Know Your Neighbors
The members of the “You Don’t Have to be Hemingway Writers’ Group” gathered in the clubhouse at Las Serenas, a Palm Desert apartment complex for seniors, to showcase their talents and share the results of their weekly efforts.
The event was announced as the “first annual writers’ recital.” Seven women and one man were seated at a long table at the front of the room ready to share some of their writing. The 25 to 30 people in the audience represented the community well—the “tan guys,” the long-long-married couples, the attractive widows and so on, with everyone ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s.
Helen Klein, 92, began the writing group more than three years ago, and most of the participants have been involved since the group began. “If you can talk it, then you can write it,” says Helen.
Introductions of the writers by Helen came first: Phyllis, “our resident mermaid” whose writings were described as “beautiful and poignant”; Jean, “who doesn’t know how not to smile”; Iris, “the kid of the group”; Frank, “an out-of-the-box writer, representing all the men”; Patty, “who came in saying, ‘I can’t write,’ and look at her now”; Kitty, “our professional … expect to see her name on The New York Times best-seller list”; and Janet, with her “delightful sense of humor.”
Helen has stimulated the writers by giving them a choice of weekly assignments: Write a culinary story. Write something based on a nursery rhyme. Write about how you stand tall and say your name (to which one wrote, “My name is Carrot”).
“Simple things become food for thought,” says Helen.
I attended not expecting too much—and came away not only impressed, but deeply moved.
For the assignment to put herself into an historic event, Phyllis wrote about the assassination of John F. Kennedy as if she had been in a room down the hall from Lee Harvey Oswald, where she was hoping to get a good view of the president as he drove by. “I notice something shiny sticking out of a window farther down … a rifle. What should I do? What should I do? I hear that sickening sound … I did get to see my president, just not the way I planned.”
Jean started with, “He was someone to remember,” and painted a picture of a man after World War II for whom “the sparkle was gone from his eyes.” Recalling his picture in Gentlemen’s Quarterly, she wrote, “I didn’t see the broken man. I saw the man in the fedora and spats.” She also responded to writing a culinary story by reading her ode to a pressure-cooker.
Frank wrote about a doctor’s waiting room. “There was one lady I noticed right away. She had an attitude.”
For Patty, it was about giving life to inanimate objects. In “Untied Laces,” she wrote about that time in life when we are not as active as we used to be—but there was a twist: She wrote from a tennis shoe’s point of view. “We wait to see what’s next. … We don’t like being dusty. … The new knees are almost ready!”
She also wrote as a wedding bouquet: “Everyone is looking at me. Some are even crying because I am so beautiful.”
Kitty’s contribution started with “Jerry was a really nice guy,” and went on to the wonderful image of “clutching hands like a drunk on a beer.” Her final piece was in response to an assignment to write a poem in praise of food, including “oozing juices, crackling, snapping, whirring, beeping, grasping and slurping.” Kitty’s writing has a charming small-town tone; she is a great storyteller who pulls you right into the story, the place, the time.
In response to an assignment to write about an adventure, Janet painted a lovely picture of place and character in “The Orange Grove Escape”: “He spent his days reading in the orange grove.” Her culinary poem was “Pass the Potatoes Please”: “I can even be a toy. Remember Mr. Potato Head? Everybody loves me unless I’m rotten.”
When it was Helen’s turn, she wrote of emptying a suitcase and finding memories—a baseball mitt, knickers, old newspaper clippings—and recalling her late brother as the “golden boy and hope for the family.” She spoke about how fate steps into our lives and changes things: “One day, the pieces are packed up and put back … That was the day Mama stopped singing.”
There are writing groups throughout the Coachella Valley, and lots of people keep journals with no anticipation of ever sharing them. But writers at all levels benefit from both criticism and encouragement, without embarrassment—and that’s what Helen Klein has created for the residents of Las Serenas.
Those life stories, experiences and fantasies you share with your friends and neighbors? As Helen Klein says, “If you can talk it, you can write it. You don’t have to be Hemingway.”