Friday, May 05, 2006

Writing groups,the creativity muscle and Nancy Davenport

It was almost as soon as I completed BIRDS OF A FEATHER, my second novel, that I went into a complete funk. A cloud descended and I wondered what I thought I was doing, thinking I could be a writer. Of course, I later learned from more seasoned authors than I, that “second book blues” is a common phenomenon, a pit of embarrassment and despair in which to wallow while giving thanks that you didn’t give up the day job after all. I knew something had to be done about the malaise, so, in a fit of inspiration, I went online to the UCLA Extension website and began running through the writing workshops – perhaps I could meet some new people and reignite confidence in my writing. As soon as I saw "The Illuminated Writer – a 12-week course for writers of all levels," I traded a few emails with the instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, and signed up. It was everything I wanted it to be. In a group of raw beginners, writers returning to Barbara’s class, and a couple of professional scribes, we launched in, illuminated by Barbara’s teaching and by each other. A core group of us came back in Fall, then again the following Spring, and we’ve kept coming back to class. People often ask why I go to the classes, assuming that because I’m already a published author, I wouldn’t need such a thing. My answer is always the same – creativity is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, it’ll atrophy; if you don’t cross-train, you’ll never go beyond the plateau that comes along time and time again. There’s an athleticism with words to be gained in writing exercises, along with the camaraderie and encouragement of other writers. There are many ways to exercise that creativity muscle – going to a class just happens to be one of mine. Oh, and I never work on my novels in class, instead experimenting with memoir and the personal essay, or poetry, or creative non-fiction.
It was in Barbara’s class that a few of us played a part in publishing a book of which we are all very, very proud. I can only tell a small part of the story here, but I hope it will inspire you. Nancy Davenport came along to The Illuminated Writer as a beginner. At seventy-two years of age, she was past retirement and wanted to tell her story. Each time Nancy read her work, that story unfolded – and we were all absolutely captivated. She made us laugh, cry, shake our heads in disbelief and ask when the next piece was coming. I was just thrilled to see her back again at the next class, and the next. She already had emphysema, so when she began to have trouble speaking, we thought it would pass. We took it in turns to read her work, often penned in her beautiful handwriting.
Last year Nancy was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease (“And I’ve never even held a baseball,” said Nancy). As she lost the ability to speak, so her voice on the page became louder – and still she came to class until she could walk no more. We knew she was dying, and knew, too, that her dearest wish was to have her work published, to hold her book in her hands. As soon as Nancy delivered the final chapter at the beginning of February, we set to work along with the amazing people at iUniverse, who pulled out the stops so we had early copies one month later. Barbara Lodge, one of our classmates who was helping to care for Nancy, placed a copy in her hands in the first week of March and we had a “publication party” at her bedside on March 12. Nancy died three days later. Her memoir is called, ETERNAL IMPROV, and is available at You will see that my name is listed there too – I had nothing to do with the writing of the book, but when you put a book into production with iUniverse, all the contact names are published on the webpage.
When we walked into class a couple of weeks ago, I felt as if she would come though the door at any time, leaning on her walker, ready to sit down and read another of her stories, or offer words of encouragement to someone else. Her book sits on my desk at home, as if the title itself were there to remind me that life, like writing, is an eternal improv.

Jacqueline Winspear


  1. Jackie, such an inspiring story. And I loved that you're in a writer's group at UCLA. I was in a workshop for nine years that just disbanded. I really miss the feedback and the wonderful community of writers.

  2. A wonderful tribute, Jacqueline.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Jackie... Nancy Davenport must have been one of the world's great good people, and i am so very happy you all made sure she got to hold her book. Wonderful!

  4. Wow. What a story. Now THAT's a real writer for you. Hell, I consider blowing off writing when I have a mild hangover. Never again....

  5. What a great story. I'm so glad you all were able to help Nancy make her dream come true.

  6. Amazing and heartbreaking, Jackie.

    I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the UCLA Extension writer's program. I've taken some short story and novel courses there and it can be a real kick start to get the writing moving again. The teachers are wonderful.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  7. Jackie - Such a beautiful post. Nancy's spirit is still with us.