A grand morning! The Gaviota Writers have finally managed to reconvene. Well, in truth there were only four of us, and we especially missed Bob, but still…we gathered together here at my house, we read, we schmoozed…and it was lovely.
A bit of background: The Gaviota Writers Group began in 1994 with a whimsical suggestion from Bob Isaacson, whom I met while I was teaching at Vista de las Cruces. Bob suspected there were others like ourselves who scribbled words in solitude and might appreciate some company and support. We circulated a notice in our little community and a handful of people showed up. Among them were locals Jim Brady and Linda Smith, and Larry O’Keefe, a visiting teacher from Vermont, but I can no longer remember who else attended that first test-run meeting in my classroom. It was, after all, 17 years ago! In any case, we called ourselves the Gaviota Writers, and we’ve been that ever since.
As time went on we had one-time visitors and a solid core of about six loyal members who hated to miss a meeting. We shared journal excerpts, memoirs and stories, novels-in-progress, poetry, and even an occasional song. After our initial school room gatherings we shifted our meetings to one another’s homes, all of which were perfect haunts: ramshackle ranch houses sagging slightly at the seams, quirky abodes within sight of the sea, or cozy dwellings along quiet streets. Sometimes we would linger for a while in Sally’s garden, or detour to look at the zebras at Miki and David Holden’s ranch, or sit beneath the arbor in Jim’s backyard at Los Yridises. In the summer, if we were lucky, Bob drove us all in the back of his pick-up to a special meadow on the top of a hill. We wore broad-brimmed hats to shield us from the sun and feasted on goat cheese, pesto, tomatoes and plums. Then we sat on an old wooden flatbed trailer or leaned back in the waves of dry grass and listened to our friends reading to us one by one.
There were winter evenings, too, when we drove through rain to sit together in warm rooms lit by lamps and wood-burning stoves. We ate and we talked, but mostly we read, and we listened. We received each other’s words with appreciation, critiquing gently and complimenting sincerely. Usually, we left encouraged, even inspired, and knowing we would meet again soon was an added impetus to finishing a piece. My participation in the writing group was a kind of open declaration that I was a writer. I began to think of myself as one.
It’s true that not everyone is fond of writing groups, and your experience may be less idyllic than ours, but I am certain that such groups can have profound value in nurturing, validating, coaching, and inspiring the writer part of your soul. Writing is usually solitary, but at some point the responses of others are essential, and sharing becomes the next logical step. I agree with Natalie Goldberg here: “Don’t just let [your writing] pile up in notebooks. Let it out. Kill the idea of the lone suffering artist. We suffer anyway as human beings. Don’t make it any harder on yourself.”
Of course you have to find or create the sort of writing group that works for you. You don’t want people who will only tell you how wonderful your writing is — although that can help build a nice base of confidence. On the other hand, the wrong vibe or the wrong kind of criticism can drive away your muse. Obviously some structure and feedback protocol are needed to make a group functional, but I find that I am intimidated by the kind of groups in which “workshop” becomes a verb, as in, “Are we ready to workshop this draft?” Maybe in time you’ll decide you want something more hardcore. I never did.
For me, a writing group is about building a community; even more than that, it is about developing writing-based friendships. I completely relate to the observations Anne LaMott made about four women she knew who formed an ongoing writing group: “They’ve gone from being four tense, slightly conceited lonely people who wanted to write to one of those weird little families we fashion out of whoever’s around us. They’re very tender with one another…helping each other has made their hearts get bigger.” I am convinced there is a correlation between writing groups and that expansion of the heart to which LaMott refers. There is something affirmative and generous in the mutual sharing of writing. It engenders a unique kind of empathy and intimacy; there’s a special solace, strength, and continuity to be found in such gatherings.
And I do love my Gaviota Writers Group friends! Over the years we’ve had our cycles and we’ve had our lulls, we’ve seen a few folks fade out and some new blood join up, and we seem to have been in a sort of hiatus lately, but today was proof we aren’t really over. Jim played his guitar and sang a new song he’d written, and I’m not kidding you — it was phenomenal! Dave read a fictional tale about, among other things, the difficulty of relinquishing the mythologies we have about people we knew long ago, and our subsequent discussion revealed more and more layers to this complex story. Chris somehow managed to present an elegant and touching narrative of her life by reflecting upon her relationship with…cats. And I read a piece from the collection I am working on, which, by the way, is tentatively titled Transition Zone. (Someday it might be finished.) The essay I chose to read was about my Istanbul trip and coming home afterwards, and everyone was kind, but I can tell it needs a lot of work. That’s the beauty of our group –– people critique lovingly.
Anyway, it was a kind of holiday, really, an escape from the everyday into something worth pausing for. With the help of some song and prose, we remembered to more fully inhabit our lives. We shared and went our separate ways revived.