Celebrating 20 Years of Brown Bag Writing Group

Twenty years ago, at noon on Tuesday, November 23, 1993, I pulled out a chair from one of the old oak tables at The Writing Center, took a seat and opened my notebook to a fresh page and waited.

That Tuesday was the first session of the Brown Bag Writing Group, a drop-in writing practice group that came about because I knew from experience that I wrote some of my best stuff when 1) I wrote spontaneously; and, 2) I wrote spontaneously to a set time limit; and 3) I wrote with other writers to the same prompt at the same time.

Three of us attended that first meeting. One of my good friends who didn’t identify as a writer but who wanted to support me, and a guy who saw a sign in the window and dropped in. After that first session, neither ever returned. But I and my notebook did, week after week.

Notes to self

For several of those first weeks no one else came. Then one Tuesday a couple of other writers did arrive, and the next Tuesday more writers and then more and the Brown Bag Group began to have a life of its own.

We met at noon, read some Rules for Writing Practice cobbled together from Natalie Goldberg‘s book, Wild Mind, which, over time, we’ve amended and added to. I’d give a prompt and we’d set to our notebooks—eight or ten or twelve of us, writing for seventeen minutes (or fifteen or twenty), then reading aloud what we’d written. Bits and pieces of stories, essays, personal history. Some wrote scenes from novels (quite a few novels got started in Brown Bag, and some got finished there, too), sometimes a poet would drop in, or a screenwriter. Some of our writing was what Goldberg calls “the worst junk in America,” some of it surprised us with its freshness or elegance or depth. And sometimes we just wrote. But there we were, week after week, getting words on the page.


The Ink Spot at Liberty Station is our current home, but over the years Brown Bag has convened in nine different venues, and, including me, been led by six different facilitators, with a seventh coming aboard this month (Anitra Smith will co-facilitate the group with me, alternating Tuesdays). But we never missed a week unless that particular year Christmas or New Year’s Day fell on Tuesday, and there have only been six such occurrences over our twenty-year history. That means the Brown Bag Writing Group has met 1034 times! Now that’s something to celebrate.


And celebrate we will. Saturday, November 23, is our “20 Years/20 Prompts” all-day writing session at The Ink Spot. We’ll do it an hour at a time from 10 am to 5 pm, Brown Bag-style. On Saturday evening, from 6:30 to 8:30, we’ll honor our words by staging an Open Mic reading, also at The Ink Spot. Anyone who has ever attended Brown Bag is invited to bring a piece written during a Brown Bag session to read. We’ll create an on-the-spot Zine which readers can order as a memento of our twenty years of writing together.

bb zine cover

IMG_0072Go here to find out more about our celebration, and join us for writing, for reading, and for the grand event. And if you’ve never been to a Brown Bag before, join us any Tuesday at Noon at The Ink Spot.

How’s your writing practice?

The Muse Works a Crowd

Starting this week, every Tuesday at Noon you’ll find me at The Ink Spot writing with the Brown Bag Writing Group. I’m glad to be back; I’ve missed the time and the place and writing with my co-facilitator, Rob Williams and the writers who gather around the Fish Tables with their notebooks and pens, their laptops and enthusiasm.

Celebrating a Brown Bag Birthday at The Ink Spot

I’m a fool for writing practice groups. I’ve been leading them for nearly two decades. Brown Bag, the original, started in 1993 at The Writing Center in San Diego and Thursday Writers, which I now co-facilitate with Steve Montgomery, a couple of years later. For those of us who are regular practitioners, there’s something in addition to the writing that makes these groups special: A collective energy occurs when we come together with writing as our purpose—a creative force to be reckoned with. Some call it magic. I say the Muse likes to work crowds.

Here’s how my writing practice groups work:

Writers gather, the “rules” are read, a prompt is given and a time limit set. For the next 12 or 15 or 18 minutes, the only sound that’s heard is the scratching of pen on page, the faint tap tap tap of fingers on keyboard. Then, after each writing session, writers are invited to read their work aloud, without preamble and not for feedback, (no critique is given), but to hear their voice and to honor their words.

Somehow, astonishingly, from the few words of the prompt and in those scant minutes, stories and poems and essays and scenes from novels get written right then and there—at least rough drafts. Memories appear that might take the form of a memoir or may be just a meander through time. Characters appear, disappear and reappear, sometimes migrating from one story to another, sometimes bringing a pal or a new lover.

Writing in a writing practice group is different than doing exercises in a workshop or classroom where the writer is given instruction to accomplish a specific task, and writing in group is different than a solitary writing practice where we set our own pace and work in our own circle of energy. The palpable energy of the group and the focus of timed writings ignites spontaneity and with it, the possibility that anything can happen. And it does! Surprises are a regular occurrence at these sessions where language and imagination meet on the page. “I don’t know where that came from,” is the frequently heard comment by one amazed writer or another.

Tammy Delatorre reads at a writing session

8 reasons to be a part of a writing practice group:

  1. To have a regular time and place to show up with a commitment to get words on the page
  2. To experience the creative energy of the group and allow it to influence your writing
  3. To have a safe place to write what you want and to take risks
  4. To start something new or to continue a work-in-progress
  5. To read your work aloud with no concern for judgment or criticism
  6. To learn from other writers and spark one another’s creativity
  7. To bear witness to each other’s work
  8. To share camaraderie and create community

What’s your experience of writing in group?