It was as if author Marita Golden dripped gold as she stepped inside Common Concerns bookstore for the third annual gathering of writers during Black History Month.
"I'm not Alice [Walker], but I sort of rate," she said to a group of friends, drawing out of a folder a newspaper article in which she was quoted.
"And check out this art," she said, reaching again into the folder. "This is what the cover for 'A Woman's Place' is going to look like."
The illustration of three women will adorn the cover of Golden's second book, to be published in August by Doubleday. The friends oohed and aahed, clearly impressed.
"I particularly like that part," Golden said, laughing and pointing to her name printed in large letters at the top of the cover.
Finally, the days of rising at 5 a.m. to write before going off to some temporary job are begining to pay off. This year, Marita Golden has the Midas touch.
She was just one of about 70 Washington writers who gathered in the narrow aisles of the Dupont Circle bookstore Wednesday night. Among them were writers in various chapters of their careers. And it was a perfect chance for up-and-coming writers to ask advice of those who had persevered and been published.
There were more writers than members of the public, but that didn't bother the novelists, poets and journalists. In their conversations with each other they could find out who had received National Endowment for the Arts grants, who had books coming out, who had finished manuscripts, who was having a public reading where. They could inspire and be inspired.
"It is very important for writers to know each other," said E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University's Afro-American Resources Center, which along with Common Concerns cosponsored the affair.
"This is almost like a book party for everybody," said Miller, who is known nationally as a poet, teacher and touchstone for writers.
"I have to introduce you to Ethelbert," one young woman whispered to a man as Miller passed. "He's one of the leaders," she said. "Everyone goes through him."
Leilani Donaldson and Jacquie Jones, two writers among those classified as "up-and-coming," met in the aisle between book selections labeled "New Arrivals" and "Black Studies/Minority Studies."
"I like language, and sometimes I hear people say something I want to remember and I know I should write it down," said Donaldson, 23, who pens poems and short stories.
"I see phrases in newspapers and magazines and I cut them out," said Jones, a 20-year-old Howard University junior who writes poetry.
"I used to edit my own stuff, writing over and over. Then I said, 'Just write it down first,' " said Donaldson.
"I'm just the opposite," said Jones. "At the end of the day I have 100 pieces of paper and I look at them and try to figure out what was on my mind."
It was easy to imagine that the people who crowded the aisles of the bookstore had jumped off the pages of the books on the shelves. Surely the fictional characters were no more interesting than these literary gods.
Poet Calvin Forbes, also a Howard University instructor, rushed in waving and nodding and went straight to the second-floor refreshment table that held two large bowls of a peanut mix, an urn of apple juice and many bottles of red and white wine.
He left five minutes later, cup in hand, waving goodbye and explaining, "I just ran in for a glass of wine."
"We have a birthday today!" Miller announced from the top of the narrow stairs leading to the second floor. "Today is Sharon Bell Mathis' birthday!"
The group broke into one round of "Happy Birthday," and Mathis, an award-winning author of children's literature, blew out the single candle atop a slab of carrot cake.
"It's such a pleasure to be among my peers, writers who are struggling as I am to explore what we feel and hear," Mathis, 49, said later, standing in the children's section of the store with her 5-year-old grandson Thomas, nephew John W. Bell III, also 5, and her daughter Sheri.
"I enjoy their writing, and I get so excited when I meet them," she said of her fellow writers.
The advice she gives to young writers? "I try to say the things I wish people had said to me early on. I tell them, 'No one can tell a story like another person.' "
She bent to zip up Thomas' snowsuit and to tuck into his pocket a piece of cake wrapped in a napkin. As he and his mother were leaving, the boy said goodbye reluctantly. "He hates leaving. I think he enjoys being with writers," Mathis said.
Then she turned to marvel: "When I started writing, my three girls were crawling around, and now my baby is 21."
Against a wall between the calendars and the stairs, Ron Morgan stood with his walking stick and a bag full of copies of his book, a collection of poems called "Concentric Circle."
"Reach in the bag and grab one," the 43-year-old poet instructed those who stopped to chat with him.
"his eyes focus at the spot where the clearing is swallowed by the rain forest," reads a sentence in the first poem, a strong image for a man who is blind.
Morgan said he learned to type after he learned to write poetry, explaining, "I've been writing all the time."
When someone asked Charles Blackwell what he did for a living, he said, "I'm a mad, angry writer, a k a an artist, a cultural guerrilla trying to survive."
He had cornered Golden, who received two grants this year, to ask advice on applying for grants.
"I'm trying to get a grant," he said.
"I just got one," Golden said. "You got to fill out a million papers."
"Will you write me a letter, a recommendation?" he asked.
"Sure, I'll lie," she said, laughing. Then, turning to some friends, she explained, "I remember the first thing he ever said to me was, 'Yeah, so you're that woman writer I heard about at the Larry Neal Writer's Conference. You write that stuff that's not too political.'
"I said to myself, 'Who is this man?' I guess in New York and Washington we call that 'refreshingly honest,' " she said, laughing.