I just happened to see an advertisement in a literary magazine I subscribe to, Narrative, where one of the editors was calling for applications to his forth-coming writing workshops in New York and San Francisco. ‘How exciting’ I thought, and then squashed that frivolity with the prosaic ‘don’t be stupid’.
But I kept thinking about those workshops. I had travelled to many cities in many countries, but not San Francisco. I was restless, my future in limbo, and decided I had nothing to lose by submitting samples of my work: a requirement for selection. Only twelve participants would be chosen; it was highly unlikely I’d be one of them. I sent off two short stories anyway and tried to forget the whole thing.
Lo and behold, just a couple of days after sending my stories an email popped up, from Tom Jenks, the editor, saying he’d like to speak with me about the course. May he phone? May he what? The outcome of our conversation was that I was given the weekend to consider whether I’d accept a position, as the workshop was filling fast. Yikes. Brain in overdrive.
I began to plan, wondering all the while just how sensible this was, considering the obvious: air fares, food, accommodation and all. Never mind the upheaval of moving house. I talked it over with my husband, who was supportive, but told me it was my decision to make. Help. Double Help. To go, or not to go? That was the question.
Saturday came and I was no nearer to making a decision. On Sunday my son telephoned from Australia, and naturally I burbled on about the San Francisco workshop. He said little, using short phrases like – In April, you say? And, what dates?
I could not believe what he told me next, that he just happened to be going to San Francisco the exact week of the workshop, to visit the head office of the company he worked for. Well, well. Well. He even suggested we travel over together.
Come Monday I emailed my acceptance: I would attend the workshop.
However, there was a good deal of preparation to do. I’d been sent manuscripts (each about ten pages in length), from all the other participants, and had to read them thoroughly plus complete a one page report on each. One of my favourite activities is
close-reading, but a one-page report has be concise and erudite – meaning, there would be no skim-reading for me. It was fairly taxing. Alongside this task, there was another; that of reading several short stories of well-known authors, whose work we would be analysing and talking about in the afternoon sessions. The list included: Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, Edward P. Jones and Virginia Woolf. What a wonderful crop of writers. Bring it on.
Many of these authors were published in American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks, a book we would be working from in the workshop. I read it cover to cover before leaving.
Once we’d landed, my son picked up a rental car from the airport, and we headed north to the Marin headlands. It was a sublime, blue, cloud-free day. No sign of the infamous fog. Just sprawling views of the Pacific, Golden Gate bridge and the city. The perfect photo opportunity.
It was bumper to bumper traffic on Highway 101 all the way to Petaluma (the site of my son’s workplace), where I would stay with him for a few days before returning to the city, and the writing workshop. I was to see San Francisco sooner than I thought.
The next morning, we left before breakfast for Larkspur, where we boarded a ferry, alighting at Fisherman’s Wharf. The wharf heaved with people, and moving through them demanded skill and patience – the later I’ve not perfected. We chose to leave the bustling wharf and walk up-town, to find some quieter eating places. Yeah, sure. We walked block after block, but could only spot a lone Starbucks, a place we try and avoid back home (because we have many excellent cafes of our own). But hey! it was open. So, we brushed our prejudice aside, and scoffed down a croissant and coffee. It tasted pretty good at 1pm that hot day.
Not truly sated, but satisfied enough, we bussed up to Presidio, a former US Army military fort. It sits high above the city offering views across the harbour to Marin Heads, the area we visited the day before. The Golden Gate bridge was equally impressive from this perspective.
But we’d come up here for a different reason, and set off down the hill to find the USB Art building, where Annie Lebowitz’s portraits of women were on exhibit. I’d promised my daughter (a devotee of Lebowitz and photography), to see them on her behalf. A shame she wasn’t with us: the images were nuanced and very good.
It was a trip to Bogeda Bay the following day, along a wonderful route to the coast through rolling farmland and bush-clad hills. At the ocean’s edge we watched huge crashing waves, and further out, whales gliding by. I nearly cried. I’d not expected that. What a beautiful headland.
We meandered along the coast that afternoon passing through little villages, before veering onto The Bohemian Highway. Powerful Redwoods lined the shoulders, dappling light across the road in true chiaroscuro style. Tucked at the base of these monsters, were old homes (baches we’d call them in New Zealand) and bearded men working on cars in the shade.
And thanks to my son knowing the best places we stopped in San Raphael for dinner. Back at the hotel, we celebrated our special time together with a cold drink from the bar. Cheers.
The next day I was dropped off at Chris’s house, who I’d known in New Zealand years before he moved to Lake Tahoe, California. I believed he still lived there and was very surprised to find that his current home turf was Petaluma. After a chat, or three, Chris
suggested he take me to a state park in Sonoma County, which was once the home of author Jack London, called Beauty Ranch back then. “Sounds great,” I said, “why not?”
Within the park were the ruins of Wolf House, a just-completed home, destroyed by fire in 1913; a cottage, where he and his wife had lived, and a museum (built after his death three years later).
As we viewed images and captions about Jack London in the museum, I admit to feeling being flabbergasted. He gave new meaning to the word ‘adventurer’, for there wasn’t much that he hadn’t done or tried to do, from gold-mining in the Klondike, sailing his yacht on long voyages to Tahiti and Australia, to running a farm and writing. Considering that he was only forty when he died, how he managed to produce over twenty novels, as many short story collections and numerous poems, I just don’t know. His prodigiousness was nothing short of amazing.
I was having such good luck, as Chris offered to take me back to San Francisco, saving me the luggage lugging and a bus ride. We said goodbye outside my accommodation; a small studio apartment in a grand old house. My host Donna showed me through to my rooms, which opened out onto a perfect garden, hidden from the street by a high wall. What a perfect spot to do my work I thought.
Donna was my age, very interested in the arts, and generous beyond belief. She took me in hand when finding out my course didn’t start for a day. I visited an art and science museum, before being shown Fort Mason, on the waterfront, where my course was to be held. Donna was definitely a bonus to a stranger come to town.
My journey thus far, had been filled with wonderful experiences; natural beauty; literary insights and peoples’ warmth. I was loving San Francisco. Bring on the workshop!