Author ZZ Packer's writing group
Photo: Art Streiber
This month Jackie Luckett is hosting our writing group at her place—a modern loft in a hip part of Oakland's Jack London Square. She has laid out a frisée salad with pomegranate seeds, broiled chicken breasts prepared with pesto, feta cheese, and pine nuts, as well as stemware for the white wine and glasses for the sparkling water and lemonade.

"You made it!" she says, appraising my pregnant belly. "Got a name yet?"

"No name yet." After we hug, I waddle over to Jackie's mother's chocolate chip cookies—arranged like the steps of Machu Picchu upon a platter—and pluck one from the top. The down-home cornbread is resplendent in a cut-glass bowl.

Jackie tells me that Alyss Dixson and Farai Chideya, two group members who made the trek from Los Angeles, are upstairs printing out manuscript pages. Before I know it, Alyss has raced downstairs to rub my belly as if it's a magic lamp. An old college friend and a former vice president of production at Paramount Pictures, Alyss is decidedly casual in sweats and flip-flops—as if to make up for all the years spent in her L.A. uniform of size 2 dress suits, weekly updated coifs, and immaculate nails.

When we started our little collaborative back in January 2005, seven of our eight members lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, but jobs, family, and life called away several members to L.A., and we feared that the group would disintegrate before it had hardly begun. Thank God for the Internet. With travel sites offering airfares cheaper than most cab rides across town, the Angelenos among us decided that skipping a few lattes would easily cover the cost of plane tickets for the monthly meetings, and so we're still together.

The doorbell rings, but before any of us can dash to answer it, Lalita Tademy invites herself in. Lita has just come back from Egypt, home of her paternal ancestors. Though she makes a point of trotting around the globe every chance she gets, we know that Egypt was a different trip entirely. After she wrote Cane River, a historical novel and Oprah Book Club pick that chronicled her matrilineal heritage, she researched her father's side of the family and found that they'd survived one of the most brutal massacres in American history, then managed to prosper despite the racism of the Reconstruction-era South. The result is her latest book, Red River, and one of its more memorable moments is when her grandfather's great-grandfather draws a picture of his home on the Nile River delta, where he began his ill-fated journey to America and bondage. We set aside the cookies and chitchat to hear Lita's details about Egypt.

When the rest of the group arrives, we'll chow down on food, check in with one another's travels and travails, and, within the hour, get down to business.

All of this begs the question, Why a writing group? Especially a group in which almost half the members fly nearly 400 miles from another city. Isn't writing a solitary activity? Isn't it supposed to be a miserable, painstaking occupation spent drinking way too much black coffee and furiously balling up sheets of paper while wrenching the soul for inspiration?

In 2004 I was working on a novel about the post–Civil War black infantry and cavalry regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers. It was messy and involved, and I knew if I was going to get through it, I had to have some support. One choice was to enroll in a workshop—a writing group led by an accomplished author. But while workshops are often great for receiving critical feedback, their participants are sometimes more interested in impressing the "teacher" than in developing as writers.