A few months after I moved to San Francisco, I had lunch with a friend of mine who had also moved here from Minneapolis. We had worked together at the Walker Art Center, and he had moved on to an even more prestigious position with a San Francisco art institution. He had been here perhaps a year before I moved, and we caught up over lunch in the museum’s cafe.
“How do you like it here?” I asked.
“I hate it here,” he said, without the slightest hesitation. I looked up at him quickly, the coffee cup in my hand frozen in its path from the table to my mouth.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any criticism about my new home, but I asked anyway. “Why?”
“It’s so conservative here.”
“Conservative?” I blinked at him. Were we talking about the same city?
“Everyone here supports the traditional institutions; the ballet, the opera, the symphony. Nobody here will give money to new art. Even Minneapolis was more progressive.”
I stayed quiet. I knew he spent the majority of his working hours raising money for the institution.
“And the local art itself isn’t very strong. I don’t know. I think…” he paused, his eyes scanning the traffic passing outside. “It’s so beautiful here. I think artists get lazy, it’s just so easy, it’s easy to go outside and enjoy the sun and the weather. I think artists need winter, they need those long periods of hibernation to create art that’s, well, deep. For lack of a better word.”
I looked out at the traffic, too. I wasn’t sure I agreed. Even more, I didn’t really want to believe him. This was my new home.
I believe, more or less, that if you look for something, you’ll find it. If you look for all the ugliness and shortcomings of a city, you’ll find them. If you look for the beauty, you’ll find that too.
But five years later, I can still hear his words.
I haven’t talked to him for awhile; I know he’s still in San Francisco, working for another organization now. I don’t know if he still hates it here, or if he’s simply adjusted his expectations. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what he said that day.
When I was living in Minneapolis, restless for a bigger city, I had begun saving my money to move. I hadn’t yet decided between San Francisco or New York, but I was leaning towards the latter. I wanted to be in the center of it, the art world and the literary world and the excitement. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to live there, but I wanted to try.
Then I met the man who would eventually become my Ex, and the moving plans were put on hold. After a couple of years he too became restless. But he didn’t want to move to New York. He preferred San Francisco, and so on Halloween of 1997 we pulled into town in a Ryder truck, towing our pick-up on a trailer behind us.
When I decided last week to apply to grad school, I looked around for a local program. I didn’t have much luck. UC-Berkeley doesn’t offer an MFA in writing. SF State doesn’t focus on creative nonfiction. I haven’t heard great things about either New College or USF.
But really, their reputations are beside the point.
There are more and more schools offering low residency programs, where students come to campus for 7-10 days each semester for workshops, seminars, and meetings, then they write at home the next few months, sending work to their advisors for feedback. The advantage to these programs is that you can do them from anywhere. I could stay in SF. After five years here I have a beautiful, affordable apartment, a new car, an okay job. Great friends.
But my gut says no. If I love classroom learning and dialogue, if I feel energized by working with other writers, then a low residency program doesn’t make any sense. I want immersion, I want to squeeze every drop out of this.
The writing is on the wall. So to speak.
I’ve been looking at the websites of schools all over the country. But I keep coming back to one particular city.
I don’t want to be one of those people who sit around wondering what life might have been like if-only. If only I had jumped, if only I had taken a risk.
I really don’t know where I’ll be in a year. I thought San Francisco was home. But maybe it was just a stop along the way.