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Inside the creative minds at the SF Writers' Grotto

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ROSS HONG KONG

The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is not a grotto, really. A grotto is a cave … or, something like a cave. This is just a floor in a nondescript office building: 31 offices surrounding a conference room, where a few dozen people can sit somewhat comfortably. From the hallways, each office door looks about the same. What makes this place special, though, is what’s behind each door.

Nonfiction writer Ethan Watters says, “This idea of working alone as a writer would never work for me, certainly.” So he, along with Po Bronson and Ethan Canin, started a collective. A place for six writers to work. Then nine. Then 21. Now, nearly 60 writers are members of the Grotto.

One of them is Todd Oppenheimer, who, at 59, is one of the older inhabitants. He’s got the best office. “We like to call it ‘the principal’s office,’” he says. “If anybody gets in trouble, they have to come see me.”

Which isn’t all bad. In fact, that’s part of why writers work here: to get and give advice. Watters, for example, just got commissioned by The New Yorker.

“It’s my first piece for them,” he says, “so I feel like I’m in over my head, and I’m very excited about it. But it’s new territory for me.”

But not new for his neighbor down the hall.

“The first piece I published in The New Yorker,” says Oppenheimer, “was a profile of a master bladesmith who specialized in kitchen knives.”

So, Watters shares his pieces and publishing notes with Oppenheimer, Bronson, and also with Laura Fraser.

“I’m a writer, and I also teach writing,” says Fraser. “And I’ve written probably thousands of magazine articles for everyone from the New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah, Vogue, to, like, stories about how to decorate with ottomans for Ladies Home Journal.”

The backgrounds and interests of the other writers here are just as diverse, including author and journalist Christopher Cook, novelist and memoirist Janis Cooke Newman, writer and teacher Jenny Bitner, and poet Matthew Zapruder.

“There’s always a little pause in my soul before I say that I’m a poet,” he says, “because it’s a strange thing to say, especially in this world.”

But he is. He’s published three collections of poetry, which say things like this: “I examine my feelings without feeling anything. I ride my blue bike on the edge of the desert. I am president of this glass of water.”

That is also a line written on a drawing of a glass of water – one of many odds and ends in Zapruder’s office.

“I keep bringing things here,” he says. “I’m like a squirrel, I think. I keep bringing things here and thinking, ‘Oh. This would help me write poems.’ So I bring it back.”

Which makes his office pretty cluttered. So is Watters’ office. But his 13 by 18 foot space is packed with exercise equipment.

“I bought a walking desk,” he says. “You can see, this is a treadmill. It’s not technically a walking desk, it’s a treadmill. And I can read on it. While I’m on the phone, I can walk while I’m on it. Um, I’ve got that, sort of, massage chair. And I’ve got my sitting ball.”

Down a different hallway of the Writers’ Grotto, I meet nonfiction writer Bridget Quinn. She also has an exercise ball. I ask her if it’s an homage to Watters.

“Well, to Ethan and to all the active people in the Grotto,” she says. “There’s exercise balls, there’s actually a couple of treadmills, there’s weightlifting. So we just have it sitting here as kind of a touchstone of our connection to this physical but intellectual place.”

I ask her if anybody sleeps at the Grotto.

“I have heard of people sleeping here,” she says. “I don’t know if I should name names.”

Heather Donahue has slept here. In what she calls “the lady cave.”

Donahue starred in the groundbreaking movie The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Then she left Hollywood to grow medical marijuana – an experience she recounts in her book Grow Girl, which was written in her narrow, windowless, dark red Grotto office.

“The color’s called ‘antique ruby,’” she says, “I do spend a lot of time staring at the walls, so I like to have them be pretty.”

Every office is a glimpse into a writer’s character. And practically everyone has something inspiring or unusual in his or her workspace.

Radio producer and freelance magazine writer Julia Scott has an image of Superwoman on her bulletin board. Newman keeps a coffee maker in her office. Christopher Cook, for some reason, keeps outdated federal yellow pages directories.

Writing is hard. It’s a wrestling match with your mind. Understanding how an external space works can help young writers like Jenny Bitner learn to refine their internal thoughts.

“You get to see people’s offices,” she says. “I mean, I was in somebody’s office, and I was checking out how they organize their files, what kind of pens they use, because there’s no system for how you do it, how you work as a writer.”

Quinn says, “My rule is pretty doable. It’s 500 words a day, or two hours of editing. And I have to meet that every day. And sometimes I get to 15 minutes before lunch, and I have very little done, but I always make it happen by then. Which tells me a lot of it is just a head game.

Of all the writers I see today, Fast Company reporter E.B. Boyd seems least attached to stuff. Besides her writing gear, all she has with her is a jar of almond butter. She says inspiration, for her, comes from the people who are here.

“Every now and then will people gather together and hang out and shoot the shit?” she asks. “Yeah. But that’s also part of what makes this a really great place. Because we’re all in our offices and working by ourselves, and then we get together, whether it’s a lunch or at the end of the week, and sit and talk and share ideas, and there’s a huge creative energy and interchange which then goes back and influences what we do.”

Around 1pm every day, the writers gather at tables in the central conference room. It’s lively – a social outlet for sharing stories, tips, or simply friendship.

“It’s great to be able to go out and have lunch,” says Donahue, “and I learn something new at lunch every day.”

Zapruder adds, “You know, if you’re a poet, you can spend the whole day sort of walking around and picking things up and looking at them and putting them down. And to be around writers who are focused, and disciplined, and think of longer projects, and have to go to work every day, and write for hours and hours, it’s been a very positive experience for me as a writer. Plus just having an office outside of my apartment is pretty great so I don’t freak out.”

Writers do freak out. That’s why the Grotto was created in the first place. Three guys who wanted to know that they weren’t alone … every once in a while.

Ben Trefny conducted interviews with 11 members of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, which you can listen to here

Ben handles daily operations in the news department, overseeing the editorial and sound engineering teams, delivering daily newscasts, producing the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents, and supervising special projects including KALW's Audio Academy training program.