Yoga Los Altos

by Alex

I did an interview yesterday with Murderati regular Stacey Cochran for his upcoming Raleigh-based author interview cable program, THE ARTIST’S CRAFT.

It’s been my experience with interviews that you always, always learn something about yourself and your work and specifically your relationship to your work, and yesterday was no exception.

The very first question Stacey asked was, “How did growing up in California influence you as a writer and your decision to become a writer?”

Now, I don’t know if I’ve talked about this with Stacey before or if this was some conclusion he came to on his own because he’s sharp that way, but of course growing up in California had worlds to do with my becoming a writer, and I’ve been aware – maybe not for always, but for a very long time – that I was incredibly lucky to have been born there. Actually, I was incredibly lucky to have been born in the US to begin with, and to my particular parents, but today I’m going to talk about California, and I hope the rest of you will see where I’m going and be moved to talk about your home states/cities as well.

Except for short (a year or less) forays living in different states and cities, which I find an extremely inspiring and important thing to do, regularly), I have lived all of my life in California. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco – alternating large stretches of time between Northern and Southern California (which are different universes, at least to Californians. I won’t even get into the “What is Northern California, Middle Calif., Southern California?” debate).

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit every state of the Union (except for Alaska, actually, but now, of course….!!!!). And it struck me from the time I was a very small child, on our yearly family cross-country road trips, that states in the US are really almost like different countries are on other continents. Every US state has a mythos, carefully crafted by tourist boards and state and local governments and its special geography and sheer weight of history. Each has its own dialect, its own political philosophies, its own way of dress, its state birds and mollusks and legends.

When you think of California, what do you think? The Gold Rush, the Hollywood dream machine, “fruits and nuts”, hippies, free love, beaches, granola, feminists, surfers, yoga, cults, movie star politicians (sorry about that last one, people, not MY fault).

Those are the legends, but it’s all true.

If you want to be a movie star, come to California. If you want to be a movie writer, come to California. If you want to strike it rich, come to California. If you’re gay you most definitely want to come to California.

Now, my parents are scientists and they didn’t want me to go into the arts any more than any loving and caring parents ever want their child to go into the arts. But we were living in California and alongside my parents’ parental messages (“Go to college, get a degree, find a steady profession, save for retirement”) were all of these ever-present California messages: “Follow your dreams”, “Be yourself”, “Do what you love and the money will follow”, “Question authority”, “A woman’s place is in the House – and in the Senate”, “Free your ass and your mind will follow…”

Well, you know. When those things are constantly projected all around you, you believe they’re possible. It’s like hypnosis.

So yes, while I had the challenge that every aspiring writer or artist has in breaking free of loving parental messages, I also had a lot of cultural programming – make that countercultural programming – in my favor. There’s no question that made the whole career path easier.

After I graduated from Berkeley (and THAT is a place unlike any other, the People’s Republic of Berkeley – it’s like living in Wonderland, or Oz. It’s no wonder at all that I can’t write straight reality to save my life, because Berkeley is simply supernatural), my idea of a practical career plan was to move down to LA to become a screenwriter.

But in California moving down to LA to become a screenwriter WAS a practical career plan. I had a degree in theater. I had a resume of production experience three yards long. I’d written, directed and produced full-length, large cast musicals.

When you’re a writer no one ever asks to see those things, of course, but it all meant that I had trained for the job – I wasn’t some naïve, flying in on a wing and a prayer.

And in California, the movie industry IS an industry, just like any other industry. You are paid to do the work you do because if you’re good at it, it makes the corporation money. It doesn’t get any more practical than that.

But – writing – all writing – is also a dream job. And I believed I could do it because my state taught me to follow my dreams.

So I’m wondering. What are your state legends? How did your state and/or city influence your career path? Did it help or hinder your personal dreams?

PS – for those who were wondering, the state mollusk of California is the sea slug.

But that’s another post entirely.

16 thoughts on “Yoga Los Altos

  1. billie

    Alex, you’ve made me miss California. 🙂

    I was born in a tiny southern town right here in North Carolina. It was actually a town originally named Hinton’s Quarters, after my ancestors who founded and settled it straight from England.

    The very weird thing (to me, anyway) is that although I grew up in that little town, where my parents and their parents and their parents had grown up, a number of my child peers always thought I had come from “somewhere else.”

    Any new kid who ever moved to town would eventually ask me what country I was from. I was a shy child so the idea that I was so NOT a part of the place I grew up was alarming for most of my school years. Finally, I embraced it and couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there.

    I lived in Paris for awhile in my early twenties and the instant I got off the plane I felt I had found a home. Everything was so old, and I loved it. Everything felt very familiar to me.

    Years later I lived in Texas and then Los Gatos, CA and then Hollywood, CA – and loved those places too, for different reasons.

    I have many potent memories of the tiny southern town but that’s the one place I haven’t “written” yet. It was home but I fought the small southern town constraints so long I think I need a few more years before I tackle that place in a novel.

    Right now I am feeling drawn to Scotland and the NC mountains and New Mexico. Makes me a bit nervous b/c I’ve got so many animals that would have to make that move with us!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm, well, that’s telling. It does seem like the early messages you got that you weren’t from that small town inspired to go out and find cities that you COULD call home.

    I haven’t written about California very much myself, but my first short story and the novella I’m working on now both have Southern California settings and I’m really enjoying getting it down on paper.

    It’s definitely helped to have some distance.

  3. Lisa

    Alex,What an interesting idea, that our state shapes us as writers. I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to envision my state’s self-myths, and all that comes to mind is “small,” like we’re the kid in gym class that gets picked last for the kickball team.And we’re not even the smallEST — Rhode Island gets that prize.Delaware is the place you send your credit card bills, the home of major chemical companies, the place to incorporate businesses or register luxury yachts. We were a border state in the Civil War, half the state going to the Confederacy, half to the Union. We, regrettably, were one of three states that didn’t go to Lincoln for his re-election.We have nearly 800,000 people, so we’re more like a hundred-mile-long mid-size town. You could fit the whole state inside the Grand Canyon twice, end to end. In the 60s, Candid Camera barricaded our borders and turned away traffic from Pennsylvania and Maryland, saying Delaware was closed for the day. We have one electoral college vote, so few political candidates bother with us. Lots of people — in the US as well as outside — can’t tell you where we are on the map.But what this gives us — and maybe what it gives me as a writer — is a sense of internal support. We get so little attention that when one of us does well, we champion that person. I could — and have — write about the beauty and the land, the transition here from hilly river country to tidal basin flatland to beach — but what my state gives me as a writer is more the sense that they will be really proud of me if I make it, because I’m theirs, and we’re still smarting from that kickball game.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    How beautifully written, Lisa, thank you – I just learned worlds about your state and about you.

    By contrast, there are literally hundreds of thousands of tragedies in California, decade after decade – people who come with big dreams and fall through the cracks to sometimes miserable lives because there are just so damn many people there, all grasping forthe same brass ring. A friend of mine, John Albert, put it bluntly in his great book WRECKING CREW: “This was LA, where anything less than total fulfillment of your dreams is seen as abject failure.”

    Smaller can definitely be better.

  5. pari

    Growing up in Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains, I always knew that people were only the smallest part of the picture when it came to the natural world.

    Everywhere I looked when I grew up — and I could see for more than 20 miles in any direction — there was possibility, magic, the stuff of dreams.

    Unlike your experiences in CA, here in NM people have lived on so little for so long that there’s a sense that you can forge your own way — but it doesn’t have much to do with money or professional success; there’s more of a personal, spiritual fulfillment emphasis out here.

    Just to survive in the desert is an accomplishment, a personal victory.

    MAGIC is the key word . . . connection with spirit and things unseen. People from here are still awed by the beauty of the place, the dramatic vistas and the subtle colors.

    Artists are attracted to NM for other reasons than industry. They can live here for cheap and the entertainment — sunrises, sunsets, thunderstorms on the horizon, walks and hikes and drives where you might not see another person for hours or days — these nourish the soul, too.

  6. pari

    I forgot to mention that growing up in a city/state where so people speak other languages had to have influenced my desire to study so many myself. AND, I always knew there were other cultures just as valid as my own.

    Plus, being Jewish in NM was an entirely different experience since it’s predominately a Catholic state. Ah, but that’s a different post, too.

  7. Louise Ure

    Great post, Alex. (And oh, you’ve got such a good reason to now add Alaska to your roster of states-visited.)

    Like Pari’s New Mexico, my Arizona is a blend of the Old West, Mexican heritage and good old fashioned Catholic guilt.

    Picture the Earp brothers at the OK Corral — crossing themselves for forgiveness after the shootout, then going out for tacos.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, New Mexico has always been the most mystical, magical state for me, too – there is no other place like it on the planet.

    I love the whole Southwest – so many transcendent experiences in Arizona, too – Sedona, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon. The whole place just takes the top of my head off.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, I love that NC state motto. Now THOSE are interesting.

    California’s of course is “Eureka!” (I have found it…)

    Ironic for a place where so many people are constantly losing it. 😉

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Growing up in South Louisiana has been (and continues to be) like living in some other country. Sometimes a third-world country at that. There is a sense of anticipated failure built into our political system, a fatalistic sense that it’s not ever really going to change, a sense that you might as well make the most of today, because today is good, we’ve got food, we’ve got each other, someone throw a party, because tomorrow? Tomorrow, you just never know. It’s a multi-cultural state where Cajuns live next to Hungarians, Italians, Irish, Scots, Iranians, Pakistanis, Germans, Creoles… there was always a mix of these cultures, a melting pot. It’s ironic that I write about a state where I never really felt like I belonged, like somehow it both was my origin and yet, not my home. I’ve never had the opportunity to live elsewhere, but I’ve been several places that when I stepped off the plane, I knew I could have been at home there, moreso than here. I think there was an expression of art here — particularly literature — which was more about creating a way to cope and survive rather than a way to enjoy the cultural revolution and encouragement that you obviously found in Berkeley. That sort of freedom to be and to believe would be as alien here as someone from Jupiter, and it’s both the defining yearning of the place and the vise-like grip of desire unfulfilled that I think forms so much of what this state has–and hasn’t–become.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Saturday would be great, Stacey.

    Toni, Louisiana is so beautifully part of your writing that it would just have been wrong for you to grow up anywhere else. But it’s interesting that you felt alienated from it, because I think that feeling of alienation fuels a lot of – if not most – writers. I certainly can’t write about California unless I’m OUT of it.

    “The vise-like grip of desire unfulfilled.”

    Quote of the day!

  12. J.D. Rhoades

    On behalf of North Carolina, let me say we’re glad you’re here, Alex. And Stacey as well…I’m trying to get all the writers I know to move here so we can set up a writer’s commune in Chatham County and raise goats.

    And I think everyone should know: NC has not only a great motto, but our State Seal features someone holding a hat on a stick, which I think makes us unique.

    Why do I love North Carolina? Well, the Seal with the hat on the stick is a biggie, but beyond that, I love it because it’s a place of so many contrasts and contradictions. We’ve sent both Jesse Helms and John Edwards to the Senate. We’ve got the big money golf resort of Pinehurst and the struggling mill town of Robbins (Handsome Johnny Edwards’ hometown) in the same county. We’ve got mountains, glittering cities, hardscrabble farmland and great beaches. We gave the world Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Thomas Wolfe, Ava Gardner, and David Brinkley. Oh, and we play a little basketball here from time to time.

    This place drives me crazy sometimes, but I don’t know if I could live anywhere else.

  13. Jenny

    I found this post while searching for “Errol Flynn Estates” “Twilight Zone”. I was a bit amazed when your one and only result came back. I was even more amazed to find a beautiful tribute to a dearly departed friend. Q touched my life in much the same way he touched you & most anybody who met him. His insanity was infectious and we were all giddy to catch it when he was around.I went to his memorial and was reminded of how important it is to keep in touch with the people we enjoy spending time with. Its nostolgia that brought me here, funny that I found what I did.Thank you for sharing Q with your readers.


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