Mabel Bennett is telling secrets about H.L. Mencken. She's splashing memories of the late, great newspaper editor she knew so well over the pages of their home-town Baltimore Sun.
The formerly untold tales of Mencken's hopes and fears make for great reading. And they have made Bennett one of many success stories in an Arlington writing class.
At 82, Bennett is the oldest of those gathering each week to compare story ideas, share selling strategies and offer friendly feedback. The 14 members of the group from throughout Northern Virginia also celebrate even the smallest editorial victories and console one another about those all-too-familiar rejection letters.
Each Tuesday morning, instructor Peggy Teeters heads the table in the library at Culpepper Garden retirement home. She focuses her efforts on finding markets for the various works by her students, whether they be journalistic reports, fiction or poetry.
Her latest move is to promote a book on her students' writing and wisdom to be titled "Senior Savvy." In her sales pitch to a local publisher, Teeters invokes the words of poet Robert Browning -- "Grow along with me, the best is yet to be" -- and promises travel tips on finding leprechauns in Ireland and the Holy Grail in Wales. Other topics to be covered include hobbies, money management, real estate, cooking, the single life, education and health.
In her role as instructor, Teeters dishes out endless enthusiasm and encouragement. "I learn just as much from them as they learn from me," she said. "And I've taught them that the only way to cope with rejection is to have a number of irons in the fire."
Teeters gives "a spiritual as well as intellectual uplift," along with a healthy dose of humor, said writing pupil Eileen Mixner, a retired English teacher who attends the class with her husband.
Last, but definitely not least, Teeters teaches useful tips to make words work for the students.
"l didn't realize until the first article I wrote how much there was to learn," said Zelda Kosh, a former speech professor and current class member who has been published recently in the Washington Times and elsewhere.
"I think there are definitely basics. For instance, there must be a compelling lead, and anecdotes and illustrations. And the story must appeal to all the senses: Instead of just stating the color of it, tell the smell of it. I learned to not just state things flatly but to leave something to the imagination of the reader," Kosh said.
The method has proved prosperous for Kosh, who won a trip to Holland for one entry. "That's the most I've ever been paid for anything I've written," she said.
Betty Schroeder aspires to Robert Frost-style poetry. She has had several poems published and also has been selling narrative pieces to the Christian Science Monitor since starting the class.
Of her writing hobby, Schroeder said, "To me, it's just a wonderful outlet. We've all lived our lives pretty much, and we realize the value of friends and good people who encourage us."
Rina Pinto, a transplanted native of Venice, looks to the class for personal improvement as well as professional guidance. "I'm old enough to have a lot of stories in my mind," she said, speaking in a soft Italian accent. "I started as therapy. I was very depressed. You concentrate on writing and your mind gets away from your problems."
Pinto's "love" is to compose in her dialect, a version of Italian that is diminishing as fewer people write and speak it. She is improving her English through listening in class, however, and she is having some of her stories translated into English.
Longtime Arlington educator Grady Wade hopes to publish the many stories he has told to schoolchildren during several decades.
While all have shared personal rewards from the writing class, some students have found mostly frustration from the publishing world.
Otis Stafford has sold a few historical stories lately, but success has been the exception rather than the rule. "I get very nice responses, my rejections," the retired naval captain said drolly. "You know, it says, 'Enjoyed this, but not for us.' "
Orlin Scoville has fond memories of a "captive press" for his work when he was an agricultural economist for the government. "It's entirely different when you don't have a market," he said. After almost three years in the class, Scoville has had only two short pieces published commercially.
Scoville is not permanently deterred, however, and he hopes to find interest for his how-to articles on such varied topics as buying IRAs and condominiums and vacationing at Epcot Center in Florida.
Although his longtime hobby of organic farming has been the subject of articles in such prestigious publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, class member Gwynn Garnett has found no market for his unusual insights on evaluating food products according to nutritional value. Garnett said of his writing seminar colleagues: "My frustration would have led to my writing demise had it not been for them -- their encouragement and their ideas."