Written by Darlene Robinson Millender, Photo by Beau Gustafson
Last May, I quit my job. I was a mid-level manager who wanted to spend more waking hours with my young twins. I also wanted to try my hand at freelance writing. Things were going along swimmingly at first. However, after summer vacation ended and the kids went back to school, I began to wish for a connection with people who didn’t call me mommy. I somewhat missed my old job. Not the office politics, mind you, but the camaraderie. I wanted to join a writers’ group. I especially wanted to meet writers who had also struck out on their own. But I wasn’t looking for a re-creation of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table. I wasn’t seeking snark. What I wanted was community.
In October, I came across a brief online post written about 12 women who were honored by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham for their work in the city. The post’s writer, Edward Bowser, mentioned that his wife, Javacia Harris Bowser, happened to be one of the honorees. Bowser had started a women’s writing group named See Jane Write. I immediately went to the group’s blog and read that Bowser created See Jane Write to “…enrich, support, and promote female literary artists in the Magic City through workshops, seminars, and networking events.” That night I joined See Jane Write’s Facebook group.
With her dark, pre-Raphaelite curls and bright smile, Bowser may be 32 years old but doesn’t look much older than the teens she teaches English to at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. (Bowser, a Birmingham native and graduate of ASFA, returned to the city in 2009 after leaving a job as a full-time reporter in Louisville.) She has a persuasive charm, too. “The very first See Jane Write event was a dinner at a local cantina,” says Bowser, who graduated from the University of Alabama and has a master’s in journalism from UC Berkeley. “I sent emails to all these women who did not know me at all. I went to different websites. I went to magazines. I looked through newspapers and found bylines that seemed female. I then went about finding their email addresses, which I can do because I’m a journalist, and I know how to stalk people,” she says with a laugh.
“How can you resist Javacia,” says Chanda Temple, a SJW participant. Temple, along with 13 other invitees, was at that first dinner. “We bonded over nachos, tacos and good ideas.”
Bowser rattles off the date of that dinner like a mother who’s been asked her child’s birth date: March 24, 2011.
Mandy Shunnarah is a Birmingham-Southern College senior and editorial intern at Magic City Post, a local online news site. Her boss, Emily Lowrey, attended one of SJW’s early events and told her about See Jane Write. Shunnarah says as a young writer, she is encouraged by the group. “See Jane Write makes me want to get out in the community more and think really creatively about the content I want to produce.”
On a recent Sunday, I joined Bowser and several other Janes for brunch. “Bloggers Who Brunch” is a monthly event aimed at providing local bloggers with practical instruction. On this particular Sunday, Bowser has invited a lawyer to talk about avoiding situations that could get a blogger into hot water. At my table is Nanci Scarpulla who heads up sales and marketing for a local lifestyle apparel company and is also a freelance writer. Scarpulla is so bubbly that it’s hard to imagine she lost her mother not long ago. “My mom suffered a stroke on New Year’s Eve [in 2011]. She died a few months later in April. After my mom died, I developed this block where every time I tried to write something, I just couldn’t do it.” Scarpulla credits SJW with helping to spark the desire to write again. “There was a panel discussion [on blogging and community journalism] in January. [Local journalist and blogger] Andre Natta was there and others. I sat down and listened. Just being in that atmosphere, around other people who just wanted to tell their stories, it was awesome,” says Scarpulla. “I went home and opened up the computer and just started blogging. It was exactly what I needed.”
Stories like Scarpulla’s make Bowser smile. “I’ve had a few people actually say to me ‘See Jane Write changed my life.’ People have told me that they were afraid to write or were stuck in a severe case of writer’s block until they attended a SJW event, and once they started writing everything seemed to change for them. Or they attended a SJW event and met someone who helped them launch a freelance writing career or helped them start a blog. Those stories make all the late nights I spend working on the group worth it.