This week’s post is the first in a series of reflections on writing lessons. Based in part on my experience working with writing students as well as my own experience as a traveler and writer, I hope these pieces inspire you to take a journal or laptop outside and write your heart out! – Kristin
Whenever I talk with my students about writing about place, two questions inevitably come up. The first is this: How am I supposed to write about a place I grew up in my whole life? The answer to this question, I think, is easier than the second, as I usually tell them they need to ask themselves the questions travelers ask: What does Tucson smell like, for instance? Taste like? Sound like? What does the heat really feel like (none of this cliche “it’s a dry heat” cop-out)? What is the place’s history, and how do the people living there now connect to or escape from that history? Where do people gather? Eat? Drink? Play? What are the stereotypes about Tucson? Are they real? Exaggerated? Based on false pretenses? Completely off-the-wall? You can write about your own backyard as if you’ve never been there before, provided you step outside of your daily routine and embrace the weirdness and contradictions that every place inevitably has.
The second question I’m often asked is this: How can I write about a place that’s so schizoid? Yes, schizoid. If you’re not privy to the lingo of 18-year-olds, this means, quite frankly, that they believe this city to be schizophrenic. As in, one street looks like it’s come out of a magazine advertising the swanky and pristine desert lifestyle of the rich and famous–full of three-story adobe mansions landscaped with the most gorgeous succulents and Mexican tile on the market–and the next street is full of dilapidated street signs, houses with paint literally peeling off of them, trash in the gutters, as if the world forgot about it a long time ago. That’s the strange thing about Tucson–we don’t bulldoze old things here. We let them rot, fall to pieces, become part of the past without regard to how they look to the present. I haven’t seen many places like this in the United States, a country that seems to fear the past and anything that has even the slightest trace of rust, dirt, age, or peeling.
(By the way, if you’re not convinced, next time you’re in Tucson, let me know, and I’ll give you directions to the airplane grave yard, which is, I confess, actually a tourist attraction here).
Anyway, here’s an example I used with my students last week about why writing about place is a complicated process. I would like to preface this by saying that I love both of these photos for different reasons.
Photo #1. Tucson: The Southwest for Real. This photograph, taken by the Arizona Board of Tourism, presents an image of Tucson that is iconic, steeped in legend and Hollywood myth, and downright colonial. For one, in the five years I have lived here, I have never, ever seen a cowboy in a wide-brimmed hat romping around on his steed in the middle of the desert. The only place I’ve seen horses and cowboys is in the official annual rodeo, an event that, yes, is a state-wide holiday and that, yes, has the public schools closing for two days every year so that everyone can attend. Even still, though, I have never put Tucson and cowboy together in my mind as something contemporary or even remotely realistic.
And yet, when I see this photo, what do I immediately think of? Well, that’s easy: Tucson. But not a Tucson I know–a Tucson imagined.
Photo #2: Flickr photo from a Flickr member who does not describe herself as a professional photographer.
What I love most about this photo is its apparent lack of concern for composition, and yet, it actually tells a really interesting story. For one, this photo reminds me of the Tucson I first saw when I flew in for the first time with only two suitcases in hand, when I immediately realized that this place was a lot more complicated than the images I’d seen on the internet. Secondly, this photo is steeped in unusual contradictions–the motel sign falling apart, the trailers, the truck wash sign, the lack of any kind of mountain range or nature landscape, the multiple “for sale” signs peppering the perimeters in different ways, the fact that this picture is taken from a zooming car going, I imagine, 75 miles per hour down the highway. This photo is so full of fodder for looking, for thinking about “ruins” and what gets left behind, for considering what happens with development and highway culture, for considering what doesn’t happen. This is also the Wild West–this is also the same city as the one above. But there’s no cowboy traipsing through this one…only cars.
Are both of these places Tucson? Can they both be Tucson? If you’re a writer, how can you ever sift through the massive amounts of information a place affords you? Can you write about a trailer park and a rusting sign amidst no sign of nature at all (except for a scrub or two in the back behind the crooked power lines) and a magnificent horse galloping through the dusty mountain range with a cowboy on his back? If you write about one but leave out the other, what does that omitting say?
Talking with an editor of a travel magazine after submitting some photographs from a place I have recently visited, I realized how visually constructed our contemporary notion of place is. The first image up there? That’s Tucson–for real, apparently. The second? That’s Tucson too.
What I’ve taken from thinking about and giving this lesson to students is that as writers of travel we must be considerate of places, of their grooves, their nuances, their histories, and their people. We must remember that place is often as complex, really, as the people who live there–or who are just passing through.