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mindshare 2021 Award Winner: Jo Withers

Jo Withers smiles with closed mouth in a black and white image

Jo Withers writes short fiction and poetry for children and adults. Since she began writing in 2016, her work has featured in various magazines and anthologies including ACU Prize for Poetry 2018, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four and Best Microfictions 2020. Jo placed first in The Caterpillar Story for Children Prize in 2017, Furious Fiction in September 2021 and mindshare Awards 2021.

Jo is the winner of the 2021 mindshare Published Established Writers with ‘In Twelve Years In and Out of Hospital, Mum Sat in the Waiting Room Playing Word Games to Occupy Her Mind’.

What does this win for your writing mean to you?

I was thrilled and honoured to win the mindshare Award in the established writer category. Mental health has featured heavily in our family over the last five years and charities such as mindshare provide crucial support. The most important aspect is the community spirit amongst this group of writers and artists. There is no judgement or stigma, just the realisation that people from all walks of life live with the ever-changing highs and lows of mental health. I’m so grateful to have my work recognised by this awe-inspiring community.

What inspired your winning work?

I knew I wanted to write something structurally different, something in stages which reflected the changing aspect of everyday mental health. The idea of the word ladder puzzle seemed to fit perfectly and after that the title and scenario quickly followed – the supportive mother doing word games in the hospital waiting room as her daughter receives care. It was also very important to me that the daughter was seen as a strong, caring figure with a multitude of positive personality traits outside her addictions. The movement from NURSE – SOBER in the piece reflects this as does the final sections where the roles have reversed, and the daughter is now responsible for her mother’s care.

What drives you to write?

It has become an addiction! Since I started writing in 2016, I have written poetry and short fiction for children and adults which has been published all over the world. It’s mind-blowing to think that there are people in America and Europe that have read my words. One of my micro-fiction pieces was even translated into Arabic! As a naturally shy and anxious person I’ve found that I can connect with people and express my feelings through my writing.

How do you incorporate writing into the rest of your life?

It’s certainly not easy and time factors are what stops me attempting longer pieces at the moment. When I have an idea, I write fragments on the go, notes on my phone, post-its in my lunch box, jottings on receipts. My writing process is weeks of these jottings and then one big sit-down session to bring it all together and hopefully thrash out something that works.

Which other writers have inspired or influenced your work?

I thought the other short-listed works in the mindshare Awards were amazing especially ‘Kintsugi’ by Martina Kontos.

Elsewhere, I have a real fondness for classic literature. Favourites include the plodding tragedy of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost, the grotesque details of ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ by Wallace Stevens and all short fiction by Edgar Allen Poe. I love literature with high fantasy elements and enjoy a good thematic twist such as the fragile beauty of monsters.

Have you faced any barriers establishing yourself as a writer, and if yes, how have you overcome them?

You have to develop a very thick skin, very quickly. If you decide to submit your work for publication at some point you will experience rejection and disappointment (sometimes it’s the pieces we love most as authors which receive the most ‘Nos’ from editors). The writing world is hugely competitive, and it can be hard not to negatively compare your own work to successful authors or feel despondent during a run of rejections.

What are you hoping to achieve with your writing?

I feel that I’m entering a phase now, after five years, where I’m beginning to settle into my own ‘voice’. People in the writing world allude to this a lot and for a long time, I wasn’t sure what it meant. At last, I feel that there’s something individual about my writing, both in topic and structure. I know that my writing style will fall in and out of favour, but I would like to continue to develop this voice, to build towards a larger body of work (such as a short fiction collection) and enjoy writing for as long as I can.

What advice would you give other writers who are just starting out?

Be yourself and don’t try to fit into a particular style to suit what you think editors will like. Experiment and have fun with imagery and structure. Reach out to other writers by joining writing groups or become part of an online community like Twitter. Above all, relax and enjoy the journey and remember, writing is subjective – not everyone will love your work but with a little practice you will find your reading audience.