The Writers Group
I want to be near other artists fighting for their creative breath in an unartistic country
When I was twenty-five I was a bartender on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I wasn’t doing it because my life’s dream was to make a big toke behind the plank. I was an aspiring young novelist and I thought it would be good experience. I was right. I learned a lot while working that bar in the Quarter.
I tended in the lobby bar at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, on the corner of streets with the same names. It wasn’t one of the famous hotels, but it did have a long and illustrious history. Outside, above the front doors, fluttered the flags of the five countries that had flown over the hotel during its long stand on Bourbon: Spanish, French, USA with thirty-four stars, Confederacy, and USA with fifty stars — America before and after the Civil War was not considered the same country. USA flags with stars numbering between thirty-four and fifty were not represented.
Most of the time, my bar in the hotel lobby was quiet; I made most of my tips from serving food during the lunch rush. At night there were few customers, usually guests waiting to meet someone before a big night on the town, though sometimes I could get some to stay for a few rounds and make a little money. My authentic Margarita, blended — a technique unknown east of the Mississippi — became a local hit.
Aside from Miz. Jackie, the impressionable bar manager from Kansas who admired my California roots, my best friend on the property was Sal Benito. Sal was a classical guitar player from New York City who loved jazz. He played the Bourbon Orleans to make rent; it was killing him. He had a contract that gave him free drinks at my bar, so it was inevitable we would become friends. Many nights, Sal and I would be the only people in the room, him playing Spanish guitar as fast as a mosquito’s wings beat and me standing lazily behind the bar listening. I didn’t look like I was working, but I was thinking about what I was going to write in my novel when I got home to my one-room apartment Uptown. Sometimes I scribbled good sentences down on bar napkins and put them in my wallet.
Writing that first novel hadn’t gone smoothly until I moved to New Orleans. I had developed all of the plot twists before hitting town — it was a plot-driven novel — but I hadn’t been able to populate the story with believable characters. After tending bar on Bourbon a few months, the characters came to life, and from my current perspective thirty-five years on, they seem to be the best part of the book.
But a first novel is a killer, it sucks all the energy and confidence out of a new writer. Every night I would drink to avoid writing and then drink to be able to write; but the important thing was that in New Orleans, I wrote every day. I believe now that the definition of an artist is a person who practices art. A writer writes. Sal and his musician and artist friends provided the support that kept me working.
One night I managed to hang on to some customers with my Margaritas, and when Sal showed up, he had enthralled them with his guitar until late. The longer they stayed the harder he played and the energetic music enticed more passing guests in for drinks. We had a great night, filling our small room in spite of the incredible competition just outside the doors of our hotel. When we shut down the lounge at one, Sal came up to the bar and I could see he was pleased. He had a Jack Daniel’s and the music was still inside him, leaking out through his hands that thumped rhythmically on the bar.
“James! We had a good night! The Bourbon Orleans got their money’s worth tonight.”
“They loved you, Sal. Did you see them when you played ‘On Broadway’? I’ve never had anyone dancing in this bar before. You had them tonight.”
“Yeah, we had them. That’s what it’s all about, you know. The people. Yeah.”
He kept thumping on the bar and I continued my side work. “How long will it take you to close up?”
“Almost done now: lock up the booze, take my bank out to the front desk. What’s up, Sal?”
“Jean Lafitte’s two o’clock jazz, man. Jean Lafitte’s got big-band jazz at two…and five-dollar bottles of champagne.”
“Sounds good to me. I’m finished. Let’s drop this bank off at the desk.” My bank was a safety-deposit box that waited in the hotel safe when I wasn’t working. I had been given a hundred and fifty dollars when I got the job and I was expected to have the same amount when I quit, got fired, or died of old age. In between was my responsibility.
We walked the few blocks up Bourbon to Jean Lafitte’s bar. Jean’s had been open continuously for over a hundred and fifty years, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The big green French doors to the Bourbon Street sidewalk were stuck fast and couldn’t have been closed if a hurricane hit town. The rest of the Quarter was quiet by two o’clock; the tourists were long drunk and sleeping it off in their hotel rooms. Jean’s was full of locals, folks we called “Street People,” the bartenders and waiters and busmen and waitresses, and the front-desk clerks and hot-dog cart vendors and pasties-wearing strippers, and anyone else who worked on Bourbon Street to create and maintain the illusion. But most of the Street People in Jean Lafitte’s Bar at two a.m. were musicians — guys and gals who had come to New Orleans to further their dreams of stardom.
They were trombone players and clarinetists, trumpet players and flautists, musicians of various talents who had been driven to the Quarter by their desire to make it in music, but who had been forced to take jobs in hotel lobbies or in night-club bands or backing up short-contract Irish groups in the pub up the street. After playing for money all night, they had migrated to Jean’s to drink cheap champagne and play in the big band for free because they loved the music.
I sat at a table with a bunch of Sal’s friends and he went up on stage to join about thirty other jazz musicians playing as if they had been rehearsing together all week. The unamplified music in the small bar was crushingly loud and astoundingly clear. It was the first time since I had played in my junior-high-school orchestra that I felt the vibrations of the instruments in my bones and the beat of the percussionists in my organs. I understood why my dad’s generation had loved the sound so much.
Sal’s buddies at the table weren’t musicians; one was a struggling actor who acted a little and waited tables a lot in a Vieux Carré dinner theater, and another was a painter earning his rent drawing caricatures of tourists in Jackson Square. I was the only writer at the table, but it didn’t matter what art I was trying to create, everyone in Jean’s at two a.m. was in the same boat. We were artist trying not to give up. America was a very difficult place to be an artist. It would have been much simpler to be a chemist or a stockbroker or a salesman. We talked about our art and our failures and our dreams as we drank bottle after bottle of the five-dollar champagne. My insecurities were the same as everyone else’s at the table. We were all salmon swimming upstream, fighting the system and accepting low paying jobs to continue practicing our art. It was the most supportive environment I had ever experienced. I finished my novel surrounded by that unwavering encouragement.
Decades later, when I heard there was a writers’ group in my little suburban town outside of Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance to meet the members. I wanted the same validation I had shared with my fellow struggling artists back in New Orleans. I expected the writers’ group would provide the same unconditional, positive reinforcement that had kept me going when I was young and unsure. It didn’t turn out the way I had hoped.
Whenever I go to the writers’ group it costs me a week or two of writer’s block. I like the folks in the group, they are all writing and that is the important thing; but the schema is preoccupied with editing. This comma should be a semi colon, or this semi colon should be a comma. Your word choice is awkward. You have a word territory problem in this section. Where are you going with this piece? It is a format disposed to the butchering of each other’s work, to the clawing and gnawing of other artistic hearts like ravenous beasts.
I abhor the veiled insults and subtle arrogance of those who think they know better; I left my high-paying job in the corporate world to avoid this vile nastiness. And I am no more compassionate than the rest. I’ve come to fear I hurt feelings with my observations, draining the dwindling artistic strength from already floundering souls. We say we want the comments and criticisms, we need them to get better; but I see the flicks of resentment in the moist eyes of the victims, and hear their reflexive objections, anger carefully managed.
The free editing is enticing, it’s like free drinks in a bar you don’t like, but it isn’t why I want to spend time with these people. I want to feel the unwavering endorsement of others who understand my frustration. I want to be near other artists fighting for their creative breath in an unartistic country. I want to support and to be supported. Someone in the group once said, “We are wordsmiths, we need to get it right.” But I am not; I am a storyteller, pure and simple, trying to obtain the same satisfying reaction from my writing as I receive from the listeners of my late-night, closing-time monologues.
On particularly bad nights at the group, when my disenchantment rises in my throat like a warm swallow of stale beer, I find myself wishing I could take the others back to one of those magical nights at Jean Lafitte’s; a little free jazz and one or two bottles of domestic champagne, and I think they might understand my melancholy.