Friday, August 22, 2014

Pondering on Swanwick after returning to Cyprus

With hands-on Grandma-duty taking up my time (and mind) for three weeks prior to going to the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, I had barely skimmed the online brochure that explained the available courses. It wasn’t until I reached Derby station that the reality hit me: I had done virtually no writing at all for a couple of months, and not much for rather longer, yet I was about to attend a writers’ conference. What had I let myself in for?

Swanwick had been on my radar for a long time; a friend attended a few years ago and her enthusiasm was inspiring. Circumstances and finances conspired to allow me to consider attending in 2014. My mind was made up when I saw that there would be workshops by the writer Della Galton and the People’s Friend fiction editor Shirley Blair. Even so, I sent in my application quite late!

Arriving at the Hayes Conference Centre, which consists of a lovely old building (and some more modern ones) set in gorgeous grounds, I felt a little like I did when I started secondary school. I had only the faintest idea of what to expect, I didn’t know my way around, I didn’t know a soul. I had chatted to someone while awaiting the bus at Derby station, and to someone else on the bus; both pleasant people, both also new to Swanwick. But they seemed a lot more organised than I was, with a good idea of which sessions they were going to attend.


I didn’t know if I had to sign up for courses, nor how quickly I had to make my decisions. My mind buzzed with queries: Were numbers on the courses limited? Were there criteria we had to fulfil before joining any particular session? What would I do if I found myself out of my depth, or if I was simply too tired? Was it compulsory to go to courses every day? What about the speakers? And did I really have to attend the discos, that didn’t begin until 10.45pm? I like to be asleep by about 10.30 at the latest, not bopping in bright lights and loud music.

Observing people as they arrived and settled in, it was obvious that there were a lot more women than men on the conference. Rather to my surprise, almost all the attendees were white-skinned. Many were white-haired too; that was also unexpected, after I saw the lively late-night programme. While there were a few young people, the majority were around my age or older, albeit mostly fit and active.

I knew that Swanwick was a Christian centre, and saw from the programme that the conference hosted a church service on the Sunday, as well as short chapel meetings most mornings entitled ‘Lift up your hearts’. But this was not a conference for Christian writers only. There were evidently a variety of beliefs represented (or none); about 15-20 people attended each of the chapel meetings, out of 240 conference members.


One of the first questions I was asked on meeting anyone was, ‘What kind of writing do you do?’ I started by mentioning fiction; most of my recent writing has been fiction of one kind or another. I clung to what felt like my credentials: I had three short stories published in magazines some years ago, and won second prize in a story competition - again, a few years back. I’ve started a few novels, three of them with NaNoWriMo though they all need extensive editing and (now I look at them dispassionately) are not actually very interesting.

So I muttered that I was mostly interested in short stories, and asked the same question back. I quickly learned that Swanwick encompassed any kind of writer. People talked about columns, and non-fiction books; amongst the fiction writers there were some who wrote for children, some who had written crime novels or historical sagas, some who mainly wrote short stories. Then there were play-writers, poets, health writers, bloggers… such a variety that I soon realised it was also appropriate to mention my websites and blogs, and that I write book reviews.

I met people who were long established as writers and regularly published, and I also met those who were not yet published at all. Not that it mattered - there didn't seem to be any snobbery or cliquishness. Some have opted for self-publication - easy to do in the e-book/print-on-demand world - and some were in a similar situation to me, with just a handful of published pieces, and a lot of rejections. Although in my case it’s been a lot of procrastination and not much writing at all for some time. When asked what I hoped to get out of Swanwick, I replied that I hoped for some inspiration and motivation to get writing again.

So I perused my programme, and on the first full day (Sunday) I opted for a ‘long’ course on short story writing (one hour per day over four days), and a ‘short’ course (two separate hours on one day) on novel editing. Nobody, I learned, had to sign up for anything, or even attend anything - we could pick and choose whatever appealed. I decided to go to the church service too, and a (secular) morning meditation, as well as a tai chi style relaxing session before dinner. Then there were workshop sessions in the late afternoon where we would be guided to do some actual writing and read our drafts aloud to each other.

With three full meals, a morning coffee break and an afternoon tea break, I was fully occupied, that first day, from 8.00am until dinner ended around 7.30pm. And then, although I’m not, in general, a fan of after-dinner speakers, I was eager to hear the People’s Friend editor, who was billed from 8.00 to 9.00pm. All day, I had been told - repeatedly - that I should ‘pace myself’, and not attend everything. I had already decided I would not go to any of the late night discos; nor was I keen to go to readings about World War I which didn’t start until 9.30. So at 9pm, my mind buzzing and my body weary, I retreated to my room. I checked my email (the onsite wifi is a bit slow, but available everywhere) and was fast asleep by 10pm.


Monday had a similar format course-wise, although there was no church service, and I decided not to ‘unwind my mind’ in a group at 5.15, but do a bit more recharging on my own between sessions and meals. I also opted out of the evening speaker. Once again, I was asleep by about 10pm. I slept extremely well, waking at 6.00am and wondering why there were so many late-night activities, but nothing at all in the morning until the chapel or meditation sessions at 8.00, followed by breakfast at 8.30.

By the end of Monday I felt as if I had been at Swanwick for at least a week. I could find my way around without consulting the plan (though I kept it in my bag), I understood how the days were structured, and I was beginning to recognise some faces. There were 60 first-timers, known as ‘white badgers’ because we were issued with white badges; as a newcomer I was made to feel welcome and accepted. Everyone was encouraged to talk to different people at the coffee breaks and meal-times - and I probably spoke to at least 100 different people through the week, maybe more.


At the same time, I began to feel rather out of my depth, almost as if I were just playing at writing. When I heard other people reading out their ‘drafts’ after the short workshop sessions, I felt like a beginner by comparison. I wandered around the ‘book room’ and was amazed to discover just how many people on the conference had written books; this was not, as I had vaguely imagined, the realm of the occasional short story writer.

Tuesday was a lighter day; I went to one talk, but there were no workshops other than a script-writing/drama one in the afternoon, which I did not plan to attend. I didn’t go to a talk on forensics, either; instead I did some editing and a bit of writing on my own. I could see quite clearly why so many of my short stories have not been accepted by magazines, reading them through on my computer many months after writing them. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to make them more interesting…

Wednesday and Thursday repeated the pattern of Sunday and Monday with courses, the writing workshops and so on. I missed the Wednesday night speakers; I did think about going to the drama performances afterwards, but they didn’t start until 9.30. I gather they were excellent. I would like to have gone to the ceilidh too, but that didn’t start until 10.45!

On Thursday night there was no after-dinner speaker; instead the 8.00-9.00pm slot was taken by a spoof game show, so I went along. It was amusing but extremely noisy. The audience had been issued with kazoos, and the PA didn’t work very well… but it was the last night, and I thought I should make the effort. This was followed by an official farewell with various awards and thankyous. It didn’t last long and I managed to get to my room by 9.30, unlike the majority who headed to the bar.

On Friday morning the coach to Derby station left at 8.30am. I didn’t have anyone in particular to say goodbye to; I don’t make friends easily, and had no interest in hanging out in the bar before meals. I was happy to wave in general to the crowd who gathered outside, smiling at a few folk I recognised. I was shattered, and relieved to be spending a long and peaceful weekend with my brother and sister-in-law, not far away, leaving the long day’s travelling back to Cyprus until Monday.

I have no idea if I'll go to Swanwick again. Lots of people go every year - I met some who had been regularly for twenty years or more. It's certainly a lovely setting, great food and accommodation and a friendly environment. The courses I attended were excellent too - and I'm sure the ones I did not attend were also very good; there were four options at each stage so I had to decide against quite a few.

So it depends partly on what courses are offered next time, and also whether I actually do some serious writing this year. There's not much point in learning about it if I don't put it into practise, after all... 

1 comment:

sallyjenkins said...

Hi Sue, I enjoyed the week too and it was good to meet you.