MAISIE CHAN is one of our amazing panel of judges kindly volunteering their time to support our charity writing competition. Maisie is a Birmingham-born writer of children’s books and short stories now based in Glasgow. She is currently working with the Human Values Foundation, writing inclusive stories for 7-12 year olds. She has taught creative writing to writers aged between 8 and 65 years old. Many of her own stories have involved older people facing loneliness and isolation.
What writing/poetry projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently completing loads of different writing projects! I’m coming to the end of a brilliant commission for the Human Values Foundation, a charity promoting values in schools all over the world. They hired me and other professional writers to pen diverse and inclusive stories for primary school children. One piece features dragons and another is from the viewpoint of a child with autism written in verse. Some are serious, some funny. It’s been one of my favourite writing projects as I’ve written stories I never thought possible and it’s for an amazing cause. Stories help children process the world and if they can see themselves in them the message becomes even more powerful.
I’m also editing my teen novel which hopefully my agent will submit to editors this year. It’s all very exciting and a bit daunting too. My dream of having a book on the shelves is now within touching distance. As a realist, I know that the publishing industry largely depends on the market but I can only do my best, so fingers crossed!
I also write flash fiction for adults and am polishing a few stories to send to competitions. So I’m busy, busy, busy!
What inspired you to join the judging panel?
I was very happy to be asked to judge the children’s competition as I have been a creative writing tutor for children and teens. I was always amazed by what the young writers produced and the ideas they came up with. It puts my imagination to shame. I encourage my own children to write stories or make up things as it uses a different part of the brain and is a great skill to have.
I also wanted to support a charity that tackles loneliness and issues related to the elderly, as I spent a lot of my adult life being responsible for my dad who had Parkinson’s disease and also dementia. He lived alone in a sheltered flat with carers who came to see him every few hours and I would visit him once a week to sort out his shopping and bills. There were often people in his building who didn’t have family and I felt sad about that. I think that for many of the older generation who have lost touch with family and friends, charities such as Link Age Southwark are vital for human connection.
What advice would you give to your younger creative self?
Make writing a priority and get rid of the negative self-talk. Sometimes I’d have a failed commission and my confidence would plummet. I’d often put other people’s needs first but then feel bad that I wasn’t writing.
Continue being playful and creative like when I was a young child. I loved drawing and even won a couple of art competitions in infant school but as a teenager I somehow stopped being creative. Being ‘smart’ was considered ‘uncool’ at my school. I watching loads of TV in my bedroom and ignored my creative side. Keep creating, keep making stuff, keep reading, keep writing and don’t let anyone’s comments make you think that what you enjoy is silly or unfashionable.
I’d also tell my younger self that it’s OK to make mistakes. We always seek perfection and when we don’t find it we think we’re not good enough. All the best artists learnt their craft over many years and continued to grow. It’s good to make mistakes as that’s how you learn. I used to think that if I couldn’t do something brilliantly the first time then I shouldn’t try again. I wish I’d been confident enough to just be myself.
How did you get into writing?
I knew I wanted to write after my mum passed away in 2003. I didn’t want to waste my life doing something I didn’t love. I really love writing and being a writer. I’ve tried other jobs which didn’t feel right. I didn’t write a word though, back then; I just talked about my dream but was too scared to put pen to paper. Instead, I began journaling. It was brilliant as it gave me a daily writing habit. I was only writing personal thoughts but it helped get words out of my head and into the world. Talking to friends also helped as they started sending me opportunities.
I applied for a Birmingham Libraries competition for BAME writers. You had to submit a writing sample and successful applicants got a mentor and publication in an anthology. With the deadline looming, I wrote something hastily in twenty minutes and just pressed SEND. I couldn’t believe it when I was chosen! That was the beginning of my writing journey.
I then applied for a National Academy of Writing diploma course starting in Birmingham. Melvin Bragg was the president. I had to qualify and I passed. It was an up-and-down few years as we were basically guinea pigs. I learnt a lot about the professional side of writing but wished we had learnt more about writing a novel.
Which of your creative projects, past or present, are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of (and also thankful for) my non-fiction piece ‘Growing Up On Lard,’ the one I wrote in twenty minutes and my first piece of creative writing as an adult. It got me onto the Birmingham Libraries mentoring scheme, and my writing course. It was first published by Penguin in The Map of Me anthology, then online with Banana Writers, and finally it was recorded by Catherine Flynn (author of What Was Lost) for Brum Radio this year.
This memoir is now quite old but reflects who I am and where I’ve come from. It tells people I’m a working class Chinese adopted Brummie who had identity issues growing up. And they can hear my voice. A lot of my writing has a similar tone to this piece – it’s kind of funny but also sad. Without ‘Growing Up on Lard’ I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have had.
Also, it showed me that sometimes the muse does show up and you write things that you haven’t thought about, but somehow this almost fully-formed thing can blob out onto the page. I’ve had that experience a few times. Other times it is a very mechanical process, but this piece was simply there and I had to pluck it out of my subconscious. That sounds a bit nuts, but it’s true!