Here’s the idea: You get a bunch of writers together and you take them someplace cool, someplace evocative — the Santa Fe Depot, say — and you tell them, “Go ahead, write something.”
This could be a very bad idea.
Because of all the things an individual can do in the company of others, writing may be the one thing that must be done alone. Think of the solitary writer in cramped garret or cheap room or shambled studio, alone and alone, working into the night, working in the cool silver glow of her monitor with only her dictionary, her stamina, her small imagination.
Writing in a group might be OK for therapy, for an avant surrealist experiment, for some airy-fairy New Age outdoor campfest, but Real Writers, they have to go it Alone.
Or do they?
The old idea of the writer as solo artist is as outdated as the belief that you can’t make jam out of jalapeños. Writers can and do write in community. And they write good stuff. I know. I’ve participated in real-time writing groups for more than a decade, and I’ve led twice-weekly drop-in writing groups for nearly seven years. This is what I know: On any given day a writer can write the best she’s ever written. She can also compose a piece that’s clunky and misshapen and downright embarrassing. Just like when she’s alone.
I know that the brave writers who participate in these groups are often remarkable creators who paint word pictures, spin and weave and reel in tales. Writers who make it up and get it down. I know that stories and poems and essays and even novels get written in these groups. Seeds are sown, characters appear (and disappear), ideas take root, and notebooks get filled. There’s something else that happens too. The certain and electric current of connection, not just one writer to another, but one human to another.
So when the idea was presented — take a group of writers to the Santa Fe Depot and see what happens — I couldn’t get my pencil sharpened fast enough.
As a way to prepare myself, I started the morning with a read from Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. My meditation into the day of writing. Looking for opening or closing quotes that I might read to the group, something to inspire our writing, to set the tone for our time together.
Sitting on the floor before my bookcase I read, “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” I read a few more lines, remembering the pleasure of reading and re-reading this and other Theroux books during my travels aboard the rails — in America, Europe, India.
I skipped through the book, fanning the pages, noting a line here and there, tagging sections with sticky notes. On the last page Theroux wrote, “All travel is circular,” and closed with a repeat of the opening lines: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it…”
San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot is a grand, echoey place of high, rounded ceilings, golden tile floors. Constructed in 1915, the station’s two cerulean blue and yellow tiled domes are the same old Spanish design as those on the exposition buildings in Balboa Park.
Like any woman of a certain age, the station has had her share of face-lifts. Today a fountain splashes in a terra-cotta courtyard lined with benches tiled in colors brilliant as wild parrots. I remember a parking lot there. Meeting my grandmother one October day in the mid-’50s as she arrived battered and weary after a two-day trip from Kansas City.
Inside, 16 bronze-and-glass chandeliers on chains the size of a man’s wrist are trussed to plaster arches high above the main waiting room and ticket counter. On the walls, tiled wainscoting in a Moorish design gives the effect of a Turkish rug. Long oak benches reflect burnished light from great windows to the west, where sets of train and trolley tracks parallel one another.
Great ambiance for a writer. All that light. Color. History silhouetting the walls like an aura.
The sign still says “Womens Waiting Room” though what’s currently beyond the portal is a tourist company and, to the left, a utilitarian restroom with metal stalls and the banged-up bones of an old radiator. Still, in this memory-laden place you can glimpse pale shadows of sailors in their summer whites and hear soft echoes of a black-suited conductor’ with his calls of “ ’boooaaard!”
Opposite an enormous Plexiglas-enclosed model of the USS Midway anchored in the southeast corner of the waiting room is the Silver Streak Café. Sandwiches and sweets in clear plastic boxes, coffee drinks explained on a hoisted menu. Film and postcards of San Diego scenes on a metal go-round below which a hand-written sign, “Please don’t read the magazines,” sits atop a stingy display of reading matter. Behind the counter, a ponytailed young man on a cell phone leans against the espresso machine.
This is where our group will meet.
Eight writers — refugees from the Writing Center, the nonprofit literary arts organization that had a spontaneous and lively five-year life span in the mid-’90s before it expired for lack of funding.
David Cohen, Amy Wallen, Karen Swank, Greg Gorga, Lavina Blossom, Allison Riley, James Spring, and me.
With one or two exceptions, everyone knows everyone else. Most of us continue to write together regularly in my drop-in groups and other gatherings.
We come together to write because we have experienced the collective energy that occurs when we join with writing as our purpose. Some call it the creative force. Magic. I say the Muse likes to work crowds. Something happens when we write together that — if you trust it and go with it — can take the writing and the writer to unexpected, surprising places of memory and imagination.