What Is the San Francisco Dream?

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When I was a kid, I was sure I’d grow up to be a writer. I imagined living in Los Angeles with my best friend, working toward our ultimate joint-life goal of becoming the next Tina Fey-Mike West hybrid genius television-writing partners. Once we graduated, we’d have a job in a writers’ room right away. There, we’d hone our talents and eventually both become showrunners on equally successful but not rivaling shows. After a few years, we’d both win some Emmys, but we’d be outwardly humble about it and keep our statuettes in our bathrooms, lest people realize this had been our plan all along.

We thought up this scheme when we were 14 years old and told everyone about it for the next near-decade. This wasn’t just some fantasy to me; this was my future. So at the end of my senior year of college at UC Santa Cruz, when my best friend abruptly told me he wasn’t interested in moving to LA with me anymore, and that he also thought we should spend an indefinite amount of time apart, I was shocked and devastated. I had no idea what to do; I had made no backup plan.

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In a moment of suffocating panic, I decided to move to San Francisco. Moving to another major metropolis seemed like a good way to make myself feel like less of a loser who didn’t know what to do with her life and was loved by no one. I am still going places, dammit! Look at me do something, everyone!

The catch was that I knew next to nothing about San Francisco other than what I had learned in a Beat poetry class I took in college, which I had only enrolled in because every boy I had been in love with at that point worshipped Jack Kerouac. I didn’t get Kerouac, but I did connect with Richard Brautigan and his collection of poems The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. When I realized LA wasn’t going to happen anymore, I thought back to Brautigan. He’d written about his day-to-day life in San Francisco and seemed to find the banalities of it inspiring. Because of him, I convinced myself that words would come pouring out of me as soon as I stepped foot in the city. Surely, Brautigan was able to wax eloquence on jars of mayonnaise due to the secret inspiration that comes from sitting enveloped in San Francisco fog … right?

In addition to being a beautiful writer, Brautigan was also an alcoholic who killed himself. Probably not the best model to base a big life decision around, but I ignored that fact as I packed my bags. I had a magnum opus to create!

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Of course, writing a magnum opus requires plotting a course of action. Deep down I knew that, but neglected to make one for myself. Instead, I became discouraged when, once settled in the city, I didn’t get any writing done. I started volunteering at 826 Valencia, thinking that surrounding myself with similarly artistic people would inspire me to create. But watching adults support little kids in their writerly endeavors just made me feel worse about my inability to be productive.

I started writing for Broke-Ass Stuart. I was terrible, but I thought maybe I could find purpose as a SF blogger. It seemed easy enough, but then I started emailing Stuart at three in the morning with whatever existential crisis I was having. How do I cultivate my voice writing about free tapas? Seriously, Stu, do you know? Please tell me what to do. I am very lost. It was all so shameful. His editor and I eventually agreed that it was time I stop writing for the site.

I was depressed, but I wasn’t yet ready to do anything about it, so I spent a lot of time in Dolores Park alone, disdainfully watching throngs of people drink beers and get stoned. This was not what I had pictured in my college poetry class. I was under the impression that the parks here would be full of writers spending their mornings scribbling furiously in Moleskine notebooks and then sharing their day’s work over whiskey and coffee in the evening. They would not be getting blitzed in the middle of a workday. Even more frustrating, the people who did seem to be working on stuff looked either certifiably insane or were dressed like Burners, desperate for someone to ask them about their “art.” These were not the creative types I’d expected to be associated with. It dawned on me that “San Francisco writer” was not as romantic a job as I thought it’d be.

I realized that if I was ever going to come out of my depression, I needed to get real work. Also, more pressingly, I had nearly burned through my entire savings account while waiting for inspiration to hit.

I read a newspaper article about young people who move to SF for money-making start-up jobs. I began looking for a start-up gig of my own.

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I told everyone before they even asked that working in tech had been my dream all along. In truth, my only knowledge of Internet culture was based on what I saw in 40 Days and 40 Nights in high school. In case you missed it, that’s the Josh Hartnett movie where he swears off all forms of sex for Lent, gives Shannyn Sossamon an orgasm using only a flower, and then – in a fun twist! – gets raped by his ex-girlfriend. The movie has absolutely nothing to do with San Francisco start-ups, except for the fact that Josh Hartnett works at one. Yet somehow, my only takeaway from that movie was that his job seemed easy and fun but also vaguely important. And now a newspaper is telling me it pays well too? Sign me up!

I landed a job on a creative team at a growing website, thinking it was just what I needed to boost my ego and get me writing again. I planned to abandon it as soon as I felt emotionally ready to delve into writing full time.

Then something unexpected happened: I realized my coworkers were the most talented and hardest working people I had met since I moved to San Francisco. Just being around them was inspiring. I also liked my job, which I did not anticipate happening. It wasn’t anything close to my dream job, but I still felt creatively challenged.

So, I stuck around. As it turns out, my job isn’t anything like a Josh Hartnett movie; people are too busy to care about discussing what weird thing their coworker gave up for Lent.

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Everything at work is fast-paced; as such, I can’t be precious about the writing I do. You have to come up with an idea, and if it doesn’t work you have to throw it away and start over. Don’t cry about it. Your next idea will be better, except if it’s not, but don’t think about it and don’t get upset if you wind up having a long series of bad ideas.

Like me, no one on my small team had envisioned working for a website. Rather, they fell into it and then quickly realized it was better than being unemployed and wistfully wishing to stumble upon inspiration. And that’s probably the biggest difference between my generation and the Beats. We can’t afford to walk barefoot around Golden Gate Park and write half-sonnets about trees. This city’s too expensive now.

And though many probably disagree, I don’t think the city’s rising costs are a bad thing. People who want to make a living here from their creative work should have to hustle; it makes the successes much more meaningful. If I hadn’t moved here with all my preconceived notions, I don’t know if I would have learned that. My desire to move to LA and pursue my dream job isn’t any less powerful, but now I’m not willing to leave San Francisco. It has too much to offer to young, creative people who are willing to work their butts off.

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Published on May 21, 2013, 2013

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