Swanwick – My first writing conference

I’ve just returned from a parallel universe. The last week I’ve remained in the grounds of a conference centre in Derbyshire (bar a quick trip to Co-op to stock up on beer once I realised the bar isn’t always open when I want it to be). Time within stood still, and seems to have doing so for quite a while before I got there. I have been padded out by cooked breakfasts and two or three course meals for lunch and dinner – at least one course of each being certified stodge (that’s not to mention the daily cake-fuelled tea and coffee breaks).

I stumbled across 61-year-old Swanwick Writers School after reading Susan Page’s unfortunately-renamed book How to Get Published and Make a Lot of Money. The book reminded me that many a publisher and agent is met through networking, a word that makes me vomit onto my shoes, and that a writer hoping to get a book out there can do worse than get out there himself. I began to look around for courses, conferences and workshops, and practically tripped over two great opportunities immediately. One was a free afternoon course with the Arvon Foundation, and conversations there have led to me discovering a buzzing spoken-word scene in London, which I have yet to make it to (I recently came across this Guardian article on the subject too – if anyone fancies venturing along to some of these with me, let me know. I’m struggling to drum up recruits.)

The other discovery was Swanwick’s TopWrite scheme, in which writers under 41 can try out a residential week in Swanwick with full board and plenty of courses for a substantially-reduced fee. (If you fit the criteria, I urge you to visit the site regularly and make sure you get one of the places first if it runs again next year.)

Having successfully applied, I found out a colleague had been to Swanwick before, and she warned me of the age/gender split of the place (and you can see why they want young blood) but told me the eccentrics would give me plenty of material (upsettingly, plenty of material is precisely what some of the pensioners on Sunday’s school disco lacked).

Bar a couple of delegates evidently fearing their ways were being threatened (one who motioned to ban laptops, one who was put out that few youngsters had memorised the words to Jerusalem), everyone was overwhelmingly friendly. Newcomers wear white badges and are often approached and brought into conversations. For a week, I felt like I was living in a village populated only by friendly and familiar faces and was nervous to return the outside world, especially the misanthropic south – amazing how quickly one can get institutionalised. One the first night a cat decided to climb in through my bedroom window and wake me up by sauntering around in the dark, so the friendliness isn’t even species-specific.

People at Swanwick go every year, and those who had only been going for under a decade were still regarded as newbies. Consequently everyone asked me and my white badge peers if we’d be back next year before we’d even unpacked our bags. It’s a question I asked myself too. I think every year is a bit of a commitment – I’d quite like the odd holiday in the sun you know – but would I return another year paying the full whack? (It’s a very reasonably-priced full whack, it’s worth saying, though still a whack, like any outgoing in the hundreds.)

Well, though I threw myself into the quiz nights, am-dram, ‘dancing meditation’, impromptu Reiki sessions etc. with gusto, it was the courses I was judging it on, and they were a mixed bag. Most of them were good, though none seemed excellent, and one made me wish I could sneak out. They certainly gave me inspiration (having to do exercises was very useful, and I got 3,000 words of my novel down that week) and there was also the odd pearl (short story writers, try writing the middle first, and then the beginning and end) but none of them were essential – simply because I’ve spent years learning about the craft and how to submit. My problem isn’t a lack of theory but a lack of concentrated practice, so while I enjoyed the week, I began to wonder if my time/money might be better spent on retreat in the future.

I was having a fabulous time though. We had some magnificent after-dinner speakers, including R. J. Ellory, who a couple of us wished would record his speech so we could enjoy it as an inspirational sermon whenever we need to top up our writery juju. We had one-to-one sessions, mine with agent John Jarrold who proved very kind and helpful. It was the people that made it of course, and as time went on, our motley crew of white badgers began to get close and open up over the toast and the stodge.

Somewhere towards the end of the week things changed. I got it. And now I think you have to do Swanwick to understand it. I began to feel sad about leaving (despite looking forward to seeing my young lady, natch) and one Friday morning I noticed a pattern; lots of people I spoke to had Big Ideas. They were inspired and had a plan to set in motion. While I began to fear the grey-faced mundanity of real life, someone else said “I can’t wait to get home and get started”.

The other thing that happened is that my lot, who had been hanging around talking about writing all week, took the time out to have an informal writers’ circle. We had a read-around, and I think were all surprised by just how talented each other were.  It was also more intimate than any other read-around I had encountered, a couple of pieces had people openly crying (not me though, I’m hard as nails).

The ‘magic of Swanwick’ had got to me. The courses, the speakers and the entertainment were the background, not the foreground. What was important was connecting, and taking time out to think about writing. I’ve been on a few jaunts to Derbyshire before for spiritual contemplation, and there was something of the same flavour in this. I’ve come back recharged and energised, and I can’t wait to get started.

That has mainly manifested in this new site. Going back to that cold word ‘networking’, the conference was a success in that way – I’ve made friends and have new connections to enjoy. Not use, enjoy, and in that enjoyment opportunity may come.

I don’t know if I will go next year but I expect I’ll be back, and I’m chomping at the bit to do more – a conference a year seems essential to me now. If you haven’t been to Swanwick try it, and if you haven’t been to a conference, do. I don’t have a writers’ group, and perhaps that scratches the same itch, but if you have none of the above, you’re writing in a vacuum – and that means you’re covered in dust and spiders and someone will end up having to change the bag.

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