two weeks in san francisco

I gotta give it up: 2014 has been an amazing year of travel for me. Being able to work from wherever I wanted was one of the major reasons I became self-employed to begin with. Two years into my freelance life, I’m racking up plenty of frequent flyer miles.

I started out 2014 with a trip to SXSW Interactive to write for Roll Call about the many members of Congress who were making appearances there. Then I headed to Greece to speak at the World of Crafters conference, a wonderful one-day event in Athens. Three other foreigners came from the U.S., Australia and Germany to speak, and we bonded over local wines and so many cheeses. I turned 32 while I was in Athens, and I was surprised by the ladies of with a profiterole cake at the speakers’ dinner. On my way back to Cincinnati, I stopped off in Paris and spent a few days there with an old friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade in a sunny studio apartment in the 3rd arrondissement. Many more cheeses and much more wine. In June I went to New York and D.C. for 10 days, crashing on friends’ couches and writing a story about the design unit of the United Nations and finally meeting my Roll Call colleagues in person. I hate hot weather, but July found me at YxYY, an unconference at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, where I spent three days making friends, making buttons and making the saltwater pool my home.

And now I’ve just spent two weeks in San Francisco. Initially I intended to spend a long weekend there to attend my good friend Jason‘s wedding, but then I found out about a longform nonfiction journalism conference happening at Berkeley and extended my stay, opening up the possibilities to see even more amazing authors and artists while I was in the Bay Area. Here’s what went down:

William Gibson.

William Gibson reading from “The Peripheral” in Corte Madera, CA.


I’ve been reading William Gibson’s work for almost 20 years — I bought a chunky copy of “Idoru” when it came out in 1996, probably after reading about it somewhere like Sassy Magazine, and I’ve read it many times since, along with his many other novels.

He just so happened to be making appearances in the Bay Area the night I arrived and the day after, so I took a commuter bus up to Marin County to attend his signing at Book Passage. Gibson read from his new book “Peripheral,” cracking himself up at times, and then entertained many questions from the audience. I asked him how he builds a new world — considering how visually rich they are, I was imagining that he perhaps uses a sketchbook to collect imagery, or constructs a wiki or something. But he said he actually doesn’t take any notes at all. He just keeps thinking about everything, and if he forgets something, it probably wasn’t all that interesting anyway.

Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi.

Chris Ware and Marjane Satrapi in conversation at Stanford.


Both Jimmy Corrigan and Persepolis are books that I have and will continue to read annually. Seeing either one of them would have been reason enough to take the CalTrain down to Palo Alto, but seeing both of them at the same time? I would’ve gone anywhere. The event hosted by the Stanford Storytelling Project began with canned questions, but as the writers/artists got comfortable on stage, they started interacting with each other more and telling great stories.

I was able to ask the final question, based on something they’d both talked about earlier: how oppression and depression can be a catalyst for creation. I asked, “How do you work through your depression?” Marjane was quick to reply: “I didn’t work through my depression, the depression worked through me.” She then explained how when she is depressed she has spells of not being able to breathe. During one of these attacks, she called an ambulance, and then changed her mind about going anywhere once they arrived, trying to tell the medics that it was a mental problem, not a physical problem. But they strapped her to a gurney to take her down the stairs from her apartment anyways. The stairs made a tight turn, and as they tried to tilt her to get around it, they dropped her down the stairs and she ended up busting her head open, requiring stitches. And then she wrote “Persepolis.”

Chris Ware said: “I imagine that you’re asking this question because you’re a writer or other kind of creative person who is dealing with depression.” I nodded from my fourth-row seat. He said that being depressed often causes you to see things more clearly than you would like, and the only option is to work with it. And to get used to it, because it’s probably not going away.

Hearing these thoughtful answers from people whose work I admire so much makes me feel less alone with my own depression. I don’t like to talk about it much, because when I’m in the pit of it, I don’t think that anyone wants to listen to me anyway, and when I finally get out of it, talking about it seems self-indulgent. I assume people will ask what I have to be so sad about. And the answer isn’t anything in particular — that’s the whole deal and why it’s so terrible. A common uncomforting response from people who don’t deal with depression is “Well, at least you aren’t [other horrible thing or situation].” And that’s not really the point. Marjane actually said when talking about living through war — the every day realities are so stressful that you deal with it through humor. People can be dealing with depression in any situation. It has nothing to do with your place in the world and has everything to do with how your brain is processing information.

On a lighter note, earlier Marjane talked about how her parents gave her Russian comics about dialectical materialism when she was 10. Then Chris said that he thought her writing was quite like Tolstoy, which made her laugh. And Chris said he had given his daughter a copy of Persepolis when she was 9; his daughter read it and told him that she thought it was really inappropriate for a child.

Chris said there’s a parabola in every artist’s life — where you start wanting to make stuff but you aren’t making a living from it, but then when you become successful you sometimes wish you didn’t make a living from it. He wondered what it would be like to have a job he hated, to just go into work for eight hours and then go home and be done and not think about it anymore.

A student asked what their weirdest fan encounters were — Chris said it was a man in Holland when he was signing books with Dan Clowes. They spotted a large, sweaty man in line, who, when he got to the front of the line, he put down a piece of paper that had 16 pictures of otters on it, but two were cut out. He said, “I would like you to draw me an otter.” And so they did. (At the end of the night when they were about to sign books, the director of the Stanford Storytelling program said that the artists would not be able to do any drawings because of time restraints, but Chris said they would make an exception for otters.)

Marjane told a story about how she was in a Midwestern airport, and a lady sitting next to her told her basically her entire life’s story within 20 minutes. She asked where Marjane was from, and, not wanting to go into the whole story of her exodus from Iran, she said that she’d just come from France. “I have a question,” the lady replied. Marjane waited for an uncomfortable or overly personal one. She asked: “Can you see the moon from France?” Not wanting to have to explain a lifetime of science education to this 52-year-old Midwesterner, Marjane replied: “No.” “See?” the lady said. “That’s why America’s the greatest country on earth.”

And finally, a quote for the ages without context: “The Iranian government, they don’t like the book. That’s OK, I don’t like them either.” — Marjane Satrapi.

Narrative at Cal.


Along with getting to travel more, I’ve been able to be more picky about the writing assignments I take on. What I really want to write are the kinds of stories that take up residency in your brain for months or years. And then when you finally finish reporting them and writing them, they get to inhabit the brains of the people who read them. This conference at Berkeley was full of people who do just that. It was an intimate gathering — just about 85 people who maintained rapt attention for Jake Silverstein and Sewell Chan of the New York Times, Adam Gopnik and Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jacqui Banaszynski and many other incredibly accomplished journalists. Like so many conferences, the socializing in between sessions was just as good as the sessions themselves. Narrative at Cal inspired me to continue my research on a couple of back-burner stories I’ve been working on, and it made me a few great new friends. (Above is what happens when you invite Jacqui B. to get dinner with you.)

And art stuff.

"Every one of us is a potential convict." Ai Weiwei
“Every one of us is a potential convict.” Ai Weiwei

Some friends and I took the Alcatraz ferry to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit on the island. The biggest thing I took away from seeing the installations is that I am a coward. You’ve got to see it for yourself. It will be up through April 2015.

The artist Lisa Congdon just created a bunch of new things for 826 Valencia, and I was able to stop by a party she had there. I am proud to call Lisa a friend, and she’s an amazing example of what happens when you focus on doing good work, not on achieving success. Her many interesting projects — borne of love and curiosity — have gotten the attention they deserve and let her make a living from her art.

I also was able to check out Renegade San Francisco with some crafty friends before I left town. Renegade is really the only indie craft show that’s managed to sustain itself in multiple cities (and countries, even, with the addition of its London show). The thing that surprised me most about Renegade was how homogenous craft trends have become across the country. I saw much of the same styles in San Francisco as I do in Cincinnati — but that’s a discussion for another post.

The view from Renegade San Francisco.


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