I was a cute kid when this book began a year ago.
In January, I met the other Jack Straw Writers and our curator, University of Washington professor Shawn Wong, at the studio in the University District on a cold, rainy night. Joan Rabinowitz, the executive director of Jack Straw, quickly became a touchstone of our experience. Firm and professional, she greeted her new crop of fledging writer-performers warmly; she seemed much more confident in our abilities than we did as she collected our signed contracts.
None of us was sure what we were in for. Joan and Shawn encouraged the twelve of us to meet outside of official Jack Straw events, to come together as a community that we might support one another, knowing that the process of writing is a lonely one. Shawn reminded us that he was not only at our disposal as a curator but as a literary therapist.
In spite of applying for the program voluntarily, we were all hesitant about audio recording and performing our work for live audiences. We asked tentative questions at the meet-and-greet, trying to remember each other’s names. Knowing them as I do today, I can’t help but smile fondly at the group of shy strangers that we once were. Over the past year, we supported each other at numerous readings: libraries, bookstores, bars and civic centers. We are ending our tenure rich in fellowship.
Though we were all writers at heart, most of us had day jobs that took us away from our manuscripts: we were journalists, musicians, students, teachers, boxers, poets, lawyers, marketing managers and tech writers. We were 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 years old. We lived in Seattle, Port Townsend and Walla Walla. Some had dramatic stories to tell –the drug runner’s daughter, the journalist who became emotionally linked to a serial killer– which made me wonder if my search for meaning and connection through travel wasn’t a bit light in subject matter. Here at the end of all things, as Frodo would say, I think I judged my experience a tad harshly.
If there was anything that was light, it was my underestimation of how this experience would mature me as a writer, and a person. Having to revise my work for live audiences made me more sensitive to dialogue. I listened to spoken language more than I ever have and began to include characters’ voices in my work.
The cities I visited were new to me, but I couldn’t use photographs or links to describe them. I had to rely on words alone, which made me a better story teller. Sometimes I only had three or five minutes for a reading, so I became a sharper editor, too. My process quickly became about capturing physical interaction and tapping into memory to create a tapestry of visual images that spoke to the heart. It hit me one day that I was learning how to be an entertainer, to actually embody my characters.
This process was a significant aspect of my Jack Straw experience, yet it took several months to realize what my journeys and my book were really about.
On the surface, my trips were explorations of places that I had never been in the hopes of making connections with people across the nation. As an end, it’s still is a noble quest, but the simple investigation of cities is not all that I sought. Turns out that I was an unreliable narrator.
Reflections of a deeper nature began to arise, and it wasn’t until my reading in Redmond in August when Angela commented that my work seemed to be about examining my mother’s influence –her life, her death– that my underlying drive became apparent. Hidden City Diaries isn’t just an exploration of place, but an examination of the relationship between trauma and healing.
As I traveled around the country, I began to see how distance has played a key role in my life; I’ve kept myself from loss, and ultimately, from love during the past 22 years. This book was my attempt to reconnect in many ways: to my country of origin, to my childhood, to my identity as a woman and a writer, and to the reality that I was finally strong enough to allow myself to be vulnerable again.
The best part is, it’s not over yet. Seattle is the last chapter of my book and it’s unwritten. I canceled my trip to Miami earlier this month due to illness, but also because I realized that what I actually needed was to come home. It’s time to see how these lessons play out in Seattle. For the first time in years, I’m ready to be present.
Yet, I needed these travels to get here. They opened my eyes in ways I could never have achieved had I stayed home. With that, I share my deepest gratitude to everyone I’ve met on the road, to my fellow Jack Straw Writers, to Joan and Levi and Shawn, and to those who will always be home to me, no matter the city in which our paths cross.
March 2012 – Cannon Beach Road Trip: My first ever solo road trip took me to Cannon Beach, Oregon, where I walked against 50-mile-and-hour winds to Haystack Rock. Holed up in a little beach cabin, I began to script the cross-country journeys that lay ahead. Blizzard-like conditions nearly road-sided me on the way home, but I made it — and felt prepared for whatever challenges might come.
April 2012 – Wild Women Never Get the Blues in Nashville: From Rachel, my hostess, to Wesley Paine and Toni Ellis, the richest part of my experience in Nashville had everything to do with the women I met. It was a trying experience, this first adventure –a harrowing plane ride, a fender bender, the discovery of my first silver hair– but I emerged with a new sense of resilience, the kind Rue McClanaghan and Scarlett O’Hara would applaud.
May 2012 – A Melting Pot in Boston: If I lived on the East Coast, it would likely be in Boston. One day, I was reconnecting with John, a college friend, his wife, Enrica, and their son, William, who speaks only Italian; the next, I was riding along with the assistant DA in charge of gang crimes retracing his childhood steps and his beat in Beantown’s roughest neighborhoods, which he aims to make safe.
Along the way, I met truly amazing, brilliant people who I would hang out with if I lived there –Masumi, Will, Jesse– and I will never forget how inspired I was by our conversations. The best part was coming home to Maya at the end of each day, a kindred spirit who I was most certainly destined to meet.
June/July 2012 – Chicago Wildcats: Reconnecting with my friend, Tash, and her mother, Bettye, was the highlight of my Windy City experience. From Millennium Park and the House of Blues to the Full Moon Jam and the Green Mill, home of the original poetry slam, we had fun tearing up the town.
Living for a week with someone my age –a single woman, career- and mission-driven, practical, theatrical, funny, vulnerable, tough and lovely– was like rediscovering a part of myself. I don’t have that twin here in Seattle, but I sure am glad that she exists somewhere in this world. To Taica I say, Oh, honey….
August/September 2012 – Moments of Zen in Santa Cruz and Monterey: I could say that I reconnected with Michael B., but that wouldn’t be accurate; 16 years have brought new challenges and perspectives to our lives that have changed us both dramatically.
My journey began by hearing his take on Buddhist philosophy –including thoughts on impermanence– but what I really gained was wisdom. Hearing his history helped me unravel my own, and I came to a new understanding of how losing my mother has shaped my life. Our meeting was truly a watershed moment–one that helped to focus the aim of my entire book.
October 2012 – Retreat and Repose in Walla Walla: A weekend in this agrarian city connected me with nature in ways I didn’t know that I was hungry for. The experience reminded me of Civita — a small town and closely-knit community underneath a wave of tourists in search of wine, good weather and views. Quiet moments, which Walla Walla offered many, were exactly what I needed in order to reflect. Through my friends, the dragonfly and the grasshopper, I developed a new understanding of life and loss.
November 2012 – Seaside in Ahipara: New Zealand is a wild place. Even wilder was following Michael B. down the rabbit hole, realizing that I had no answer when the customs agent asked me for the address I was staying at. But, fortune favors the brave. Eight days in Ahipara granted me the opportunity to witness the union of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean and come home with pocketfuls of seashells.
I climbed dunes spanning hundreds of feet in the air and walked on sand so full of silicone that it squeaked. The sea was all shades of blue and green; the sky at times glowered purple and red. By the end of the journey I had gained a series of insights so powerful that they have altered my hopes and direction for the future.
December 2012 – Seattle Book Club: After a final performance with musician Joy Mills at the Bushwick Book Club, my year as a Jack Straw Writer has come to a close. Now it’s time to write about Seattle — and how where I’ve been will influence where I’m going…