“This book is for writers,” Reeves says, smiling. Her small Frida Kahlo earrings dangle at her jaw line. “It’s for anyone who wants to write, so I would say that it’s really for everyone.”
Reeves (judyreeveswriter.com) knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age, sensing it on a cellular level well before she could articulate what that meant.
“Whatever happened when I was writing that sentence was a real feeling,” she says of a third-grade assignment to use spelling words in sentences. “They call it ‘in the flow’ when whatever you’re doing is beside yourself. And then the teacher said, ‘I want to read some of Judy’s sentences,’ and she validated those feelings.”
There were other defining moments along Reeves’ path as a writer: In sixth grade, she formed a book club with her sister and her best friend.
“We would write stories together and then read them to each other,” she says.
This was surely the nascent form of the more evolved writing groups Reeves leads today. For her 16th birthday, she received the collected works of Mark Twain; for her 18th— “That was the time in my life when I loved to scare myself,” Reeves says—it was Edgar Allen Poe. “I love a writer who sends me to the dictionary,” she says, citing a litany of authors who inspire her.
Reeves honed her craft and, beginning in the late ’80s— when the San Diego writing scene was little more than a few here-and-there coffeehouse readings—began to build what would become a successful career teaching and leading workshops. She’s dedicated the last 25 years of her life to forming a cohesive, thriving literary arts community in this sunny place where beach reads rule and Stephanie Meyer’s book sales obliterate those of Margaret Atwood.
Never disheartened, Reeves’ efforts have resulted in a burgeoning literary scene. While San Diego isn’t Los Angeles, it is now home to three major writing conferences, numerous collaborations and frequent open-mic events happening all over the city (even the Ocean Beach nightclub Winstons hosts a weekly gig, aptly titled Drunk Poets Society).
In 1993, Reeves co-founded the Writing Center, an organization that had a five-year lifespan and was home to the Brown Bag Writing Group. She began teaching at UCSD Extension in 2000 and, later, after two-and-a-half years spent writing in Barcelona, she came home and co-founded San Diego Writer’s Ink (SDWI).
Reeves resigned as executive director this past summer, but she still teaches there and is committed to its continued growth.
“I think we’re doing such a swell job of holding classes and teaching,” she says. “But I want literature to be more of a fabric of the community. I’d like to have a major reading series, a cultural event like the [now-defunct] Quincy Troupe reading series. And SDWI loves collaborations—with dance, museums, theater. I’d love to see a mentor series in the future and offer scholarships. We have a tiny, tiny, tiny little budget. But it would be great to have more collaboration and more visibility.”
Visibility is something Reeves got this past summer when Mayor Jerry Sanders recognized her longstanding contributions to the literary arts community and designated July 24 as Judy Reeves Day.
And then there’s Reeves’ most recent contribution to the city’s literary scene—her newly revised A Writer’s Book of Days, a book on craft. Each of its 12 sections is defined by an overarching guideline (Guideline 5: Don’t Worry About The Rules) to aid writers of all levels, from bloggers to novelists to poets. Amid insightful tips, Reeves offers inspirational quotes by other writers—T.C. Boyle, Siri Hustvedt, Annie Dillard—and, perhaps the defining feature of the book, creative daily prompts to encourage that coveted and necessary practice: March 10: “On the eve of the funeral…”; Dec. 2: “It was her mother’s recipe.”
“Opening up and using the prompts, anybody can do that,” Reeves says. “Some of this stuff is pretty basic in here, and I meant it to be. It’s for people afraid of their writing or afraid of themselves, afraid to trust themselves.”
Today, without the demands of her former position at SDWI, Reeves is busy reinventing herself. She recently had a piece selected for Frozen Moment, an anthology due for release in 2011; is developing an increased online presence, creating a 12-week course based on her book; and, after decades of pouring her energy into building a community for writers, finally has the gift of time and is using it to focus on a novel.
She continues to teach and co-leads a twice-weekly drop-in writing group where she can’t help but be the example that living her mantra (“Practice! Practice! Practice!”) pays off— the quality of work Reeves produces in 17-minutes of free form writing is inspiring.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Reeves’ books and how-to workshops help people get over is recognizing writing as a craft rather than some kind of special gift with which only certain people are born. She says simple steps like avoiding clichés, using better verbs and setting a scene can quickly improve almost anybody’s writing.
“I think a teacher can teach these things,” Reeves says.