Grouping in L.A.: On Writing, Writers and the Creative Community

Marla Jane and Ida Lee
My friend Ida Lee

This is my friend, Ida. If you’ve read the home page of my website, you may recognize her name as the woman who gave me the nickname “Traveling Marla.” She’s 92 and we’re standing in front of her car. The license plate glaring in the flash reads “GO IDA.” And she does. She tools around in that little car like she isn’t a day over 65.

Last night we met up at Beyond Baroque‘s Creative Nonfiction class. She was preparing a piece for her Thursday night Toastmasters’ Group and I was revising one of my Viet Nam essays. I was already on a writing high from attending Bill Hickok’s Green Poets group yesterday morning.

I listened to her piece and thought about all the things I’ve heard her read over the years. She’s led a fascinating life, accumulating a variety of adventurous stories and even has her own IMDB page for her acting credits.

I hadn’t been to the CNF group in more than two years, when I lived in Marina del Rey and stalked as many area writing groups as I could fit into a week. Each group contributed something different to how I understood myself as a writer. Some were (and are still) heavy on critique, light on accolades, and others were almost a hand-holding festival of empowerment and encouragement.

I attended several groups at Beyond Baroque on weekdays and occasional weekends. I also had amazing workshops in L.A. Writers Group. Every Tuesday morning I went to the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble to read at the podium with Green Poets (a group since relocated to Beyond Baroque as well).

Each type of workshop met different needs for my writing and for community. My point in talking about Ida is that one of the biggest things a good writing group does is help you find your readers, your mentors, your cheerleaders and your friends. With poetry, you may not feel you’ve sufficiently been indoctrinated unless you’ve been critiqued by the Wednesday night poetry group, particularly formalist Julian’s savvy but merciless gutting.

I personally had both positive and negative critiques from Julian at different times, and when I picked my ego back off the floor, I found I wanted to pay attention more, to work harder. And even with my affinity for free verse, my words and style became conscious choice, not lack of knowledge or work.

Although I couldn’t fit all my favorite groups into this one week in L.A., just hitting a few of them has energized my writing again. Not all these small towns we move to have strong writing communities, and being back in L.A. again made me realize just how much I miss picking from a variety of groups and locations each night.

Sunday I will read some of my work, along with other writers in Los Angeles, at the home of my friend and writer, Nelly Williams. Nelly’s own writing voice is lyrical and engaging. Her narratives take me into her life, her family, her history. And with all that she has in her own natural ability, she is constantly promoting and encouraging others. She doubts her voice, her language (English is #2 for her) and her strength as a writer.

Instead she puts her writing aside to throw together a garden party to bring together an eclectic mix of poets and prose writers, and doesn’t think twice about singing the praises of each writer and group.

I marvel at my friends like Nelly and Ida. They have both been through much, have stories to tell, yet take time to keep encouraging those around them.

I used to say “I wish my L.A. groups were here” at different places we lived. But after coming back to L.A., I realize they have been with me all along. A good writing group and good friends aren’t much different in the way they influence you. An honest and strong critique is as unforgettable as encouraging affirmation. If you can remember even one, you can resurrect the rest and use it when you need.

Of course, it helps to get a little reinforcement by coming back, and I already feel recharged enough to last another year until I’m on the west coast again.

Love, Marla

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