Part writing teacher, part therapist, James Rahn has midwifed countless short stories and novels in the three decades since he founded the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group (RWG), a fiction workshop he offers four times a year in Center City.
Generally considered the longest-running independent writing program in the country, RWG has served nearly 1,500 students, some of whom make up a Who’s Who of writers in the region, including Diane McKinney-Whetstone (Lazaretto), Tom Teti (Miracle at Philadelphia), Samantha Gillison (The King of America), and several former Inquirer editors and reporters, including Tanya Barrientos (Family Resemblance) and Gwen Florio (Reservations).
An Atlantic City native who studied English literature at the University of Pennsylvania and who earned an MFA in writing at Columbia University, Rahn, 62, is the author of Bloodnight, a coming-of-age novel composed of a series of linked sort stories.
He takes a break from fiction in his new release, Rittenhouse Writers: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop (Paul Dry Books; 275 pages), a volume that’s actually two books in one. The first half is a memoir that covers Rahn’s life as a writer, including his years with RWG. The latter half is a collection of 10 stories written by Rahn’s current and former students.
Rahn will discuss the book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Library in a program that will also feature McKinney-Whetstone and Teti. He spoke recently about his work.
When did you decide to write about the workshop?
I came up with the idea four years ago as a way to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the group. Now, we’re about to turn 30 [in 2018]. I guess it prompted the idea of writing a memoir, but I also wanted to include stories from my students.
The book has a complicated structure. You alternate between the present tense as you describe the group and its members, and the past as you delve into your childhood and your life history.
I had a really hard time with finding a way to integrate it all. Initially, the [students’] short stories were also part of the memoir itself. It’s a mixture of a bunch of genres because it’s also an anthology. It was really hard to find a way to braid in the amount I wanted about my background, and a bit about the people who took the workshop and their writing. But I also wanted to make it about writing, to have a bit of the technical information on how good writing is done without making it a how-to book.
Couldn’t have been easy to sell it to publishers.
Oh, it was very hard to sell to publishers.
As you say in the book, you’ve been a writer since a very early age. You won a writing contest when you were in middle school?
I was in sixth grade, so probably about 11 years old. And I got top prize in a poetry contest in Atlantic City.
The poetry contest was for kids?
No, it was citywide, open to everyone. At the time I was writing … these kind of depressive poems that came out of the fact that my father had died unexpectedly when I was eight. It manifested in this kind of melancholy poetry. I won for a poem called “Eternity.” I mean, other people, especially people my age, were writing about flowers and raindrops. So I guess mine stood out.
So writing has always been a passion?
I guess. I mean, I was always writing. I think my whole life I have been sitting around composing things in my mind. And eventually that got translated onto the page, which is no easy thing. I love making things up on the page, I love invented speech, I love language. At some point, I realized just how hard it is to write poetry, so I stopped.
You weren’t exactly a model student in high school.
I wrote about some of this in Bloodnight. I joined this organization [at Atlantic City High School], a high school fraternity, and they had a real reputation. They were notorious in Atlantic City for being wild.
Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.
It was called Bones, and so I finally got in after all the beatings and the paddles and the incredible torture. They called it boobing, the pledging process. … They beat you relentlessly for weeks.
People from my generation and older people from Atlantic City would know about Bones. Once you got in, you would achieve star status. But then I dropped out [of high school] before my senior year. I had to get a GED later.
You founded the workshop shortly after earning your MFA. But you had no previous interest in teaching. I mean, you weren’t exactly motivated by high ideals.
I needed work! And I couldn’t find anything. So I thought about these guys I knew [at Columbia] who started a fiction workshop in New York. They didn’t have big credentials, but they were drawing people, and I thought, “I could do that, too.”
It took a year before RWG really took off.
Eventually it began to percolate. It blossomed.
You credit its success to your students.
One of the biggest reasons for its success was this first guy who showed up for the first workshop, Romnesh Lamba. He was a Wharton MBA graduate who was 25 or 26 at the time. He was married and had a job in finance.
He didn’t look the part of the angst-ridden artist.
No. But he was also this wonderful, wonderful writer. He gave me his story and I was like, ‘What could I teach this guy? He writes better than I do.’ But he was so deferential, and he asked me if I thought it was any good.
You include his story in the anthology section. What did he do for you? Did he give you confidence as a teacher?
He was so good in the workshop because he was so smart and so sensitive with his comments to other writers. He really helped the workshop blossom. … And he was such a fine writer, people must have thought, ‘If this guy is taking this class, then James Rahn must be doing something right.’
He was a great walking ad for you.
Right. So were a lot of people at the Inquirer, actually. [Former Inquirer editor] Fran Dauth was at one of the first workshops, and then she dragged along [former editor] Dan Biddle and then [former reporter] Gwen Florio.
The workshops often get very emotional because writing is such a deeply personal affair. Is that why you’ve also hung your shingle as a therapist?
I took a two-year psychotherapy program at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. And now I offer writers one-on-one sessions to explore emotionally why they might be blocked or why they get stuck in a particular place in the story every time they try to write.
Here’s a question your students might ask: Was it easy to write the memoir? Is nonfiction an easier ride?
And that’s because?
I wanted to be as honest as possible. Writing fiction, you can hide behind your characters. But writing nonfiction or memoir, you have to divulge. At first, when I showed some of the early parts to people, they said, ‘You’re not really talking about yourself.’
Guess you took their advice. When it comes to your own foibles, you don’t pull your punches. You come off as selfish and immature sometimes.
As I told my wife, Adrienne, I wanted to make it as full-out as I can, and if I have to modulate anything or soften it, I will consider that later.
Who should read this book? Other writers?
I wrote the memoir for a much wider audience than a niche of writers and teachers. And I think it really does appeal because it’s really a book about a person in Philly who put together a group of like-minded people, and it’s been a big success.
James Rahn, Rittenhouse Writers: Reflections on a Fiction Workshop. With Diane McKinney-Whetstone and Tom Teti. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Free. Information: 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org/authorevents.