Way back when in 2003, I was ruminating over the lack of writing community in my life.

After years in graduate school, where all of my friends were writers and every party or coffee meeting was an opportunity to talk shop or share books or new work, I landed in Venice, California—living alone in a 350-square-foot apartment looking out at the beach in the distance and the drug busts, homeless folks, and gang members outside my second-story window on the Boardwalk. On a good day I looked out from my writing desk at surfers and dolphins; on a bad day, I endured the shouts and police sirens when someone was detained for carrying drug paraphernalia or tools for breaking and entering, like wire pliers and box cutters. But even then, I shared my space in Thornton Towers with a lovely crew of creative folks, willing to hang out in the hall or pop in for a cup of tea and talk about theater or art or the latest reading at the Beyond Baroque bookstore.

Then I got married and moved to Topanga Canyon. Peaceful. Private yard, the window near my writing desk now overlooking a seasonal creek and wild birds. Lovely community here, but no one I knew and no one to chat with about writing.

So, I decided that there must be writers like me who existed outside academia, who had published, who were not Pulitzer Prize winners but who also were not just starting out. Somewhere in between. So I consulted my pen pal Robert Manaster for his help. He’d been active in a writing group for years in Champaign, llinois.

With his insights and tips, I put together the following email and sent it out into the universe. I posted it on the University of Southern California’s Masters in Professional Writing Program’s list serve and with a few online writing groups.

Here is the announcement I posted:

—Attention Westside Poets—

Looking for members for a small group of 4-6 poets, meeting once a month (on a weekend) in West LA, Santa Monica or Woodland Hills (Ventura border) area, sharing 1 or 2 poems in a workshop environment where writers are respectful, and kind, working as a team to help the group achieve success with writing and publication—with a particular focus on deepening and polishing craft as individuals.

Here is the premise:

I am looking for writers of all ages and shapes and sizes and backgrounds who are at a certain level in their writing careers.

Maybe you have a chapbook or a first book, a few awards, publications. You are serious about craft. You are not a beginner. You either have years of writing experience or an advanced degree. Or both. You exist outside of academia or on the fringe, or possibly teaching as an adjunct. You may feel as if you write in a vacuum. You may have children or aging parents to care for. Or not. You miss the interaction of grad school and the rigor of being a part of a writing program. You wonder silently if there are others out there like you.

What I am trying to create: 

A community of writers working together to support each other with strong attention to craft, to grow as writers and as people.

How it works: We meet once a month for two to three hours.

A week before the meeting, we send via email one poem (for critique) to all of the members who print out the work and read and make comments.

On the day, we meet and chat and have snacks, often discussing literary events or announcements, grumbles, upcoming readings and trips

We read our work one at a time aloud. Then, taking turns, we give supportive and kind but not necessarily flowery feedback. We are considerate but honest. During this time, the writer is quiet and takes notes. After, the writer can ask pointed questions (if the need is there) or the writer can just collect the feedback hard copies. There are no apologies or explanations of the work before it is read or during. No one monopolizes “the floor” for any period of time. Everyone is respectful.

We discuss the next meeting (when it will be and who will host).

I received over 20 responses. Writers who, from their first note, seemed “difficult”—who wanted to host the first event in San Diego, for example—or who wanted to discuss fiction instead of poetry were tactfully eliminated. With the remaining group, I requested a bio and sample poems. Based on the quality of the poems, from that list I selected five people: a young mother from Orange County (willing to drive to the meeting), a semi-retired book editor, a former journalist now working as an adjunct professor, a practicing attorney who was a recent MFA graduate, and me, a freelance writer. Purely by accident, we were all women.

Also, purely by accident, the current members are all over 40.

This was three years ago. Although we have gone through changes due to members’ relocations to other states or to increased family commitments, a core group has remained from the inception of the group.

The name we adopted was Westside Women Writers. And it has been a journey of trial and error as to what works and what doesn’t work. But ultimately, like Goldilocks and the three bears, we’ve been able to find solutions that are “just right.”

Millicent Borges Accardi has received fellowships from the NEA, the California Arts Council, the Barbara Deming Foundation, CantoMundo, along with residencies at Jentel, Yaddo, Vermont Studio, Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, Milkwood in the Czech Republic and Disquiet in Portugal. Her books include Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), Injuring Eternity and Only More So (forthcoming with Salmon Press, Ireland). She lives in Topanga and telecommutes as a technical writer and theater reviewer. Find her on Twitter: @TopangaHippie.

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  • Lois December 17, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    You have created more than a workshop, it’s a safe haven where creative woman can benefit on so many levels. Your home is an oasis for the imagination — a place where we can step back from our busy lives and nurture what is closest to us. Each of the participants contribute generously in their way whether through hosting or by sharing their life, poetry and support. Thanks for this wonderful background story. Lucky for me you made that decision to reach out!!

    Reply
  • Millicent December 16, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Part II comes this weekend! With essays by Lois P Jones and Susan Rogers. Followed by Kathi Stafford’s poem and essay after the New Year! Something to look forward to?

    Reply
  • Susan December 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I really enjoyed the descriptions in this well-written article. I found myself inside the poet’s world looking over her shoulder at the surfers and dolphins, the seasonal creek and wild birds. Her account of how she came to create the writing workshop that she now moderates was equally well written. I have benefited from being a part of this workshop but did not know the interesting background of how it came into being. I recommend this article to anyone interested in the process of writing or in creating a community of creative, poetic support.

    Reply
  • Jean December 11, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Nice article! Would love to read a part II of this story.

    Reply