San Francisco Stories: The literary life

On our 46th anniversary, we tell tales of the city

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This week's cover poem by Alejandro Murguia

tredmond@sfbg.com

A few months before I graduated from college, a group of Distinguished Literary Figures came to my Fancy Eastern University and gave a special seminar on careers in literature. At least 150 of my classmates showed up in their $80 Frye boots and their shirts with the alligators on them and the attitudes they'd carefully honed during a life in which things pretty much went their way.

After an erudite discussion of the lofty (the philosophy of writing) and the mundane (write every day and don't send bad photocopies of your manuscript to your publisher), one of the DLF's asked for a show of hands: How many of you are planning a career as a writer?

Every hand in the room shot up. And I looked around and said to myself:

No you aren't.

No, most of you people will never be writers. Because you're too fucking happy. Because you're all well-adjusted young men and women with real futures, who will want jobs that pay and apartments with heat and decent food and cars that start and clothes that look cool, and cappuccino that someone else makes for you, and vacations in nice places where the sun always shines.

You'll never be writers. You don't know enough about life.

*****

A year or so later, I was sitting in the makeshift loft of my $175-a-month illegal storefront apartment, and my fingers were so cold that I couldn't work the cheap and nasty typewriter very well, and there wasn't any heat and the only way to get rid of the chill was to turn on the oven, which was a very bad idea because a banged-up British motorcycle shared the concrete floor of my room with me and the gas tank leaked, not enough to spill but enough that after five or six hours the collected aromatic hydrocarbons in the air were probably enough to ignite and consume me and half the neighborhood in a cataclysmic fireball. So: we sat in the cold.

My girlfriend had left me; her cat was gone but the place was full of fleas, and I'd picked one out of my mustache that morning when I tried to shave. I was finishing a story about antinuclear protests for a magazine that would soon fold, but maybe not before I got my $200 check, and all I could think about was:

I still have a couple cold beers, and Brian Eno on the box, the toilet hadn't overflowed yet this week — and fuck: This is about as good as it gets.

This is how young writers live.

We don't ask for much, writers. We don't need better iPhones or wifi at Union Square or tax breaks. What we need, and have always needed, is chaos, misery, and grit. We need places where money doesn't rule and where everything isn't comfortable. We need, more than anything, a kind of cheap that isn't cool.

You go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill these days and you don't see many writers who have day jobs as temps in the Zone buying the crummiest suits and ties they can get away with; it's all, like, hipster fashion.

Writers need real cheap. They need $2 beers and $4 burritos and crappy places to live that cost less than you can make selling a story or two a month. They need to exist, for real, not just for fun, in a world outside the bubble — and they need a city that makes room for that to happen.

I love where I live, but it's failing me. And I sometimes think that nobody in charge really cares.

*****

The Bay Guardian turns 46 this week. I've been part of it for more than half its life, since I sold my first story to the paper in 1982, a shocking expose about police harassing homeless people for sitting on the sidewalk. I got paid $50. It was a huge deal. I ran right out and bought a bottle of whiskey.

Comments

This is dross. Guess what…all the beat artists and writers who ‘went before us’ are now landlords in the pandhandle and leasing out their non-rent controlled places while enjoying their spreads in Sonoma. The fact is there are struggling writers out there in San Francisco who are finding ways to make it work despite the high costs.
The fact is you can’t see it- since you’re not 22 anymore. Another thing is it’s a digital world and anyone can publish anything with little or no costs and still have thousands read it.
It sucks for print, but it’s true. Enjoy your whiskey.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 7:42 am

'the rest is dross.' But I'll hazard to say that your poorly-selected Pound allusion probably fell on deaf ears.

First, I have to point out that most of the Beat Generation is dead, and consequently probably not in possession of the pretty little Victorians on the Panhandle.

Secondly, I'm getting tired of hearing this malarkey about internet publishing. I have doubts - billowing, ballooning, speculative doubts - about the internet giving us anything of aesthetic value when it comes to Literature with A Big L. The internet will give us a couple novelties, and a whole slew of cultural artifacts that *are* aesthetically interesting. Web comics. YouTube video series. Webisodes.

But not poetry. Not the novel. In fact, some corners of the internet seem hell-bent on killing the English language as we know it - not glorifying it. It's reductive, telegraphic, limiting, narrowing. What doesn't fit in a Tweet is too long. What doesn't cause a conversion is 'useless.' What gathers the most clicks, what gets the most attention after being put out in the market place of attention (the internet) is what wins out.

I half wonder if the universe will just collapse in on itself out of irony. E-publishing makes it so that, at last, art has become the perfect commodity. To think, artists across the planet struggled for years to keep it from happening, but I guess if the supply equals the demand, it must be good...! Efficiency! Usefulness!

In any case, what irks me most about your flippant comment is also what makes it so typical of our ideologically clusterfucked nation. It lacks any sort of empathy or care - it shows the typical 'I did it - why can't you?' attitude that makes me ashamed to be an American. This new American selfishness is like a splinter in our body politic, and it has no place in the city of our history.

Cheers Tim. Great article.

Posted by Fantomina on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

"...makes me ashamed to be an American."

Every time I read this line, it makes me ashamed to be an American.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 21, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

Even having read them all, I can say that San Francisco writers have never had a thing to do with my enjoyment of San Francisco. Adopting the poverty pose or romanticizing poverty to prove you're an "artist" is just plain silly, though in your case it did succeed in institutionalizing your mewling liberalism in a way that NY and CT likely wouldn't have.

Posted by Ruth Bladder Ginsu on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 10:15 am

What if you Bay Guardian staffers showed a little more courage and didn't permit your boss Bruce Brugmann to bust your union in 1971? This "woe is me, I'm a writer in SF and this place is so expense" nonsense wouldn't be as shrill. Because you'd have more money in your pocket.

But you were too cowardly to unionize. You were afraid to ask to be paid what you're worth. I have no sympathy for you, you coward!

Posted by Peter on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

none of us worked here in 1971? Just a thought.

Posted by admin on Oct. 18, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

None of you worked here in the 1970s. None of you lived here. None of you come from here. None of you grew up here. None of you know the history of the newspaper you work for. Is ignorance bliss, Admin?

You're cowards through and through. Nothing stops you from trying to organize, Admin.

For your benefit, here are some Web sites to get the ball rolling and help you :

* The Newspaper Guild (part of the Communications Workers of America): http://mediaworkers.org/

* Newspaper Guild: http://www.newsguild.org/

* Society of Professional Journalists: http://www.spj.org/

* A history of union busting at your newspaper: http://www.uncanny.net/~wetzel/sfbg.htm

Posted by Peter on Oct. 24, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

I never can understand why so many self-professed writers feel the need to bludgeon to death the idea of the starving artist, and how unenlightened the rest of us are.

First off, everybody “knows about life”. Eating Top Ramen on the regular and being a shitty boyfriend bears no relation to life experience or writing prowess, nor does it automatically equal interesting. And the attitude you have for your former classmates, while perhaps true in some cases, just reeks of a competitive, reflexively combative attitude. Methinks there’s enough room out there for multiple writing perspectives, from those that have observed life as well as experienced it. Remember that until very recent history, ALL esteemed writers and artists were of the gentry or funded by them.

I agree that writers need more real cheap. But they aren’t the only ones, and they’re also not the only ones who are being let down by the city. Yearning for the days of “cheap that isn’t cool” is kinda another veiled attempt at cool, and blaming it on the mythological creature known as “hipster” is so, so shortsighted, insipid, and just plain ole mean-spirited.

Lots of people like to write about the things they don’t like because it threatens them personally. I’d love, in our jaded times, to read something about what we don’t like because it threatens us all.

Posted by Amy on Oct. 22, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

Dear Tim,

There are all kinds of authentic writing lives.

Choosing to suffer in the hopes that it will give you something to write about is not a more authentic choice than holding down a soul-numbing 9-5 job (or several) in order to support oneself and one's family (and not necessarily children, but family members who are working hard and having trouble making ends meet), and STILL getting up at 5:30am every morning.... to write.

It's strange to me that you take the same entitled attitude toward being a writer that you fault in others.

And the idea that suffering for art is somehow authentic? Do you see that you are fetishizing poverty? That's not only insensitive, but arrogant.

San Francisco, even if you are a native, does not "owe" you $2 tacos and $4 beers just because you are an artist. But as a writer, you do owe your audience a valid attempt to weave some beauty out of your suffering, whether you chose it or not. If you've decided that what a writer is what you are, then question other writers' authenticity less, and your own more.

-LJ Moore

Posted by LJ Moore on Oct. 26, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

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