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Spurring the creative urge with a book about writing in San Francisco

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
Maybe it's the time of the year, or maybe it's my age or stage of life, but an existential fear of not mattering has taken hold of my insides. It's not a pleasant sensation, and apparently I'm not the only one feeling it. Among my friends — in particular, among my female friends — it seems epidemic. We're all wondering what happened to our creativity, our desire to write the Great American Novel or paint the Great American Picture or design the Great American Ad Campaign. Surely we don't outgrow inspiration?

A book I picked up after some resistance (more on that later) shed a little light on this phenomenon. A Writer's San Francisco by Eric Maisel is part writing guide, part memoir, and part love letter to the city. Maisel, who lives in Bernal Heights, makes his living as a "creativity coach" — that is, he helps people who want to be creative but don't know where to start or how to move past an obstacle. He says he "sort of" invented the term "creativity coach," or at least helped nurture the idea; anyway, he's written more than 30 nonfiction books about creativity (in addition to several novels) and teaches others how to do what he does. (He has a background in psychology and is a licensed family therapist; you've probably seen his photo on fliers around town for the Writing Salon.)

It would be a shame to call this slim collection of essays charming, because that sounds belittling. But with richly detailed, slightly skewed, timeless pen/ink/watercolor images by Paul Madonna (whose panels appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, and who illustrated 826 Valencia's San Francisco Literary Map), the term fits. If by "charming" I meant "polite," that would be wrong: The book isn't merely pleasant (though it is that), but also attractive and charismatic. It even slaps you upside the head now and then with a call to create, which doesn't sound charming but which, in the end, is much more appealing than what Maisel calls the "smarmy and smiley-face" self-help approach.

The book is subtitled "A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul," a touchy-feely phrase that almost made me not read it. But it turns out that's the publisher's slogan, not the author's (New World Library releases volumes with titles like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior). It would be too bad if that subtitle turned sensible people away from A Writer's San Francisco, because the book is both practical and honest. It has a lot to say about how creativity gets trapped in everyday life, and how to let it out.

This is not to say there aren't things I don't like about the book. For one, it has a few small errors that bug me as an editor (it adds an apostrophe to Publishers Weekly; it incorrectly states that San Francisco is larger than Boston, after correctly pointing out their relative square mileage). For another, it includes some presumptuous statements that rub me the wrong way (one is that he's "never met a Republican who served in the [military]"; Mr. Maisel, meet my dad, who served in the Navy during Korea). He even makes some painfully bad jokes ("Denial is not just a river in Egypt").

But these are small complaints. Mostly I found myself underlining passages and turning down page corners. Maisel writes most convincingly about the people he encounters in his work. These are people with day jobs ("They were good at what they did — was that the secret curse?"), who want only "to write a little, draw a little, and drink some tea," but who instead "must wake up every morning and put on a false front." My friends and I all feel this way — which is not to say that we don't like our jobs (some do, some don't), only that we've forgotten what really gets us going.

You'll see yourself in A Writer's San Francisco. If you've ever participated in National Novel Writing Month, only to find yourself "stymied by [your] accumulated words," you're in there. If you've ever gotten awful feedback about something you've done and let yourself say "my life is a farce," you're in there. If you've ever longed to be told "You are a real writer," you're in there. Certain lines will make you nod in recognition ("It should be so easy to contrive — write a worthy thing and be told that it is worthy — but it isn't"). Maisel mostly avoids easy answers and formulaic bromides; more often than not, he reveals his own insecurities and failures, by way of example.

One of his little exercises (there aren't many) is to start the process of writing by cracking an egg. In his view, doing something so useless and messy is a prelude to the messy, useless act of writing. And Maisel's career has been messy, though certainly not useless — the 59-year-old has had books rejected (he claims to have written 50 and had "maybe 35" published), readings go unattended, public talks that couldn't even raise a compliment from his own agent (former, needless to say). But he's kept writing.

You'll also see a lot of San Francisco here. Maisel name-checks everything from Green Apple Books and City Lights to an obscure Bernal Heights bar called the Chaise Lounge (now closed, sadly), along with the Orbit Room on Market, Muddy's on Valencia, and a zillion other places famous and infamous. It's not a gimmick: Maisel believes that certain cities attract creative people (this book is the second in a planned series, after A Writer's Paris).

Granted, some of A Writer's San Francisco made me feel guilty. In one spot, Maisel writes, "It takes no special skill with words to tell some decent truths. ... You only have to stand up — that's the main thing." Ouch. In another, Maisel admonishes us to "honorably rewrite," which is much harder than it sounds. He insists that one must "Be incandescent — or nothing will happen." But what to do if the light's gone out? Rekindle, he says. If only that were easy. Perhaps that's the point: None of this is easy. You want easy, be a crossing guard.

There's a lot of humor and even a little anger in A Writer's San Francisco, especially when it comes to the sorry state of book publishing. One hilarious chapter tells the story of a party Maisel attended, at which he met an accountant who told him about the "fiction proposal" he planned to put together for his thriller. He quotes the fellow partier: "'I pity any novelist who thinks that he can make it on the merits of his novel!'" Maisel has the urge to push the palm of his hand up through the man's nose, but "How fortunate ... that I had my hands full with wine and cheese." Too bad, I say; this idiot deserved a firm slap, at the very least.

Maisel even goofs on himself. In one anecdote about a "fastidious, overbooked eye surgeon" working on his first novel, he tells the man that "Instruction ... is the wrong approach to novel-writing." But then, what is Maisel doing if not instructing? In a later chapter, he explains: By asking this question — that is, by refusing to submit to someone else's idea of how to do things — you free yourself to do things your own way.

I finished the book thinking about my existential dilemma. It seems to me that the goal isn't to matter to anyone else. It's to matter to yourself. You're not required to create the Great American anything; if you've made yourself happy, that's enough. Here's how Maisel puts it: "We ... let go of our longing that life live up to its reputation."

So here we are, at the end of the year. Did you create anything in 2006 that you're proud of? If not, read A Writer's San Francisco. You know what to do with those eggs.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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