Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
A Writer’s San Francisco: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul
by Eric Maisel
with drawings by Paul Madonna
New World Library
2006, hardcover,144 pages, ISBN 1-57731-546-4
Eric Maisel, described by his publisher as ‘America’s foremost creativity coach’ has written this delightful little book with, it seems, two types of readers in mind. The first is the person who knows and loves the city of San Francisco, and the second is the writer – or would-be writer – seeking to access their innate creativity and conquer writers’ block. The thirty individual short essays profile ‘inspiring writing locations’ in the San Francisco area, a smattering of literary history, and tips and strategies to ‘inspire writers to write’. I confess that the notion of a ‘creativity coach’ did inspire some ‘only in America’ musings in this reader, but I was quickly won over by the author’s warm, friendly tone and his truisms about the creative process that permeate the entire text.
In fact, I haven’t enjoyed a book on writing this much since encountering Stephen King’s On Writing some years ago. When I got to the end of A Writer’s San Francisco, I actually felt compelled to go back to the beginning and reread it immediately, such is its charm and inspirational qualities. Along with the author’s own musings on the literary (and his own personal) history with various sites around the city – including the Golden Gate Bridge, the famed City Lights Bookstore and the Bernal Heights area – the text is laden with helpful aphorisms for the creative soul who feels ‘stuck’. Quotable passages abound. This, for example: ‘Nature gives us thirty years or a hundred, a quill pen or its equivalent, and odd thoughts that need to settle on paper or else turn to dust’ (p.4). In discussing the city’s demographics, Maisel writes that San Francisco – like Paris – ‘is an important, well-marked stop on the bohemian international highway’, and cites the city’s rich history, from the bohemian enclaves of the 1890s, to the rise of the Beat poets, to the Summer of Love, as proof of his claim that San Francisco is home to more intelligent, thoughtful, creative and non-conformist people than just about any other city in the US, a fact made all the more remarkable given the small size of the city (46.7 square miles), compared with, for example, Los Angeles (469 square miles) or Houston (579 square miles). The effect of this is that ‘smart people with ideas are crammed together and stand in line at the same cafes, go to the same outdoor film festivals, … shop at the same farmers’ markets, and frequent the same bars’ (p.46). Essentially, Maisel’s advice to the writer is that this city is a true ‘home’ for the creative soul, and that its bohemian qualities create inspiration and a sense of continuity with the family of creative humanity.
Maisel also gets down to the nitty gritty of looking at the kinds of people that become writers. He gives the reader permission to embrace their writerly self, with all its bizarre appetites and creeping paranoias. Some more quotable quotes: ‘There are reasons why writers who write a lot, as Rudyard (Kipling) did, have big appetites. They are dancing bundles of desire. Writers who write crave sex, peanuts, and Nobel Prizes. They crave; they itch; they lust; they are alive. Whether they manage this melange of desires well is a separate matter. But without this dancing, pressing desire they would sit quietly like old folks lined up in the corridor of a nursing home. Honor your goal to create a world by burning with desire. Be incandescent – or nothing will happen’ (p.88). Maisel even has practical advice for the stay-at-home parent writer about how to find the time to write while keeping the kids supervised and occupied. He points out that the writer who has no time to write will be miserable, and this in turn will make his or her family miserable. ‘Writing is a writer’s prime parenting skill. If you don’t write, you get sad, angry, unhinged, gloomy, pessimistic, and morose. By writing first thing in the morning, as your children play or toddle off to school, you put yourself in the mood to smile at them when next you see them. Writing is a tonic, an elixir, even if it goes badly, because even if it goes badly at least you have been writing’ (p.92).
All writers instinctually know these things, but it’s terrific to see it all laid out in black and white by a ‘successful’ writer, who openly confesses to the same difficulties and anxieties as the novice. Maisel’s text makes one want to write, and to write better, more consistently, more religiously. In acknowledging the free, nonconformist nature of the creative soul, Maisel helps the reader give themselves permission to create, and to create abundantly.
Each chapter of the book is prefaced by one of Paul Madonna’s lovely drawings of various aspects of the city, covering not only architecture, but also odd views of back alleys, old cars, artist’s studios, roof gables, and webs of electrical and trolley car wires, all of which communicate the city’s unique charm. I’ve never been to San Francisco – although, like msot western writers I’ve always been aware of it as a kind of ShangriLa – but after reading this I feel I know the city better and, more importantly, can find ways to harness the type of energy Maisel claims San Francisco emanates for my own creative purposes.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).