Amy Stewart’s Writing Apprenticeship Diary

#1: Laying The Foundations

Twisting Paths

I’ve always written stories, but the moment I really decided to go for it as a writer is clear as cut-glass in my memory.

After studying English Literature at university, I promptly stopped writing in a creative way. It wasn’t so much that I fell out of love with writing, just that my life seemed to twist away from the practice for a while. I started a career in marketing, then freelance digital copywriting, creating online content for travel and fashion brands. Being able to work from my laptop was a real privilege, and one that meant I could travel the world with my partner and fund myself as I went.

In 2016, we spent a summer volunteering on farms and camping our way around British Columbia. During the hot days, I milked goats, tended vegetable beds and picked blueberries. In the evenings, I’d write and deliver hundreds of product descriptions to fashion retailers. It was a fun and spontaneous time, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something was missing. I woke up on the morning of my 26th birthday and thought: “I’m never going to be a writer if I don’t write something.”

It felt a bit like it came out of nowhere — but looking back now, it’s easy to pinpoint where the sudden ache came from. I loved the flexibility and autonomy that copywriting gave me, but my work also involved tight editorial briefs, constant revisions and limited creative freedom. I hadn’t been writing for me for a long time, and I was itching to express myself in that way again. I’d always dreamt of publishing a novel one day, and something about it being my birthday made me see I was no closer to that goal than I’d been before university. My resolution was to write something. Anything. And crucially, to finish it.

Over the next year, I wrote a young adult novel. I queried agents and got rejected. Edited, revised, re-submitted. Was rejected again. All the while I kept on copywriting, with projects ranging from dishwasher repair to luxury cruises. I dabbled in poetry and hated everything I produced.

I was frustrated, but it was a valuable time. I was finding my feet, refining my style, going through that essential period of experimenting and failing. I read widely and tried to emulate what my favourite writers were doing — but was struggling to find my own voice. I decided I wanted to spend more time formally studying the craft.

From a stuffy hotel room in Malaysia, I applied for a Creative Writing MA at York St John University. I believe the next year transformed my writing practice.

Now, I absolutely do not believe you need any kind of degree to be ‘good at writing’ — but for me, being given the excuse to focus on my creativity and being encouraged to read well beyond my comfort zone was crucial. I was introduced to alternative ways of ‘breaking in’ to the industry, like submitting to journals and applying for prizes. It was also the first time I started writing short stories, and a missing puzzle piece finally clicked into place.

Falling in Love with Short Stories

I think a short story collection demands more from a reader than a novel. You aren’t being carefully led through one world — you have to constantly adapt to new ones and recalibrate your expectations throughout the collection. I think that takes a different, more focused type of reading, and a lot of trust on behalf of the reader that the author is going to keep winning you over.

In the same way, I think the rewards of a short story collection for a reader are huge. You get to see so many of the concepts and characters living in the writer’s head. There are also additional decisions the writer needs to make — which stories to include? How to sequence them? It’s almost like putting an album together, and I love the idea of the stories interacting; that each disparate story can come together to create something bigger.

Day-to-Day Reality

I’m now lucky enough to have had some small successes. I’ve placed stories in anthologies and journals, been shortlisted for prizes and of course, won the Northern Word Factory Apprentice Award, for which I’m hugely grateful.

I wish I could spend all day writing creatively, but juggling is the name of the game right now. I’m still copywriting to pay the bills and to fund my part-time PhD, which is centred around female circus performers.

I love the flexibility and low-pressure environment of freelance life, but I often crave headspace. Over the next year, I’m planning to use my bursary to take some time off and immerse myself in writing. Now though, I just try to write whenever an urgent idea strikes me. I’m very ‘all or nothing’ when I’m writing: completely bewitched by a story, or not at all. Ideas often take me by surprise and don’t let me go. As such, a lot of my stories start off as single-sentence notes on my phone, written in the middle of the night then hastily decoded in the morning.

Hopes and Ambitions

I’m writing it down here to keep myself accountable: I hope to emerge from the apprenticeship with a completed short story collection. I’ve been trying to compile one the last few years but feel as though I’ve been working with a number of loosely connected parts, not sure how to bring them all together.

When it comes to theme, I know that I’m interested in transformation, both literal and metaphorical. I like to use speculative ideas to defamiliarize everyday emotions or situations, so that we might examine them under a new light. With my collection, I’m also keen to create a space where female characters are free to be messy and monstrous, complex and unlikeable.

The short story is the way of writing that comes most naturally to me, and I think that has something to do with the intensity of the form. I feel I can be most honest in short stories, without worrying as much about things like structure, sub-plots and pacing. I’m often not trying to create a world, but rather to communicate a feeling, theme or mood. And with this form, there’s no set-dressing in the way. It’s just the writer, the words, the reader. I’ve always thought that writing is as much about seeing as it is about saying, and for me, short stories feel like the most honest way to say what I see.

I’m hoping that with Catherine Menon’s invaluable feedback and insight, I’ll be able to solidify my central themes and produce new work that feels like it has a place in the collection. I’m incredibly grateful for this chance to develop creatively, and for the backing of both The Word Factory and New Writing North. I intend to seize the opportunity with both hands.