I have just been to my first writer’s week – well not quite – I had work commitments and so couldn’t make the first few days. I did still manage to squeeze in a hectic few days of classes, courses, conversations and coffee with people of a similar bent to myself.
I attended Swanwick Writers Week, one of the longest established writer retreats in the UK. Swanwick has been on the go for over sixty years and like many things British it has developed its own little customs and idiosyncrasies. As a first time attendee I wore a white badge. Everybody is extremely nice to white badgers and go out of their way to make you feel welcome and a part of the institution. I was lucky and had a friend who was able to brief me and do some introductions. It certainly broke the ice and quelled any nerves. Swanwick is also notorious for serial attenders; some people have attended for over fifty years. Don’t fret it’s not in the ‘Hotel California’ mould where you can check-in but cannot leave, Swanwick is simply a nice space with an infectious vibe. One attendee told me that Swanwick was ‘my annual holiday and treat to myself’.
Back to the customs of which there are many; in the dining hall the main course is brought to the long tables in large serving dishes. The person sitting at the outside of the table serves the others. The ‘Page to Stage’ is good fun and involves people coming together and creating a performance piece from scratch. The results are mixed but the endeavour is genuine. During the week between courses the ‘Page to Stagers’ can be seen anxiously rehearsing in the hallways and bar area. Did I mention the ‘Bar’? Yes there is a full licensed Bar and I confess to spending quite a bit of time there, all in the name of networking of course. The Fancy Dress is on Monday night, there is always a Quiz (an institution in itself and cut above your average local pub variety – personally speaking), the Dregs party is on Thursday night and allows one to shed any leftover alcohol so the car doesn’t reek of clanging bottles and booze on the way home. The whole event is run by a hardworking and dedicated Committee on a voluntary basis. There are speakers every night whom I understand receive some expenses but almost everything else is voluntary and free.
There is undoubtedly some fantastic talent amongst the attendees at Swanwick. The atmosphere is creative and vibrant, friendly and collegiate. Swanwickers come from all different facets and genres of writing, fiction, non-fiction, poets, children’s authors, storytellers, screenwriters, short film makers. From Memoirs to Crime novelists, Urban poets to Gothic Film aficionados I met a lot of very interesting people here. There were people whose ambition was to have a few stories printed by ‘Woman’s Weekly’ to aspiring first novelists and despite varying aspirations everyone mixed easily. It was as if all egos were left at the gatehouse at the entrance to Swanwick. It’s not all idyllic, there is a compliment of poseurs, but they only add to tapestry and make the genuine souls shine brighter.
Many published authors spoke of Swanwick as been an annual marker for them, a place where they recharge the batteries and keep going until the next Swanwick. It reminded me of the Celtic festival of ‘Lunasa’ which is also associated with the month of August. Of course the Gaelic word for August is also Lunasa (a derivative of Luna) and this might explain the large number of lunatics in Swanwick.
The life of a writer is not an easy one. There are harsh commercial realities. In the UK it is estimated that the top 10% of writers take 50% of the cream. It’s a Winner takes all game. Sometimes the cream rises to the top but often it doesn’t. There is a bit of luck involved and commercial realities. You might be a beautiful writer but if people don’t want to buy your work then you are a commercial failure, no ifs buts or maybe’s. There are many people attending for many years who have not enjoyed success. At the end of the day success as measured by others is number of units sold but if one truly loves to write then success is continuing to write even though you suffer the slings and arrows of rejection. Most writers earn less than the minimum wage. In this regard I was glad to see some courses focussed around getting published and increasing the percentages. There was no course on how to make your own luck though which is more the pity. And that is Swanwick a little cocooned oasis of writers in the heart of Derbyshire. I’m hooked and can’t wait to go again (this time with the yellow badge). Guess what? There is only three hundred and fifty eight days to the next Swanwick.