Phew! It was, as it always is, a hectic weekend, made all the more exhausting by the humidity and heat. It was definitely the hottest Winchester Writers' Conference I've attended!
On Friday I taught a mini-course on Point of View in a room where, thankfully, the sun didn't strike directly until late afternoon. The group was a delight - faces old and new, all contributing opinions and questions, and writing beautiful and interesting pieces (I'm only sorry we didn't have time for more writing exercises, as there was so much to get through!).
After the opening dinner, I thought I'd get an early night, but ended up waking up at 5 a.m. and not being able to sleep properly after that. If it weren't for the need to get some sleep for the sake of brain-alertness, I wouldn't complain at all. The hall of residence I was in was up above the main campus (those of you who know the University of Winchester will know its steep topography!), which meant a beautiful view across the valley to the wooded ridge beyond, trees all around and a light refreshing breeze. The morning light was just exquisite. Wish I'd remembered to bring my camera.
The plenary speaker on Saturday was Sir Terry Pratchett. There was great anticipation that he would deliver a witty, fun, yet trenchant speech - and we were not disappointed, except by his tendency to drift away from the microphone. The collective will of the members of the audience urged him to stay where his voice could sound out properly, but no-o-o-o-o-o-o
He was introduced as a speaker with a tower of books sold that would measure a mile high - he told us that his mother told stories to him as a child but that he was initially a poor reader, until he read 'The Wind in the Willows' and then never looked back. He associated school 'with being smacked' and left at the age of seventeen, to become a journalist. His path to publication was an easy one and it all seems to have come naturally to him - he applies this philosophy to his books. He devours history books and came out with extraordinary facts (including the hilarious description of a 19th century financier called Preserved Fish! - an orphan adopted by devout religious people who called him Preserved-by-the-Lord because he'd survived a shipwreck). He said 'I write serendipitously. I've never yet plotted a book.' He navigates his way through 'a valley of clouds' and knows that 'there is a story there in the way that a prospector knows that there is oil under the ground.' His focus is on instinct, on the theme or central idea of the book rather than on a rigid outlining of plot. This dilemma - do I plot ahead, do I fly by the seat of my pants - faces all of us as writers. Usually we reach an accommodation between the two extremes (unless we're screenwriters where a rigid plot structure is crucial) - too much freedom can result in flabby, directionless, self-indulgent storytelling - but too much plotting ahead can result in a tale which is airless and overworked, where you're too tied to structures to take a risk or go where the story is leading you.
As with so many good writer-speakers, Terry knew how to manage an audience. His tone and timing were spot on. The audience not only evinced collective will (get back to the microphone, Tel!) but collective concern. Nobody can be unaware of Terry Pratchett's condition - we were braced for any evidence of the encroachment of his dementia and we all drew in our breaths whenever he paused to search for a word. There were moments when that search stretched out slightly longer than was comfortable - but then who of us does not blank out on occasion, when a perfectly familiar name or reference eludes us? It was just that with Sir Terry we were looking for it, expecting it, reading perhaps too much into those moments. It was striking that he gave the whole speech himself, whereas when he gave the Dimbleby lecture on TV he opted for someone else to deliver most of it. Also, to his credit, he did not mention his condition at all. I'm sure he knows how much sympathy and support there is for him. He chose to deliver a speech as a writer to other writers - although its title was a prickly 'Why are You Listening to Me when you Should Be at Home Writing?' (ah, but Terry, you know full well that we writers are Devotees of Displacement, acolytes in the Cult of Procrastination!)
Because I had one-to-one appointments with writers and a lecture to give, the only other talk I managed to attend was Carol Ann Duffy's reading of some of her poetry, both past (from 'The World's Wife') and current, including a very moving poem about the death of her mother, where, as she did in her poem about the soldiers of the First World War, she imagined time reversed. The poem traced events from the moment of her mother's last breath, which sat cooling in her palm 'like an egg', back through hospitalisation, to arrival with wheelchair and so on. Partly because I thought it was an excellent poem, partly because of the recent death through cancer of my aunt in Scotland, partly because of memories of the death of my mother-in-law, also through cancer, I had tears in my eyes.
I gave a lecture on 'Sensory Perceptions' - the power of imagery - at 5 p.m. A gratifyingly large number of people turned out for this, in spite of heat, exhaustion, and quite possibly heat-exhaustion - thank you all of you for being such a great audience!
The celebratory dinner that evening was great fun. The conference is all about networking and friendship, about learning new things and making new contacts. Every year there is disappointment, every year there is success. People meet people who know people. People meet agents. Agents take people on. And yes, on occasion, eventually publishers take people on!
It was wonderful, as it always is, to meet up with old friends like Sally Spedding and Mike Greenhough, with newer friends like Adrienne Dines and Crysse Morrison, to meet new faces and see students I've taught previously - so hello and thanks to Denise, to Janina (keep belting them out girl!), to Susie, to Paul and Mary, to Ali Hale and Carole Westron, to Teri Terry (good luck with the Greenhouse Agency!) and to everybody else I met and chatted with and who added their names to my website mailing list.
What next? Well, I let myself have the day off yesterday. I need to update my website now and get ready for the summer school I teach in a couple of weeks' time. If any of you were at Winchester and have special memories or anecdotes, do add a comment!