If you’re dead or live on Mars, you may not have heard of the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. Being neither a Martian, nor moribund (last time I looked), I was already aware that Swanwick is the oldest independent writing school in the world. But it’s taken me several years to take the plunge as a delegate. I assumed it would be packed full of published authors, all knowing each other. I pictured myself sitting forlorn in a corner, ignored by the great and good, and then slinking away to my room, knowing myself to be right at the muddy bottom of the literary food chain.
How wrong could I be?
Writers often moan about their solitary existence, shut in a garret, or garden shed in my case, tapping away on a lonely keyboard. You might deduce from this that we are a quiet and shy bunch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writers in like-minded company are the noisiest, most gregarious people. Gather three hundred of them together at Swanwick in beautiful Derbyshire countryside, give them access to a bar, a seventieth birthday party with cake and ad lib tea, and then stand well back. The noise levels are phenomenal, and the fortitude required to survive six days of intense courses, talks, guests speakers, frequent food and tea breaks, not to mention booze, dancing, cake, tea — well, it would kill lesser mortals.
I’ve been pondering since I returned, exhausted and with a suitcase full of washing, which I would list as my top benefit from my Swanwick week. Would it be the courses, amazing both in range and quality – everything from the A to Z of Novel Writing by witty teacher and crime writer Simon Hall; to New Fairy Tales by the erudite and creative Elizabeth Hopkinson ; to Veronica Bright’s fascinating treatment of Enneagrams to provide authors with a character-building tool?
Would it be the new contacts and friends I made, like the modest Irish GP and fellow White Badger (first timer) Dermot who turns out to write luminous lyrical prose that I long to read more of? And the fabulous writer Lynn, from the Potteries, who now lives in Orkney and is writing an absorbing and beautiful novelised account of her great-grandmother’s time in a workhouse? I made many such new acquaintances, and some will become friends for life, I know.
Or the inspiring evening speakers, like short story-to-outrageous novelling success, Sue Moorcroft, who outlined the circuitous route she had to pursue doggedly till “overnight” fame was reached many years later? And the wonderfully entertaining workaholic AA Dhand, who just never gave up on his Harry Virdee crime novels and is now on everyone’s lips?
Or maybe the incredible camaraderie which allows the shy and scribbling to share stories and poetry in open mic evenings, compete boisterously and hilariously in not just one but two intensely-fought quiz evenings (go Team Jackals!), and write, produce and act in the Page to Stage drama competition in a matter of days?
Or maybe just the captivating energy of the older generation, dancing away at the Forties-themed costumed birthday tea dance (yes, I confess to a little boogie to a fast foxtrot – I wasn’t very good, my elderly partner told me frankly.)
I suppose if I have to analyse what is most wonderful about Swanwick, I’d have to conclude that it’s something distilled from all of the above. I don’t mean this to sound like a cop-out. What I found is that the tremendous spirit of Swanwick has left me lifted me into a place of renewed enthusiasm for my craft. It’s given me wings to push myself to do more, write better, try harder, keep submitting despite the rejections.
In short, to see myself as real writer. So I can say to people when they ask: ‘Yes, I’m a writer”, and no longer feel I’m an apologetic fraud.