Mood: contemplative

Currently listening to: the news

A writing instructor I once had said it is difficult to write about the places we live in. We’re too close to them. Our observations of them are colored by the moment. She talked about how she couldn’t write the novel she wanted until she got away from her hometown of Corpus Cristi. She wanted to base the story in the place she’d lived most of her life. But until she left and put some distance between her and it, the story she wanted to tell and the place in which she wanted to tell it couldn’t get along.

I just finished Jonathan Lethem’s book, You Don’t Love Me Yet. As I’ve mentioned, it was a long, hard slog to get through and, in the end, I didn’t like it. One of the things I didn’t like was the use of Los Angeles as the setting. It felt too cursory. Yes, he was telling a story about Silver Lake hipsters & artists, but the descriptions didn’t ring true for me. While I want to read books about this city, I struggle with them. After all, this is my hometown. I was actually born in the city of Los Angeles. I’m not a transplant. I didn’t move here to pursue some dream. Although, I was raised in Pasadena (more or less a suburb of LA), Los Angeles is the city that I spent my childhood and now my adulthood in. I’ve left it and returned twice. Every time I return, I come home. And for now, it’s where I see myself indefinitely. I don’t know it in the stereotypical way. Yes, I can take visitors to every tourist trap with which this city has become associated before they leave. But I also know its back alleys, its more obscure neighborhoods, its blemishs, and its hidden gems. I remember what street corners used to look like before they were prettied up and over-developed.

For me, when someone writes about LA, I hold them to a different standard. I expect them to look beyond the superficial and beyond the stereotypical. The film and television industry has done enough to portray that part of this town and infect every out-of-towner with a screwed up view about what this city and the people in it are really like. I understand certain stories require certain settings & even the stereotypes about those places. If the story is about a wanna-be actress, then yes, there are certain places & certain people that she’ll have to go and interact with. But as a reader, I want more. I want to know that the writer has the main character driving down Sunset for a reason. I want the description of Sunset to be more real. Only parts of it are studded with the high-end restaurants, clubs, stores, and real estate that it has become synonymous with. Sunset starts near downtown LA. Go east and its called Cesar Chavez Avenue and winds through East LA. But as it makes its way west from Figueroa much of it is filled with mom & pop stores, rundown mini-malls, and bus stops filled with people who could never afford to shop a little further down the street.

While living on the East Coast and overseas for 10 years, I took pride in where I was from. You say you’re from LA, and everyone knows where to find it on a map. I never had to say, “Oh, it’s in southern California, near the coast.” But with the ease came the frustration. There is a stereotype about this city. I’m not saying it’s not true. Yes, proportionally, there are more actors & actresses, producers, agents, screenwriters, and make-up artists making a living in this city than anywhere else. There are more plastic surgeons, Rolls Royces, and paparazzi littering the streets. But the stereotype that has been propagated by the media is just that, a stereotype. There is so much more to this city. Most of its inhabitants can go the whole day without interacting with any of the above. They’re just trying to live, like anyone else, in any other city in America.

So, here’s my dilemma. The story I am writing is set in LA, and I’m struggling. For now, I’m just worrying about the plot and introducing setting details where I can. But as I look forward to my next draft, the better draft, I know I’m going to have to work in more details, and more specific details, of setting that ground this story in this locale. I’ve come to realize that the setting of this story is important, and it does reflect what it going on in the characters’ lives. The situations that arise are a result of where they live. It has an impact on them. So, I want to get it right. My story has nothing to do with the vanity or materialism that is often associated with this city. I’m not writing a story just to write about LA. It is about a young woman trying to come to terms with the choices her parents made in their marriage. They are all ordinary. This just to happens to be where they live.

Part of me is wondering if my instructor was right. Am I too close to this city to be objective? Would it be easier for me to set this story in DC or Boston, two places in which I lived for extended periods of time, and from which I have the distance of many years now? And then the other part of me worries about my responsibility to not fall into the trap that so many authors seem to fall into when writing about LA. I don’t want to be one of them.

So, here’s what I’m thinking, I’ve got an idea for a side project. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for awhile now. To help me work on describing this city and the people in it more accurately and more authentically, I’m going to try an extended writing exercise. Every week, I want to find a person and a place within this city (and the surrounding areas) and write about them. It may be as simple as trying to accurately describe them in a few words, or maybe it will be working that place or person into a short-short story. I figure this exercise will help me address my two concerns. It will allow me to look at this city more closely and from a new perspective, that of a writer; and it will allow me to get to know more of the less known people and places within it to avoid the stereotypes.

I know trying to keep up this blog & that one may be a lot to handle, but each of them serve their own purpose. This blog will continue to be a place for me to vent and chronicle my progress forward on my novel. The new blog will be about getting to know the city & people I’m writing about, while giving me the chance to work on writing about these two often difficult facets of any story.

So, here’s my new adventure’s home. I hope to have my first post up in the next week. Stay tuned!