Do Writers Need Community?
I'm often asked, "Can writing schools really teach you
to write?" I never thought that was the litmus test. Writing school helped me by
surrounding me with people who aspired to the same ideals I did. Id been a bond
salesman I didnt know any other writers, and Id never even met a
writer. I didnt even know any readers. If the other traders and salespeople
read books, they never mentioned it. At school, for at least one night a week, I sat down
beside people who thought nothing was more important than making a sentence sing
Who believed that having a story accepted by a small journal with a readership of a 1,000
librarians was just about the most prestigious accomplishment imaginable
chosen, like me, to compromise their love lives and their work life to carve out time for
being alone with their thoughts and a pencil
Who had received rejection letter
after rejection letter, and who had been called "impractical" by their parents.
I cant emphasize enough the sway of being in a community of like-minded people. As
New Orleans had its effect on Marc and Julia, my writing school helped support the choice
Id made. Because the hardest thing was not learning to write; the hardest thing was
to never give up.
The publication of my first novel was my great chance to
quit working and attempt to support myself by writing full-time. I imagined I might
maintain an income writing for magazines. But I was going to finish my graduate degree
around the same time. I would take the leap without my community, my 3-hour-a-week
lifeline that had nourished me for seven years. What would I do all day? Who would I talk
to? I was accustomed to waking up every morning and going to the office.
So with two other writer friends Ethan Canin (who
Id met playing pick-up basketball) and Ethan Watters (who knew editors at magazines)
we rented a second-floor flat in a dusty Victorian on Market Street in a
no-mans land between the Castro and City Hall. This would be a place we wrote every
day. It had six rooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen. The rent was intimidating, and we were on
the hook for the whole nugget if we couldnt find some creative types to occupy the
other three rooms. So we threw a party. We made up a postcard invitation, but the address,
2148 Market Street, looked too lonely floating in the middle of the card. Who wanted to
come to "2148 Market Street"? What was it? A restaurant? A bar?
"We need an enticing name," one of the Ethans
"What about The Grotto?" said the
"You cant steal Jims name!" I
Jim was another writer who rented the basement room in my
house as his writing space. He called it The Grotto.
"Jims on vacation. Hell never know."
"What about The Writers
"Thats the same thing!"
"Not quite the same."
So we stole Jims name, and everyone we knew came to
the party, curious about what the Writers Grotto was. They came, they got drunk,
they danced, they lit off fireworks, lit a tree on fire, climbed up to the roof, broke the
toilet, ruined the carpet, and left, still unsure what the Writers Grotto was.
"Do you live here?"
"No. Just work."
"Are you all writing a book together?"
"No. Just our own projects."
"How much does rent cost?"
"Two to three hundred."
"You can fly to Cabo every month for that!"
"I like to write."
"But you can write at home, for free."
We were going to get stuck with the whole rent. It was hard
for people to get their mind around what we were doing. There was nothing like it in the
whole country. There were writing colonies, where people go and live and write for a month
or two. There were writing conferences, where people take classes for a week. The rest of
the time, writers cling to their outsider status, which they resent and defend at the same
time, feeling it is somehow crucial to their sense of being special, unique. At the
conferences and colonies, writers notoriously got drunk and had affairs. So everyone
suspected that was what we were really about we had our clubhouse, the boys with
the treehouse fort, a place to get drunk at 2 in the afternoon and screw women and never
grow up. It took years before people stopped assuming the worst about the Grotto whenever
they heard about it. Luckily, the three rooms were finally taken, by a filmmaker (David),
a monologist (Josh), and a struggling freelancer (Tessa) who had written a piece for a
British daily about women who took steroids to enlarge their clitoris. She was the only
woman at the original Grotto. She became our den mother. She made tea for us in the
afternoons and listened to stories about our love lives, which were small-time-dramas
compared to the ones shed lived through.
Our daily life was structured by the routine of work. I
didnt want to become a writer so I could escape from work, to not work, or to
get rich on royalties so Id never have to work. I wanted to work. I craved work, as
much as a sled dog or a pack horse, work that fulfilled me. We got up, had coffee at home,
read the paper, drove to the Grotto, and then just let the benefit of being around each
other rub off. I learned how to write features from Ethan Watters, I learned screenwriting
from David, and I learned to speak extemporaneously in public from Josh. Nobody taught
me these things; they were doing it, and made it seem possible. We created an environment
where taking creative risks was o.k. Nothing was formalized the sharing and
reading of each others work was entirely spontaneous.
"What are you doing?"
"Making tea. Want some?"
"What are you moping about?"
"I cant get started on this article."
"Whens it due?"
"In, like, five hours."
"Whats it about?"
"Rock The Vote."
"Why cant you get started?"
"Because the truth is, I hung out with them for two
days, and I just realized now, I didnt like them."
"They were phonies. They just went around saying,
Chicken is the bird of the People. Duck is the poultry of The Man. UPS
is the parcel service of the People. Fed Ex is the tool of The Man. They made me
"Geez, thats hilarious. You should lead with
And he did. (Spin Magazine, Oct. 1996)
Tessa made the most amazing transformation. Shed
started life over in San Francisco after getting divorced in London. Not long before she
found us, shed been cleaning houses as a maid in order to get by. Shed only
written a couple articles before we met, but she was soon writing for all the British and
Australian magazines. That gave her great confidence, and, buoyed, this is the
amazing part she remembered that shed always wanted to be a jazz singer. If
she could become a journalist, maybe she could become a jazz singer. She was in her early
40s and hadnt sung since she was a young girl. "I was always told I had a
great voice," she said. So she moved to Manhattan and two years later had a famous
singer as her mentor and was represented by a top manager and sang to packed audiences and
was not just singing, she was composing and everything. Her community there has helped her
just like our community here helped all us. Im not saying the community is
everything, but it makes success possible. Did we believe in each other? Here and there,
but not across the board. No way. You would assume thats necessary, but its
not. The talent doesnt have to shine from the get-go. Most people will perform if
given a chance and a few role models.
After two years, rents started to creep up, and the
landlord booted us to bring in some lawyers. We found a bigger place, this time with room
for nine writers evenly balanced between guys and girls. It lasted another three years
until the rents tripled (the mad rush of the dot com boom), and that landlord evicted us
too, to rent to a dot com. So we were out on the street, nine writers without a tree fort,
and there wasnt anything left in the city to rent. Artists cooperatives were
all moving to the naval yards in Hunters Point and Alameda, but we didnt want
to abandon the heart of the city. The only place left to rent in the city was an old Dog
& Cat Hospital above a parking garage near City Hall. It was scheduled to be
demolished in two years to make way for a 22-story condominium tower. It was huge; to make
it pay, we were going to have to put 22 writers and filmmakers in there, and build the
office walls and doors ourselves, put in skylights, rewire the electrical system
knowing with every hammer fall and screw turn that it would all be coming down in just two
years. We were so close to just giving up and taking jobs with the dot coms. That seemed
so much easier. If we didnt have the Grotto, we all would have been swallowed by dot
coms long ago. The beauty of the Grotto is, when I have a bad day, at least I went to the
office. A bad day working at home is a sad and lonely thing, and if a few bad days land in
a row then an editing job starts to sound pretty appealing.
But we clung together, and we took a gamble on the pet
hospital. We built the walls and taped the seams and mudded and painted and hung doors and
threw another party to find thirteen others, and we became unwieldy for awhile, until we
got the hang of there being so many of us. We each have a chore take out the
recycling, clean the roof deck and somehow, recently, we have the feeling that the
Grotto would now survive the departure of any person or persons. For six years it was
powered by the initiation energy we continuously supplied it; now it rolls onward with its
own momentum. My office is one of two in an old dog kennel. The floor is sloped; they used
to spray the dogs down and let the water drain out the door. I step out that door onto the
roof of the parking garage, which is painted gunboat gray, and the sun shines so bright,
and I squint, and I see people congregating for lunch with their take-out tuna melt
sandwiches and leftover Indian samosas. Do I join them? No. I turn around and go back to
write. Somehow, them just being there
or coming in at nine in the morning, having
dropped my baby off at his Montessori school, hearing the clicking of keyboards Oh!
Thats what I do! I write! Go write! They make it possible. They remind me who I am.
Ive learned that without structure, I become unstable
and self-destructive fairly quickly. I have an ability to reimagine the world. I used to
glorify this ability to pretend its the essential gift behind writing
fiction, and its a great coping mechanism for dealing with rejection. But Im
not proud of it anymore. Sometimes, when things get tough, I run away run away into
my imagination, run towards a new life, like so many empty pages, ready to be filled.
Enough of that, turn the page and write a new chapter. Ive run from my parents, run
from my first marriage, run from job after job where I felt misused. My struggle now is to
stay grounded and to not indulge my imagination. To stick with this life. Ive
turned from fiction to non-fiction not just because I can, or because the magazines offer
work I do it because I need to pay attention to the ways of real life. The Grotto
dangers on being a self-created utopia, a huge loophole in the work/play continuum, and
sometimes I wonder if Im allowing myself to live in a fantasy. But the structure and
routine it provides keeps me sane. Im absent-minded, forget to pay my bills,
cant return phone calls, forget birthdays I used to embrace these traits
because they were evidence of having a "writers" personality. But now I
think there is no excuse for not taking care of myself or treating others with decency.