Many years ago, I arrived in the beautiful and ancient city of Winchester, carrying a novel I had nearly completed. I was wrestling with guilt because for the first time, I had left my two young children with their father, so that I could have a couple of days to myself. I had set off on a bold adventure: I was attending what was then known as the Winchester Writers’ Conference, an annual event attended by hundreds of writers from all over the world.
Shortly after my arrival, a slender dark-haired woman with a Canadian accent came to chat with me. Back in the days when there was scarcely any internet and certainly no Facebook groups for writers, we were used to working in isolation. I had come seeking information but more than that, I was looking for connection. I didn’t really understand at the time just how significant those connections were going to be and that meeting Barbara Large MBE, the conference’s founder and Director, was going to change my life.
Barbara, who died in March of this year, was an extraordinary person. Her will and energy were phenomenal. I was always in awe of her dedication and her genuine concern that no writer should feel alone or adrift in the literary world. She welcomed and encouraged every single delegate and she celebrated the success of conference attendees with as much pleasure as if that success was her own. Even when she retired in 2013 after 34 years of presiding over the conference, she kept on reaching out to writers and running her own Creative Words Matter courses, with the help of Adrienne Dines and Sarah Mussi. At last year’s conference she was physically frail but her will undaunted, her joy undimmed. Her indomitable spirit was still an example to us all.
Barbara’s favourite expression, when she made her annual welcoming address and when she drew each conference to its close, was to call us her ‘family of writers’. She listened, sympathised, and encouraged. She drew us together, establishing connections both personal and professional.
When I was at last a published author, I started a whole new relationship with Barbara. She first invited me to give a talk at the conference and then to run workshops and give one-to-ones. Winchester became an annual feature in my working calendar. I ran some weekend workshops for her in Shawford at other times of the year. Barbara opened up a whole new career for me as a creative writing teacher and editor, culminating in my setting up Fictionfire Literary Consultancy ten years ago.
Over the more than two decades I have been attending what is now the Winchester Writers’ Festival I have made friends with so many fellow writers – a couple of whom I met that very first year. It all comes down to that first tentative visit, where Barbara made me welcome and made me feel seen and understood.
This year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival starts on the 14th June and you have until the 10th to book your place. I won’t be teaching there this year but I will be raising a glass to Barbara and all she stood for: an unselfish commitment to sharing knowledge and experience, a dedication to being an encouraging voice, cheerleader and guide. I’ll be sending my good wishes to everyone there this year.
We writers are far less alone than we used to be, thanks to the internet. We know more about the world of publishing than we used to do. We are able to self-publish in a way we couldn’t before. We can research agents, attend events online and offline. We are connected.
But still in the wee small hours we may be full of doubt about the value of our work. We may feel alone with those doubts and wonder if we will ever be able to complete that book or find a publisher.
Barbara would say to you: ‘Yes, you can! You’re not alone! You are part of the wonderful family of writers – welcome!’ And she’d go on to regale you with the famous anecdotes of the delegate lost in the nearby cemetery and the pink nightdress on the bed of one male delegate’s room …
I hope that in your writing life you find true guides and cheerleaders. Seize every opportunity to attend events where you may meet them – you never know where it may lead!
You can read some of my blogposts about the conference on Literascribe, my previous blog. Just follow the tags in the sidebar - Winchester Writers’ Conference and Winchester Writers’ Festival.
I will be teaching on Oxford University’s OUSSA summer school programme and the Creative Writing Summer School at Exeter College as usual this year.
I’m also working on my new book, The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset - visit www.theunputdownablewriter.com to sign up for advance news and sneak peeks ahead of publication in the autumn.