Swanwick Conference : forgetting how a newbie feels

Swanwick main buildings and gardens

Last week, I attended The Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick for the first time. I must say that I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a writing conference newbie — I’ve been going to the RNA Conference for more years than I’m prepared to admit — and it was salutary to experience newbie-dom all over again.

(At my first RNA Conference, I wasn’t published and didn’t really know anyone. But I met loads of writers whose books I’d read and loved. I remember chatting with Nicola Cornick who was then one of my writing heroes, and still is. The RNA sort of enfolded me, from that point on, it seemed.)

Swanwick and newbies

Swanwick comes much recommended by people whose judgement I trust. It is amazingly friendly, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Newbies like me wear white name badges so that the regulars can identify us from a distance and help us if we’re lost or dithering or just on our own, looking friendless.

Swanwick newbie white badge for Joanna Maitland

The RNA’s standard badges with sparkles for first-timers are rather more discreet. I think that, on balance, I prefer the RNA’s version, because you need to be close to someone, even talking to them, before you know they’re newbies. Swanwick white badges are more of a flashing beacon — “newbie here!” — since old hands wear discreet yellow, or green, or lavender.

Swanwick is a beautiful location, as I hope my pictures show. It has excellent plenary and seminar rooms and plenty of accommodation (from ensuite to shared).

Swanwick small seminar room

There are lakes and even a chapel, as you can see below.

a Swanwick lake Swanwick chapel

and a sunlit prayer labyrinth (sadly empty).

Swanwick prayer labyrinth

It offers good facilities by way of bars, lounges and so on and really efficient and helpful staff. No one seems to queue for more than about 5 minutes to be served at mealtimes even though there are nearly 300 delegates. The food’s pretty good, too, which is always a bonus.

Swanwick large dining room

(Sadly there are no cosy kitchens for delegates to congregate in, after hours. Boo! But then, there’s little time for private socialising, as you’ll see if you read on…)

Swanwick’s programme

Tired legs and very high-heeled shoes tossed off

Wilting. And not even wearing heels like those!

The programme is huge and pretty full-on. The writing school goes on for a week, Saturday to Friday, with five packed full days, Sunday-Thursday.

When I say “packed”, I think I can justify it. The sessions start at 8.00 am — lift up your pens, or meditation by the lake, anyone? — finish around 5.00 pm and adjourn to the bar before an early dinner. Then there’s an after-dinner speaker for about an hour, followed by late-evening sessions like quizzes, open-mike events, discussions, dramatics, a disco and even busking, until around 11.00 pm. Phew!
Of course, no delegate needs to attend everything.

Just as well in my case, I have to admit. Swanwick taught me that my stamina isn’t what I thought it was.

But there were compensations…

Swanwick planter with strawberries

Garden planters with real strawbs to pinch.
Did I? What do you think?

Swanwick giant thistles

Giant thistles to make an exiled Scot grin

The programme is varied, as it has to be to suit participants who may be writing anything: children’s stories, all genres of fiction (including screenplays and scripts), non-fiction and self-help books, and poetry. To give you an idea, the 2019 programme included 6 specialist courses that each had four one-hour sessions spread across the week:

How To Write Your First Novel – Della Galton
Character Psychology – Steve Hartley 
Crime Plotting – Bettina Von Cossel
Genius Poetry – Alison Chisholm
Screen Writing – Bridget Holding
SHoP – Succeed Happier on Purpose – John Lamont

I dipped into Steve Hartley and John Lamont’s courses and learned a lot. It also helps that the notes from all the various courses are available to delegates on the Swanwick website after the week has ended. That way, we get an insight into the courses we couldn’t attend.

What Swanwick gives (and doesn’t give) … at least in my case

old radioThere were shorter courses too. I picked up tips about how to write radio drama and how to self-publish an audio book (though I’m not at all sure I shall try either of them, because it would be such a huge investment of time).

I also learned techniques to deal with the setbacks of being a writer by turning negatives into positives. I’m still ruminating about that one.

Sometimes we writers enjoy having a communal moan about life’s unfairnesses, don’t we?

writers inspired and creatingWhat I didn’t get at Swanwick — and I do always get at an RNA Conference — was that indefinable “buzz” that made me want to go off and write at every available opportunity.
At Swanwick, I wasn’t fired up to write.

The sessions I attended were all a bit…er…cerebral. They didn’t engage my creative brain as I had hoped.

And that’s a shame.

Caption: never miss a chance to dance

Worry not. I passed on the dancing…

But that’s probably my fault, because of my choice of sessions and courses. I’m sure there was inspirational, buzzy stuff there to be had. I just missed it.

Maybe if I’d done some of the acting, or busking, or dancing — no, I spared them those and I hope they’re properly grateful 😉 — my creative juices would have started to flow like a spring feeding a Swanwick lake?


Joanna Maitland, authorJoanna

8 thoughts on “Swanwick Conference : forgetting how a newbie feels

  1. Sophie

    This is so interesting. A huge range of stuff to experience – and a great environment to step out of one’s comfort zone, as it were, and just go for it.

    I must say that I’ve always found that I don’t really know what I’ve taken away from a conference or a study week, or even a short course, until some time afterwards. And it’s very seldom what I expected.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re so right, Sophie. I’m mulling over what I learned from John Lamont whose thesis, in a nutshell, is that the old saw “work hard, succeed, and you’ll be happy” is the wrong way round; better to be happy first, then working will work better and success will come. He’s right, I think, that success does not necessarily lead to happiness. And he provided various routes for being happier in the present which have struck a chord.

  2. Sarah

    Thanks for the insight, Joanna. As a regular attendee of the RNA Conferences I was interested to hear about Swanwick. It sounds as if it the programme was too “full-on” to allow the creative juices time to flow during those four days, but I have no doubt that everything you experienced will have an impact on your writing, once you have had a chance to reflect upon it all.

    An intensive four days, and if you add in the “newbie” factor, I’d say your brain must still be reeling with it all. Well done you for stepping up to the challenge!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Sarah. Yes it was a challenge for my poor reeling brain but that’s my fault, I think. And I agree that I need to reflect on what I did/learnt/thought.

  3. Rosemary Gemmell

    Thanks for that great overview, Joanna. I’m particularly interested as I’ve only been to Swanwick once, many years ago, and decided it was a bit too long for me. I even recognise some of the same names taking the sessions! It does seem to be hugely popular but I guess we have to find the writing conference or retreat that suits us. In my case that’s the annual Scottish Association of Writers weekend conference (been going there for yonks) and of course the RNA conference.

    1. Joanna Post author

      It is quite long and pretty full-on, I agree, Rosemary. Loads of people there — about 300 — and most seeming to be having a great time. I think it needs more stamina than I have now, which is a failing on my part. When I got home, I sat in chair and promptly fell asleep 😉

  4. lesley2cats

    Not sure whether I should comment… For several years I was encouraged to go to Swanwick, but never did because it sounded too long and too full on, and you’ve confirmed that, Joanna. I love the RNA conference (when I attend!) and I enjoyed Caerleon when it was in existence, also the South East Writers weekend at Bulphan in Essex, also sadly gone. But I think I’m too lazy, now…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’m sure Swanwick is great for a lot of people, Lesley, but I think maybe it’s too full-on for me. But I didn’t know that until I went, so I’ve learned that lesson as well. But I’m still mulling over that; maybe I’ll change my mind once I’ve reflected in tranquillity?

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