I’m on assignment. Sort of. A friend who is a professor has asked me for the second year in a row to contribute to a blog based on one of her course subjects, Los Angeles. I grew up there, and though I haven’t lived in the city or spent any significant time there in the last (mumble mumble) years or so, I still have some pretty vivid memories.
When I was initially asked to contribute to last year’s blog I wrestled with some mixed emotions. On the one hand, having not lived in a city that changes as radically within a given ten-year period I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute. On the other hand, at what point does one’s history become an invalid point of departure for reportage? Distance is a physical thing, but memory is as close as the memory is strong. Why shouldn’t I be able to talk about the city of my formative years?
My current assignment involves the memories of streets. I have a few I’m sorting through in my mind to determine which will speak the loudest to me. At the same time those old doubts come creeping in. Do I have anything relevent to say? Are my memories of streets that have long since seen cosmetic surgery even really the same streets?
It was while perusing a book on screenwriting this past weekend that I stumbled on a quote by Willa Cather.
I became an artist when I stopped admiring and started remembering.
Setting aside that I’ve never like Cather’s books, or that I find her use of the word “artist” pretentious and a bit insecure on her part, I found this quote to be remarkably well-timed for discovery. In the beginning we learn by studying those who inspire us. In 8th grade I wrote an unbelievably ridiculous story based on people I knew in the style of Kurt Vonnegut. Since then I’ve studied, and aped, films and radio plays and painters and photographers I admired. While I find some of the work done in homage to be relatively successful, it wasn’t until I learned how to mine my memories that I understood these various arts and crafts better.
What “works” in my writing are those moments that tap into the rich vein of what I remember. About childhood, about cities, about creating, about everything. I can see the clear, clean architectural lines of a building but cannot capture it until I can tap into my memories of wonder at first seeing such things. Standing in front of an abstract painting may mean nothing at first, but then comes a memory of color or pattern, where describing it becomes an attempt to locate the hidden vocabularies of experience.
Why do certain colors and scents move us? What makes a particular time of day feel brighter or melancholy? Everyone admires an exquisite sunset; it’s how you remember it that renders the memory valuable. We attach emotions to these things we admire and experience, and rendering these feelings transforms the work.
So I’ve stopped questioning whether or not there’s validity to my memories of the streets of Los Angeles. The only question now is to settle on which ones are the most evocative. We can tussle over whether or not it’s art later.