Finding a writing community on the other side of the world.
In San Francisco, I had a routine. Every Sunday morning at 11, I’d meet my friends at an Ethiopian cafe a few blocks from the famous Painted Ladies, order some hot tea, sit down, crack open my laptop (which is decorated with a photo of Jim Henson looking lovingly into Kermit the Frog’s eyes), and I would write for an hour or two.
Afterward, we’d talk about what we wrote, catch up on each other’s weeks, order a vegetarian platter, eat with our fingers, and bask in the glow of being around people that “got” us.
We called these weekly meetups “Shut Up And Write”.
During the week, I’d make my living by guiding tourists around town and pointing out the ghosts they couldn’t see. If I told a story skillfully enough, I could see the ghosts take shape in strangers’ eyes. This was my magic power — bringing the dead back to life.
As far as I saw it, San Francisco was a place where time overlapped on itself. Time was in the foreground and background of every vista. When the fog rolled in, shadows I knew by name wandered on the periphery. My tour bus circled the city four times a day, stirring the past and present together like a cauldron.
“It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.” ― Oscar Wilde
I liked to imagine that those Sunday writing days were the most sacred days of all because it’s when we came together to “summon” four ghosts in particular — the founding members of the Bohemian Club.
The original Bohemian Club consisted of four famous writers:
Mark Twain, back when he was still Samuel Clemens — a wild, frustrated journalist still finding his voice and his place in the world.
Bret Harte, San Francisco’s literary golden boy. The group’s fearless leader who would eventually fall from grace and become painfully jealous of the meteoric success of his old friend, Sam.
Charles Warren Stoddard, a shy, semi-openly gay poet, beloved and protected by the first two. Eventually, he would become Twain’s most trusted travel buddy.
Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and the estranged niece / step-daughter of Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism). She wrote most often of being shackled to housework and family, longing for the adventure that was the birthright of her male contemporaries.
Their lives and friendships are brilliantly depicted by Ben Tarnoff in his book, “The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature.”
Throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s these four were an inseparable group of misfits who fed and encouraged each others’ writing and careers. Fresh out of the Civil War, they explored new frontiers of identity storytelling. The members of the Bohemian Club were some of the first American writers to shrug off the approval of the European literature elite and embrace their uniquely American stories and dialects.
Tarnoff’s book is a fascinating, heart-wrenching study of four very different people with four very different creative outlooks, who were together for a very brief moment in history to encourage and influence each other in a common goal, then went their separate ways and had four very different fates.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and your writing will be just as it should be.”
Anyone who has lived in San Francisco in the last decade will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to stay there forever. Rising rent prices and an influx of highly specialized tech jobs has created an unfriendly environment for creatives, bohemians, and historians who fancy themselves necromancers.
We all knew that our time there was finite. If history was to repeat itself, and it always does, each one of us would have to make our way into the wider world eventually. And when the exodus started, it progressed quickly. Friends began to lose jobs, get priced out of their apartments, follow significant others…
A few of us remained but I wasn’t one of them.
“Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible.”
— Walter Cronkite
My 8 years there felt like a dream. Since I left, I’ve had some trouble recapturing that same magic. And it’s not because magic doesn’t exist here in Spain.