We spoke with 2020 Windham Campbell Prize winner Maria Tumarkin about mentorship, the art of speaking about your own writing and the Wheeler Centre's Next Chapter scheme for writers.
Maria initially joined Next Chapter as a mentor and this year is a judge. Each year the Wheeler Centre picks ten writers and provides them with the time, support and space in which to develop their work – more specifically in the form of a mentor, $15,000 each, and direct support to help achieve the writers' goals. Applications are now open until 10 August 2020, so if you’re interested in applying, or alternatively nominating someone who you think would benefit from the scheme, you can find out more here.
You’re one of four judges who’ll be selecting the next ten writers to be a part of the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter scheme. What are some of the main reasons you would recommend the scheme for a writer?
The scheme focuses specifically and explicitly on writers whose voices are not heard or not heard nearly enough, which is to say, on those who are not part of the whole creative writing industrial complex. You get money and time to write. Proper money! You get mentoring for a year and all kinds of focused, wise support. No deadlines, no commercial pressures and no one uses that god-awful word ‘outcomes’. The freedom to fly and a thick mattress on the ground to catch you. These things are as rare as hen’s teeth at the best of times, and at this moment of amplified precarity and uncertainty, they are unimprovable. You are given an incredible space to clarify to yourself what kind of a writer you are and what kind of work you want/need to put into the world. And then, when you’re ready, you’re helped with the tangible side of things: industry connections, practical advice, whatever stands between you and making the thing you’ve dreamed up land.
You’ve also acted as Jean Bachoura’s mentor as part of the scheme. In what ways have you and Jean benefited from working together? How have your own mentors impacted your writing practice across the various stages of your own career?
Jean is so close to my heart now and I love his brilliance and his restlessness. He is constantly moving, changing. And at the same time he is incapable of smugness or self-congratulation. I’ve learned so much from him, which is a cliché but you must believe me. Working with him was/is deliriously good (we haven’t stopped). I think I am able to be a little bit of a mirror and a witness to him rather than some kind of a semi-oracular presence – thank G-d.
I never formally studied writing, so my mentors were essential for me in developing as a writer. Mentors don’t have to wear special mentor robes of course. My mum was a mentor for me in my twenties. When she read my early pieces, my organs would stop working. I was so worried she’d find falsehoods or be put to sleep by my words. She is a gregarious, astute reader and she knows who I am.
It can often be a difficult task for people to put themselves forward and write confidently about their own practice, so it’s wonderful that individuals can also nominate writers who they feel may benefit from the scheme. Have you ever struggled to talk about your own work, or apply for various opportunities and grants? And if so, has it become easier over time?
I have definitely struggled massively with the general business of self-commodification. Writers I know and respect choke up on the grantspeak. Declaring that you’re the voice of your generation doesn’t come naturally to most sane people. It’s not that you become more comfortable over time with selling your wares, it’s just that you find a way to speak about your work with integrity and without feeling like you’re pimping yourself out. The Next Chapter scheme doesn’t ask anyone for that kind of up-sell. Write in your own voice, avoid hyperbole, don’t feel like you need to dazzle us with an endless list of your achievements. If a word or a sentence in your application makes you cringe, take it out. I do know that writing about one’s creative practice is really tough even if you’re able not to feel compromised by the process itself. I know of some very accomplished writers who get their friends or partners to write their bios – they can make worlds, but they can’t write a decent bio for themselves. Just saying.
Part of the intention of the scheme is to give writers the time and space to devote to their work regardless of the commercial outcomes, followed by invaluable support to determine the best publication outcomes for each writer. What did your own path to your first book’s publication look like?
I did a PhD in cultural history and then discovered, in trying to turn my PhD into a book, that books and dissertations are very different animals, and I want to be with the book animals. It’s really hard with your first book though, to hold on to your vision for it – this comes with practice, at least in my experience – so having a mentor by your side who can help you stand your ground and not be swayed (sweet-talked, corralled, pushed) into publishing a book that no longer feels like it’s yours is, as we say these days, ‘business critical’.
What sort of advice would you give to writers who might not be 100% satisfied with the writing sample they’re preparing to submit within their application just yet? How do you usually gauge when you’re ready to start sharing a work in progress with others, or even know when a work is ‘finished’?
Don’t ask me. I’ll set a bad example for others. I only know that something is finished when I get sick of it and start dismantling it in my edits. I don’t usually know when a piece is done but I do know when I am done with it. When I have nothing more to give to a piece of writing, when I cannot bear to look at it, that’s the moment we must part ways. Not because it’s done or perfect, but because I cannot make it any better, only worse. So that’s my advice, I guess – watch for that moment when you start hacking into your work. Ideally, you have one or two people you can show something that’s definitely unfinished to – most writers, though not everyone, need readers well before the ink on their manuscripts is dry. Just throwing ink in here for some quiet laughs.