Come Together

A different way to be a professional writer

"Envy can be blinding to your art." This was Po Bronson, author of four books, speaking at a panel discussion last week celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Grotto, the San Francisco writing collective he co-founded. The other panelists -- Grotto members Mary Roach, Noah Hawley, and Ethan Watters (also a co-founder), and old-novelist-around-town Herb Gold -- nodded in agreement. So did many in the audience, a young mix of writers and fans. Despite the apparent concurrence, though, I can pretty much guarantee that every person in that crowd was feeling a little envious right about then.

To their credit, the Grotto folks did their best to demystify the place. "It's just really an office for us," Hawley said. "It's like a job." But why would anyone come out to hear other people talk about their office? In truth, the Grotto is encouragement for anyone who aspires to write professionally. It's hard not to look at the output of its 21 members -- 21 books (12 of them best sellers, according to the panel's introduction) and six more coming out next year, not to mention five films, a number of TV scripts, and various other media projects -- and covet that success.

The panel, in fact, was in stark contrast to an interview I'd held earlier that day with Mabel Maney, author of five books (including two with a major publisher), in her Noe Valley apartment, which is so small and carefully laid out that it resembles a sailboat's galley. Maney, who wrote the popular "Nancy Clue" series of lesbian Nancy Drew spoofs and the more recent series of "Jane Bond" parodies (including her latest, The Girl With the Golden Bouffant), describes herself as "scraping by." When I asked if she was making a living with her writing, she answered with a smile, "No, not making a living." In the meantime, she's producing fabric art to sell. Otherwise, she describes her plan, only half-jokingly, this way: "If every lesbian in America sent me $1, I'd never have to work again."

Evidence of the Grotto's success.
Evidence of the Grotto's success.

It's easy to imagine that writing books for a living is glamorous: Just set your laptop on an old desk by a window in your quaint cottage, grab your cup of tea, and tap away. You never see these people taking side gigs, say, ironing clothes for the Banana Republic catalog (as Maney once did). The Grotto discussion inadvertently reinforced this stereotype: When the moderator, Jack Boulware (a former staff writer at SF Weekly and author of two nonfiction titles himself), asked the panelists about their previous jobs, Noah Hawley said, "I worked with lawyers, and this is better"; Mary Roach said she was a copy editor for one year; and Ethan Watters said he'd never had one. Even Boulware gasped. Never had a job? What's not to envy?

All this is not to say that Maney is a more genuine writer than the Grotto's members for not having an "office," nor that she's more virtuous for being broke. (She joked that she and her friends "pass the same $100 around.") But she, more than Bronson or his cohorts, fits the idea I used to have in my head about what a writer is -- a romantic concept of one who struggles alone for her art, living a life if not glamorous, then wholesomely spare. The Grotto is a proper, and welcome, affront to that naive notion.

It was entirely refreshing to hear the panelists talk about how "welcoming" the place is, about how the members have, in Roach's words, "a healthy sense of obligation" to one another. Bronson, in particular, was emphatic about how the collective avoids the "poison" of unfriendly competition. After Herb Gold told a story about a writer who used to call him to ask how many pages he'd produced that day, Bronson said, "You can't win at that game. There's always a writer doing better than me." Roach concurred: "You're always comparing yourself to the people around you," but at the Grotto it's "inspirational."

It would be easy to be cynical about the Grotto. From the outside, it seems too good to be true. But to keep a community like that going for a decade, with no scandals, no huge blowups, and an impressive roster of successful, award-winning publications, speaks for itself.

The collective began rather haphazardly. Bronson and Watters were in a writing group together, and Bronson played sports with Ethan Canin (the third founder, author of five books of fiction). Bronson had an "instinct" that a group dynamic might work, but he had no role models. "I didn't know anyone who read books, much less wrote them," he said. But he wanted to write, and his friends did, too, so the trio rented space -- for six, because they figured others would want to join them. Two years later, they moved to a place that had room for nine, and three years after that to the group's current home, which has space for 22.

The Grotto's turnover is low, also a testament to the strength of its founding idea. There's no application process; when a space opens up, which is rare, the members start asking around and inviting people to lunch until there's a general consensus on who'd be a good fit. It's not as easy as it might seem (especially in this town) to find a writer who's not only interested in working in a collective and ready to take the plunge, but who also can afford a separate spot in which to work.

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