Write it out

Pub date January 8, 2013


CAREERS AND ED If your New Year’s resolutions include finally finishing that post-apocalyptic S&M fantasy novel, or maybe just starting the memoir about your childhood as the illegitimate offspring of a ’70s soap opera star, you’re in the right place — and time. Here in the Bay Area, you can’t throw a copy of Robert McKee’s literary how-to “Story” without hitting a writing teacher — and January is when most writing classes ramp up. The trick is choosing the right one.

Best to begin with these 3 steps:


Are you looking for a lot of lecture on writing craft, or would you rather spend more time workshopping your writing? Do you want to be assigned reading homework, or would you prefer writing exercises? All this information should be in the class description, and if it isn’t, email the teacher and ask. You’re allowed, you’re a grown-up now.


About mid-February it’ll be a cold, rainy night and that TiVoed episode of Downton Abbey and some takeout Indian food will seem more appealing than the experimental fiction course you signed up for. Decide now if you’re better committing to an afternoon class or a weekend workshop. Or if you should sign up with a friend so you’ll have somebody to shame you going.


Reading the teacher’s bio is as important as reading the course description. If you’re taking a class in novel-writing, you might want to know if your instructor has actually published (and not self-published) a novel — and if it was in the last couple of decades. This is useful information to have when you’re asking about real-world topics, such as getting an agent or dealing with publishers.

Of course, being published doesn’t necessarily make someone a good teacher. Writing is a profession that attracts people who like to lock themselves up in rooms with imaginary characters. Always check out the Yelp reviews for any place you’re thinking of taking a class. You’ll find plenty of individual teacher comments, pro and con.


While there are other options, here is my personal list of the best places to take writing classes in the Bay Area:


Started in 1999 by a former newspaper editor, the Writing Salon (www.writingsalons.com)now has two locations, one in Potrero Hill and another in Berkeley. The Writing Salon offers intimate classes, four times a year in all genres (fiction, poetry, playwriting, even erotica) that are real crowd-pleasers. The Writing Salon won the SFBG Best of the Bay Readers’ Poll in Adult Education in 2011 and 2012.


The Grotto began offering classes in 2008, and has seen their program grow to more than 15 classes per week. Begun in 1994 by Po Bronson, Ethan Canin, and Ethan Watters, the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto (www.sfgrotto.org) is a collective of working writers who share office space South of Market, where classes are held. Grotto classes are taught by Grotto members, as well as visiting colleagues, such as their agents, editors, and author friends. Grotto classes have perhaps the most stringent criteria for their teachers. No instructor can teach a Grotto class in a genre he or she is not published in. The Grotto has recently partnered with Litquake to sponsor the Bay Area’s first juried writers conference, Lit Camp, to be held this April.


Easily the best independent bookstore in the country, Book Passage (www.bookpassage.com) in Corte Madera is also an excellent place to take a writing class. Often authors on their way through town on book tour will teach here. Book Passage is justifiably famous for its three big conferences — Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers, and Travel Writers and Photographers — which take place in the spring and summer. Elaine Petrocelli, the brains behind Book Passage, packs these conferences with agents and editors, and then sends them out to mingle with the students. More than one local writer has had his or her career made at a Book Passage conference.


If attending these writing classes has you thinking about taking your skill set to the next level, you don’t have to leave town. San Francisco State has one of the best, and for California residents, one of the least expensive Creative Writing graduate programs. It’s not easy to get into, but the upside is that once you’re in, reading your fellow students’ work is a pleasure. SF State (creativewriting.sfsu.edu) offers an MA and an MFA program, and you can go part time.

Another good, although pricier, choice is California College of the Arts, which offers a two-year MFA program at its SF campus (www.cca.edu/academics/graduate/writing).