A decade ago, novelist and poet Kate Braverman chose 25 students from her UCLA Extension classes to participate in a private writing workshop. The writers met twice a month and were initially hesitant to be exposed to Braverman's sometimes ruthless critiques.
But they soon forged a bond and embraced Braverman's credo: Proper punctuation, structure and pat characters are easy to come by; it is the difficult emotions, the complexities of human life and characters so real they should be getting mail that constitute the hard words. So when three years later Braverman moved to New York, 11 of the students, all women, closed ranks rather than disband.
They created their own writing group, Hard Words, and met every other Saturday to help shape and critique each other's work. Like most writers, they wanted one thing: to write well. That was enough to keep them together.
"It's like a riddle," says member Samantha Dunn. "What do you get when you put a bakery assistant, a couple of Manhattan Beach moms, a communications consultant, an owner of an ad agency, a struggling fitness writer and a software analyst together? I didn't know the answer then. We had nothing but wanting to write something meaningful in common. Now, of course, we have everything."
Not the least of which is a solid taste of success.
Dunn's memoir, "Not by Accident," which probes the nature of being accident prone, was released this month by Henry Holt to positive reviews. Kirkus Reviews called it "a lively and personally revealing tale" and Publishers Weekly said Dunn writes with "intelligence and wit." The book is excerpted in the current O magazine and is being considered for excerpting in Brick, a literary journal co-edited by author Michael Ondaatje and his wife, journalist Linda Spaulding.
Mary Rakow's first novel, "The Memory Room" (Counterpoint Press), will hit bookstores today. Literary heavyweights such as Howard Norman have given it glowing cover blurbs containing such phrases as "brilliant book" and "literary master."
The bakery assistant? That's Julianne Ortale, who was accepted last year into the highly competitive master's program in fiction writing at UC Irvine and is now working on a short-story collection. Her first piece, "How Sin Is Unsaid," will appear in the summer issue of the literary journal Salmagundi. Ad agency owner Anita Santiago and Colleen Burns, a retired teacher, have also had their work published in journals. Other members of Hard Words--Karen Horn, Nancy Spiller, Candace Pearson, Lola Willoughby, Josephine "Jody" Hauber and Rochelle Low--are in various stages.
Then there's bestselling author Janet Fitch, who started her novel "White Oleander," which became an Oprah Book Club pick, while she was an active member. (Fitch calls herself as an alum because she no longer attends meetings.)
"It's important for writers to establish ties with other writers, to partake in the conversation that is literature," Fitch says. "I believe the work coming out of Hard Words is some of the best fiction in Los Angeles."
Award-winning short story writer Lee K. Abbott met several of the members when they attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College last year. He says he is impressed with the group's lack of sentimentality, which, he contends, is one of the marks of a true pro. "My experience with most writing groups is that it's the blind leading the blind. Clearly, there is nobody blind in this group."
Hard Words members offer critique, encouragement and insight to each other. Despite the obvious influence they have on one another's work, their writing voices are distinct as are the structures of their works. Some members are working on family dramas told from various points of view. Santiago is working on a novel of magical realism; Dunn is starting a second novel (her first was "Failing Paris"), which takes on developers and is set in the natural beauty of New Mexico. Rakow's work is written entirely in verse (a combination of poetry and prose) and Abbott has compared Ortale's short story writing to that of the late Donald Barthelme (on the unconventional side with an "odd eye for how we are to each other").
"The one thing we definitely have in common," Burns says, "is that in some major sense we mean to be literary." Meaning, you probably won't find Hard Words members writing about murders, spy games or car chases. As Braverman disciples, their writing is organic. They eschew plot outlines. They write what they write scene by scene and decide later what they are trying to say and how the work will ultimately fit together.
"Really, what we've done for each other over the years is to force each person to dig deeper, to write about the emotional truth of a situation. We don't let anyone gloss over an opportunity for that," says Hauber, who is putting the finishing touches on her first novel for adults. She published a book for young adults in the '80s.
Their efforts show, says Russell Banks, the author of "The Angel on the Roof," "Affliction" and "The Sweet Hereafter." Banks worked with the women in a writing workshop and "was impressed with [their] work because it was quite sophisticated in literary terms. It wasn't conventional, straightforward writing that you typically find in first novels. They're trying to make works of art."
But even with the gains they've made, the members confront the same obstacle every writer faces: to be heard and recognized. There is a publishing establishment that seems to set the tone for what is deemed literary and thus taken seriously. This establishment seems monolithic. It seems impenetrable. It seems like it's not in L.A. "The so-called literary world is probably still thought of as the providence of New York even though so much literature doesn't really come from New York," says Jim Rutman, a literary agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York City. "And Los Angeles probably does still inspire some brow wrinkling."
To be sure, we have the likes of T.C. Boyle, Christina Garcia and now David Foster Wallace, who is teaching at Claremont College, but there's often still an instant association made with the entertainment industry. If you're in Los Angeles and you don't write for a sitcom, what kind of writer are you?
"Yes, we have to deal with that. But there are also benefits to being in Los Angeles and trying to write serious fiction," Rakow says.
"It's like leaving the kids home alone. We can do anything we want. We're unchaperoned. We don't necessarily have the reputation of being a literary hotbed, but the truth is that there is a surprising number of writers here who are already literary figures and there are even more coming up that will reinforce that."
Samantha Dunn will read from her memoir, "Not by Accident," at 7 tonight at Dutton's Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. Mary Rakow will read from "The Memory Room" at 3 p.m. Saturday at Chevalier's Books, 126 N. Larchmont Blvd.