A sizable crowd gathered March 18 at San Francisco’s Make-Out Room for Write Club SF’s 28th bout of literary fisticuffs.
Riddled in disco glitz and hunters’ trophies the Make-Out Room is a dim-lit tavern offering patrons a fun ambiance with strange enchanting décor. Buck antlers and a giant bear pelt hug the walls. Candlelit tables flicker below a spinning mirror ball. In back, regal theater curtains flank the stage cast in a red glow.
Once a month, the Club hosts three matches of Literature as Blood Sport here for the Bay Area’s most diehard bibliophiles. In each round, two local writers with opposing ideas take the stage ready to verbally coldcock their rival in less than seven minutes. And competition is steep. Contenders range from poets and playwrights to novelists, comedians, storytellers and rhetoricians. With this, the whole show lasts only one hour.
Produced by Steven Westdahl and Casey Childers along with Club ward Nate Waggoner the show is designed as a live reading for bookish adrenaline junkies. At least one of the producers competes at every Club event. The matches for this evening: fictionist Gabrielle Gomez vs. playwright Claire Anne Rice; poet Carolyn Ho vs. fictionist Nate Waggoner; and comedian Molly Sanchez vs. dramatist Steven Westdahl.
Along with San Francisco, a range of Write Club franchises exist in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Toronto among other U.S. cities today. Known as bare-knuckled lit, the show takes its name from Chuck Palahniuk’s bestselling novel, Fight Club.
“But unlike Fight Club, there are no rules that say you need you to be quiet about Write Club,” says Westdahl, the Club’s master of ceremonies. “What’s the first rule of Write Club? Talk about Write Club!”
At each show, Westdahl helms the stage as a traditional boxing ring announcer. In a charming, old-timey voice, he trumpets “Ladies and Gentlemen…” into the microphone, hushing the ferocious throng of lit gore enthusiasts. Behind him, the projection of a big digital circle on the wall—what Westdahl calls the Time Timer of Time—counts the seconds down to zero.
To become a winner, writers must move their audience to cheers, whistles and clapping. Show-goers are picked at random to judge which writer receives the rowdiest, gung-ho applause.
Competitors vie for two rewards: the esteemed goblet known as the Deathless Cup of Booze and Glory, and the hefty wad of prize money benefiting a non-profit or charity of their choosing.
Though an air of authorial rivalry fills the room, all the contestants seem taken in by the fun spirit of the event and the amount of talent in the room. Comedy and alcohol are key components. Nothing feels too somber, sober, or overtly highbrow.
A bookish humor also lives at the heart of the ideas Write Club chooses for its writers to battle over. In the first round, Gabrielle Gomez narrates a short story in defense of “literal.” In turn, her opponent, Claire Ann Rice, performs a monologue in favor of “figurative.” Throughout these live-staged works, such key words take on new layers and shades of meaning, often becoming jokes in and of themselves.
For example, Gomez plays with how the word literal can create both irony and truth, as when she says halfway through her story, “When Mike gets excited he literally shits his pants.”
Later, Rice retorts in a much blunter, brazened style: “Fuck the literal. Give me the figurative.”
The two writer’s generic approaches—that of prose vs. drama—stand in such sharp contrast to one another, it is easy to forget any competition is at hand between them. Rather, the Club is home to a wide array of artists who are each in their own right—whether story, comedy or poetry—events unto themselves.
But in the end, as the flyer states, “Three will rise as literary champions and three will fall and most will drink.”
Write Club SF is held 8-9 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month at San Francisco’s Make-Out Room. 21+ only. $10 cover. All proceeds benefit charities.
If you’re a writer who is interested in competing, mention @WriteClubSF on Twitter with the tag #readytowriteclub. For more info: writeclubsf.com.
Michael Shufro is a journalist, poet, storyteller, and playwright. Michael is also the host of the Parnassus Revue, a SF literary arts radio program and live show. Michael has worked as the Santa Rosa Correspondent for The Press Democrat, a then New York Times company. His writing has also appeared in the North Bay Bohemian among other publications. He is currently at work onBlunderboar, a play about a depression-era family of circus performers struggling to recover their memories lost in Time. Michael resides in San Francisco. Send Michael an email.