In January, 2018, on the first Tuesday after my wife Barb and I arrived in Santa Monica, California, I wandered over to the Fairview Branch Library to check out a writing group I’d noticed in the Santa Monica library flyer. The group called themselves Write Away and the library flyer said they met every Tuesday at 12 noon. When I arrived, I saw a number of long tables jammed together with maybe twenty chairs circling the tables. Immediately, Saul Isler — a self-described short, fat, old Jew from Cleveland — welcomed me. About a dozen people finally settled in, their ages ranging from 33 to 88 with the mean closer to 88 than 33, and introductions began with Saul liberally tossing the word Canuck around. I knew I’d found exactly the writing group I was looking for. To boot, the Fairview branch library proved to be, round trip, a nice 7 km — or around 4 1/2 mile — walk taking me through a beautiful neighbourhood of stylish bungalows and past the Santa Monica College campus. I envisioned my Tuesdays, for the remainder of winter, filled with both a pleasant walk and three hour interactions with fellow writers. That vision has been fulfilled every winter since: well, until Covid hit this year which is, of course, another story.

Entrance to Fairview Branch Library, about four blocks around the corner from Santa Monica College. Blue skies and palm trees, even in the dead of winter.

This story is about Write Away, a group that has been in existence for, perhaps, twenty years and has gone through a few changes. But the current version of the group that I joined in 2018 has been set for awhile, with a fearless leader named Sandy Smith and a fixed agenda to both nourish and support writing. Brian Bland, a Vietnam War veteran and retired journalist joined the group a decade ago, not long after Sandy, and Saul began showing up around five years after. Like most people at Write Away, Sandy moved to California from another part of the U.S. In her case, New York, growing up in the Bronx and starting her career as a nurse — her early writing took on many forms, which includes during the Korean War when Sandy told me she “wrote letters to lonely soldiers, having to break one heart when he got too close. Then I kept my letters just newsy.” Those lonely soldier letters were a clue that I did not fully appreciate when I joined Write Away — it was difficult for me to see Sandy beyond her role as “cat herder”, always rapping the table to try and settle the group down. For a group of adults, many of whom are in their seventies and eighties, we sure can behave like a bunch of ten year olds. 

Sandy the writer is far different from Sandy the leader. Her dry wit is revealed even in the many travelogues she has written and shared of her and husband Arthur’s adventures around the world. Brian Bland, who has known her longer than anyone at Write Away, told me her earlier writings contained the humour of Erma Bombeck, a well-known American humour columnist who published from the ’60s through the ’90s. What Brian said he wasn’t prepared for though were a series of erotic writings that “caught the group off guard and we were totally blown away.” Brian compared these stories to slightly milder versions of stories you might have once found in Penthouse Forum. Remember, Sandy started her letter writing to soldiers in the Korean War — she is the 88 year old on the far side of the Write Away age spectrum. In an email exchange with Sandy, as I collected information for this Profile, she shared one of these stories with me which included the female narrator seducing a pool man (not a boy in her fantasy) described as “a delectable candidate” who “wore a modified straw cowboy hat at a rakish angle”. The story climaxed (yes, pun intended) with the pool man making “my juices flow while my hips gyrated” and “starting a tsunami of wave after wave of carnal delight”.

That’s 88 year old Sandy for you: oh my!

What intrigues me about Write Away is that the gathered writers all surprise, not only with the quality of their writing but at their varied experiences in life (and, yes, fantasies) that they bring forward. However, before I continue with the various individuals let me take you through the “fixed agenda” that fearless Sandy works so diligently to keep all of us on track. She begins each Tuesday session by providing a prompt. The prompt consists of three words and then everyone begins to write. We have five minutes and the only restriction is that what we write incorporates the three words (past examples are enter the party, when you finish, if they had). Sandy, timekeeper as well as leader, calls time and we go around the room reading what we’ve written, be it prose or verse, mundane, inspirational, or, yes, sometimes sexually provocative. Then we go around the room to read our assignment from the previous week — the assignment is based on five words that, at the end of each session, the group collectively agrees on. This process ensures that, whether or not you personally are working on your own writing pieces, you participate, you stretch your writing muscles. From there we move to the main event, the core reason we gather, that is to say we go around the room again and those who have brought new material read aloud and receive constructive feedback from the group. Before we leave, people toss out individual words until we have five, and thus we have our homework for the following Tuesday, the writing circle both complete and ongoing.

A group shot from a number of years ago – the inset shows you the table layout. Only a few people are Profiled here. They are, on the top row second from the left, Saul, in the black shirt, and two over from him, Sandy, wearing glasses. In the bottom row, Dave is third from the left in the bright blue shirt, to the right is Mark and Brian is to his right. When I first attended in 2018, the woman in the orange sweater in the top row came to a session. Saul leaned over to me and said, “That’s Eleanor, she’s 102 years old.” And yes, folks, she participated and when she read aloud her five word composition, it was the most wonderful screed denouncing Donal Trump you ever did hear! Photo credit: Rodney Raschke

So, beyond Sandy, who is this group called Write Away? Let’s try five words to describe them: eclectic, empathetic, energetic, experienced, engaged (see what I did there, chose five words starting with e, pretty clever, eh). As I said with Sandy, almost everyone is from somewhere else — that’s what you learn about California when you live there, most people have come from another state or, as with a Canuck like me, another country. New York, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Georgia, to name a few states and Hungary, Germany and Ukraine to name a few countries.

One of the people born and raised in Los Angeles, whose parents were also born and raised there, is Frances Miyamoto. That said, racism and paranoia ripped that fact apart for her American born parents and immigrant grandparents during World War II. They were interned, initially in former stables at Santa Anita race track and then spent the remaining years at the Gila Arizona internment camp. Frances joined Write Away in 2017, after starting to write at the suggestion of her therapist. She suffered a major life crisis as she neared fifty, ended a thirteen year relationship, watched her son depart for college and her mother head into dementia. Always athletic, she could find some peace through self-producing drugs: endorphins and adrenalin. As she began to write, she explored the horrid past which scarred her parents and constantly wanted to remind her she was “Japanese-American” rather than simply “American”. Frances did begin a novel, loosely based on her mom’s life, and began the story with the main characters as newlyweds on December 7, 1941. Since I met Frances in 2018, though, her writing has been personal essays that may take shape into a memoir. One of the first things I heard her read, which still echoes in my mind, is of her running the L.A. Marathon shortly after her mother died but, as she struggles through the 26 mile endurance test, it is the visceral sense of her mother’s presence that keeps her going. This last winter Frances began to bring in old photographs of her parents and our Write Away discussions supported her to think about a potential photograph-memoir. I cheer that idea — I think it will make for a beautiful and important book.

Frances holding two pictures that hopefully will appear in her memoir when published. The photo on the left is baby Frances being held by her mother, Christmas 1961. On the right is her father, circa 1925. When Frances emailed me this photo she said of her father: “I love the slouching sock on his right leg and the impatient look on his face that says ‘I’m going to stand here with these props for just one more second so take your shot NOW!’”

The Write Away folks around the table every Tuesday not only have varied backgrounds but varied approaches to writing and desires of what they want from writing. Randy Ball hails from the south, mostly North Carolina, and moved to Santa Monica in 1989. A visual artist, he just recently closed his gallery and framing shop, Dovetail, but continues to be part of an artist co-op. His life completely immersed in art, he acts, writes theatrical pieces, poetry and is currently polishing a novel titled after its protagonist, Hawkins.  The novel is a unique blending of competitive fencing and the gentrification of Hollywood during the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. By the way, if “gentrification of Hollywood” strikes you as odd, it’s because you’ve never travelled to L.A. “Hollywood” regarding the movie industry mostly left “Hollywood” the neighbourhood in the 50s and 60s. Believe me, the derelict corner of Hollywood and Vine does not invoke images of Lana Turner being discovered.

Mary Kaye Monahan – memoir writer focusing on her childhood on a Midwest American farm. 

On the other hand, Mary Kaye Monahan, from rural Minnesota, told me that she “enjoys the process with no intention of a published book. I am in part writing the stories for my younger family members who loved the farm as children visiting their grandparents. I wanted to put pen to paper and capture some moments of being raised in very rural farming America.” In a follow up email exchange, with Covid lockup and anxiety prevalent, Mary Kaye added a useful insight: “I look at my stories these days and realize how valuable it is to have lessons of survival in hard times (economic and health crisis on that farm). We will be okay.” 

Carol O’Neal, from Chicago, who moved to L.A. 16 years ago to be near her daughter, also came to writing from a vastly different perspective than publishing. Carol told me, in fact, “she never liked to write”. However, in dealing with hand tremors from a long term illness, she took up calligraphy which changed her thoughts about writing. Carol entered into a monthly writing contest and won second prize and, since then, has been writing poetry. For her, Write Away provides a group that can be seen as “a kind of family just as a job can be or church. Many other groups do the same, however we have some important things in common. Creating with words is very special and meaningful. Sharing and stimulation are always important to a good and whole life.”

A selfie from Carol O’Neal – calligraphy in Chicago led to poetry led to Santa Monica Write Away – her own unique path to writing. For me, as long as you’re on a path to writing, you’re on the right path!

Al Barrett writes a bit of poetry, from time to time, that he introduces as doggerel. Mostly, when I’ve been around the Write Away table with him, he writes and reads “Letters to The Editor”, directed at the L.A. Times. Al moved from New York City to Ventura with his family when he was fourteen. He says that he “graduated from New Mexico State University in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering. Upon graduation, I started work at North American Aviation in Downey, California, as a structural analyst on the Apollo program. The last 30 years of my work career were with TRW/Northrop Grumman as an engineering supervisor and sub-project manager on a variety of satellite programs.” As a scientist two things drive Al mad — from my perspective, at least. First is the refusal by so many to acknowledge and understand Climate Change. Second is the increasing anti-science scourge infecting America, led and encouraged by President Donald Trump. For my Canadian readers, if you think you despise Trump you ain’t heard nothin’ until you sit around a table with mostly liberal Americans in California, especially Al. He often turns the opening prompt into a grand denouncement of the Trumpian dystopia. That said, every once in awhile he goes in a different direction. Al’s first wife died but he married again and when he turns his pen toward writing about the love and beauty he sees in his wife I am often near tears and hope that he takes those pieces home to read to Pilar.

Like Al, Dave Partie came to California as a child, though much younger. He was born in Detroit but his family moved to Venice before he turned three. For many years Dave lived in Virginia while he taught English and Modern Languages at Liberty University. Before gaining his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, he lived in Salzburg, Austria as an undergraduate and did graduate work at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. A writer of both prose and poetry, he has won the Karma Deane Ogden Prize, the Brodie Herndon Prize, the Carleton Drewry Memorial Prize, and the J. Franklin Dew Award for poetry. He writes fiction for children and adults and is the author of 2000 haiku in English. For all that pedigree (including having a contract with Covenant Books to publish a book of poetry and a contract with WestBow Press to publish a non-fiction book), Dave sees Write Away similarly to many others who have not been, nor have any intention to be, published. When I asked if he found what he was looking for in Write Away Dave replied: “I have definitely found what I was looking for, and more. I have benefitted by doing free writing at the beginning of each meeting. I have benefitted by the challenge of using five disparate words in a piece of writing that integrates these words. I have benefitted by the feedback of my fellow writers. In addition, I have increased my productivity as a result of participating in these meetings. Beyond these benefits, I have enjoyed the friendship and the camaraderie of those I have met by being a part of Write Away.”

Cynthia Boorujy doesn’t like labels but I’m going there anyway: actor, writer, filmmaker

Gathering of disparate people finding common purpose. It’s interesting to consider the similarities and aspirations in vastly different folks with vastly different backgrounds. Take, for example, Cynthia Boorujy and Gabby Tarry. In common: both women are performance artists, Cynthia with background as a stage actor and Gabby performing as a stand up comic.

Differences? Well, Cynthia was born in New Jersey, went to college in Washington D.C, spent a few years training and performing with a theatre in Atlanta and then moved to New York. She did theatre in NY and also jobbed out on shows all around the country. I asked Cynthia when she started to think of herself as a writer as well as an actor and she said: “I don’t know that I consider myself ‘a writer’. I have always written creatively. It was never taught or required in any of my schooling. I was always the kid who tried to bargain with the teacher to write a play instead of doing a book report or essay. When I was in my twenties I started writing poetry and scripts. When I first moved out to LA, I had written a short film that won a few awards and I then got a job working for one of the networks in development as a writing assistant so I guess technically I have been paid to write. But I never really liked labels because my brain doesn’t work that way. I consider myself a creative person foremost and it depends on the day what form it takes.” By the way, the short film she won awards for is called A Piece of Cake and you can watch it on-line here. It’s a wonderful little film, about ten minutes long, and I encourage you to take the time.

Gabby Tarry at 50, back in the day as a stand up comic day.

On the other hand, Gabby came to Santa Monica by way of the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. She was 15 when she escaped with her parents and two younger brothers, landing for three months at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and then going to Utica, New York. She ended up in Venice, California in 1978 and first got on stage at the Santa Monica Improv in 1991. Here is a bit of her stand up that she posted on YouTube. Take one look at Gabby and you know she was made for Venice — or maybe Venice was made for Gabby. A pot smoking, sometimes potty-mouthed hippie, now in her late seventies, a writer, a painter, a poet who, she says, “is now digging up poems, for Write Away’s five words and prompt, that I wrote after a break up at the time I was 33 because I’m going to use them for an art book titled Coming Out Of Darkness.”

Two different people and yet when I asked both about why they joined Write Away their answers were similar to Dave Partie’s. Cynthia said: “I joined Write Away about a year and a half ago. I was hoping to share my writing and get feedback and connect to a group of writers in a structured format. As I was writing short stories for the first time, it was important to me to develop my own voice. I shied away from taking an instructed class because so often the teacher’s opinion and personal style of writing will start to shape how you write. I think it was important to me at this stage to have differing opinions and to filter them myself.” And Gabby simply told me: “to be with like minded people, other writers, a learning experience”.

Actors, comedians, retired engineers, nurses, professors, from big cities like Chicago and New York, from rural America like Minnesota farming communities, all bonding around the written word whether for personal pleasure and growth or plans to publish. Rodney Raschke, originally from Nebraska, attended his first meeting in November, 2014. When I asked him what he was looking for he replied: “Being a poor writer with a good story to tell, I joined Write Away seeking to learn how to communicate, gain honest feedback on my work, and the guidance of others while writing a book. I guess I also sought the mentorship of skilled writers. Curiously, in the process, I have become more successful at conducting personal business. If I could go back and advise my high school self, I would tell him that communication skills are critical to a good life, no matter what you choose to do.” And in a follow up, when I asked if he found what he was looking for, Rodney said: “Many of the people who participate in Write Away are quite talented, capable, and interested in helping amateurs like me. Write Away has helped me considerably.”

Marlu Harris, a recent photo taken at her favourite place in the world: the beach.

Marlu Harris was already a skilled communicator when she joined a couple of years ago. A psychotherapist with 25 years in practice, a large part of her work is responding to critical events. She has helped “families impacted by divorce and has provided custody evaluations for the Court. Following 9/11, for eight years I travelled to military bases in the U.S. and Europe, counselling troops and their families. I was contracted to Las Vegas in 2017, following the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” What brought her to Write Away was support and feedback to write a memoir, The Accident. Marlu became a psychotherapist, she says, “perhaps because I dealt with trauma at an early age and without assistance. My memoir is a coming of age story that begins in 1969, at age eighteen, when I wake up in the hospital following a catastrophic drunk-driving accident. The chapters alternate between the accident, my Mormon upbringing in Utah, and the aftermath of the accident. From my hospital bed, I come clean and tell the truth about the events leading up to the crash – the beer, the pills, the partying. I’m declared a liar by the boy who was driving the car and the girl I thought was my best friend. Imprisoned with nothing but time on my side, I chronicle the unraveling of my identity that led me to the brink of destruction. I reflect on my past as a young Mormon girl in Utah surrounded by a loving community of friends, teachers, and the church. At age fourteen, my family of six moves to a rural town in California where Mormons are scarce, and newcomers unwelcome. I watch my carefree self-confidence morph into risky defiance as I struggle to fit in.” After all that, Marlu escaped to San Francisco, rebuilt her life, moved to L.A. and found Write Away.

During these Covid times, a few of the members have gathered on Tuesdays outdoors. They lowered their masks for this photo. Two people pictured here who are in this Profile but not previously shown are, standing on the far left, Randy Ball, and Emily Gold, who is also standing, wearing sunglasses and a black hat.

Emily Gold is the latest member of Write Away that I came to know this winter before I had to flee from Covid, with my wife, as the virus spread and the borders were being closed. Emily is maybe the youngest member that attends and also arrived in the U.S. from Europe — Ukraine. Living in New York City as a young adult, she left for L.A. after 9/11 shoved a new perspective into her life. Emily “was working as a paralegal. While looking for a new job in July 2001, I’d interviewed for a position in a law office located in the World Trade Centre on the 79th floor. I was offered the job but ended up accepting another because it paid slightly more. On September 11th, I was on vacation in Russia and witnessed, along with the rest of the world, the horrors of that day in Manhattan. The effect became very personal, very raw, as I saw the outcome of a choice I didn’t make. When the plane struck the second building where the law office was located I realized that life is short. And while the event didn’t put my life in danger, I realized that I was just one choice off from that happening. Who knows what the outcome of my other choices may bring? Therefore, I gave up a job I didn’t love and ultimately moved out to Los Angeles at the end of the year to follow my dreams.” And now with Write Away Emily says she’s getting exactly what she hoped for, “the members of the group are extremely supportive and drive me to write better. It helps immensely to share my writing with others and have a chance to hear their work, which is inspiring and truly allows for creativity to flow.”

There you have the current Write Away group, for the most part, a group that has now gone on-line because of Covid — no Tuesdays at Fairview Library (although a few do gather outdoors in a park). I say, for the most part, because there are three members who I became close personal friends with from that first winter and I will write more about. I mentioned Saul in the opening, a guy who I instantly respected so much that I asked him to help me ready my novel, Fair, for the agent and query process. (Fair has now been published.) Brian, who offered reflections on Sandy, is the retired journalist who spent much of his career with Associated Press after serving as an officer in Vietnam. Mark Saha arrived in L.A. from Texas in the early ’60s with thoughts of being a writer for television and movies. Mission accomplished: in the mid-60s Mark was one of the original writers on American television’s first Prime Time Soap Opera, Peyton Place. Kids, if you don’t know Peyton Place ask your mothers or grandmothers, they’ll clue you in. Starting with Mark, I will write an individual Profile of each.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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