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Unpacking What it Means to be a 'New Writer' with James Tatam by Rosa Heaton

The Surrey New Writer’s Festival is an annual event that brings together budding writers, experienced and published authors and poets, and anyone with a passion for literature. The festival provides an opportunity for new writers to share their work with a larger audience, as well as the chance to pick at the brains of experienced writers.

James Tatam has just completed his second year studying English Literature with Creative Writing. James attended the Surrey New Writer’s Festival and his short story ‘The Hermit’, was selected to be read. He is a passionate writer and has been submitting his writing to online journals and magazines for years. I spoke to James about his experience with sharing his work, how the festival has influenced him, and how he navigates being a ‘new writer’.

How did the opportunity to share your work at the festival come about?

From the Stag Hill Literary Journal. I originally sent them a poem called ‘Columbus’ that appeared in the ‘Trust’ issue. After sending that, I was asked if I wanted to submit a piece I’d written for my second-year creative writing assignment called ‘The Hermit,’ a Kafkaesque parody of self-help books. In all honesty, I’d not really thought much about the story; I was busy working on other projects, but I was excited by the idea that the Stag Hill Journal wanted to showcase my work, and even more excited when asked whether I would want it read at the festival. I accepted and got to experience how an audience reacted to my fiction.

Which events at the festival did you enjoy and find the most helpful?

I found the ‘Short Readings’ panel extremely helpful because I like to see what else other people are bringing to the table. The ‘Publishing for New Writers’ panel helped motivate me. As a writer, half the struggle is trying to please an editor; they’re shadowy, distant, reduced to resignation letters and the occasional acceptance. If you’re lucky. It was interesting to hear from the editors themselves and to gauge their opinions on what makes good fiction – what makes publishable fiction – and of course there is a lot of variation in their tastes. It helps you realise that editors want to help you. There’s a place for your stuff out there. Just keep searching.

Do you find interacting with experienced writers aids your own writing process, or do you find it intimidating?

It’s weird, I have a battle-like mind-set to this sort of thing. I view writing as one of the few things I’m good at, so whenever I meet more experienced writers I’m motivated to become better than them. It really drives my work ethic. Of course, these are talented people who have honed at their craft for a long time, and it’s inspiring to meet them and to learn from them, but there’s this innate desire to prove myself. I don’t know whether that comes off as brash or arrogant, but I love the spirit of competition. Obviously, it’s important to be respectful and to appreciate the literary culture and the writing community; don’t become Bukowski and publicly blast every writer in the literary equivalent of a diss-track. In short, meeting experienced writers is inspiring because it motivates me to study their work and learn from it, but also intimidating in a good way because it ignites a sense of competitive passion in me. It’s a fine line but I tread it.

Can you describe the setting of the festival, was there a sense of community?

Definitely. From the get-go, there was a sense of community and an atmosphere of shared experience. There was a real kaleidoscope of different writers – ranged across age and style of writing – that was refreshing to witness. I liked how everyone was levelled; a writer twenty or thirty years older than me was, like me, trying to learn and get better. I’ve been to a lot of literary events but the festival really captured the community vibe shared among upcoming writers.

Did you have any reservations about sharing your work with such a large audience, and what advice would you give someone who feels nervous about sharing their work?

I always have reservations. I can partly blame it down to living with a speech impediment (I have reservations about ordering a takeaway) but it also goes deeper than that. Any young and upcoming writer has reservations about their work. Writing is a lonely craft. You sit in a room and you put so much of yourself into your work and then when it comes to showing an audience, it’s as if you’re going to show them your baby. Doubts fly through your head with the velocity of bullet trains. What if they don’t get it? What if they don’t like it? Is this going to be embarrassing? And the answer is yeah, it might be. But why should that stop you from sharing it? Writing is a personal craft. You do it for yourself before you do it for anyone else, and you are often your own harshest critic. But I guarantee you someone out there in the crowd does get it and they do like it. That alone should be enough to motivate you to share your work; it did for me. Whether sharing your work aloud at a public reading or sending it to magazines, just having the courage to try is enough. Get your work out there, get rejected, try again. It’s the easiest and hardest thing in the world.

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