Shut Up and Write
Finding a writing community on the other side of the world.
In San Francisco, I had a routine. Every Sunday morning at 11, I’d meet my friends at an Ethiopian cafe a few blocks from the famous Painted Ladies, order some hot tea, sit down, crack open my laptop (which is decorated with a photo of Jim Henson looking lovingly into Kermit the Frog’s eyes), and I would write for an hour or two.
Afterward, we’d talk about what we wrote, catch up on each other’s weeks, order a vegetarian platter, eat with our fingers, and bask in the glow of being around people that “got” us.
We called these weekly meetups “Shut Up And Write”.
During the week, I’d make my living by guiding tourists around town and pointing out the ghosts they couldn’t see. If I told a story skillfully enough, I could see the ghosts take shape in strangers’ eyes. This was my magic power — bringing the dead back to life.
As far as I saw it, San Francisco was a place where time overlapped on itself. Time was in the foreground and background of every vista. When the fog rolled in, shadows I knew by name wandered on the periphery. My tour bus circled the city four times a day, stirring the past and present together like a cauldron.
“It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.”
― Oscar Wilde
I liked to imagine that those Sunday writing days were the most sacred days of all because it’s when we came together to “summon” four ghosts in particular — the founding members of the Bohemian Club.
The original Bohemian Club consisted of four famous writers:
- Mark Twain, back when he was still Samuel Clemens — a wild, frustrated journalist still finding his voice and his place in the world.
- Bret Harte, San Francisco’s literary golden boy. The group’s fearless leader who would eventually fall from grace and become painfully jealous of the meteoric success of his old friend, Sam.
- Charles Warren Stoddard, a shy, semi-openly gay poet, beloved and protected by the first two. Eventually, he would become Twain’s most trusted travel companion.
- Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and the estranged niece / step-daughter of Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism). She wrote most often of being shackled to housework and family, longing for the adventure that was the birthright of her male contemporaries.
Their lives and friendships are brilliantly depicted by Ben Tarnoff in his book, “The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature.”
Throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s these four were an inseparable group of misfits who fed and encouraged each others’ writing and careers. Fresh out of the Civil War, they explored new frontiers of identity storytelling. The members of the Bohemian Club were some of the first American writers to shrug off the approval of the European literature elite and embrace their uniquely American stories and dialects.
Tarnoff’s book is a fascinating, heart-wrenching study of four very different people with four very different creative outlooks, who were together for a very brief moment in history to encourage and influence each other in a common goal, then went their separate ways and had four very different fates.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and your writing will be just as it should be.”
Anyone who has lived in San Francisco in the last decade will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to stay there forever. Rising rent prices and an influx of highly specialized tech jobs has created an unfriendly environment for creatives, bohemians, and historians who fancy themselves necromancers.
We all knew that our time there was finite. If history was to repeat itself, and it always does, each one of us would have to make our way into the wider world eventually. And when the exodus started, it progressed quickly. Friends began to lose jobs, get priced out of their apartments, follow significant others…
A few of us remained but I wasn’t one of them.
“Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart. You want to linger as long as possible.”
— Walter Cronkite
My 8 years there felt like a dream. Since I left, I’ve had some trouble recapturing that same magic. And it’s not because magic doesn’t exist here in Spain.
Here, the ghosts speak to me through festivals and architecture, but they do so in a language I’m not yet fluent in, with a symbolism that isn’t always familiar. Their faces are fuzzy and, if they can find someone who better understands them, they float right past me.
Just a few months after moving here, I met the most dreamy guy. He’s a theoretical physicist and a data scientist. He speaks three languages and plays classical guitar and piano. I love the way he sees the world as a mystery to unfold through careful process and steady endeavor. He’s helped me to develop the discipline to dive humbly into Spain’s many mysteries.
But the learning process has been slow. And a big part of me has yearned for the easy communication I had with my kindred spirits back in San Francisco. Here, my only friends are his friends and they’re all physicists. They’re lovely, good-hearted people, but we don’t quite speak the same language.
“But still when the mists of doubt prevail,
And we lie becalmed by the shores of age,
We hear from the misty troubled shore
The voice of children gone before.
Drawing the soul to its anchorage.”
— Bret Harte
I knew that, in order to feel at home in Barcelona, I had to learn Spanish. (I’d have to learn Catalan too, but Spanish was a prerequisite. Poco a poco.) I imagined reading great novels by Spanish and Catalan authors and unlocking insights into the culture and history. I imagined going to plays and listening to the radio and having long, philosophical discussions with locals at group dinners — things I took completely for granted in San Francisco.
But the first time I tried to go to a language exchange meetup here in Barcelona was a bust. When I got to the cafe, I spoke to the waitress in broken Spanish —
“Es aquí donde está el grupo Castillano?” (Is this where the Spanish group is?)
She responded in English for me without having to ask. “No, no Spanish group here.”
“I’m supposed to meet someone named Sara?” I pressed. “She said that I should talk to whoever was at the register and that you would point me to where the group was?”
“There isn’t a Spanish group here,” the waitress said. She seemed pretty sure. “Lo siento. You can ask people, though.”
It was painfully awkward to go from table to table, asking if anyone knew Sara, or if they were here for the Spanish group. By the time I’d made it around the cafe, it was well past time for the meetup to have started. I sat down and checked to make sure I was in the right place, sent a private message to Sara herself. Nothing. No response.
The waitress brought me an English menu without prompting. I ordered a €2 glass of wine and watched big tables full of people laughing together, studying together, greeting each other with a kiss on each cheek.
I buried myself in a very dense book about the history of Barcelona and read about Francisco Franco and the Spanish Civil War in earnest.
The feeling of being cut off hasn’t gone away. I’ve been working as a remote, freelance copywriter for American companies for almost two years now. I spend my days indoors, writing in English, trying desperately to focus for long enough to produce enough content to survive financially. I cook and do chores for my grandmother, who came here with me and only speaks three words in Spanish herself (“hola”, “gracias”, and “baño”). You try living with your grandma and not becoming a homebody.
I really can’t complain, though, right? I’m living a charmed life here in Spain. The city is beautiful, I’m writing for a living, and I’ve fallen in love. The fact that I haven’t found “my people”, that I haven’t figured out how to connect spiritually to the city’s history – it shouldn’t have hit me as hard as it has.
But, despite myself, I get annoyed with my boyfriend, Marcos, for pushing me to learn Spanish grammar that I haven’t gotten to in my lessons yet. I get shy and anxious at group events. I wish someone would tell me a story about a Spanish or Catalan historical figure that isn’t Franco (“He killed all the interesting people”, a local tells me with a shrug). I find myself feeling jealous of Marcos’ Greek flatmates when they speak to each other about poetry and the traditions they grew up with.
“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”
— Mark Twain
Today, I entered another cafe I’d never been to before. The waitresses were busy taking orders, so I went right past them to a large table where everybody had their laptops open.
“Perdon. Es aquí donde está el grupo escritura?” (Excuse me. Is this where the writing group is?)
Everyone looked around at each other and shook their heads. “No, sorry.”
“Vale, gracias.” I went to the next table and asked them the same thing. Still no luck.
After I’d asked everyone on that floor, I went downstairs into what looked like a Roman catacomb. Dim lights hung high above long tables. Everyone there had textbooks open in front of them.
Study groups. Not the writing group I was looking for.
I went back upstairs and ordered a real big frappe to soothe my disappointment. I ordered it “para llevar” — to go. Maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for me to find “my people” in Barcelona. I felt a little teary and wanted to get out of there before I broke down in public.
As I waited for my order to be made, I noticed a couple of people greet a woman in the line. “I’ve been away for two weeks,” she was saying in English. “I felt like I was cheating on myself.”
“I know,” said one of the others. “I’m addicted to this group. Any week where I don’t write feels wrong.”
“Oh, thank god,” I said, trying to squelch the sudden rush of intense relief and emotion that rose into my chest. “You’re the writing group, right? I was about to leave.”
We introduced ourselves and, once we’d all collected our orders, I followed them back to the tables.
“We usually have to sit all over,” said the girl who had been away for two weeks. “There are too many of us to all sit together sometimes. You can come sit with me, though.”
A few other members of the group came by to say hi to the girl who had been away. She greeted them warmly and asked about their lives and how their writing was going. Then she introduced me and they leaned down to kiss me on each cheek.
Then, just like in San Francisco, everyone opened their laptops (a few smiled at my Kermit the Frog laptop sticker), we shut up, and then we started writing.
About a half-hour into the silence, I heard laughing from across the table. I looked up and saw that the girl was giggling as she typed.
“Are you laughing at your own writing?” I whispered, completely enchanted.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” she said, gleefully. “I’m writing about my childhood and, when I write it, I live it again. 8-year-old me can make me laugh sometimes. Everyone here knows this about me.”
She smiled a big, bright smile and we both went back to typing. My heart soared and my fingers flew across the keys.
“There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.”
-Gonzo, The Muppet Movie, 1979
I should have known that, if friendship can transcend time, it can transcend place as well. There have always been, and will always be, writers who gather together for the love of the craft. The Bohemian Club, as innovative as it was, was never just a San Francisco anomaly — not really.
It took me nearly two years to get the nerve up to go to a writing meetup in Spain because I was sure that I had to learn Spanish first. But the more pressure I put on myself to learn, the harder it became, and the more lonely I felt. This became a vicious cycle of shame and isolation that drove me to depression — to the point where Marcos insisted that I just go to the damn writing meetup, already.
The members of this Barcelona group come from all over the world and speak many different languages, but we all speak enough of each others’ languages to be able to communicate. And when we all dragged our chairs to one table and squeezed in close to discuss our writing — and I met people who were working on fantasy novels, poetry, screenplays, autobiographies, and blogs — I felt like I was finally speaking fluently again for the first time in a long time.
It turns out that - all over the world - people are the same. You don’t need to prove yourself or pass a test to take your place or find your people.
You just need to be yourself.