What do Kafka, Twain, Isherwood, Grass, and Sontag have in common? If your first guess was to say that they are all writers, then well done, you’re correct. But if you also said that they spent long periods living in Berlin, then congratulations – you get the gold star! This city has always been a mecca for great artists, and writers are no exception. However, despite this great legacy, there are very few academic options open to writers who want to better learn the craft… or at least there used to be!
Thankfully, a new creative writing school has opened in Berlin to fill this need. Called, Autorenloft (English: Author’s Loft), the school is offering a wide range of professional courses to writers who are looking to improve their writing skills and expand their knowledge of the industry.
We caught up with Autorenloft’s founder, Melanie Schaum-Durmaz, to find out more about this great initiative.
Hello Melanie! Can you tell us a little more about yourself and the school?
I can confidently describe my love for literature as the longest in my life. Even as a 10-year-old, there was nothing more beautiful than to read and explore the new worlds that books took me to. As a teenager I worked in a bookstore next to my school. After completing high school, I trained as a bookseller and worked in this field for a few years before moving to the sales department of Germany’s leading book wholesaler, KNV. Since 2015, I have been a freelance literature scout for the film industry, including Studiocanal, a global film distributor. I scour the German-speaking market, providing assessments on literature’s fitness for the big screen. This year I also founded the Autorenloft which offers weekend seminars in creative writing. The majority of the speakers are authors – many of whom have studied creative writing at the Deutsches Literatur Institut (German Institute of Literature) in Leipzig and have been published with well-known publishers.
How did you come up with the idea for the school and what drove you to pursue it?
The idea was born out of an exchange with a friend who also writes. We found that Berlin didn’t quite offer writers the services that they were looking for. We wanted to help “writers learn from writers”. My friend decided to continue to focus on her writing, but inspired by her ideas and our conversation, I decided to found the school as I’m extremely passionate about the topic. Writers had been the heroes of my childhood and have remained so to this day. I therefore decided to dedicate my work to supporting writers to strengthen their voice.
I’m sure it wasn’t an easy process to get going. What hurdles/obstacles did you face along the way?
After scrutinizing all it would take to start up such a venture, it was clear in which areas I had sufficient knowledge and where I needed to seek help from others. Together with a business coach, I took a critical look at my Autorenloft idea from all sides to make sure that the general concept was sound. Afterwards I settled on a name and a suitable location for events. I think it’s important to hold the seminars in a pleasant venue, including a suitable surrounding environment. I have attended a few seminars myself that took place in extremely uninviting surroundings and so wanted to do things differently. Funnily enough, both the name and the location came together by chance. I’ve worked for years from a co-working space in the Neukölln neighbourhood of Berlin. Last year, it opened another location, named MITOSIS Factory, a loft with great attention to detail. It is located right in the middle of a lively district, but wonderfully quiet, due to its location in a courtyard. Perfect for our seminars!
Choosing the right designer for the logo and website was the next challenge. There are certainly many good designers in the city, but you have to meet someone with a human touch and who can easily understand your personal vision, which I found with Michalis Kavadias from Layerlove. I liked his visual language and he understood exactly what I wanted right from the start. Another milestone was the selection of writers and seminar topics. In fact, I was strongly guided by my intuition having worked with writers, choosing those whose approach to writing I liked, who convinced me of their abilities as speakers in conversations and who I value as people.
Why have you taken this step now?
I came to a point in my life where I didn’t feel like getting another fixed office job. I really like working as a freelancer and with the extensive knowledge I have gained over many years in the book industry, I simply felt ready for this step. I had been searching for more meaningful work for a long time. I thrive in communicating with people, which helps me both working with seminar participants and in finding great speakers. The idea of supporting people’s creativity and helping them express themselves in writing fills me with great joy.
… and why in Berlin?
I have lived here for 14 years and love the city, especially because such a variety of creative people work and socialise here. As a part of this creative scene, I feel like I can offer my own contribution to the city’s creativity through the Autorenloft.
“If you are able to take a new, critical perspective on your writing, you’re guaranteed to develop your writing skills further.”
I’d be interested in learning more about the workshops on offer. What were your motivations for picking these topics and what can participants expect?
The selection of topics took place via a lively exchange with writers. My goal was to create a seminar plan with the broadest range of topics possible. Our workshops are great for beginners as well as experienced writers. For example, there is an introductory course on either creative or autobiographical writing every month. For advanced writers, we have a multi-part workshop on novels and also offer workshops on special topics such as non-linear narratives. We also take into account that people have different needs: some want to approach their questions as technically as possible and with a fixed framework, while others want to approach them more playfully and intuitively. We want to depict writing in as many ways as possible. In the future, seminars on song writing and blogging will also be held, as skill in writing is also extremely important here.
Stephen King once said, “… it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and (…) it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one.” After 25 years in the book industry, do you agree with this sentiment?
I definitely see too much “impossible” in Stephen King’s statement. I firmly believe that everyone can improve if they find their weaknesses or insecurities and work on them. Talent and passion for writing may be individual to a lesser or greater extent but being able to write well is not just a question of talent: it’s made up of many factors. If you are able to take a new, critical perspective on your writing, you’re guaranteed to develop your writing skills further.
Right now, Autorenloft courses are in German. Given the number of expats in Berlin, any hopes we will see some courses in English anytime soon?
Yes, we’re also planning a number of English courses for the future. At first, I wanted to concentrate on one language in order not to get bogged down. I would also like to take a closer look at the market for English courses in order to be able to better assess the demand. I am dependent on exchanges with foreign writers – and am open to suggestions for topics and speakers.
Any other major plans for the future?
What’s that saying? “Think big!” In the medium term, we will not restrict ourselves to Berlin alone, but will also extend our range to other major German cities. In addition, we are striving for status as an educational institution, as we will offer a kind of 18-month training course with monthly meet ups for those who would like to take a more expansive approach to their education, in addition to the weekend seminars. Other ideas include writing trips outside of Germany or extended weekends in the countryside.
Ok, thank you Melanie for taking the time to talk to us. Last question: name one thing on your bucket list?
I’ve always been a huge fan of 1960s/70s US muscle cars like the Mustang and Charger. My dream is to someday cruise through the streets of Berlin in one of these cars!
Interested in finding out more about Autorenloft? Check out the following links below:
- Web: https://autorenloft.de/
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/autorenloft.berlin
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/autorenloft
© Photography: Title image: Maren Spriewald // Portrait photos: Yasmine Asha
Interview by Shane O’Halloran. Have something to say? Leave a comment below or contact Shane directly via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or email. Or, you could just buy him a coffee if you like? (AKA a pint)