National Writers' Conference 2017: When Worlds Collide

Birmingham University hosted two conferences on June 10.

One involved legions of silver-haired gentlemen milling about with little black briefcases. The other saw the British literary scene take over The Bramall concert hall for The National Writers' Conference 2017.


What a strange thing it is when two worlds collide. Nobody among the writers had the faintest clue what the old gents were up to, and they looked equally askance at us.

So, who had the best sandwiches? The writers. Who had the best speakers? The writers. Who had the best handshakes? The Masons (for that is surely who they were, with their mysterious little black cases... the Masons, or the woodwind section of some incredibly misogynistic orchestra).

Other worlds were colliding inside The Bramall. Writing knows no borders or boundaries. It is a fluid state of reflection on the world, and the task is to get everyone to speak up, to make sure they are heard.

The National Writers' Conference kicked off with the first of two keynote speeches. 'A Political Act' was packed with the urgency you'd expect in the immediate fallout from a somewhat unusual general election.

Poet Andrew McMillan took on the 'double silencing' of the working classes: told they don't have a voice when they start out in life, or when they make a new life:

People suggest I can’t speak for the working classes because I’m not working class anymore.

Andrew revealed that he eats hummus these days; his mum gets some in when he goes home to Bradford. He is a university lecturer. His debut poetry collection physical won the Guardian First Book Prize - the first poetry book ever to do so.  But this is a man never far from his roots, still quite clear about who he is. He spoke of the reality behind Theresa May's 'citizens of nowhere':

The citizens of nowhere are people without financial clout, or the time and energy to have a voice. There must be an urgency among writers and publishers to help disenfranchised communities to see themselves as belonging to a bigger picture.

He also spoke of the need to 'articulate, distil, and make words useful' - to see writing as 'an act of resistance' and to make sure ordinary people break through:

As writers we don’t understand the importance of the life each one of us has lived. We need more people to tell the remarkable ordinariness of their lives.

At the other end of the day, after many instructive and thought-provoking sessions on writing and publishing, Aki Schilz, Director of The Literary Consultancy, offered us something equally resonant. Everyone, naturally, makes reference to the times we are living through when they give a speech these days. And two days after the election, it was comforting(ish) to hear:

It’s an exciting time to be a writer, and such an important time.

Exciting because more than 180,000 books are published each year in Britain, and more books are read per capita here than in any other country. Exciting because the publishing industry contributes £10 billion a year to the UK economy. Exciting because there are so many new voices coming through, and still more waiting to be heard. Important because... well, we all know what we have to do as writers:

If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
— Toni Morrison

Literary value, Schilz argued, is something to be preserved and guarded. More than 80% of readers feel literature plays an important role in social cohesion. But we have to listen to what is around us, and read widely in order to understand the world in which we are living: 

Life gives us the seeds that grow into stories.
Courttia Newland once said: ‘We should not be attuned only to ourselves.’ 
If writers only listen to themselves the literary value of their work is undermined by their deafness.

The final word went to the much-loved and much-missed Rebecca Swift, founder of The Literary Consultancy, who recently passed away:  

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If you've never attended The National Writers' Conference, where have you been? It's an excellent day, jam-packed with workshops, panels and speeches designed to inform and inspire. Come and join us next year.