It's a varied group: until he passed away recently, we had one member who had belonged since the 1950s, and we have another member, now a university graduate, who joined when she was 14. There are men and women, and people from countries around the world. We've had members who write everything by hand or on a typewriter and photocopy it, and others who bring laptops or tablets to the meeting to take notes. We have poets and science fiction writers; we have memoirists and journalists; we have romance writers and children's writers, thriller writers and literary writers. We have some members who aren't quite sure what they want to write yet—they just have a burning desire to get the words on paper. We have some members who write every day, and some who haven't written for years. Some of us are published, and some are not. Two of us are professional writers who rely on our writing income to live, but many more of us write for the pure joy of writing, and regard any income as a bonus.
Our secretary, Don, used to field all the enquiries for people wanting to join Reading Writers. He would tell each person who asked: 'The only requirement to join is a love of writing. We celebrate each member's successes, whatever they might be.' It made, and still makes, for an egalitarian, supportive, respectful group.
When Don was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, he made light of it. He called the radical surgery he had to have on his face to remove the tumours his 'face lift'. He continued to bring in his stories, wonderful, gritty, humorous slices of what he called 'the lives of low-lives': small-time thugs, drug dealers, hookers, drunks, all with vulnerabilities and hopes. Although he'd been a copy writer for many years he'd never had any fiction published; he told me that he enjoyed sharing his stories with the group, and he felt he learned a great deal by listening to our comments and revising his work. That was enough for him.
He took me aside during the tea break at one meeting and told me that the cancer had spread to his liver. He had about six months, he said. He was getting everything ready—writing his will, planning his funeral, making provisions for his beloved wife and family. He was also still working on his stories. 'I'd like to make a gift to Reading Writers before I go,' he said. 'You can use it as you like.'
Between the group and Don, we decided to create an annual award in his name, to be given to a member. But Don was vehement that it shouldn't necessarily go to the person who was the most obviously successful in a writing career. It should go to the person who has made the most significant personal progress with their writing, whatever that success might be.
Don himself showed us what kind of personal success he meant. He kept on coming to meetings for as long as he could. He kept on writing and reading others' work. He put aside time, in the midst of his other arrangements, in the midst of seeing his family and saying goodbye, to improve his stories and submit some of them to the group anthology we were doing. In hospice, he made jokes, told stories.
He was a writer all the way till the end.
At his funeral, we all got terribly, stinkingly drunk, because he'd told us to. Twice now, we've voted for the winner of the Don Louth Writers' Award. Last night Don's wife presented it to Don's hand-picked successor, the current secretary, Josh.
And we remembered what being a Real Writer means.
(Come back on Sunday to hear from Anna...)