Reflections from Swanwick

So, it’s very nearly a fortnight since I last posted on this blog, getting perilously close to my self-imposed time limit. Well, stuff happens. Real life takes me away from my desk. I feel I should be able to make sense of events through the medium of writing, but sometimes it’s just too soon for that to work. Sometimes, you need a little time to pass before you’re ready to write. And so, today I have decided, two months after the fact, to share some of my thoughts about the Writers’ School this August.

The writers’ summer school at Swanwick, Derbyshire, has been going for sixty-four years, with many people returning year after year. It’s a week-long residential event which includes longer courses, shorter courses, one-off lectures, evening speakers, and a whole load of other activities like a poetry slam and freestyle dancing. One of the great things about it is that, with the exception of one-to-one meetings with writers and agents which have to be pre-booked, you don’t have to decide about anything in advance. You just book yourself into the whole school, turn up on the Saturday, and see what takes your fancy for the rest of the week. Found the first class in the series boring? Heard a different speaker was a great laugh? Skip the first class, show up at the second. Some people skive off nearly everything and just treat it at a writers’ retreat.

It’s possible to go along as a ‘day girl’, and, given that I live very close to the venue, I was tempted to do just that, but everyone says that you don’t get the proper experience unless you’re a boarder. So I signed up for the full monty and I’m very glad I did. Because the other thing everyone says about Swanwick is that you get just as much from the people you meet there as you do from the actual classes. And of course you see so much more of everyone if you’re around in the evenings. Also, the slightly odd school-dinner system of serving meals, where the person at the top of the table has to play mother and dish out the grub, definitely encourages you to bond with your fellow diners. So if you can stomach the stodge-fest, it’s well worth staying for dinner.

I met lots of interesting people at Swanwick, and heard a lot of different views on writing, the publishing business, and life in general. Every single conversation was an eye-opener. Quite a few of the people I met were totally bonkers. But that’s all right, I think to be a decent writer you have to be at least a little bit bonkers, because it’s that slanted perspective which gives you a unique angle, and something new to say. It’s also very refreshing to be able to sit down at a table with some complete strangers and start with the ice breaker ‘So what are you writing?’ At the end of the week, I could safely say that I hadn’t had a single boring conversation. How often does that happen?

One thing I hadn’t been adequately warned about was how tiring it would be, and how much of an information overload. By Friday morning, I felt like a) I needed another week off to recover; and b) I had a huge funnel on my head, full of new knowledge and ideas which were slowly dripping through to my poor overwhelmed brain. Having to go back to interacting with ‘normal’ people again, and back to the office, was a real shock to the system. Next year, I am definitely clearing the diary for the following week.

Swanwick was enriching, exhausting, intriguing, inspiring, infuriating… sometimes all at the same time. It’s taken me at least six weeks to digest it (and not just the stodgy food). But two things are for sure: it has turned me into a writer in a way I simply wasn’t before, and I’ll be back again next year for a second helping.

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