Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dispatch from San Francisco

By Cindy Bailey 10.14.04

I may be forgotten, but I'm definitely not lost.

I'm found, way up here in San Francisco, where the lit scene is sizzling! Eureka!

For those who have forgotten (or never knew in the first place), I'm one of the original LitRavers, along with Wayman Barnes and Frankie Drayus – founding members, we be. (There I am on the “About Us” page.) But I've always been more of the silent partner type. Credit for LitRave really belongs to those other two, plus those who came on board soon after. In the beginning, I attended most LitRave events, even getting behind the mic a few times. But I'm not really a poetry gal, after all, and so eventually, slithered back to my hollowed office to write prose, making appearances mostly only to lead workshops in creative nonfiction along with Mr. Barnes.

Then poof! I was magically transported to San Francisco, where – as I've already reported – the lit scene is sizzling. And I'm all turned on.

To give you the quick & dirty, the giant view from the sky: You can find open mics and other literary events in this city every night of the week (checkout and click on Literary Arts, and then [if you like] click on Spoken Word Events. I have to thank my new friend, Vene Franco, for that tip). Popular writing centers include the Grotto (, which I was told single-handedly raised San Francisco's literary arts scene into the pumping machine that it is this very minute) and 826Valencia ( There's also Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore, the MakeOut Room (for performances and readings; cocktails also available), A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley to name just a very few. NY's Media Bistro ( has occasional cocktail parties here, and you can always take workshops at the Writing Salon (, or over at UC Berkeley, or down at Stanford University, which has those prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowships, or at a number of the venues already mentioned. Here, there's ZYZZYVA, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story, Three Penny Review, and Watchword Press. And writers living in the Bay Area? There are hundreds, including Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon, Isabelle Allende, Dave Eggers, Po Bronson, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Julie Orringer, Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, Vendela Vida, Michael Lewis, Michelle Tea, Ayelet Waldman, Ann Packard, Mary Roach, and the list goes on and on and on. Oh, and it has been reported that people in the San Francisco Bay Area buy more books per capita than in any other part of the country.

Enough about San Francisco, let's talk about me, and a few of the lit events I finally got off my ass to attend.

On 826 Valencia (

The first literary event I attended was a panel discussion on memoir writing put on by 826 Valencia in the Mission District (August, 2004). A small word on 826 Valencia. It's a pirate supply store. Really, they sell eye patches and flags and glass eyes. If you wander toward the back of the room, however, the look changes. There are bookshelves and couches and chairs and rugs on the floors. A little farther and there's even another room, full of tables with kids all around it, laughing and talking and probably writing, too.

Still, the place is so much more than what appears. 826 Valencia is Dave Egger's baby, and he is truly committed to its mission of helping kids learn and grow through writing. Nationally, Eggers may be recognized and respected as a best-selling author (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocity), but in the San Francisco Bay Area he's a god. Besides helping hundreds of kids through tutoring and scholarships, he also publishes, along with his author wife, Vendela Vada, a quarterly literary magazine called Believer, publishes books by the likes of Steve Elliott and Nick Hornby under his imprint of McSweeny's Books, puts on monthly seminars for “adults,” helps connect writers in the community and supports them with resources through 826 Valencia, performs and reads at venues throughout San Francisco as well as the nation, hosts famous local writers like Isabelle Allende, works with San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures series to host their 24th annual literary event series (which benefits 826 Valencia and through which I saw the hilarious Amy Sedaris, being interviewed by Michael Chabon's wife and author, Ayelet Waldman). I'm exhausted just listing this! And I'm sure I've left things out, like his political interest in helping to do something about the crisis in Sudan.

But for a god, Dave is really just a regular guy: approachable, accessible, nice. Dave himself moderated the panel on memoirs. Authors on the panel included Steve Elliott (Happy Baby), Jenny Traig (Devil in the Details), Caroline Kraus (Borderlines), and lit agent Elise Proulx (also on the LitQuake committee, an event which I write about next). There appeared to be 100 of us packed into that middle room (the one with bookshelves and couches; I think they call it the Den), all in fold-out chairs. Dave was in his customary attire of baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, and he was prepared with a list of intelligent, logical, useful questions for the panelists. The format ran like this: questions answered by panel members (well-organized by topics that started with craft and moved on to publishing and marketing), interspersed by questions from the audience. After about two hours or so of this, we broke into groups. Each author (and one agent) dispersed him/herself to a part of the room and we participants could go hang with one of these guys for a while and ask him/her our own personal writing/publishing-related questions. The positive was that you got to hang out with a popular local author in a very casual environment, but the negative was that after you had asked your question (or two), you felt guilty sneaking off to talk to another author, so you didn't. The author I randomly selected said, “Ew, a popularity contest.”

But when I left, I was thrilled. Not because I learned so much, but because I was starting to meet and greet literary San Francisco, which is what I had set out to do. Who the hell knew there was that strong of a literary community here?

On LitQuake 2004 (

The second literary event I attended is still going on as I write this, and it's not really an event. It's a series of events, a nine-day celebration, now in its fifth year (three as “LitQuake” and the previous two under some other less popular name). The web site tells it best, so I won't repeat what they've written. I will only share a few brief reviews of the events I've attended to date.

EVENT 1:“Writing Women's Lives” on 10/10/04 – OK, so I missed the big LitQuake Launch party on Saturday night at Café du Nord on Market Street the night before, where a number of author bands like Eddy Joe Cotton's Yard Dogs Jug Band and Bronte Suarus played. So what? I got in on the rest of the action at least. The panel discussion on “Writing Women's Lives” took place at the Noe Valley Ministry, a modern, airy church just a few blocks walk from my house. Panel participants included Liz Maverick, Ann Packer, Maxine Hong Kingston, Julie Orringer, and ZZ Packer, the big name line up of which probably accounted for the 20 men that attended this “women's” event among the 100-person crowd on this hot, 85-degree Sunday afternoon. David Kipin of the San Francisco Chronicle moderated. Although all panelists contributed to a lively discussion, for me, anyway, Maxine stole the show. I mean, here is a woman whose books have been around for decades (particularly, The Woman Warrior, copyrighted in 1975 and required reading for me in college); here is a woman who had to write The Fifth Book of Peace twice because the first time around her work in progress (and only copy) got completely burned in the Oakland fires (along with her house), and yet she was hilarious. This petit, confident, Chinese woman with thick, long white hair, pulled back into a single pony tail and with a friendly, open face, well, she had these sorts of responses to share:

On the fact that 80 percent of book reviews go to men, leaving only 20 percent for women: “I've found that those few, minority women reviewers who do review our books will bend over backwards to critique the fact that you're not being feminist enough… and then you find yourself being accused of being a mother…”

On choosing book covers for your books: “I would be shown [this artwork] and I would have to tell them that this looks like Chinese wallpaper, that this is stereotyping and it's not beautiful, but they don't listen…I've solved the problem by drawing my own pictures for book jackets.”

On a tangent off of writing from the male point of view: “Until I was 35, I wrote only in the first person. I think this was because I was a self-centered, narcissistic writer …”

On a tangent off of how teaching writing can affect your writing: “When I teach high school students… they all write love stories and all of their love objects, male or female, regardless of race, are blond with blue eyes.”

EVENT 2: Upstairs at the ever popular Café du Nord (, LitQuake teamed with Porch Light ( for an evening of storytelling from a mix of local writers. The theme was “Throes of Rejection,” and the writers were not to have notes or to have memorized the stories (clearly, a few cheated). They were all fabulous, given what they had to do. Standouts for me were probably Josh Kornbluth, who rambled on about I have no idea what, but I found it all funny; Regina Louise (one of the cheaters) who perfectly performed a poignant story of waiting at the window to see her mom Ruby, who promised to come see her but never showed up; and Joyce Maynard, who told an eerie story of her building a relationship through letters with a California inmate known as Grizzly.

EVENT 3: At this event, Tuesday night (10/12/04) at the Balboa Theater, Tamara Straus, the Editor-in-Chief of Zoetrope: All-Story, interviewed Barry Gifford on the process of transforming his book, Wild at Heart, to film with David Lynch. To be honest, I didn't find any zingers in his talk. He's a friendly, casual, engaging guy, who is truly committed to his art (huge applaud for this), but he didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. If you've been around the writing block a few times, you wouldn't have found any zingers either. But it was a thrill to re-watch, after all these many years, the crazy, violent, original Wild at Heart, right there on the big screen all over again, with Laura Dern and a very young, baby-faced Nicolas Cage.

EVENT X: I'm skipping Wednesday and Thursday night, but I'll be out there on Friday night (10/15/04) for LitQuake's popular Pub Crawl, in which hundreds of authors will read at various pubs and venues on Valencia and 22nd streets in the artsy Mission District. You can read all about it at If you can't make it here this Friday night, I'd consider driving up from LA for next year's LitQuake events. It's only a 5-hour drive, and it's worth it!

Over and out for now. Cindy