My journey from care leaver to author
On World Book Day UK, Kirsty Capes, author of the upcoming novel, 'Careless', and marketer at publisher HarperCollins, discusses how her childhood experiences in care led to a career in writing.
I spent my childhood in care from the age of two onwards, up to the point of aging out of the system at 25. There were lots of things about growing up in care that were precarious, unstable and volatile; there was a constant stream of new social workers alongside the difficult and retraumatising experiences of therapy, reviews and contact. One thing that was a steady constant throughout my childhood and adolescence, was my own conviction that I wanted to do something creative. This creativity, when I was young, was focused on different disciplines: for a long time I wanted to be an actor, and then an artist. When I started secondary school a voracious reader and English literature buff, I decided that I wanted to be a writer.
The creative industries are not very often careers that seem achievable for care experienced children. For those who live their young lives precariously – changing schools, carers and post codes at the drop of a hat – access to things like a consistent education, a stable learning environment at home, and a set of adults around you to encourage, support and nurture your creative development, can seem like far-flung aspirations. All too often, society tells us that creativity – and the physical, emotional and psychological space needed to be creative – is a privilege, something that is not meant for kids in care.
The idea of being able to do something creative that you love for a living is something that seems unachievable for many care experienced people. Access is an issue: access to books from a young age; consistent help at school to develop literacy; and careers advice that encourages young people to challenge themselves. As a young person growing up in care, with a dream of being a writer, I never truly believed that I would be able to succeed.
I was placed with foster carers who eventually fostered me long-term, throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. The stability of a long-term placement, and the commitment of my foster parents afforded me two important things: first, a stable learning environment where I was not moved between schools and didn’t have my education disrupted; and secondly, foster carers who supported and nurtured my aspirations, filling me with the confidence and self-worth to believe that if I wanted to achieve it, there was no reason why I couldn’t.
With the support of my foster carers, I worked hard at school and college and obtained a place to study Creative Writing at university. Once I had been gifted the permission to dream of being a writer, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would eventually go to university: it seemed like a pre-determined fate for me. I was lucky to be supported so well by my foster carers to achieve this: many care experienced people don’t have the resources and support from their local authority to pursue higher education after college, while more return to studying as mature students much later on.
Throughout university, I maintained relationships with my support worker and the widening participation team at my institution. My lecturers and foster parents encouraged me to study for an MA and a PhD. I worked two jobs while studying to save up enough to afford my postgraduate degrees: it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, and I had the added layer of support from my foster parents with whom I lived in supported lodgings throughout uni. While studying, I took a series of marketing jobs in different industries: starting as an administrator at a golf company, and changing roles six times over my six years of postgraduate study, until by the time I graduated I was a senior marketing manager at a publisher.
It was during my MA that I decided it was time to write the novel that had been burning a hole in my head for years. I knew I wanted to write about my experience in the care system, and to deliver a story about growing up in care that was rarely seen in the mainstream media. On television and in books, my main points of reference for care experienced children were the likes of Tracy Beaker and the Baudelaires. These characters didn’t ring true with my own experience of the care system, and I wanted to write something that felt real to me, and to tell my story in my own words.
This is how Careless was born: my novel about young girl growing up in care in the late nineties suburbs. I worked on it through my postgraduate degrees and carried on afterwards; I applied for every writing scholarship and bursary I could find in the hopes I could get a place on a writing course or a mentorship opportunity.
Getting my book in front of the right people – and eventually getting a book deal – was a mixture of luck, hard work and privilege. I was lucky and privileged enough to be placed into care with foster parents, in a stable environment, who nurtured my creativity and allowed me to dream big. I have absolutely no doubt that I would not have gone to university or finished my novel without them. I was also lucky to be sending my novel to the right people at the right time, that they gave me opportunities to study or be mentored by professionals. I was also in a position of privilege, having worked in the publishing industry, and knowing a little bit about how it all works, so I could approach agents in the right way. But most of all, being given the space and emotional support to tell my story in my own words and my own way is what allowed me to drive forward with my novel idea, and eventually be given the opportunity to tell it to the world.
It really shouldn’t be about luck, or privilege, though. Being in care can be traumatic, and volatile, and inconsistent. All too often, children in care are not given the time or space to be creative.
Despite this, it's obvious to me that care experienced people are overwhelmingly creative, vibrant and thoughtful people. We make great stories because we have been through unusual, extraordinary, interesting, and often traumatic times in our lives. If the experience of writing my novel has taught me anything, it’s that every single child in care, like all children, and like I was, deserve the time, space and opportunity to find our own voices, and tell our own stories, in our own unique way.
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