In Tomales, a writers group endures

Teresa Mathew
Members of the Tomales Writers Group pass around writing samples at a recent gathering.    

The writers gather at a high table under a single overhead lamp as their elbows compete for space with bottles of seltzer, thick slices of cake and dutifully annotated pages of paper. It’s Thursday night in Tomales, and the members of the Tomales Writers Group begin—carefully and earnestly—to pick one another’s words apart. 

The group was founded a decade ago by Blair Fuller, an acclaimed writer and editor who helped found The Paris Review. When Mr. Fuller passed away in 2011, early members Sarah and Alvin Duskin didn’t want the group to dissolve. They began hosting meetings in their home, the seats at their kitchen table filling with aspiring fiction writers and memoirists. Now there are filmmakers, retired professors and former journalists, many with no previous background in creative writing.

“Not all of us are writers,” Ms. Duskin said. “I’m not a particularly good writer—I’m full of good stories.” 

The group has two rules, both focused on divulgement: members must produce writing to share with the group, and they must not reveal anything that goes on in meetings, as people sometimes bring in work that is sensitive or deeply personal. 

Each week, the group discusses two pieces written by different members. Everyone must come armed with annotated copies of the stories, and they discuss each piece while the author sits and listens without responding. At the end of the meeting, they write for 20 minutes using an extemporaneous prompt.

Under Mr. Fuller, the group did not produce any sort of publication. TWiG, the yearly broadsheet the group now puts out, was the brainchild of member Bert Crews. Its inaugural issue was published in 2015, and 5,000 copies—their printing costs covered by the members—are now distributed throughout Marin County as well as at bookstores in San Francisco and the East Bay. 

Mr. Duskin said the publication has forced the group to become more focused. Prior to TWiG’s creation, he said, “our writing wasn’t really improving.” The knowledge that their work could be published and evaluated nudged the members to revise and refine their work. 

“[The publication] also reflects the peculiar nature of the group, being in this context of a very small town, where it’s not like putting it in the New York Times; it has a different resonance,” said Julie Hochstrasser, who joined the group two years ago. 

Ms. Hochstrasser moved to Tomales from Iowa City, where she taught art history at the University of Iowa. She soon discovered that the house she and her husband had purchased was Mr. Fuller’s former home, and that sense of lineage drew her to the group. She also felt that joining its ranks would help her to get to know her new community “in a way that’s much deeper than saying hi on the street,” she said. 

Although Ms. Hochstrasser had initially intended to write about her field work in Asia, Africa and South America, her literary goals underwent a change when she received the news that her daughter, Heidi, had died in a car accident. 

“Suddenly that eclipsed my other writing project,” she said. When she began writing about Heidi, Ms. Hochstrasser discovered that doing so was “a spontaneous, cathartic experience.” The piece appears in the most recent edition of TWiG. 

The intimacy of the group, Ms. Hochstrasser said, gave her “a really good, safe place to process a lot of my own feelings.” 

But for Mr. Crews, the focus on writing is key. He is uninterested in emotional upheavals that cannot be turned into copy. 

“I’ve belonged to many writers’ groups where it was a social club, all about therapy,” said Mr. Crews, who was working on an opera about the Donner Party when he moved to Marin. He emphasized that the meetings are not parties with writerly pretensions. 

“We’ve made a real point that this is about writing—words on paper—and we’re not here to solve your relationship issues or discuss how your day went. If you’ve had a shitty day, that’s your problem. What have you written? That’s what I want to know.” 

The group’s feedback can be harsh, but members welcome the scrutiny. “We fall in love with things that we write, and these can become like sacred cows,” member Stephen Olsson said. “And they’re sometimes in the way, and sometimes it takes someone else, a consulting editor, to come in to kill your sacred cows. To me, it’s a pleasure to have people identify things in my story that are not working, that are in the way, that make them pop out of the story.” 

Mr. Olsson, a filmmaker, recently shared a story with the group about the yearning his father, a Swedish immigrant, felt for the sea. “A writer can make visual that which is not visual,” he said. “I’m struck by how writing allows [me] to go back and tell stories of my father’s early life in Sweden before coming here that there’s no film footage of, no photographs of.” 

Mr. Olsson said the group has both improved and stimulated his writing. “Writing is the hardest thing of all,” he said. “There are no tools, no props, mostly there is no collaboration—it’s mostly a solitary journey.” Having a writer’s group has given the members a fellowship on that lonely road. 

Ms. Duskin, who grew up in a “northeast Scotland, sixteenth-century castle with bad weather” during an era she described as conservative and class-oriented, said writing allows her to “fit together the threads” of the varied experiences of her life. “We are a community: that’s the most important thing of TWiG,” she said. “You don’t have to be brilliant, the best writer.” 

But the group has also taught her the value of writing and re-writing, as well as the importance of details. She receives frequent feedback encouraging her to expand on nuggets in her work, like the neatest way to skin a rabbit (the trick is to do it over a bridge, so that the entrails fall into the water below). “I think that’s what the group is allowing—for people’s journeys to come into the world,” she said.

Of course, workshop advice is not always taken to heart; Mr. Duskin said that a common piece of feedback he receives from another member is to write more explicitly about how he feels in certain situations. Yet “I like to show things, action, people doing things,” he said. “To me it seems obvious how I’m feeling about it. I don’t do that.” 

Mr. Duskin relies on his writing to expand and enrich his life. “It changes everything in your life if you’re doing something creative, compared with doing nothing creative,” he said. “I look at people who don’t write, and don’t paint or garden or do anything—they just sort of vegetate. Why would they want to do that? If you paint—if you just paint your kid or something—it’s changed your life. It gives a kind of heat to [life] that it doesn’t have otherwise.” 

Though the group can be difficult to break into, TWiG does accept stories from outsiders. A few years ago, Mr. Crews was hosting an in-house jazz concert at his downtown Tomales home—a former Bank of America—when a young couple came in to watch. The three got to talking, and Mr. Crews mentioned TWiG. He later he received an email from the gentleman with a short story. 

“It’s this French guy, and he’s writing this fictional piece about he and his wife traveling in California from France, heading up the road and coming across this quaint little town where there’s a concert going on, and they go in, and they’re so surprised at how hospitable the people are and what a great time they have. And then they drive out to Dillon Beach. And as they’re overlooking the ocean, he pulls out his gun that he had intended to use to rob the place,” Mr. Crews laughed. “And I have no idea if it was complete fiction, but it was a great ending to the story.”