Stuck in a room full of writers for an entire weekend?

It would be some people’s idea of a nightmare. It was my idea of Heaven at the inaugural National Writers’ Forum in Auckland.

The forum was the brainchild of the New Zealand Society of Authors (of which I’m a member). Sometimes inaugural events have teething problems, but this weekend was good. Some of it was great, even.

The keynote speaker, British author Chris Cleave, was living proof that you don’t have to be a wanker (or tall) to be successful and influential. What a thoughtful, emotionally astute, kind human being he is. His speech was a sobering but ultimately uplifting reminder of the world we are writing in, and how writers can help to change the narrative of hate that dominates discourse (particularly that discourse that expresses itself in 140 characters or less). How can we, as writers, have any influence in a world that seems to thrive on vitriol and hatred, the more instant the better? It was a roaring start to the weekend. It highlighted the fact that we were there to do something important, not to just mess around with white boards and dictionaries and to have earnest discussions about punctuation, or whatever it is that the uninitiated think writers do when they get together. (There was, however, a lively and vaguely amusing debate about a colon.)

For me, the forum was wonderfully useful on two levels. As a writer, I was encouraged to ask myself questions about what exactly I was trying to achieve, and why. I think I had lost sight of the emotional heart of my work, and was getting distracted by all the crap that can sometimes grow up around that. I came away with a clearer idea of what I want to achieve as a writer, where my particular strengths lie, and what I can do with my writing that is hopefully useful, and beautiful, and generous.

I attended a short story workshop given by Patricia Grace, that luminary of New Zealand writing. I never thought I would sit in a lecture theatre and read out the first lines of a short story I had just begun, and listen to Patricia nod and offer her very gentle feedback. In another workshop I watched as my writing appeared on the screen, then cringed as four panelists edited it, live. I had sent in the opening paragraph of my draft novel before the forum, as had a number of other writers. None of us had to identify ourselves, so it wasn’t too terrifying, but when my paragraph came up I spent a very busy few moments trying to look nonchalant and pretend that I was doodling instead of frantically scribbling feedback. (You know my earlier comment about the colon debate? That was sparked by my paragraph. The editors couldn’t agree whether a colon should be left in or taken out. I’ve never been so anonymously discussed.)

As an editor/proofreader, I grasped the opportunity to network with other proofreaders and editors, and, without sounding too mercenary, to market myself. How marvellous to be able to offer my services to an entire table of eager writers. At one point, over lunch, I mentioned to one person next to me that I was a proofreader and editor, and I swear, every head within ten metres snapped in my direction. I gave out business cards like bad restaurants give out mints. I’m delighted, because although I proofread all sorts of documents, from letters to assignments to business articles, my real love is editing book manuscripts, and if I’m lucky quite a bit of work will come my way.

A number of clients I have already worked with came up and introduced themselves, which was such a pleasure. Because my work is all computer based, I hardly ever get to meet the authors I work with, and it was lovely to be able to put names to faces.

At one point I sat at the back of a lecture room listening to a panel talk about writing, and I felt like there was no other place I would rather be, and no other field I would rather be working in. Now that’s a well-spent weekend.