Inspiring literary festival Words We Write returns

Literary festival Words We Write returns | Soho House

We talk writing, inspiration and giving back with founders Leonie Annor-Owiredu and Hannah Lee

Thursday 6 October 2022   By Soho House

Literary festival Words We Write was founded by Soho House members Leonie Annor-Owiredu and Hannah Lee, who wanted to share the sense of support and collaboration they gained from their own writers’ group with as wide an audience as possible. 

Its inaugural outing, which took place in London last year, was so successful that for 2022 it’s going global, with events taking place in London, New York and LA this month. 

The festival offers workshops and events that focus on all aspects of writing – from print to screen to music – each of which is designed to inspire and support new and emerging underrepresented talent. 

The London line-up alone offers a character-crafting workshop led by award-winning actor and playwright Sheila Atim (The Woman King, Doctor Strange); an in-conversation with Caleb Azumah Nelson (author of Costa-winning debut novel, Open Water) and poet Momtaza Mehri, a former Young People’s Laureate of London; and a screenwriting masterclass with Emmy award-winning writer, actor and producer, Lena Waithe. 

Here, the festival founders tell us about their own creative journeys and what to look forward to at Words We Write 2022.

Literary festival Words We Write returns | Soho House
Literary festival Words We Write returns | Soho House
Literary festival Words We Write returns | Soho House

You’re both Soho House members – tell us about how that’s influenced you and your approach to your work
Hannah Lee: ‘Leonie was an Under 27 member first and she referred me to join, as we met at Soho House so often for the writers’ group. Because we’re both London-based and the other two members of our writers’ group weren’t at the time, it was really important to have a cosy space that we could all feel comfortable writing in, which was 40 Greek Street for us. We became friends with the staff as we were there so much, which added to the great atmosphere.’ 

How did you both meet?
Leonie Annor-Owiredu: ‘We met at a book launch and then again at 76 Dean Street where we spoke about wanting to form a writing group. The following Sunday and many after, we’d meet at 40 Greek Street to work on our stories and indulge in a Sunday Roast. It got to the point where the staff expected to see us every Sunday.’ 

What led you to create Words We Write?
HL and LA-O: ‘We were talking one day during the initial year of the pandemic about how much we missed writing together in person, especially if one writing group member had been on a course (such as FAB Prize, HarperCollins Academy, The London Library Emerging Writers Programme). We’d come to Greek Street on a Sunday eager to share what we’d learnt, and it did so much for us to learn from one another that we had the urge to pay that feeling forward for others. Writing can be very isolating, so having a group that provides feedback and support does wonders for your confidence and knowledge. We wanted to share the feeling of community with other writers and give access to those keen to learn more about the craft of writing while celebrating Black writers.’ 
How did you come up with the title?
HL and LA-O: ‘We were brainstorming lots of different names and even had our friends, family and colleagues get involved. They were very competitive and all wanted their name chosen. We knew we wanted it to reference writing and have a collective feel to it. We had a list of words related to writing and expression – such as “pen” and “voice” – and tried lots of different variations. Words We Write was the most memorable of them all.’ 

How did you choose the line-up?
HL and LA-O: ‘We looked at the books, film and TV that we’re enjoying and endeavoured to get the people that created those things for the festival, so it was quite an organic process for us. We also had some people on our wish list from last year that we wanted to reach, so we revisited that too.’ 

Why is this important to you?
HL and LA-O: ‘We recognise how much comfort books, films and TV bring to us all and the place they hold in culture. It’s important for us that we not only recognise but celebrate Black contributions to the entertainment industry, as many have gone unsung. We want people to know that Black writers are here and that there is space for more talent to emerge. We know through the feedback we’ve received that we’ve given so many people access to their favourite writers and artists through the festival, and that coming to our events has given our audience members the confidence to pursue writing, with some of them having gone on to secure agents. It’s wonderful to know that in our celebration of Black writers and storytellers, we’ve inspired more.’ 

What’s next for this project?
HL and LA-O: ‘We want to spend more time tapping into the US market, providing more of our Homegrown series of workshops in the UK and reaching more educational community groups.’ 

What’s next for you both?
LA-O: ‘I’m working on finishing my novel to query publishers, getting into voice-over artist work and finishing up a collection of short stories.’ 
HL: ‘I have contributions in two anthologies, which are out this year (Joyful, Joyful: Stories Celebrating Black Voices and The Faber Book Of Bedtime Stories) and finishing up my teen comedy about a girl who has dreams of being famous, but has to deal with the drama of secondary school first.’

What’s your favourite book(s) and why?
LA-O: ‘I am really loving The Book Of Psalms right now and relating super hard. Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which I reread every summer, is my reference for how I want my work to feel.’
HL: ‘Choosing my favourite of all time is hard because there are so many, so instead I’ll say my favourite book right now is Seven Days In June by Tia Williams. It’s funny, it’s sexy and it made me heavily consider moving to New York for the summer and starting a whirlwind romance, so I think it did its job. We also have Tia for our New York leg of the festival, which I’m super excited about.’

Best place to read?
HL: ‘I love to read on a warm train, plane or some kind of transport. I love feeling like I’m moving along with the story.’ 
LA-O: ‘On a boat.’ 

What genre is your favourite?
HL: ‘Romance and comedy: I love love, and I like to laugh.’
LA-O: ‘I like coming-of-age stories and magical realism. There isn’t one that combines both, so I guess I’m writing one.’

Why is collaboration important to you?
LA-O: ‘We both share the same if not a similar sentiment on books, reading and opportunity – and by working with one another, we play to one another’s strengths and get to a more rounded outcome.’
HL: ‘Collaboration has been a consistent theme in our friendship and also in the conception of Words We Write. Our writers’ group collaborates on ideas, shares resources and is about supporting each other as writers and friends. We wanted to take the community feel of that and share that with other people. Working together means that we can consider things the other person may not have, encourage each other and have a support system.’ 

Words We Write takes place in London, New York and LA from 10 to 28 October 2022. For information on the events and workshops at each location, click here.

The Soho House creative mentoring programme is run in partnership with Creative Mentor Network, Creative Futures Collective, OWN Academy and Routes In. Find out more here.

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