Swanwick Writers‘ Summer School is the oldest residential writers’ conference in the world.
They say never go back and I have not attended Swanwick Writer’s Summer School for about 25 years, when I went for two years in succession. This year I decided to go back. It was then that I suddenly recalled my first lecture all those years ago. The wonderful Margaret Thompson Davis, an inspiring novelist and author of hundreds of short stories. She had written crime novels and a saga based on her own childhood experience of living in Glasgow which was transformed into a stage production too.
was there that year too. I gather he also served on the committee for several years. Michael was a complete authority on the way into publishing. He would tell you absolutely anything you wanted to know without even mentioning his book on the topic! But of course wrote more than one including ‘ Writing for Pleasure and Profit’ in 1993.
Well for me real life intervened. I did, however, still get into the freelance journalism field. I wrote a diary about the gypsies I taught for four years (the best job I ever had!) but was told by a publisher that it was too much of a minority interest. Never daunted I re-wrote some it as a play, which was performed at The Young Vic and it then went on tour. I wrote a picture book called ‘The Old Dry Stone Wall’ but when it failed to jump the last couple of hoops at Oxford University Press put it up as a film on youtube.
There was my a memoir, but at least that was carefully organised into chapters linked to particular topics so that I could adapt them for magazine articles and sometimes did!
I was once told by someone that the effort of doing a chunk of research should lead to the possibility of five ways of producing something marketable.Now twenty five years on I find myself trying to break into the least marketable area of publishing poetry.
Yes I have had some published in magazines, two in writing magazine, was shortlisted in the Bridport Prize and won a competition in Brighton in 2014. Now my second collection called ‘The Puppeteer’s Daughter’ mainly free verse and some poems follows the more modern American traditions. Luckily it has been recommended by two well established poets and some of the poems were inspired by some pretty good workshops and it sells in City Books in Hove, the Open Art Cafe in Rottingdean and on line with Amazon and Lulu.
Now thank to Swanwick I’m feeling refreshed and re-vitalised. I am going to put more poems on my podcast and make some into films for youtube and I’ll start a third collection from a different perspective No! Swanwick is not the same as it was 25 years ago, but in a good way. Instead of the creaky garden room accommodation that many remember with deep affection and the tiny swimming pool the place has been transformed into an upmarket conference centre called ‘The Hayes’ in Derby. But it still has the same lovely garden room lounges, the beautiful grounds, a dedicated staff, lakes and walks and of course en-suite accommodation.
Swanwick writers conference is run as a charity and I believe it receives some sponsorship from various bodies including Writing Magazine which was always a good one to get started on writing for the pleasure of publication. However Swanwick relies mainly on fees from the hundreds of delegates who attend each year. Now there is also a friends scheme to attract even more funds and to sponsor those who may not be able to afford it.
The atmosphere is very welcoming. The fact that we were gently asked at the outset not to save seats for groups of friends at mealtimes, lectures or workshops meant that no one could feel left out. Everyone talked to anyone they happened to be near. Novelists mixed with short story writers, journalists, poets, crime writers etc.
There was a huge programme of talks, workshops etc and no need to book any of them in advance. One could opt for whichever course one liked on the day.There are however four different courses with four sessions over the week which tend to keep their following, but plenty of additional lectures and workshops which last for an hour.
There is a tradition that anyone who has been before gets a yellow name badge and first timers get a white one. The idea is that old timers who may be well established writers are encouraged to chat to white badges and they do!
So why go?
1. Some people use it partly as a place to get on and write, either in their rooms, in one of the spacious lounges or around the huge lakes. Aspiring writers go to consider what they are interested in and what they might be good at. Added inspiration comes from the wonderful landscape, the waterlilies round the lake and the wind rustling in the old trees. Established writers go to meet fellow writers, to enjoy the talks and workshops.
2. Keynote talks after dinner and entertainment which includes a poetry night, a buskers night and a fancy dress disco night. There is a bar, a sun room etc. so if you want to you can opt out of all the above. The last night is a panto that is so popular I doubt anyone misses it.
3. No formal dress code although some posh up a bit for the evening meal and most put on some form of glad rags for the last evening.
4. Some of the workshops set up a piece of writing for a prize at the end of the week but there is no pressure to take part. There was a two part mini course on Flash fiction and an inventive poetry workshop.
5. I tuned into a poetry writing course with Alison Chisholm. Later she gave me some tips as to how to develop my work further. Then I got carried away by the speaker for Creative Non-Fiction, Kathryn Aalto who has recently published ‘The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh.’ Kathryn is an inspired writer with many layers of expertise and talent.
She is a professional with passion and gave us a blow by blow account of how she goes about using her considerable expertise, identifying the idea, getting a publisher and the process of research and her writing schedule.
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (Timber Press).
6. It is can be a writer’s busman’s holiday, write a bit, meditate (by the lake most mornings) meet new people, make some new friends.
7. To have one’s meals for a week served to you. Eat the best puddings on the planet! (diet the following week). The fun of it all including ‘The Dregs Party’ and the walks around the lake.
8. A chance to browse in the bookshop (only for authors who attend) see what they are up to, seek them out and chat about their work. Buy a favourite? This room like other aspects of Swanwick is run by volunteers, well done them, it is not an easy task!
Yes I did take a few copies of my new poetry collection ‘The Puppeteer’s Daughter’ but when considering.buying a book I had to think about the weight on the train, so will be checking out my favourites on line.
9. Yes the warmth, the friendliness from everyone including those on the committee. I came away with new ideas, an enthusiasm not only for poetry, but flash fiction and may be creative non fiction too..
10. At the very least Swanwick persuades one to keep on writing whether for pleasure and/or publication. Some people go year after year. Swanwick gives the opportunity to make new friends, to swop ideas and share expertise. The centre is in beautiful surroundings, it is as much a holiday as it is a writer’s summers school.
www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ for more information.