In 1988, James Rahn graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in fiction and little else: no job and no job prospects. Then as now, paid writing positions rarely appeared on silver platters.
But Rahn, then 33, knew enough to play to his strengths. He had a steady girl in Philadelphia and she had a steady job. So the Atlantic City native packed up his life, moved to Philadelphia, and, like many former students, turned to teaching.
Rahn hadn't taught before, but he figured that he could run a writer's workshop based on his experiences at Columbia. The method used there and at other writing workshops depends upon group critique: Writers take turns submitting their work each week, and refine their craft by receiving comments and commenting on others' work.
To promote the idea, Rahn bought an ad in the now-defunct Welcomat, the predecessor of Philadelphia Weekly. And he and Adrienne Horen (the girlfriend) made flyers with tear-off strips and drove around the city posting them in every diner and coffee shop that would allow.
The first person to sign up was Romnesh Lamba, a Wharton grad who wrote fiction on the side. More calls came in, others willing to sign up for the 10-week course, which then cost a mere $145. (The eight-week sessions now cost $470.)
Rahn rented space at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, named his project the Rittenhouse Writers Workshop, and held the first meeting in the fall of 1988.
The now-esteemed Rittenhouse Writers Group is marking its 20th anniversary this year. Rahn and Horen are marking their 17th year of marriage; that first attendee, Lamba, has published a handful of stories in literary journals and is the managing director of Asia investment banking for Merrill Lynch; and more than a thousand writers (some now famous, others still obscure) have made their way through the Rittenhouse Writers Group.
At 53, Rahn is trim, with close-cropped white hair and beard. Rimless glasses, which have seen better days, give him the look of a slightly absentminded professor. He runs, for exercise and to compensate for his devotion to Skippy Superchunk peanut butter.
He knows the success of his workshop wasn't guaranteed. Certainly, the beginning was not auspicious.
"I never taught before I taught the first group. It was cold that day, but the sweat was pouring down me," Rahn recalled. "I had prepared my introduction; I thought that would last an hour. I was done in three minutes. The people were staring at me like, 'Huh? What's next?' I backpedaled. The first workshop wasn't the greatest."
Lamba remembers that.
"I still tease him about that," Lamba said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong, where he lives. "Jimmy has become a friend as a result of the group. What I remember is that he was very encouraging."
When Lamba wrote a (still unpublished) novel in 1999, Rahn was the person he contacted for help in editing and fine-tuning.
Over the years, Rahn has acquired a sort of cult of personality.
"His personality is the main success of the group," said Tracy Hoffman, 40, a yoga teacher in Wynnewood who has been involved in the workshop for almost four years.
"He's really funny. Always gentle, but emphatic. He can sniff out if something isn't fiction - if we're actually writing about ourselves - and help turn it into fiction."
Over the years, Rahn has refined his ability to read people as well as literature. Whenever someone new calls about the group, he doesn't bother asking about their lives - he just asks what they're writing, and who they are reading. If he thinks the person will fit in, based on who's in the group currently, he accepts the new member.
Rahn does accept beginners, if they have a story or manuscript in progress. Like so many Philadelphia institutions, RWG recruits only by word of mouth-it has been 10 years since Rahn advertised for students.
Meanwhile, he has continued to write while mentoring writers. He has published stories in literary journals and is at work on a novel about youth gangs in Atlantic City.
And he's continued to be a student. In 2006, Rahn enrolled at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, a program that he says has led to a deeper understanding of personalities, group dynamics, and literature. He graduated from the certificate program last month, but doesn't plan to work as a therapist.
"I'm slower to make interpretations now," he said. "I'll think, 'What's the best time and manner to get this person to understand what's really going on in the story?' "
Diane McKinney-Whetstone, whose fifth novel,
Trading Dreams at Midnight,
will be published in June (Harper Publishing, June 2008), is among the Rittenhouse Writers Group alums.
She wrote her acclaimed first novel,
, as a member of the workshop, and credits the group with helping her to find the story that became the book.
"He has a way of validating the writer's time. I was working full time while I wrote
and it almost felt like a frivolous thing, spending my time making up these stories."
McKinney-Whetstone left the group after her novel came out in 1996 and has returned several times as a guest lecturer or participant.
"James has tremendous energy," she says, "and that keeps everyone engaged."