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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. I’d been a bond salesman – I didn’t know any other writers, and I’d never even met a writer. I didn’t 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 … Who had 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 can’t 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 I’d 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 I’d 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-man’s 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 couldn’t 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 said.

"What about ‘The Grotto’?" said the other.

"You can’t steal Jim’s name!" I protested.

Jim was another writer who rented the basement room in my house as his writing space. He called it The Grotto.

"Jim’s on vacation. He’ll never know."

"I’ll know!"

"What about ‘The Writers’ Grotto’?"

"That’s the same thing!"

"Not quite the same."

So we stole Jim’s 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."

"A month!?"

"Yeah."

"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 she’d lived through.

Our daily life was structured by the routine of work. I didn’t want to become a writer so I could escape from work, to not work, or to get rich on royalties so I’d 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 other’s work was entirely spontaneous.

"What are you doing?"

"Making tea. Want some?"

"What kind?"

"Earl Grey."

"Naw."

"What are you moping about?"

"I can’t get started on this article."

"When’s it due?"

"In, like, five hours."

"What’s it about?"

"Rock The Vote."

"Why can’t you get started?"

"Because the truth is, I hung out with them for two days, and I just realized now, I didn’t like them."

"Why not?"

"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 sick."

"Geez, that’s hilarious. You should lead with that."

And he did. (Spin Magazine, Oct. 1996)

Tessa made the most amazing transformation. She’d started life over in San Francisco after getting divorced in London. Not long before she found us, she’d been cleaning houses as a maid in order to get by. She’d 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 she’d 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 hadn’t 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. I’m 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 that’s necessary, but it’s not. The talent doesn’t 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 wasn’t anything left in the city to rent. Artists’ cooperatives were all moving to the naval yards in Hunters’ Point and Alameda, but we didn’t 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 didn’t 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! That’s what I do! I write! Go write! They make it possible. They remind me who I am.

I’ve 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 – it’s the essential gift behind writing fiction, and it’s a great coping mechanism for dealing with rejection. But I’m 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. I’ve 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. I’ve 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 I’m allowing myself to live in a fantasy. But the structure and routine it provides keeps me sane. I’m absent-minded, forget to pay my bills, can’t return phone calls, forget birthdays – I used to embrace these traits because they were evidence of having a "writer’s" personality. But now I think there is no excuse for not taking care of myself or treating others with decency.