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What happens at the John Hewitt Summer School....

...stays at the John Hewitt Summer School. Mostly.

Rarely do I feel daunted when tackling a blog post but for this one I want to both capture the experience - warts (however few) and all - for others thinking of such an experience, and also try to put into words how the week has got me thinking about my writing and reflecting on lots of things. But anyway, nothing ventured etc etc, here goes.

Firstly, why on Earth did this little sff writer pop off to a literary festival for a week - apart from the small matter of the generosity of the John Hewitt Society in granting me a bursary. I could cite lots of things, like that I have a degree in humanties (I do - theatre and english), or that I do, actually, read the odd poem (MacNeice, Longley and Years are favourites as well as, added this week, Jane Yeh), or even that I've written a fairly literary fantasy book ( I have - coming in 2017.) But that's all just part of why I wanted to go. I also struggle to see why genre writing shouldn't be supported as part of the mainstream literary scene and, most crucially, I think it limits my personal creativity to focus too narrowly (although, geeks and nerds, fear not, I did seek more traditional geek inspiration and hived to the local plantarium's awesome star show.)

So, off I went. Now, I'm used to sff conventions, with all their mad busyness, with their often-rowdy panels, with their filking (and that got some raised eyebrows when mentioned this week) and, whisper it, their quirky costumes. I was ready with my bags-of-nibbles when the con food is inedible, map of the venue and timings list. There, though, the experiences diverged - here, panels were the rarity in comparison to readings and talks, and things were, in general, a little more linear and less crazy-confusing.

One thing which was in common, however, were the shared conversations, the laughs and the memories that make these experiences so rich. Between learning the inside story of being an extra on Game of Thrones and meeting the ankle that appeared in the final cut (and if Trish Bennett ever spills the beans, read it...), to shivering in the drizzle to stay chatting to the death, to talking books and reading, the company was fantastic.

The first morning, though, was hectic. Accomodation was allocated, clothes dumped and the bedrooms checked out. Our home for a week was in a local school with boarding facilities. The grounds were impressive, the breakfasts sufficient to keep a person ticking for half a day, and the placement convenient. On the down side, perhaps, the rooms were a little basic but, since they were used pretty much for sleeping and little else, that presented a minor concern.

I'm not going to list out each panel and talk I went to - which were many and varied - but instead talk about those which moved me, or made me think, or that just entertained me. I found the oddest things moved me - from Jack Doherty's pottery works, made for fishermen and to be displayed in lost churches and the land that bred and supported the people, to the incredible play The Man Who
Walked in the Woman's Shoes, which made me laugh and listen, and want to yell out to the actor. I could mention Duke Special and a fun set, a moving reading by Jo Baker, or the challenging political chats.

But none of that list comes to the heart and soul of why we go to such events. We go for the moments that make us realise what our newly-conceived story is about (the women's tales, in this case), or that lovely moment when one person's understanding of a Paul Durcan poem merges with another's ambition to make their character stronger and more able to see the difference between love and intimacy. It's about listening to a music set and your muse descending, about attending a workshop and coming away challenged to write something new. It's about those ethereal moments when creativity is sparked and combines with all that is you to become something special.

That, then, is what I took from my week at the John Hewitt summerschool and it's what makes me say to anyone who has the chance to go, go. Seize it. Go to the panels - even the ones you don't fancy - and the readings. Gather in the rain and talk to those you would not normally meet. Embrace the diversity offered and let it feed into your writing. There are no genre definitions for doing that and no barriers to stop you. And, if you do go, enjoy all that is offered as much as you can. I sure did.


Anya Kimlin said…
I'm glad you had a fab time, Jo.
Kerry Buchanan said…
Jealous. Maybe next year...
Anonymous said…
And we can now say we've been to boarding school!
Joanne Zebedee said…
It was fab, Anya - and Kerry, you must apply next year and see if you get to go - the writing workshops would be perfect for you.
And yay, we've been to boarding school. Which is fantastic research!
Dianna Zaragoza said…
Sounds so fun - not sure if there's much of any of this in my little corner of the Earth, but gonna look for something. :-)
Brings back memories of my own bursary there several years ago, when my first book, Belfast Girls, had only just been offered a publishing deal. Great fun – and so many interesting friends made. I've gone down regularly every year since, and in fact read at their fringe the year after Belfast Girls was published, but haven't thought of applying for a bursary since. Thanks for sharing this, Jo, I've really enjoyed reading it.
Trish Bennett said…
I think you've done a brilliant job of covering the atmosphere of the JHSS.
It was fantastic. I'm not long home and totally shattered but still smiling.
When I write about my Extra's experiences I'll send you a link.
I don't think I can ever face onions again. Too much heartburn.
Keep in touch! X
Joanne Zebedee said…
Dianna - do look! It's surprising what happens in the writing communities - there might be more than you think.
Thanks so much, Gerry. It's certainly got a bit of magic about it. :)

And, ha, yes, the onions. Oh, lord, the onions. May I never see another one, Trish. Glad you liked it - and thought it captured the feel of the week. :)
Damon Salvator said…
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