National Writers’ Conference 2019

On Saturday 22 June, I attended the National Writers’ Conference hosted by Writing West Midlands, at the Bramall Music Building on the University of Birmingham campus. It was a very thought-provoking day of panels, keynote speakers, and networking breaks; a chance to mingle with writers, friends both old and new. Here, I write a few words on the panels I attended, and the interesting insights I gained throughout the day.

I was saddened to learn that the conference was being presented in memory of Lindsey Bailey, who I was told had passed away earlier this year. I met Lindsey at an Arvon City weekend course in Wolverhampton in 2015: she was a friendly, enthusiastic, and dedicated writer, who used her talents in teaching to spearhead her own young writers’ programme, Story Chefs. She is missed sorely in the writing community.

The day began with a keynote speech by Mandy Ross, who gave us a tantalising insight into her own writing process, and the ways in which she has used creativity as an aid both in her community and in her own personal recovery in hospital. Her speech expressed the important message that publication is not the only goal a writer can aspire to: unconventional, uncommercial creative writing can prove fruitful in the way it connects, communicates, and encourages a cross-fertilisation of ideas. Whether it be tangible creations (such as her beautiful handwritten leaflets), online content, or live events, Ross expressed the importance of not handing over the value of writing to the gatekeepers (publishers, editors, judges), but keeping some of the magic for yourself.

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut, quoted by Mandy Ross in her keynote speech

The first panel I attended was ‘The Value of Mentoring’, chaired by Jon Opie of Jerwood Arts, and featuring fiction writer and Room 204 mentee Shahed Yousaf; poet, publisher at Nine Arches Press, and Jerwood Compton mentee, Jane Commane; and short fiction writer and Common People mentee Lynne Voyce.

The role of a mentor was defined as someone who assists another writer: in the technical aspects of writing; networking; navigating the industry; company and support; providing a sounding board; collaborating; and acting as a catalyst for change. As well as providing a toolbox of writing aids, they give a writer validation, feedback, and confidence, being generous, reliable, empathetic, open-minded, patient, and savvy. Advice for finding a mentor included applying to schemes and literary development agencies, but also touched upon the notion of private mentoring partnerships. In seeking a partnership like this, a writer must choose a mentor whose work they admire, who is in the right place (re: style, place in their career) and has experience of teaching, who is sympathetic and offers ‘thoughts’ rather than prescriptive tasks. Overall, it must be a mutual partnership, with both mentor and mentee having space to grow.

The discussion touched upon the fact that, sometimes, a failed mentoring partnership/programme can be a case of right mentor, wrong time. Writers may find that a mentorship might come too early or late in their career, especially if they are making a step into a new genre, learning a new industry, and developing new networks. Being downhearted by rejection or unprepared to take criticism is another indicator that it is too early to be entering a mentoring partnership. However, it can also be a case of right time, wrong mentor – you must find someone you gel with (take a trial session to test the waters), and outline the expectations for both parties early on.

The panel was hugely helpful for me, as I inquired into how I might formalise my own mentoring. I was encouraged to join NAWE, the National Association of Writers in Education, which provides liability insurance and guidance. As a result of the panel, I will also rethink smaller aspects: the duration of the mentorships I offer, the amount of notice I will need to read work, and the fees I will set.

The third and final panel I attended during the conference was ‘New Perspectives on Poetry’, chaired by Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands, and featuring poet Romalyn Ante, poet and co-director of Verve Poetry Festival, Cynthia Miller, and Jon Opie of Jerwood Arts. The panel provided an insightful commentary into how poetry is changing: how, if there is a willingness to do something different (Inua Ellams’ The R.A.P Party being a good example), and the appetite is there, a market can be built, and vibrant events and festivals can emerge.

One point made was that, while the bulk of sales and prize nominations still rests with the big established publishers, it is circles on the fringe (small presses, events, festivals, schemes) that are leading the charge in raising new voices and changing the demographic of publishing. Editors at these publishing houses need to, and in some cases, are indeed noticing this shift, and the need for this shift: Chatto & Windus have recently published Jay Bernard’s Surge, and Faber & Faber will be publishing Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche in July. The remainder of discussion touched upon other routes into poetry publishing (magazines, competitions, mentoring schemes), and how the poet’s skill is sought after and is thus colonising other art forms (opera/music, theatre/one person shows, children’s books, Instagram/social media); how one might fund poetry events (Arts Council, Crowdfunder/Kickstarter/GoFundMe) and garner interest (websites, online newsletters, community centres, social media); and perspectives on spoken word (often seen as a young person’s game, though this plays into the assumption it is not as credible or mature as page poetry). The panel was a fascinating insight into the world of poetry today.

The conference ended with a final keynote speech from Kit de Waal about her recent project, Common People, an anthology of working class voices. Featuring a collection of essays, poems and pieces of personal memoir, the recently published book brings together sixteen well-known writers from working class backgrounds, with an equal number of brand new as-yet-unpublished writers from all over the UK. Coming from the panel on poetry, it was an interesting glimpse into the inequalities present in publishing as a whole, and an excellent example of the kind of efforts made to push back and diversify the field with new voices.

After the conference, there was an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the Spark Young Writers – Spark is the name of the young person’s workshops, hosted by Writing West Midlands, taking place across the region. Next academic year, I will be leading the Stratford-upon-Avon branch of Spark, and so it was great to see the enthusiasm of the children and the quality of the work!

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