| | By Bonner Odell
The Writing Salon, the only creative writing school of its kind in the Bay Area, has two locations: one in San Francisco and one in Berkeley, but the spaces share the same inviting calm. Both are studios tucked at the end of corridors in converted brick buildings on quiet side streets. Walk in either door, and you will find a welcoming circle of chairs, walls full of artwork, breezy curtains draping high windows, and a kitchen stocked with tea and snacks. It is in this intimate setting that classes of no more than 13 meet for workshops in fiction, poetry, memoir, essay writing, screen- and playwriting, and a host of sub-genres and specialty topics.
Most people who come here will never meet the figure who tends these spaces, but her name is Jane Underwood, and as director of The Writing Salon, she has been helping people bring their voices to the page for more than 15 years. A writer, editor, photographer, and teacher, Underwood is 61, with short stylish hair, searching eyes. and an easy laugh. She reflects on her years in this role with the wistfulness and wisdom of someone who has learned many lessons the hard way, and reaped many rewards. "It was good that I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started," she chuckles, "I had no idea what it takes to run a business."
Underwood was born in Georgia but moved across country three times as a child. She spent her adolescence in Derby, Kansas, but finished high school and college in Utah, then earned a master's in creative writing with a concentration in poetry from the University of Utah. She struck out for San Francisco in 1976 at the age of 24. "I had $300 and the name of a friend of a friend who said I could sleep in his closet," she remembers. Seeking to connect with other writers, she went through a second master's program at San Francisco State University, then spent the next two decades working "countless jobs," including walking around the city selling sandwiches out of a picnic basket, clerking at Small Press Traffic bookstore, and selling ads for the literary erotica magazines Yellow Silk and Libido. "In my spare time I kept writing and published some of it, taught classes from home, took writing classes from other writers, and joined a writing group," she says.
In 1983, by then a single mom with a baby, Underwood took a job writing and editing at The Noe Valley Voice newspaper, where she worked for 15 years. In 1999, she signed on as an administrative helper at a small writing school that closed a couple of months after she was hired. "That's when I had my Eureka! moment," she says. "I decided to start my own writing school. All my stars were suddenly aligned, and I knew this could be what I'd been looking for all along without even knowing it. So I quit my newspaper job, went for broke, and miraculously, it all worked out."
Underwood attributes The Writing Salon's early success in part to the cultural climate in San Francisco at the time. "In 1999, San Francisco was on the cusp of the Internet boom, and there were a lot of tech people who could afford to invest in their creativity. There were also a lot of aspiring artists in the city, so the classes were this wonderful mix of people."
The salon's classes met in Under-wood's home in San Francisco's Bernal Heights neighborhood. A drawing of the cottage on Moultrie Street appears in Eric Maisel's book, A Writer's San Francisco, documenting its role in the area's literary history. The house had a downstairs apartment where classes met, sometimes at the same time Underwood taught in her living room upstairs. She hosted frequent readings and parties at the cottage where established and aspiring writers could mingle.
In response to growing requests for a venue in the East Bay, Underwood opened the Berkeley location in the Strawberry Creek Design Center in 2002. The creek for which the building is named runs just below the studio, and its rushing water can be heard through the open windows on warm nights. By 2008 the salon's San Francisco clientele had outgrown Underwood's cottage (particularly the parking), and she bought the San Francisco loft in the Mill Building on York Street. To keep the school's social side in swing, she hosted readings and events in coffee shops and bookstores on both sides of the bay.
"At first my focus was on teaching craft," says Underwood. "But before long I realized, wait a minute; this is just as much about community. Over time that feeling grew and grew." Many writing groups have emerged out of the salon's classes over the years, some more than a decade running. "Sharing your writing involves risk-taking," says novelist and longtime fiction instructor Elaine Beale. "Especially when it comes to reading your work out loud. It can be transformative, and the students tend to become very bonded. Often they will keep meeting together after a session ends."
Creating a safe atmosphere where creativity can thrive isn't left entirely to the goodwill of the students, however. The instructor's guidance plays a critical role. "I don't tell my teachers how to teach," says Underwood, "but I do tell them to emphasize students' strengths, and to be encouraging, not discouraging. Too many people have had their courage crushed by perfectionist high school teachers who only told them what they were doing wrong." Underwood requires that instructors be both working writers and experienced teachers who are able to impart the elements of craft with warmth and positivity. As for holding students to a high standard while maintaining an affirming environment, she insists, "It doesn't have to be one or the other."
The Writing Salon has employed dozens of writers since its inception. Currently 10 to 15 per session teach workshops ranging in length from one afternoon to nine weeks. Not having to devote time to marketing or administration lets instructors focus on their teaching and their students. In Beale's experience, this luxury feeds her work as a writer. "It's a privilege to have everything set up for me when I walk in to teach," she says. "Writing is a very solitary occupation. My students inspire me to keep going. There is a wonderful range: beginners, people who have written in an academic setting but lost their creativity, older adults who never found their creative voices. I love seeing them give themselves permission to play. It gives me permission to do it myself."
The Writing Salon's online bookstore features more than 50 books by its instructors. Also for sale are books by Writing Salon students past and present. Among them is a memoir by longtime student Susan Parker, Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill, published by Crown, a division of Random House, in 2002. A former marketing VP for an adventure travel company, Parker started writing in the aftermath of a tragic biking accident her husband suffered in 1996 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. "My whole life changed," she says, "as did his. We used to be away every weekend on outdoor trips. Now we were home, and I started meeting my neighbors, many of whom became critical in helping care for my husband. We also hired in-home caregivers, and together they created this wonderful family of people I would never have met otherwise." Parker started taking creative nonfiction classes through The Writing Salon, and published more than 100 essays in a five-year time span in periodicals including the The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and a wide range of literary journals. She also started writing for The San Francisco Chronicle's essay column, eventually becoming a substitute for columnists Adair Lara and John Carroll.
"I wasn't totally sure that I was writing a memoir," Parker says, but she started linking her essays together and a book emerged. She took a class from The Writing Salon on getting one's book published and learned to write query letters. Parker then shopped the manuscript around and got an agent who secured the deal with Crown. After the memoir came out, she taught personal essay classes for The Writing Salon for three years.
Parker got to know Underwood intimately through her long connection with the salon, eventually joining her writing group. "Everything about it was wonderful," she says. "I have enormous admiration for Jane and this amazing school she's created. It's small and serious and professional and yet, a little bit quirky, like Jane. It provides something nobody else does. You're not spending enormous amounts of money to sit in a classroom facing an instructor at the front. When you call to sign up for a class, you don't talk to a secretary or a registrar; you talk to Jane. She has this intimacy about her, and this very personal communication style. But you can't let it fool you: Jane is a woman who knows what she wants. She has a very strong vision for The Writing Salon, and she's not going to compromise what matters to her."
Underwood herself is an accomplished writer. Her poetry, essays, articles, and erotica have appeared online, on stage, and in print publications including the Chronicle, The Sun Magazine, and Salon.com, as well as Best Women's Erotica and other anthologies. She has also been a blogger. For several years she wrote the work-related blog, "Writing Salon Mistress Muses." She also started "My Great Breast Cancer Adventure" after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. The latter, currently dormant, features posts on alternative cancer therapies, musings on how contending with the disease can throw life into sharp relief, and sometimes, poetry. "Heaven cavorts in the smell of Italian parsley," she writes in 2012 after learning the cancer has progressed.
When it comes to publishing, Underwood's 30-plus years of teaching, along with the cancer experience, have reinforced her long-held belief that publishing is but one small facet of a writer's life. "For me it has always been more about the process than the product. I think that creating a writing practice is more important than getting into print, which is thrilling but fleeting. Plus it takes a huge amount of time and energy. I'm content to share my writing with a small number of people; that still feels meaningful to me, and worthwhile."
Underwood's emphasis on practice over product permeates the culture of The Writing Salon. As Beale puts it, "Writing creatively allows you to discover things about yourself and the world that are new—to your conscious mind at least. … Research shows that the happiest people are those who engage in activities that let them experience flow—that state of absorption where you lose track of time. It doesn't really matter what the end product is. The process of doing it is going to be important to you. The Writing Salon is a really welcoming place to dive in. It's not your high school English class."
Bonner Odell is a freelance arts journalist based in the charming East Bay hamlet of Crockett. She is former editor of San Francisco's In Dance, and has written for the SF Weekly and the East Bay Express.
Positive influence: Jane Underwood, center, with writing teacher Susan Parker, left, and student Karen Myers. Photo courtesy Jane Underwood.