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Dog Bites 

Can Dog Bites achieve a creative breakthrough under the tutelage of a Sylvia Plath-lookin' chick?

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Writer Blocked

Dog Bites usually takes great pleasure in The Life -- carrying around business cards identifying us as a "staff writer," dropping the phrase "according to my sources" at the gym, reading multiple newspapers at the coffeehouse while everybody else reads just one. Every time we write "Journalist" on a form asking for our occupation, we get a little thrill despite ourselves.

But families have a way of making even the most contented among us feel like a world-class loser.

We had dinner over the holidays with our revered Uncle G., a major influence during Dog Bites' impressionable younger years. A nature buff, sage, and fixture in the Bay Area psychedelic rock scene of the '60s, Uncle G. taught us -- among other things -- how to reveal a simple pebble's beauty by rubbing it around on our nose, letting our body oils release the hidden colors and patterns of the stone.

Needless to say, Dog Bites was crushed when Uncle G. yawned over dessert that night and said, "Funny, Dog Bites, I always expected you to become a great poet or a playwright. And here you became a journeyman journalist."

Though the conversation quickly moved in another direction, Dog Bites couldn't stop thinking about Uncle G's words. Sure, we did a little fiction writing back in college and, yeah, we may have bandied about words like "novel" and "MFA" for a few years. But that was just because we hadn't found our true calling. Right? Wasn't it? It wasn't that we had sold out. Surely not. Still ...

A few weeks later, while doing "research" at work, we stumbled on an intriguing ad on Craigslist for something called The Red Room Writers Society.

... The Writers Studio program we offer really can change your life. Or, it can at least change the part where you want to be a writer, but you keep procrastinating and putting off doing the actual writing part. We can change that part.

Only you actually writing will get you where you want to go, and we know how to make you do that. As a bonus, we make you do that while serving you tea and cookies at an historic mansion in San Francisco ...

After a furtive glance around our office pod, we clicked through to the Society's Web site. Here we saw pictures of -- we guessed -- the Red Room itself, which looked like the parlor of a Victorian-era whorehouse. For just $140, would-be writers would score a spot in the Red Room's "Studio," where they would be forced to do nothing but write for an hour, once a week, for a month.

"The studio is designed for students at any stage of a writing project, who feel stuck and want to see immediate results," reads the site.

If Dog Bites weren't such a damnable heathen, we might have taken a moment to send a little prayer up to our guardian angel. As it was, we picked up the phone and dialed the Society's number.

We were soon talking to one Ivory Madison, the silky-voiced founder of the Red Room.

"You're not going to get closer to writing by listening to Norman Mailer speak," explains Madison, who is no Norman Mailer. In fact, she's a law student, studying to become a public interest lawyer, who dabbles in fiction with radical feminist themes -- none of it published.

"I started the Red Room to try to get people like me to find out why we aren't publishing. Why we aren't finishing our projects," she says.

Madison's solution? Rent out the dining room of a B & B, charge people admission, and serve as a cross between a New Agey motivational speaker and an ass-kicking personal trainer to the roomful of would-be writers.

"It's been changing people's lives," gushed Madison. "They're leaving their husbands, quitting their jobs, losing 40 pounds -- it's amazing!"

Well, hot damn! Sign Dog Bites up! But first, there was a screening interview, said Madison.

"I don't want any random street urchin," she said.

Dog Bites, who has been compared on more than one occasion to Squeaky Fromme, felt a tad apprehensive. But Madison assured us that mostly, the interview was an opportunity for her to help Dog Bites pinpoint the blocks that were keeping us from being a Writer, and set some goals. The promise of head shrinkage perked us up, too; Dog Bites has been known to pick up and fill out those personality tests you find on the ground, even though we know they're dropped by Scientologists.

A week later, we were face to face with Madison, a Sylvia Plath-lookin' chick with a blond flip and little secretary glasses, at a South Park cafe.

"What do you like to do in your spare time?" she asked, cheerfully, reading off a prepared list of questions.

Cautiously, we told her we liked to make treats -- particularly sweet ones. Detecting from Madison's silence that more was needed, we added that we did six different types of sit-ups, in five sets of 25, every day. Thinking this gave the wrong impression, we carefully added that we didn't own any cute workout clothes. We also noted that we enjoyed critiquing our friends' romantic lives behind their backs.

"I think you need to be more vulnerable," said Madison.

Rattled, we were even more thrown off by her next question: "Who are your favorite writers?" Before we could stop ourselves, we'd blurted, "Hunter S. Thompson."

Oh no. Not that. Professional self-immolation. Our reputation linked to that shameful scrap heap of self-indulgent hacks who dream of finding literary fame through the use of heavy psychedelics and the first-person singular. We quickly threw in "Tolstoy!" in a wild attempt to distract her. But Madison had already written down, "Hunter S. Thompson." We turned white as she underlined it, twice.

Madison ended the meeting by warning that the actual writers' studio would be "like AA."

"We get really touchy-feely," she said.

Nevertheless, the next evening, Dog Bites entered the inner sanctum of the Red Room Writers Society -- an Alamo Square mansion-turned-hotel -- and sat down at the long dining-room table wearing our personal Power Suit, a brown cashmere turtleneck from Saks with a hole in the shoulder. About 10 other white people -- median age about 34 -- trickled in, filling mugs of tea and munching on butter cookies, until Madison called the group to order.

The room was not actually red, by the way, but pink. And strangely enough, it didn't resemble the room from the Web site. But no matter -- Dog Bites was determined to get touchy-feely, vulnerable, to "go there."

Madison started with a half-hour pep talk, culled from a mishmash of "how to write"-type books, with the inevitable comparison of writing to Zen Buddhism -- specifically, to Buddha having to carry sticks and water around, just the way we were going to have to suffer under the literary yoke if we wanted to become Writers. We bit into a cookie.

"Any good advice about writing is going to be good advice about life," Madison opined. "Risk taking, being vulnerable ..."

(We took special note of this comment, as it seemed to apply to Writers. The tactics to which Dog Bites routinely resorts as a journeyman journalist -- manipulation, wheedling, bullying -- would assuredly get the shit kicked out of us if we employed them after-hours.)

Then we were all asked to introduce ourselves and divulge what we "are feeling about our writing right now." After which we'd be required to say the words "I am a GREAT WRITER," and everybody would cheer and clap. A few participants tittered appreciatively, while others looked panicked.

Slowly, we moved through this Promise Keepers scenario. One returning member, a woman in her late 30s wearing purple, who was one of the few with a journal rather than a laptop, admitted to suffering a serious setback.

"I've always fantasized about having a dedicated but obscure international following one day," she said. "Nothing too big, but definitely international." (Supportive chuckles from the room.) But she'd recently read an article that said Czech students didn't think much of American fiction. "It made me unable to write over the entire holidays," she lamented.

Soon it was time to get down to business. Madison declared the session open, and the room immediately filled with the soft clicking of people typing furiously on their laptops. Dog Bites devoured four mini chocolate bars in quick succession. One woman -- with the well-scrubbed face and stringy hair of a hippie-in-transition literary type -- started crying. On closer inspection, however, she appeared merely to have the sniffles.

A few minutes passed, but it seemed like an eternity. Maybe it was the chocolate, or the green tea, or the once-elegant but now slightly flyspecked surroundings, but Dog Bites suddenly felt deeply embarrassed. Was this the "vulnerability" that Madison had tried to prepare us for? It felt like a niacin rush! Maybe this was the start of something truly literary. Time to "make it happen." But a terrible thought suddenly occurred to us, and our creative juices turned to ice.

What's our reputation in the great land that produced Kafka, Milan Kundera, and that guy who did those posters they sell in head shops? What do the Czechs think of Dog Bites? No, wait. Don't tell us. Our literary career depends on it. -- Lessley Anderson

A Not-So-Exclusive Exclusive

On Jan. 22, a reporter in the San Francisco Chronicle's Washington bureau treated the newspaper's readers to what appeared to be an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Edward Epstein wrote: "In an interview with the Chronicle, Powell also expressed the administration's irritation with France ... Powell, in his interview, said he had 'a candid, forthright, honest exchange of views' with the French Foreign Minister."

Was it possible that Epstein -- late of the San Francisco City Hall beat -- had scored a major professional coup? A give-and-take session about vital foreign policy issues with a master of the universe?

Well, not exactly.

"Epstein did not get an interview by himself," said State Department spokeswoman Brenda Greenberg. "He was one of several reporters attending a press briefing for regional newspapers."

Indeed, the Baltimore Sun reporter who attended did not try to exaggerate his role. His story noted that Powell had spoken with reporters for "several newspapers, including the Sun." Ditto the reporter for Agence France Presse, the French news service, who wrote, "Powell told reporters from major US regional newspapers in a Tuesday interview ... ."

In an exclusive interview with Dog Bites, Epstein said, "I was face to face with Powell, two feet from him."

But Epstein's editor, Andy Pollack, was none too pleased with his boy's performance. In a one-on-one telephone interview with Dog Bites, Pollack said Epstein's implication that he got an excloo with Powell "gave the wrong impression. It was incomplete, misleading, and inaccurate."

The following day, the Chronicle printed a "clarification" which concluded, "Powell made his comments in an interview with The Chronicle and three other newspapers."

But the good old Chron didn't even get that right. A telephone call to the State Department generated this response: "There were five non-major daily newspapers at the briefing, counting the Chronicle." -- Peter Byrne

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