Work session notes from "Hidden City Diaries"

Over the past few months, I’ve alluded to a new project waiting in wings, something that earned the title, “Hidden City Diaries,” as I wrote my fellowship application to Jack Straw Productions. The name is a nod to my writing style as much as the introspective method that I’ll apply to my investigations.

The idea was born in March 2010 before I left for Civita, a then-thin desire that took root a year later in the spring after my return. I realized that I was beginning to know –and prefer– parts of Europe more than my home country, and it bothered me. While it’s fun posing as an ex-pat from time to time, why not seek out inspiration here, too?

During recent journeys to Austin, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Las Vegas, I saw how I might apply a similar investigation into U.S. cities, only without the two-month residency of Civita. It would mean leveraging a mixture of holidays and long weekends, perhaps a year-long commitment to create a collection of essays that would form a larger story about how place shapes people.

At a certain point, this idea became important enough to my development as a writer that I felt compelled to move forward whether there was financial backing or not, though the former is certainly a goal.

Yet, despite considering the details of this project since returning from Italy in September, I’ve struggled with where to visit, listing qualities like north/south, coastal/inland, large/small, rural/urban, and old/new, trying to determine a system to balance my overall journey.

Everything was coming easily except the selection of the actual cities that I would use for inspiration.

There were a few that I was willing to put in stone for various reasons –Nashville, Boston, New York, and Miami– perhaps I’d allow for randomness by allowing others to guide the selection of rest. In an earlier post, I was drawn to Matt’s suggestion of considering my project as a math problem; doing so might solve my indecision. I also saw social media as a possible solution — I could poll my Tweeps and Facebook friends.

It sounded good, yet, I hesitated in requesting that input.

This week, I arranged to interview someone I met at The Sitting Room, intrigued by the fact that he has lived in 30 cities in 10 states by his mid-30s. Originally, I assumed that Josh would be one of the random connections whose recommendations might lead me to determining another place to visit. He was psyched about Pittsburgh, which was on my long list; I thought, Maybe this is the universe telling me I should add Pittsburgh – there’s a lot there to work with.

As I described my project and he told me about his life for a few hours, we kept returning to the subject of why I was doing this — more specifically, why these cities and why was I asking for input from others.

Near the end of our conversation, Josh was respectfully unconvinced.

He drew a map on the back of our bill and asked me a series of pointed questions, pushing the why. I realized that, while I was giving him answers full of reason and planning, they weren’t necessarily ringing true as I heard myself speak. Finally, he asked, “Isn’t this about what you’re interested in, what you want to do and not what other people think you should do? Isn’t that the point?”

I could only blink at him.

Somehow, I had become concerned with finding the right answers rather than ones that were true for me — ones that looked good on paper rather than ones that would lead me to rabbit holes that I was actually looking to tumble down.

“Personally,” he remarked, “I’d be way more interested in your exploration of cities that naturally intrigue you rather than places that someone else told you to visit.” He paused. “You already know where you want to go.” It was a statement, not a question.

As we prepared to leave, Josh asked whether I had really gotten what I needed out of our conversation, which I assured him that I had, even if it wasn’t another city for my list. Before we talked, I wasn’t trusting my own vision; I was afraid that I would miss something –that I wouldn’t get my project right– rather than taking a cue from what I learned in Civita and letting my instinct guide me.

I came out of our meeting realizing that my plan for reaching out with the hope of random positive results had actually worked: if I had not followed up on a chance meeting with Josh, I wouldn’t have received a much-needed reality check. While I didn’t obtain the results I had originally sought, what I received was actually better, which is also a central goal of my project.

I could feel the truth of the lesson as it happened: it was the first time in weeks that I’ve felt sure about my direction. As with my days in Civita, I sensed this as a moment of flow, a feeling of supportive certainty. Each time I encounter it, I don’t need external confirmation, which is how I know that it has arrived.

Its a strange scenario that I’ve created with “Hidden City Diaries”: the desire to attract the unexpected such that I can be –and am– surprised (and delighted) when it arrives. These small tests have proven that it’s possible, though elusive, to construct a platform for serendipity: just as I seek to learn one thing, I learn that plus something else, which is the very definition of the thing.

Over the coming months, similar moments will likely recur. As they do, the look and feel of this blog will change and the content will reflect my investigations as they happen in real time.

In the spirit of this new opus, I will actively cultivate new connections — not only with people like Josh, who will help me in ways that I can’t guess at or know to ask for today, but with my home country and the person I have become by growing up here.

Yeah, I already know where I want to go… and I look forward to being surprised all along the way.