In May, while the country was still in lockdown, West Coast writer and E-Tangata regular Becky Manawatu took home the big prize at the Ockham book awards — the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction — for her first novel Auē. In this piece, she remembers a humble little writers’ group that helped her along the way.
It was an autumn evening in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2011, and I was off to my first writers’ group meeting.
I took the U-Bahn from where we lived in Dornbusch, across the city to Schweizer Platz, then walked the busy Schweizer Strasse to a trattoria where the meeting was to be held.
I’d found the group online and emailed to ask if I could join. I needed to submit a piece of writing before they’d agree, which had made me nervous.
I was accepted, though, which I eventually found out was not such a big deal. So long as someone had made the effort to write something, they could be in.
The writers’ group worked like this: each month, two members would submit something, and the group would spend the first half of the evening discussing one, the second half, the other.
For my first meeting, the group decided to discuss the short story I’d submitted to gain a place with them: Musicians on the ūrupa.
I remember most of the members — their names, their faces, what they’d wear and drink, their writing style.
In particular, I remember Paul.
After being made a member, I was looped into their email exchanges. Paul signed his correspondence off with Peace, Love and Happiness, Paul.
Walking to that first meeting, I was sure it would be Paul who’d appreciate the genius of my deeply spiritual tale about two pot-smoking musicians who, one night, reveal a secret to a young man on an ūrupa.
I hadn’t met Paul yet, but I was sure he’d be all in.
I found the trattoria. It had booths and small tables. I saw a woman in her 60s sitting alone with some paper and a pen in front of her. I guessed she was a member of the writers’ group. Apart from the pen and paper, she had a nervous energy which I recognised.
I approached the woman and introduced myself.
Her name was Bonnie. Quickly, I excused myself to order a glass of red wine. When I returned, a writer named Isabelle de Pommereau had joined Bonnie at the table.
Soon after, Paul arrived.
He was rocking a double denim outfit. Light blue jeans and a light blue jacket with a white t-shirt underneath.
His head was bald on the top, but he’d grown it long in the back and had tied it in a ponytail. With him, he had a cloth — perhaps hemp — satchel.
“Hello everyone,” he said, and sat down.
He held out his hand to me. “Paul,” he said. “Welcome, Becky.”
He opened his satchel and I saw what I believed was my story inside it. I felt my heart-rate quicken: we were going to discuss something I’d written! Other people had read something I’d written. Finally!
I wasn’t 100 percent sure Bonnie would like it, she had a mid-west accent and might not be “open-minded” enough for my genius.
Isabelle de Pommereau, who wrote crime fiction, probably wouldn’t like it much, either.
But Paul would. And that’d be enough for me.
Paul took my story from his satchel and placed it in front of him. He set his hands on either side, framing it. “I might as well go first,” he said.
I thought that was a good idea, because I was interested in what he had to say about the antics of my musicians, and their night on a cemetery overlooking Kaikōura.
He cleared his throat: “I’m going to start by asking why I should have bothered to read this when you haven’t bothered to proofread it, when you haven’t bothered to use an apostrophe or check your commas are in the right place?”
Suddenly, I felt like I’d wallowed in a warm bath for a long time and then pulled the plug but stayed put, my body getting heavier and heavier until I was watching the last of the water twist loudly down the drain.
But, but . . . peace, love and happiness, Paul? I wanted to say.
I took a huge gulp of my red wine, felt my face burn up.
I thought I saw Bonnie and Isabelle de Pommereau smirk. In hindsight I realised they hadn’t smirked. They’d just nodded, because they’d agreed with Paul and knew it was the most useful advice I could have.
Paul added he liked some of the story. There was atmosphere, and an interesting plot, but it was all just floating, he said.
Just floating? I thought. Isn’t that good? Isn’t that peace, love and happiness, Paul?
It might have taken me three or four days to get over the brutality of that first meeting.
But I returned to the next meeting, and the next, and quite a few more.
The group didn’t take a commendation, recommendation, commendation approach, like people prefer these days. It was old school.
Adults submitted work to a group of adults. Everyone presumed they were there, not to have their genius confirmed to them, but to become better writers.
Later our meetings moved to a bigger place — Club Voltaire. We met in a musty smelling room above a speakeasy in the city centre. It was an ugly, rundown place, and it was where we spent three hours every fourth Thursday evening in the month tearing each other’s work to shreds.
The large rectangle table often had 10 to 12 writers around it. Sometimes there were chips or peanuts in the centre of the table, but never home-baked goods.
Sure, authors got to hear what others had found original and compelling in their work, sometimes people even quoted parts of a story or poem that had moved them. I got private emails of support from several members such as Lois and Mary, giving me advice and encouragement.
But around the table, mostly there was thoughtful, fantastic but excruciating criticism.
If you’d made no conscious effort to proofread your work, you could f*** off, find a commune and get your peace, love and happiness there.
That group thrilled me.
When my family decided to move back to New Zealand, we had to say auf wiedersehen to people we’d grown close to, to many wonderful friends who’d treated us like family and had made Germany feel almost like home.
It was a sad time. Presents and promises were exchanged. Photos taken, tears shed.
However, there was a terrible part of me that knew it was my monthly meeting in that ugly, rundown building — with people who didn’t really know or care too much about me, people who’d occasionally made me feel like I might as well give up, forget the dream — that I’d miss the most.
This piece was originally published in the Westport News and is republished here with permission.
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