Notebooks From the Underground


For most of the folks who participated in the Summer of Love, the details might be a bit foggy. It could be the intervening 40 years, or maybe copious amounts of mind-altering substances, that have kept the details spotty.

But 1967 San Francisco was more than sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. It was also the center stage of a literature revolution. If it weren't for Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, and the latter-day Beat scene, most of late-'60s San Francisco would be just an acid blur. These writers and their work have made this city legendary, and young scribes continue to flock here looking for inspiration.

If you've had the urge to finally write that novel, screenplay, memoir, or 40-page Beat poem — and we know you have — this is the summer to get it done.

A lot of people want to write, even call themselves writers. Yet when asked what they've written they suddenly get quiet, mumble incomprehensibly, and start talking about future and far-off projects. Actual pen-on-paper action is rarely mentioned, often replaced with a barrage of excuses — no time, waiting for the perfect idea, researching retreats, or the one I favor: “I'm a social person and writing is a lonely business” — that make it easy to ignore your to-do list when the going gets tough.

So, if you're serious, it's important to set up structures, support systems, and rituals to help fight the temptation to bail out. Because we live in one of the greatest literary cities on the globe, help and inspiration are always at hand. San Francisco is currently home to the Litquake festival, City Lights Bookstore, Porchlight storytelling series, The Writers' Grotto creative workspace, and Edinburgh Castle Pub, to name only a few top-notch literary hotspots. So no more excuses. Journaling The best way to start writing is the personal journal. It clears the mind, provides future material, and in the end creates a record of a life lived. As great writing teachers say: Write what you know.

The basis of Julia Cameron's bestselling book, The Artist's Way, is the practice of “Morning Pages.” Defined simply as committing three pages of strictly stream-of-consciousness long-hand writing to the page daily, avoiding self-censorship, it is a way to free up your personal expression, build up your chops, and get in the habit of writing every day.

For writing long-hand, take the time to find the right journal that makes you want to grab it and scribble furiously. There are entire sections in bookstores devoted to the blank book, or spend a little extra and look at the specialty stores. A local favorite is Scribbledoodles at 3982 24th St., Noe Valley, and Flaxx, 1699 Market St., carries a diverse selection. I prefer the Moleskine notebooks, said to have also been favored by Hemingway and Picasso. They are tough and don't fall apart like the flimsy Walgreen's special spiral-bound variety.

If you tire of conventional journal writing, bump it up to the next level. Learn to create and bind your own handmade journals with classes at San Francisco Center for the Book ( Check out the amazing collage journals published by Dan Eldon, Peter Beard, and Berkeley's own Sabrina Ward Harrison. Classes Classes give writers three great essentials: knowledge, community, and deadlines. I'm lucky enough to have an editor gently nudging me toward a due date, but most writers only have themselves, and it's easy to quit. Sign up for a class and your teacher and fellow students will keep you on track.

The Writing Salon ( offers classes in all genres of writing, from fiction and poetry to memoir and playwriting, as well as the business of writing: book proposals, marketing, and publishing. Long and short classes spanning multiple levels are held in both San Francisco and Berkeley ($165-$345). This is a great place to start out.

The Ripe Fruit School of Creative Writing ( also offers tightly structured classes in multiple genres but has a looser and perhaps a more spiritual approach to the written word.

Our very own cult hero and one of this year's San Francisco Public Library Laureates in celebration of the Summer of Love, Dave Eggers, shot into literary history with his memoir A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. He then went on to found 826 Valencia( down in the Mission, headquarters for six nonprofits across the country providing writing and tutoring services for young writers. 826 and McSweeney's publishing house, with offices on the other side of Valencia Street, have become a centerpoint for the nation's hipster writing scene. Lucky for us they also offer three-hour adult seminars ($100) exploring all areas of writing including the sell-out memoir panel, usually moderated by Eggers himself, featuring local scribes and often one literary agent. This is an unbelievable place to volunteer your skills and network with other writers on their way up.

Aspiring screenwriters should check out the nine-week course with James Dalessandro, whom Hollywood guru Lew Hunter has allegedly called “one of the top four or five teachers in the world.” Dalessandro teaches revolving classes at Fort Mason ($345, as well as a three-part online class called “Screenwriting as a Pro” ( The next class at Fort Mason starts Aug. 14.

For the personal attention that some of the bigger organizations don't always offer, keep your eyes peeled on the corkboards at cafes and Laundromats around town. That's where I found Alan Kaufman, author of the bestselling autobiography Jew Boy. He offers a first-rate memoir class that encourages students to finish the entire first draft of their memoir in 10 weeks — and he keeps you to it. ($375, Retreats & Intensives Book Passage ( at the Ferry Building and in Corte Madera offers the weeklong Travel Writers & Photographers Conference (Aug. 16-19) and always attracts the celebrities of the local travel writing scene. The four-day Mystery Conference (June 28-July 1) is also extremely popular. The bookstore also hosts monthly meetings of Left Coast Writers, a longstanding literary salon providing readings, support, and unabashed networking for a $120/year membership fee.

Ripe Fruit is offering an all-level/genre weekend retreat called “Out of Fury Into Grace” at the Isis Oasis Retreat Center up in Geyserville ($385-$455 includes lodging, meals, poo, and Jacuzzi) Aug. 24-26 (

Napa Writing Retreats (www. offer creative writing intensives that stress creating a safe space for writers to uncover their own unique writing voices. It's a bit pricey but you can't beat the Carneros Inn location in Napa: one-day (July 21, $250, includes lunch) and weekend retreats ($650, not including lodging) are offered. Local Books Eric Maisel has written a beautiful little book of creative inspiration called A Writer's San Francisco (New World Library, 2006) with cityscape drawings by artist Paul Madonna who does All Over Coffee for the Chronicle. The 30 individual short essays profile “inspiring writing locations'” in the San Francisco area, a smattering of local literary history, and tips and strategies to “inspire writers to write.”

Back in 1999, Bay Area resident and occasional SF Weekly contributor Chris Baty declared November to be National Novel Writing Month. With the help of his book No Plot? No Problem! (Chronicle Books, 2004) and Web site (, one-sixth of the 60,000 participating writers in 2005 allegedly completed book-length manuscripts in under 30 days. Take notes this summer.

So, stop talking and start writing. Take some time out of each day to do it, and if you need structure and deadlines, sign up for a class. A wise friend of mine once simply said, “The only difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is … a writer writes.”

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