Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Real Writer

I joined my local writers' group over ten years ago, when I decided I wanted to become a Real Writer. I remember bringing in my first chapter of my first romance novel to a critique group session, and having one of the members tell me, kindly but strictly, that having a character look into the mirror so that she could be described to the reader was a horrible, horrible cliche. (I haven't done it again.) A letter-writing workshop led me to my first publication in the UK: a letter to a supermarket magazine about Marmite, for which I received £10. I bought a Barry Manilow CD.

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...)






19 comments:

  1. So beautiful and incredibly moving, Julie. Thank you so much for sharing such an inspiring story.

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  2. I wish I lived near Reading... Inspirational.

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  3. Feel a bit weepy after after that...what an inspiration
    lx

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  4. I didn't know him but yes, this made me tearful too. Exquisitely written and we should all be inspired. This year will be a great one for all of us at Reading Writers. Onwards and upwards!

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  5. Thank you for sharing such a moving story with us, I finished reading and was showered with goosebumps - a truly inspirational man.

    x

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  6. What am amazing man. Inspiring. And beautifully written, Julie.

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  7. Wonderful! He was a writer..and an inspiration to the very end. You are blessed to have had him in your life. Thank you for sharing this story!

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  8. Thank you Julie for reminding us why we do what we do in Reading Writers! Claire Dyer, Chairperson, Reading Writers.

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  9. Thanks everyone. I feel fortunate. I'm glad Don's story inspired you too.

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  10. If you can meet with triumph and disaster
    And treat those two imposters just the same; (Kipling)

    Don did exactly that, with courage and humour. Great man.

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  11. Even from his bed in the hospice, Don critiqued a story I'd sent to the group. I was so touched and inspired by him...and continue to be inspired by everyone in our group.

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  12. Julie, what a wonderful mentor, friend, writer, and person Don was. And a beautiful tribute from you.

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  13. As everyone has said, this is a beautiful and moving tribute, Julie, and it serves as a reminder if we should forget why we write - that it's the words and the stories that matter. They're still here when fame and fortune are all gone, or even if they never arrive.

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  14. What a moving account, Julie.

    Don sounds as if he was a lovely man - the Reading Writers were lucky to have him as one of their number.

    Liz X

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  15. How moving. What a lovely man. Thanks, Julie.

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  16. Oh, Julie, how fabulous. What a lovely idea for an award.

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  17. Such a moving post, Julie. Maybe you'd like to Read Me Something You Love from the Don Louth oeuvre?

    http://shortstorybookclub.co.uk/wp-admin/post.php?post=322&action=edit&message=1

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  18. Oops, wrong link. Here's the one: http://shortstorybookclub.co.uk/?page_id=322

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  19. Julie, that was a beautiful post. How proud Don would have been to have been such an inspiration.

    Anna

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