Author ZZ Packer's writing group
Photo: Art Streiber
Part boot camp, part therapy, part lovefest, novelist ZZ Packer's writing group meets once a month to keep its eight members going strong.
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. 

I needed a group that was both less formal and more communal—less product, more process. I needed a group as willing to help me with my writerly angst as to help fix my manuscript's flaws. I needed the observational and diagnostic abilities of a top-notch shrink, the warmth, affection, and patience of a skilled nanny, and the take-no-prisoners attitude of a drill sergeant. A tall order, but I was certain that the right bunch of people could fill it. .

After a few false starts, two writer friends and I laid out our plan. Instead of accepting anyone who was interested, we'd invite only writers we already knew or respected. And they would be black women writers. We had discovered that we'd shared similar woes dealing with the publishing industry: attempts to pigeonhole our fiction in terms of previous commercial successes (she's the next Terry McMillan!) or literary successes (she's the next Toni Morrison!). We'd all had the experience of being the only black person in the room, and we wanted the freedom of being in a group in which we wouldn't bear the responsibility—inferred or implied—of representing "all black people." We wanted to support each other to be ourselves, to tell our stories without being second-guessed.

Lists were drawn up, phone calls made, e-mails sent. During our first meeting, someone noted that everyone seemed to want to finish her novel by the end of summer, and she suggested that we call ourselves the Finish Party. Once we finished, we'd have a blowout bash to celebrate. And so our group was born.

We're discussing two manuscripts this month: Renée Swindle's and Jackie's. Renée, who writes the kind of literary fiction that takes its characters seriously yet manages to deliver a fun ride, had no trouble finding a publisher for her first book, Please Please Please. But when she joined the group, she was recovering from the heartache of shelving her second novel—the daunting and dreaded sophomore novel—and declared that what she really needed from the rest of us was "free therapy." To supplement her teaching income, she was working as a nanny, waking up at 4 A.M. to write in the hopes that her third novel—which she'd just begun—would see the light of day.

Lita taps her watch, our signal to begin. A former vice president at Sun Microsystems, she hasn't lost her ability to corral any group of more than three people into an action committee complete with a mission statement and schedule, and has thus become our unofficial timekeeper. We all settle down; for a minute there is silence as we flip through Renée's pages, rereading choice sections or scanning our notes and printed-out critiques.

The new novel, Tell Me Something Good, is about Abbey, a woman with a penchant for boho street fashion, expensive vodka, and soul-destroying men. The day she's fired from her publishing job for making an offhand remark about a meditation guru, she discovers that her boyfriend has gone AWOL, taking everything in the apartment with him.

Alyss tells Renée, "I love the ease of your writing. It's so evocative, so relatable, so immediately engaging."

"I love the exquisite tone and pacing," says Farai. "You keep us totally on the journey." Farai published the first of her three nonfiction books (Don't Believe the Hype, The Color of Our Future, Trust) when she was only 25, and though her background is in journalism, she was drawn to write a novel—about a modernized Billie Holiday–esque singer whose dreams are as spectacular as her talent for self-destruction. She "banged out" a draft in one week, then spent six years, off and on, revising. And though her promotion to host of the NPR show News & Notes has essentially doubled her work schedule, she's determined to finish the novel in September.

"This is so wonderful and sharp and true to human nature," Deborah Santana tells Renée. Years of studying Eastern philosophy and meditation have made Deborah a master of giving feedback.
"Some of the passages are as spare and beautiful as haiku." Renée ducks her head at the compliment.

Nichelle Tramble mentions a part she loves from the latter half of the book, when Abbey's ex-husband explains why some women seem to inherit heartbreak. "Priceless!" Nichelle exclaims. "He's such a rogue, and yet Abbey is able to glean a real lesson from him."

I finally put in my two cents, saying that the novel shows a new type of black woman, a departure from 20-something video vixens on the arms of rap stars and the archetype of black woman as stoic matriarch. Here is a 30-something woman who is struggling to find her place in the world, whose lack of completion makes her vulnerable.

Renée is obviously relieved. She'd given us 40 pages nearly seven months ago but then asked if she could take a break from the group. We were shocked—and wondered if we'd been too harsh, but Renée assured us that she just wanted to concentrate on finishing her novel. After a discussion and vote, we decided that the most supportive relationships aren't the ones you never want to leave but the ones you keep returning to. We knew we would miss her, but we also believed she had to do whatever it took to finish writing. When she rejoined us with a completed draft, we rejoiced as if she'd given birth. And now we can see that Renée feels as exorcised of her insecurities as her protagonist, Abbey, does at the novel's end.

Renée's hiatus from our meetings came on the heels of Lita's confession that she had reservations about being in a writing group when she was all but finished with her novel. She didn't need people reading 30 pages at a time—she had a deadline to make in a matter of weeks. A group member who'd seen one of Oprah's "Wildest Dreams" shows suggested that things might work best if each of us told the others what they could do to satisfy her "wildest writing dreams."

Lita needed someone to read her manuscript—all 300-plus pages of it—within the space of a few weeks so she could send it to her editor on time. I needed a writing partner to meet with once a week to alleviate the loneliness of being inside my novel. And every once in a while, Farai needed someone to give her a "kick in the butt."

We quickly drew up a chart: Half the group volunteered to read Lita's novel immediately; the other half would respond by the end of the month. Lita would be my writing partner. Alyss would call Farai every week to dispense some literary tough love. And all of us would help the members who had less specific dreams—like Renée, who wanted support and sisterhood, and Deborah, who wanted guidance. For years, Deborah had dedicated herself to others. As a young woman she'd dated the inchoate musical great Sly Stone (whose stardom and egotism eventually fueled his physical abuse of her). After splitting from Sly, she met and married Carlos Santana, opened a restaurant, and became a philanthropist, setting up the family's Milagro Foundation to aid underprivileged children. As chief operations officer of Santana Management, she helped overhaul the company that engineered Carlos Santana's resurgence in the late 1990s. And she did it all while raising three kids. Writing her memoir, Space Between the Stars, was Deborah's first step in fostering her own talents, and her wildest dream has been to keep going. We've been here to cheer her on.

After our requisite break—during which we stretch, load up on seconds of the grub du jour, and visit the loo—we turn to Jackie's novel-in-progress, whose working title is Searching for Tina Turner. It's the story of a black woman who has it all—marriage to a handsome, successful man, kids, huge house, vacations around the world—yet still feels unfulfilled. She decides that what she needs is the strength to say no to all that is extraneous in her life, and Tina Turner becomes the icon from whose story she derives that strength (even as everyone tells her she's crazy for giving up the cashmere cocoon of the upper middle class).

Jackie's face is the picture of anguish: She looks defeated before we've even begun. When we call her on this, she reminds us about our earlier responses to her work. "I thought I had a draft, then you guys said it wasn't ready. Then I came up with another draft, and that wasn't ready. So now I'm just resigned to going back to the drawing board yet again."

She has a point. Much of the first draft had been written during the group's writing retreat to Palm Springs—a trip that turned out to be more flash floods, bombinating insects, and squalor than the desert paradise we'd envisioned. Still, Jackie dashed off half of her novel that week; when she gave us the manuscript, she imagined she wasn't far off from submitting it to an agent. Yet while it was incredible for a first draft, it wasn't ready.

But Jackie has often succeeded on the first try. Formerly a sales representative for Xerox, she made a name for herself in the corporate world, then approached motherhood with the same dedication. Now, ten years and one divorce later, she's had success as a caterer, interior decorator, and real estate agent. Her photography, though only a hobby, is professional quality. So she can't understand why it's taken more than a year for her novel to even approach the caliber required to submit it to an agent or publisher.

"Writing takes a long, long time," Nichelle says. "It took me two years to write my first novel and six months to revise it." Nichelle goes on to talk about the U-turn she had to make when she realized that what she thought was a coming-of-age story was actually a mystery. Once she understood that, everything began to fall into place. The resulting novel, The Dying Ground (like its successor, The Last King), is a first-rate whodunit.

Jackie looks slightly cheered by Nichelle, so I chime in, explaining that my book of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, took eight years to write and left nearly 20 stories on the cutting-room floor. Soon everyone is telling tales of their rocky beginnings. After Alyss left the Hollywood rat race, she began working on a novel, A Place Called Paradise. Now, watching Jackie to make sure she's absorbing the lesson, she describes the learning curve involved in shifting from screenplays to a novel.

Farai says, "You have the talent, Jackie. You just needed to work on bringing the secondary characters to life."

"And," I add, "work on turning narrative passages into scenes."

"More scenes," Jackie says, and nods. "I thought I did that, but okay."

Finally, when it appears as though she's really accepting just how much work is involved in producing a single manuscript, we begin the critique session by delivering the good news: This revision was a smashing success. She's added several knockout scenes and developed what was mere narrative summary into vivid renderings, complete with great dialogue, action, and underlying currents of emotion.

This time, she hit it out of the park.

Since forming out group, we've all had too many successes to count, and we've celebrated each one. Nichelle became a staff writer for the new ABC drama Women's Murder Club. Alyss finished a book of essays and is midway through her novel. Lita's book, Red River, came out to rave reviews. Farai secured an agent for her novel, Touch. Deborah went on tour to promote Space Between the Stars and began a novel centered on the topic of illegal immigration.

Renée sent her book to her agent, who is submitting it to publishers. Jackie is on the final revision of her novel and is shopping for agents. And I finished the draft of my forthcoming novel, The Thousands, by my deadline—which happened to be the birth of my first son.

We all agree that none of this could have happened without the group.

When so many writers must relegate writing to the margins of their days and nights, we know that it is left to writers to celebrate themselves. And that is why some of us travel 400 miles to talk about our work, why each host makes gourmet food for the rest of us, and why a meeting isn't complete without chocolate and two good bottles of wine. We've had retreats in Palm Springs and Maui, and hope to eventually meet up in Italy, Brazil, and South Africa. We have a great time together. We dare to dream together. And despite the name of our group, we are far from finished.

ZZ Packer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 and this year was included in Granta's Best of Young American Novelists.


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