My first couple of years living in L.A. I found I had nothing to say. It was hard for me to write in that city. Part of it was due to my surroundings – buildings all around don’t start the creative juices flowing in me. Views have always been a part of writing for me. Being able to see a long way off, especially if the scenery is green and lush and sweeping, has always prompted words. Certain trees, or stretches of the sky, or images in a photo have jump-started many stories and essays and poems in my brain. Finding the meaningful in the beautiful motivates me. Mid-century architecture, in pastel, doesn’t.
It also takes a while – years – for a person to know a place enough to write about it. “Write what you know” is common writing advice, and I didn’t know L.A. enough my first several years there to say anything worthwhile. It’s a complicated city; It takes a while to absorb. I also struggled with liking it at first – that didn’t help. I moved to Los Angeles a new bride, to a teaching job I wasn’t trained for, to a city my husband had already lived in for two years. From Kansas. It was culture shock, marriage shock, career shock and lack-of-friends shock all at once. In a apartment in Alhambra with decades-old shag carpeting and no phone. It seems like it should have been fodder for a lot of good writing, but instead it left me speechless – quietly taking in all the new, all the different, trying to understand my changed life. There was no room left in my brain for processing. For overflowing.
Four or five years in to my time in L.A. I enrolled in a writing class through UCLA Extension. It was the first time since college that I felt a twinge of being able to throw some words down on paper that weren’t inner ramblings. It felt great. I wrote some decent sentences in my classes there, but more importantly, I wrote. Pieces with structure and craft involved. I remember driving home from class one night, which I went to in the evening after a full day of work, feeling more alive and awake than I had in years. And more connected to my city and the people in it than ever. I had something to say for the first time in a long time. Hallelujah.
A couple of years later, when I had my first child – my son – my heart broke open with all sorts of new feelings and met yearnings – longings I didn’t know the depth of until they were realized in my baby boy. I knew I wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t know what a primal need would be met in having a child. That it would open up another valve and pump new blood into my life. That it would answer an unanswerable question in my soul. I spilled over with things to say, things to write, about becoming a mother. The floodgates opened. I wrote a love letter of sorts to my son about nursing him – the labor of love that it was. It is probably horribly written – cheesy beyond forgiveness – but I still can’t see past the utter passion I felt at the time. It still makes me cry.
I’m beginning to be able to write in any kind of room these days, with any kind of view. Even at a desk in the basement, with the computer and dirty laundry looking back at me. Sitting in my dining room full of windows, looking into my back yard with kids’ toys, a swing set, bushes I’ve neglected trimming and the silly-looking pear tree I planted when we bought our house is my new writing spot of choice. I could write there for hours. I’m not sure why I don’t need sweeping views anymore. Figuring that one out will be another essay some years down the road, I assume. I wonder, though, if it has something to do with settling into myself. Having three children made me take a step back and see myself differently, from a different angle. From a more distant view, I suppose. I was filled up by giving myself to my kids, and I witnessed that happen. I still like sitting on top of a hill and seeing what thoughts pop into my head. It’s magic for me. But the empty screen and a few things to say are enough these days. My family is my muse. For now, watching them from the outside in is as good a view as any.