“No man knows till the time comes, what depths are within him.” – Dickens, Our Mutual Friend –a guest blog post from Dickens 2012 Young Writer in Residence, Femi Martin
April 16, 2012
My Dad bought me a copy of Oliver Twist when I was seven years old, but my real introduction to Dickens was at the age of thirteen. Our English teacher, Mr Foxhall, had a naughty habit of ‘stealing’ books meant for GCSE students, and using those texts in his lessons with us. I remember reading Great Expectations in a dream-like state. Between Dickens’ story and language, and Mr Foxhall’s excellent teaching, I was mesmerised. Just like Magwitch grabbed Pip in the cemetery, so too was I grabbed by Dickens.
Fast forward 17 years and I am given the fantastic job of Dickens 2012 Young Writer in Residence. Over two months in, and with just over two weeks remaining, I can confidently say that this residency has been a life-changer. It has been full of surprises, fantastic experiences, and wonderful support; from Cityread London, The Charles Dickens Museum, and Spread the Word.
These fantastic experiences include an appearance on BBC London radio, facilitating workshops at the museum, and performing at Dickens-themed events. Now that Cityread London is in full swing I’ll be taking Dickens and Oliver Twist into even more great, and important, spaces. I’ll be running workshops with a young parents group, at an independent bookshop, and in a prison, plus I’ll be performing all my commissioned stories in a bookshop in a borough Dickens lived in. I have especially enjoyed introducing Dickens and his work to people who may have thought it was too difficult, or wasn’t for them.
Dickens wrote some of his earliest works at his house on Doughty Street (now the Dickens Museum), including Oliver Twist. Just like Oliver found his voice and asked for more, this residency has provided me with opportunities that have allowed me to dig even deeper to find not just my voice, but what I really want to say. This is partly because I have found this big job incredibly challenging at times. Most of my stress has been self-inflicted, but I have felt it nonetheless. It’s been very busy, with copious amounts of admin, but it has not deterred me. I have found the darkness to be enlightening; a real taste of what a working writer’s life is like. On balance, it’s a beautiful existence, and one I willingly choose with eyes fully open.
Dickens has a funny way of sticking to your ribs. Rereading Great Expectations during my residency, and Oliver Twist during Cityread month, I have found the words being awakened from the corners of my mind they have slept in for all these years. His work is unforgettable. Still, more than just his writing skill, I continue to be inspired by the kind of writer Dickens was. For me, this residency was not about becoming a Dickens expert, it was about following Dickens’ example. Writers write; we do many other things but the only thing that qualifies a writer is the fact that they write. There are few more prolific than Dickens, and this time has shown me how important it is to fight to write. To carve writing time out of the little time you may have. Through Dickens I have been reminded that I must be brave with my words, know and own my voice, give something to every reader/listener, and share stories that say something about the human condition.
Dickens is embedded in the fibre of London, the landscape of Western literature, and I think all writers should keep him in mind as they map their stories. Beyond this residency, beyond the bicentenary, I know that I will.