The range of the masterclasses, especially those from the mentors, helped us to explore and experiment with many different forms of and approaches to writing, which I found greatly enriched my craft, especially when I applied the learning from the sessions to my work-in-progress.

Finally, the mentees themselves proved a treasure trove of knowledge and support. Each of us brought to the table different writing styles, reading interests, and life experiences, and thanks to their willingness to share these I felt my development was further enriched. Also, together with the programme leader, the mentees created a positive, accommodating, and nurturing space in which it felt safe to be vulnerable and take creative risks, without which true creative growth might not have been achievable. It was always a joy in spend time with my fellow mentees when we gathered for the masterclasses, and I was forever in awe of their talent, so my highlights of the scheme had to be seeing our writing published side-by-side in the MWMP anthology In The Middle and sharing a (virtual) stage with them at the two showcase events we held at the end of the programme.

All these different aspects of the programme came together to give us a holistic development experience, and by the time I finished the programme, the quality of my work, my belief in my writing voice, and the strength of my identity as a writer had all soared to a whole new level. I have now reached the final editing stages with my novel and, thanks to the programme, I had the confidence to submit my writing to further schemes, which resulted in me reaching the final stage for the DHA Open Week and getting early interest in my novel from an agent. I am now certain that, equipped with all that MWMP has taught me, I will be able to navigate the tangled paths of the literary landscape to reach the horizon and my goal of a long-term writer career.

Nazira Vania is a Leicester-based writer. She has recently finished writing her first novel, When You’re Smiling, a story of family, faith, and football. Her work can be found in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize anthology 2018 and in the anthology for the Middle Way Mentoring Project, In The Middle

Asha Krishna

“You are in,” said Farhana over the phone one afternoon, informing me about my Middle Way application. I was waiting at the school gates when the call came in and my eyes filled up. I had been knocking on many doors for acceptances and finally here was one, swinging wide open.

The email that followed later explained how it would work. The Middle Way Mentoring was a two-year programme where the mentees would attend masterclasses each month alongside one-to-one tutorials. Since I had chosen short stories as my specialism, the programme had matched me with Rebecca Burns, an immensely successful short story writer and novelist. Having her as my mentor felt like a huge privilege since I had first seen her as one of the short story judges at the Leicesterwrites festival.

“So, what do you expect from these sessions?” she asked at our meet-and greet-session.  It threw me off a bit. I was gearing up for passive instruction and here she was inviting me to jump into the driving seat. It was the beginning of a nurturing relationship that continues to this day.

If my one-to-one mentoring was cosy, the first masterclass led by Kerry Young came as a cold splash on that chilly Saturday afternoon in March. Her thought- provoking questions were like barbed wires, forcing us to re-examine our writing in an intensive three-hour class. That evening, I came back exhausted but delighted at the level of stimulation generated by the discussion.  On the slack chat we all conceded that this had set the bar high for the rest of the classes.

The subsequent sessions were all illuminating in their own way. They gave us a 360-degree view of the writing world in its glory: how the publishing industry worked, the power of social media and finding our place in the literary landscape.

I found the programme’s digital session particularly invaluable as it unveiled the power of social media to access the book community network. It came as a godsend during the Pandemic when social interaction was mostly online giving me access to lots of virtual literary events and discussions with fellow writers.

My Highlights:

The 2019 flash fiction festival was one of the top events of the programme, almost like stepping into a whole new world. It was a brilliantly organised event where we were introduced to the language of “Flash” in a genial atmosphere filled with friendly faces. I have been hooked to the form since.

If the field trips gave us exposure, the classroom was like a second home. As a cohort, we hit off right from the start. Supporting each other, the banter during the masterclasses acted as a balm to soothe the various crises in our personal lives. Often, due to childcare issues my kids came with me while I attended the masterclasses. I was worried about what the others may say, only to find them spoiling my two with biscuits from the snack table!

Reclaiming Identity:

The programme has been instrumental in giving me the time and space to reclaim my identity as a writer. I learnt not to feel guilty about leaving my children when I was writing and attending sessions. Most importantly, it taught me to take pride in my work.

Publication success is fickle and a writer’s life is solitary, writers need a strong support network to keep them sane. Middleway mentoring programme has given me the resilience and the camaraderie to sustain this arduous but satisfying life of a writer. I am grateful to have discovered my path alongside a supportive peer group, who made this journey with me.

Compared to my 2018 clueless self at the start of the programme cut to a 2020 “me” with a plan in place, I can say with immense pride that this has been a great experience.  But, as a much-loved mentor rightly said at the Middleway mentoring showcase, Platform 2021, “The Journey has just begun”.

Asha Krishna lives in Leicestershire and writes short stories and flash. She discovered home-schooling during lockdown but gave up as soon as her kids went back to school. She has been published in the Leicester Writes anthology, Flash Fiction Festival anthology and 100 words of solitude. She enjoys running and travelling.