Ethan Canin, Ethan Watters, and other authors escape their homes to write in an office-style atmosphere

By David Hochman
October 09, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Writers’ Grotto may be the best therapy yet for the twin terrors of freelance writing: being alone and being caught in one’s underwear by the UPS guy as day drifts into night.

Founded nearly five years ago by novelist Ethan Canin and a couple of resourceful young Bay Area writers looking for ways to get out of the house, the Grotto has become one of the few solid American literary communities outside the media centers of New York and L.A. The 2,000-square-foot loft space, on the second floor of a shabby walk-up south of San Francisco’s Market Street, is a cubby-divided literary salon of sorts. Actually, that might be overstating things. As Canin, who wrote his new novel For Kings and Planets there, puts it, ”It’s just a way to make a writer feel like a regular person with a job.” Adds Ethan Watters, whose Making Monsters debunked recovered memory, ”Coming here is certainly better than staying home waiting to see how long it takes the mustard in the refrigerator to turn into a radish.”

Which is not to say that the 10 Grotto writers, each of whom pays $220 a month for their cubicles, don’t find other diversions to keep them from their appointed word counts. ”There is,” says Laura Fraser, a journalist and the author of Losing It: False Hope and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry, ”a healthy balance between work and nonwork here.” That explains the punching bag, the spontaneous rounds of office golf, and the various Nerf projectiles scattered around. It may also shed light on why novelist and onetime banker Po Bronson has taken to working in a 8- by 10-foot box that makes the Unabomber look like a space hog. ”Fiction requires a different kind of focus,” he says, sliding open his accordion door. ”I put Scotch tape on my eyebrows so I don’t focus on picking them off.”

In other words, a typical day at the Grotto isn’t that typical at all. The writers, who are chosen by group consensus and must demonstrate success in their fields, form an impressively diverse talent pool. In one cubicle, journalist Todd Oppenheimer pecks away at a manuscript about why computers are bad for kids. Nearby, filmmaker David Munro and screenwriter Tom Molitor tack up scene cards for a satire about the Disneyfication of America. And Bronson says he’s set to modem off a 10,000-word draft of a profile on Silicon Valley CEOs to his editors at Wired magazine.

Of course, putting a group of young writers together is a recipe for rivalry and insecurity, right? Surprisingly, no. Several collaborative projects are now under way, and the atmosphere is startlingly cordial. ”It’s actually a benefit having writers around who are at various levels of success,” says Watters. ”It makes my mom feel better about my being a writer if I say Ethan Canin’s just down the hall.”

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