I would see him drawing in pen and ink and colored pencils and sometimes writing in the same oversized sketchbook in which he drew. He would sit at one table at the Owl and the Monkey, on Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, and I would sit at another. Sometimes we sat across the café from one another, sometimes we sat at adjoining tables, and sometimes, when the café was very crowded, we even shared a table. But we never spoke, and we never acknowledged one another.
This went on for years. We would see each other everywhere. Sometimes our paths crossed in Golden Gate Park, whose entrance was just down the block from the café. He’d be out for his afternoon constitutional, and I’d be out for mine. We’d pass and continue not acknowledging one another, offering not even the slightest nod. Not to register even a glimmer of recognition when you recognize someone says volumes about the subtleties of human affairs. Who knew that eyes could hide so much?
We weren’t shunning one another, since shunning implies animosity or a grudge. We weren’t avoiding one another, dismissing one another—those aren’t the right verbs. We were doing something very different. I believe that we were showing respect. By not acknowledging the other, we were saying something like the following: “I know that you spend your day in the world creating, that the world is your office and your home, just as it is mine, and since I wouldn’t want you to barge into my office or home, I will try assiduously not to barge into yours.” I think that was what we were doing.
You might think that such mutual respect might have led to conversations and some artistic bonhomie rather than to such studied avoidance. But it didn’t—no more than it had for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, for Picasso and Matisse, and for other fabled artist pairs. In the history of creating, there is some amazing distance-keeping, which can’t just be attributed to envy or narcissism. I am certain that it was also a sign of respect.
At some point, I began to see my doppelgänger on television, whenever an earthquake made the news. It turned out that he had written a bestseller on a famous earthquake and had become a talking head on the subject. What that meant to me was that I had been right all along: he had been using the café as his study and not just for show. His talking-head status confirmed what I already knew, that his absorption in his colored pencils had been real.
On balance, it was probably smart of us not to speak. It is because human beings can come to these unspoken arrangements that a café can serve as a writer’s home. Without this—what shall we call it?—sanctifying of the café space and dignifying of the artist’s profession, making each little round table a private studio, we would have to write, compose, and draw only at home. Well, we certainly can do that—the Pandemic proved that we could. But isn’t it lovely to have some homes away from home?
And so, the writer on this side of the café, honoring the dignity of their mutual calling, will send the telepathic message to the writer on that side of the café: “I see that you are working, and so am I.” The other writer, without the slightest acknowledgment, will agree and telepathically reply, “Yes, indeed.” Each continues writing and foregoes interrupting the other. This is not the way that friendship blooms or that love arises, but it is the way that books get written.
[Deep Writing San Francisco is now open for registration. See below the fold.]
DEEP WRITING SAN FRANCISCO, October 2 – 6, 2023
The pandemic curtailed my Deep Writing workshops, which I’d been holding in all those places that people want to visit: Paris, London, Rome, Prague, Dublin, and so forth. This year, I’m resuming, but in a limited way. I’ll be at Kripalu (in Massachusetts) in May and I am now announcing that I’ll be offering my five-day Deep Writing Workshop in San Francisco during the week of October 2. I hope you’ll join me.
There are lots of details, endorsements, and other information here. The headline is, these workshops are an amazing time-out-of-time that do as much for the heart as for the writing. I know that it isn’t easy to carve a full week out of life, but if you can, this will prove well worth your time. Start by putting down your fully-refundable deposit that will secure your place. See you in San Francisco!