Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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.”

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Richard Brautigan grew up in Oregon, convinced he'd be an influential writer. He rose to fame in San Francisco and later split his time between Bolinas, Calif.; Livingston, Mont.; and Japan. He published 10 poetry books and a dozen novels, including the once-banned 1967 classic Trout Fishing in America.

As his work's popularity declined, his alcohol use escalated, and in 1984, at the age of 49, he committed suicide.

While his distinctive, irreverent and illuminating work may have had its greatest impact on post-modern culture when first released, Trout Fishing in America became the moniker of an experimental school in Boston, a crater on the moon, a Grammy-nominated band and at least one baby. Brautigan continues to inspire scholarly dissertations, plays, songs, art, films, blogs and fansites today.

Even if you're not a Brautigan fan, it's worth picking up novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg's definitive new biography, Jubilee Hitchhiker, for intimate histories of 1960s counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area (although Brautigan loathed being classified as one of the "Beat" generation) and of the 1970s "Montana Gang" convergence of writers and artists, including Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Tim Cahill and Jimmy Buffett: "Up in Montana, Brautigan encountered an unexpected literary scene … a group of writers who enjoyed trout fishing, drinking whisky, and shooting guns as much as he did—writers who rejected trendy urban coteries, yet remained passionate about art and literature."

Hjortsberg was Brautigan's neighbor in Montana. Their properties, friends, parties, conflicts, families and writing careers overlapped for decades.

Hjortsberg began Brautigan's biography in 1991, motivated by a contract and hefty publisher advance, and says, "If I'd known going in what it would take to get the job done, I would have quit right at the start." He conducted 169 interviews, read all of Brautigan's diaries, incorporated anecdotes from memoirs by friends and family members, traveled extensively, and found the father Brautigan never knew. Hjortsberg rarely inserts himself in the book, but his knowledge is intimate—as are the book's eight pages of revealing black-and-white photographs.

The procession of details—from where the wood of Brautigan's Bolinas house was milled, to dozens of flight and hotel room numbers—can wear a reader down. Nevertheless, Jubilee Hitchhiker is fascinating, both as a historical document and for its insight into Brautigan's innovative work and troubled life: "Death had walked by his side since childhood, kept at bay first by ambition and later by success. These props no longer supported him."

While no one can truly know what leads a person to suicide—especially someone like Brautigan, who left no note—this biography illuminates everything that led to his death: The sweetness, struggle, cruelty and genius are all laid bare.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan

By William Hjortsberg


864 pages; $29.95

Published in Literature

My name is Eli Pagunsan, and I’m a 14-year-old aspiring writer.

I’m a regular teenage kid. I go to school, and then I have chores to do at home. I love to read about history and current events. With everything that is going on in the world, sometimes I wonder how any of us manage not to have an overload.

I started writing about eight months ago, when I created a story titled “Road to Allentown.” I think that after years of being exposed to news about war, somehow, I had to get it out of my system. I did not have anyone I could relate to about topics like that, so I began writing—a combination of pure imagination and facts.

As the story evolved, I turned to the Internet for more inspiration. I used forums and met people who inspired me about certain characters. The Internet was an extremely useful tool, as it provided me with the insight of many people from across the world, with just a single click of a mouse.

At this time the story is still in process; the characters and the conflict still evolving. So, we will see.

Writing takes me to a special place. It makes me think. Just like any kid my age, I would rather spend my time online surfing or playing games. But I realized that If I am not careful, I would be wasting precious hours acquiring irrelevant information. But it is challenging to find kids my age who like to talk about things that I am interested in, like current events or politics. And so writing helps me a lot. It helps me argue about topics, and to express my opinion about certain things, like the fiscal cliff, gun control, illegal immigration and others, without annoying the kid next to me. Writing is my reprieve.

I am grateful that I live in the Coachella Valley. I don’t think I would find another place in the world that would be as beautiful and inspiring as this place we live in. Despite all the things happening in the world, I feel safe and protected here. Maybe it is the beautiful mountains surrounding us. Maybe it is the weather. Maybe it is the nice people. Who would not get inspired when they are surrounded by such positive things?

I asked my mom to send me to writing camps to develop my skill. I have always felt that I have a million of ideas floating in my head; I was lost, and I needed help to harness them altogether. It took us months of research, online, calling around and asking people about writing camps, and the closest we could find was in Los Angeles. That was not feasible, because my mom works, and I have two other siblings.

Then she came across the Palm Springs Writing Guild. I told her I knew about it and that it is for professionals only, definitely not for a beginner like me. She argued that the membership guidelines did not specify age or experience, and that the worst the guild could do was say was “no.”

So here I am. I am ecstatic and beyond thankful to be a member of PSWG. It is quite a privilege to learn about writing from such accomplished people. For them to take me under their wings inspires me to be a better person for my generation.

Thank you, PSWG. It is long road from here, and I am glad you that you are with me.

The guild puts on a variety of events and activities, and the next monthly meeting takes place at 2 p.m., Saturday, March 2, at the Rancho Mirage Library Community Room, 71100 Highway 111. It will feature a talk by author Andrew Neiderman. For more information about the Palm Springs Writers Guild, visit

Published in Community Voices