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National Writers' Conference 2019 #NWC19

On Saturday 22nd June 2019, I headed off to the beautiful Edgbaston campus of the University of Birmingham to attend the Writing West Midlands National Writers' Conference 2019.

I had heard about the event in previous years, but never quite plucked up the courage to attend, or else it fell on a Saturday I couldn't attend. This year I made up my mind to go to because alongside my pamphlet release, I want to meet some new writers and find out what others are doing, and what the hot topics for poets are! I grabbed an 'early bird' ticket at £50 (usual price: £60) and perused the programme to choose the talks I wanted to attend.

On the day, I had an uncomfortably early morning to catch the train to the University station. The sun was out (an unusual thing lately), and I had a leisurely wander through the campus to the Bramall Music Building, where the conference was held.

The 'Old Joe' clock tower at the University of Birmingham, on a background of blue sky
'Old Joe' at the University of Birmingham

I registered and was handed a lovely Spark Young Writers goody bag containing pamphlets, programmes, and pens (I LOVE free pens), alongside a copy of the Nine Arches Press anthology Unwritten: Caribbean Poems After The First World War. I also grabbed a strong black coffee and settled down to read through some of the material in the goody bag.

I saw some of my friends and fellow Offa's Press poets who were attending as they are part of this year's Room 204 cohort. While I was looking forward to a self-indulgent day of absorbing the inevitable atmosphere created at a gathering of writers, I was happy to see some familiar faces, and was grateful to be with people who could help me out with some networking.

Mandy Ross opened the conference with a keynote speech about Human Writing; exploring her projects which used writing to connect people and experiences, not necessarily with the aim of publication. I enjoyed this refreshing view on writing and it motivated me to start thinking about some community-based projects I'd like to explore. It reminded me what writing is really for - connecting people.

The first talk I went to was How Publishing Works, which was a discussion with poet/author Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and literary agent Davinia Andrew-Lynch. Elizabeth-Jane talked about her experiences from creating her 'DIY' pamphlets through to her recent non-fiction book, The Grassling, while Davinia discussed her thought processes when reading submissions. It was interesting to hear both sides, and the ladies' recommendations for those wanting to break into or further their track record of publishing.

The next session was Social Media for Writers with writer and influencer Leena Normington, and Claire Hunte and Lucy Cook from Let's Go! Ludlow. This was a very popular and informative session, with writers at all stages of their social media journeys asking for advice on how to engage their audience. What I liked about this was that it wasn't an 'idiot's guide' type session - 'have Twitter, have Facebook' etc - but more about how to choose a platform that suits you, how to use it to provide content your audience wants, and what to focus on to get the outcomes you like. An important thing I took away is that the traditional focus on numbers of followers is now seen as a bit clinical and archaic, with a shift towards knowing your niche, and providing content tailored to your known audience. So helpful for me as my poetry channels are quite new!

I had a delightful lunch with my friends (lunch was provided, and was vegetarian with allergen markups - good news for this coeliac!) before heading to the final session - Getting Your Work Heard. This session with Leena Normington, Tom Peel of the app Overhear, and writer William Gallagher, was about using digital platforms to 'connect with readers'. Unfortunately, much of the audience must not have been in the earlier session, as the focus stayed on social media for much of the talk. I was interested in hearing about technological developments which could help make poetry/writing more accessible, or revolutionise how we consume it. If you have any thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments.

Black coffee, a goody bag, and a copy of the Nine Arches Press anthology Unwritten.
Freebies in the morning

The closing keynote speech was given by Kit de Waal, editor of the Common People anthology. Her address considered the importance of representing 'real' working class experiences by working class writers. I was shocked to hear that (if I remember correctly) 47% of those in the writing and publishing industries originate from the higher social classes. That certainly isn't the case for writers I know, but I suppose I know a relatively small number of writers - and very few who write as their primary income source. Kit mentioned that there is a risk that although this important type of storytelling is being listened to now, it may just be a 'flash in the pan' which goes out of fashion.

This would be such a step back in a time where awareness of the need for representation is at an all-time high, but I can see why it's a risk. With the majority who are in power not being from working class backgrounds, the importance of telling working class stories must be understood, and similarly why they must come from the mouths/pens/hands of those who have lived it, and not fall into stereotyping and tokenism written by the middle or upper classes. But class is subjective, evolving and changeable. Kit discussed some of the challenges she had faced with writers who didn't feel they were 'working class enough', because generations have become 'upwardly mobile', and working class sons and daughters are now in middle class jobs and living middle class lives.

As you can see, it was a thought-provoking day. I was very interested to hear the different perspectives on current issues faced by writers, the current ways of thinking about writing, and the evolving ways of interacting with readers. I would definitely recommend those at the start of any journey in writing (as I feel I am) to go along, if they are able to. I'll definitely be back in the future.

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