Photograph by Alma Shaw
LOYAL ROYAL: Lily Rex at her typewriter in Santa Rosa. 'We're at the start of a new era for the arts, music and literature,' she says.
Writers Gone Wild
New writers groups abound in the North Bay
By Jonah Raskin
Lily Rex and Joshua Stithem are shaking up the literary North Bay. This past February, they stormed the stage at North Light Books and Cafe in Cotati with four other members of their group, the Order of Intrepid Writers, and demanded to be heard. They're planning to storm open mics everywhere and return the spoken word to a place of reverence in the community.
"Guys with guitars took over," Rex tells me. "We want writers to be onstage, too." A native of Los Angeles and a 2010 graduate of the Hutchins School of Liberal Arts at Sonoma State University, Rex urges writers in her group to write dangerously and to collaborate with rock musicians and theater groups. The Order of Intrepid Writers, which she cofounded with Stithem, has 20 members, a Facebook page and a surrealist state of mind.
"The North Bay is coming alive as a land of literary creativity, and we mean to help it along and breathe life into the scene," Rex says. "We're at the start of a new era for the arts, music and literature."
They're not the only feisty writers around. Northern California boasts at least a hundred writers groups, many of them new, some decades old. Terry Ehret and Jo-Anne Rosen keep tabs on about 55 groups on their website SoCo Lit Update, and groups are popping up as wildly in the age of Kindle and Google as they did in the heyday of the surrealists and the Beats.
The writers groups are as varied as the individual writers of Marin, Sonoma and Napa. Workshops and groups are closed and open, free and not so free, public and even underground. The payoff for membership in a group might be a job and benefits at a newspaper or entree into the exclusive world of publishing. Membership might also provide a sense of kinship, emotional support and sheer joy.
Photograph by Alma Shaw
WRITE SOMETHING: Agitation for creativity happens at even the simplest, most direct levels.
In west Sonoma County, one of the longest running writers groups meets once a month to eat, drink and read their work aloud. Occidental's MaryLu Downing is the one painter in the group. The other members—Barbara Baer, Robin Beeman and Susan Swartz—have been published, reviewed and rewarded for their books.
For years, Swartz wrote a 650-word column for the Press Democrat. Now, she's breaking out of traditional journalism with a lot of help from her writing group. "My daughter, Samantha, is a writer," Swartz says. "Her first book, Stepmother's Milk, started as a blog that a New York agent read and told her, 'You have a book here.' That has never happened to me. Now, I'm more personal in my writing thanks to my daughter and my writing group. Of course, without my husband, Bob Klose, I'd be lost, and probably in court, too."
Baer is the founder of Floreant Press and the author of Pomegranate Roads, which profiles a botanist in "exile from Eden." She didn't share it with her sisters in writing, but now she's eager to read from a novel-in-progress.
"At times, I've shown my work and found that comments are distracting," Baer says. "But now, the once-a-month get-togethers really push me to write with urgency. I've dropped out of large writing workshops before because it took forever to listen to everyone. I needed instant feedback, and I get it now in my current group."
Robin Beeman has taught writing at Sonoma State University, the Sitting Room and in her living room. A native of Saint Tammany Parish in Louisiana, where there was one writer, Walker Percy, but no writers group, she's published a collection of short stories, A Parallel Life, and a novella, A Minus Tide. "Our writing group is good because it helps to have readers along the way," Beeman says. "Deadlines are good, too."
Barbara Baer's husband, Michael Morey, belongs to an all-male group. A prodigious reader and the author of several unpublished works including a "hippie whodunit," Morey enjoys his group's conviviality. Once a month, a handful of guys meet at his house for wine and food—often a salad from his garden—or at Dempsey's in Petaluma. At a recent gathering, Morey gave a riveting reading from A Stroll Out West, a comic novel about the misadventures of his hero, Dobbs, aka "the Dobbler." Listeners couldn't stop laughing.
In the North Bay, women's writing groups outnumber men's writing groups at least two-to-one, and women writers tend to be more enthusiastic about groups than male writers. Recently, Dani Burlison formed a group called Petals and Bones, while another, Pens and Pints, meets at Jack and Tony's Restaurant and Whiskey Bar in Santa Rosa's Old Railroad Square. Richard Brautigan would probably fit right in on the first Friday of every month during happy hour.
"It aims," Burlison says, "for "hazy-dazy creativity and plenty of lyrical tomfoolery." Limited to eight writers, the fee is on a sliding scale, from $5 to $20. Burlison writes for zines such as Rad Dad on up to papers like the Press Democrat, and credits a workshop she took with creativity coach and "intuitive healer" Suzanne Murray of Camp Meeker for her own growth as a writer.
"Petals and Bones doesn't deal with grammar and spelling," says Burlison, who recently took her writing on the road as a seven-day "zine tour." "We're about fun. We urge writers to get in the habit of writing, get in touch with their unconscious, not stop and think."
The Bohemian's own Leilani Clark—with a BA from the University of California San Diego and an MFA from the California Institute of Integral Studies—is cofounder with Burlison of both Petals and Bones and Pens and Pints. "In college, I knew about the Beat writers," Clark says. "Of course, Kerouac and company excluded women. I told myself, 'I'm gonna do my own version, only with girls.'"
At least one group is so private it consists of only two members and rarely meets in person. Ianthe Brautigan, the daughter of Richard Brautigan, didn't inherit her father's writing style or literary habits, though she wrote a memoir about him and his suicide, You Can't Catch Death. "My father met with the poets Jack Spicer and Ron Loewinsohn at a bar where Spicer held court," Ianthe tells me from her Santa Rosa home. "Of course, he was also notorious for not showing his work to anyone until it was done."
Ianthe shares her own work with Joan Frank, an award-winning Santa Rosa novelist (Miss Kansas City) and a master of the short story (Envy Country). They're a group of two, and rarely meet face-to-face for book talk. "We do it on the internet," Ianthe explains. "We give advice, exchange gossip and edit one another's work."
Of course, public groups abound. Calvin Ahlgren facilitates a free poetry workshop that meets at 7pm on the fourth Thursday of every month (except November and December) at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael. Participants bring 10 typed copies of a poem to read aloud. "Everyone and anyone is welcome to join," Ahlgren says. "People come from different backgrounds, but they're all enthusiastic about writing and reading."
Summertime offers unique opportunities for students seeking a compact writing experience, and now's the time to sign up. The Napa Valley Writers Conference, taking place July 2429 in St. Helena, emphasizes poetry and the craft of fiction; evening readings are open to the public. This year, fiction workshops are offered by Daniel Alarcon, Lan Samantha Chang and Michelle Huneven, while poetry is taught by Jane Hirshfield and D. A. Powell. "The Napa Valley workshops have a nice mix of older and younger poets," Powell says. "They're smaller than those at most colleges, and more democratic, too."
Diane di Prima, the reigning queen of Beat Generation writers, offers a two-day workshop in July at the home of Geri Digiorno, founder of the Petaluma Poetry Walk. "You get a lot for your money," Digiorno says. For 13 years, writers have come from around the country for the workshops, which last from 10am to 6pm. Previously, themes have included "Behind the Mask," "The Stranger in the Mirror" and "Beyond Hope and Fear."
Starting a new group bears heed to Stephanie Mendel's practical guidelines: "The main elements are trust, respect, honesty, and compatibility," she says—and she's hosted writers in her Marin home since 1995. "Food and drink can help," she adds, "and it's useful to share news. What's most important is a group of poets who care, and who provide thoughtful responses and suggestions about publication."
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