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Gentle climate. No social interruptions. Of course the words will flow
I am inevitably intrigued when an interviewer asks a celebrity what other profession that person would have wanted to try. Brad Pitt would say architect. Others might say mountain climber or aviator. I have never been publicly dealt the question, which is just as well since my answer would sound feigned. From my earliest days I never wanted to be anything but a writer. What has always enchanted me is using words, a whole lot of them. I talked before I walked, my mother says, looking up at about eight months, still on all fours, to utter a short, complete sentence.
I loved the way words felt in my mouth: little ones and big ones. When I began to read, I would puzzle over the syllables, playing with them, saying them out loud. Poetry beguiled me, simple verses, because who knew that you could put sounds together that made sense and rhymed at the same time? I memorized them and ran through them over and over, mostly to myself, sometimes to a familial audience or to a usually bedazzled teacher (if I hadn’t been a team player and a tomboy with skinned knees to show for it, the other kids might have hated me). Language became my joy, my thing to conquer, my thing to conquer the world with.
In ninth or tenth grade I began to understand that I should and would be a writer. I wrote poems—and have, alas, a collection of deeply felt and sophomoric efforts as proof. I attempted a short story or two, but they felt false to me so I tore them up. I went off to college and took not a single writing class, not even an English class, because deconstruction was coming into vogue, and I feared having the books I adored taken apart by a clever professor. I graduated and (in what can only be called a propitious career move) fell in love with an older L.A.-based journalist who became my editor and mentor. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be a screenwriter. I had watched my parents’ friends struggle with scripts that were rewritten or chopped up or never made and decided, No way. I ruled out fiction, too. A novel seemed beyond daunting (I would later write two). Also, I wanted to make a living—however meager—as a writer. So I started, with a mixture of terror and relief, to send story queries to various magazines in the east, the locus then—as now—of the national media world.
After plenty of rejections, I had pieces published in Redbook and Newsweek, and I began to travel a lot, mostly in and out of Manhattan. When I was doing a major profile of someone like Truman Capote, at his nadir, or Ted Kennedy, as he geared up to run for president, I would camp out in small hotels in New York or Washington or Boston. I was so young and so cold. I knew nothing about winter. I had been in snow as a Southern California kid on skis, but the long pull of hard, frozen months was unknown to me. To begin my Kennedy rounds I arrived in the nation’s capital in January 1979—a brutal month—with a medium-weight, knee-length brown-and-tan wool coat, a pair of insubstantial boots, and no hat. A reporter from the New York Times’s Washington bureau took me to lunch on my first day and bought me a ski cap from a kiosk. “Keep your ears warm,” he said, “and watch out for the Irishmen.”
I called home every night and asked about the weather, shivering in my rented rooms—or more often sweating in them because they were overheated, their radiators clanging. I was unaccustomed to such noise; it kept me awake. Every sensory experience was different from what I was used to. The cities were dense and overstimulating and assaultive. They felt as if they belonged to an earlier industrial era. I had never worked so hard to get from place to place, never worn so many cumbersome clothes. Within hours of returning home from one of my cross-country jaunts I would be back in shorts—whatever time of year—and in my car. I was free again. That’s the way it felt. I had twinges of loss; I missed the excitement of being on the road, my new witty writer friends, the museums and restaurants (before we gained our own superb places). But there was elbowroom. There was the ocean. There was peace. You could breathe. I felt ragged from all the coming and going, from trying to mix it up with the eastern heavyweights, and I had to push doubly hard to keep my hand in. But I was always relieved to be back in L.A. This is where I did my work. My reporting went on out there, but I came home to write in my cottage in my then-sleepy suburb. There were no fancy cocktail parties where authors and editors confabbed, no obligatory social engagements. When I did venture to a dinner here, nobody asked who my agent was or where my next byline would appear, as routinely happened when I was in New York. I was away from the hubbub, the pressure, the scrutiny.
Los Angeles is more amped up now, but I still live as I did then, spending hours at the computer, week after week, year after year. I write in the same chair at the same desk facing the same window. There are days I don’t leave the house or talk to anyone on the phone. Nobody intrudes unless I succumb to the impulse to check my e-mail. Given the geography of L.A., no one just drops by, as they might in another city. You can live in your own creative cocoon. You can zone out, float. If I am bored with myself and find my work stalled or wanting, I go for a walk or take a drive, the car another cloistered space in which to daydream. I don’t have to fight a packed sidewalk or a crowded subway. There’s no need to speak to anyone or bump into another body; my word reverie can continue unbroken, even as I run errands at the dry cleaner or the market (as long as I resist the urge to bring a cell phone or plug myself into an iPod).
Of course the foundation of this lifestyle is the usually benign weather, what my lifetime writer friend Scott Berg calls “a seasonal seamlessness.” He’s referring to the lack of sharp climatic edges, that you can drift from summer to fall, from winter to spring, head down over the keyboard or up in the clouds when a sentence is just out of reach. The ease of everyday living is indeed unmatched, if you are fortunate enough, as Scott and I are, to work at home. He puts in years on a book and is never more content than when he’s sequestered for months on end. Occasionally we talk; out of the blue one or the other of us picks up the phone, and we have a garrulous professional and personal catch-up. How’s it going? How’s your mom? We kibitz hard and laugh a lot over stored-up anecdotes and shared memories. For a moment our gregarious side takes over, but we are at heart loners—one of the other reasons being in this city works for us. We purposely don’t get out much, aren’t pulled as we might be elsewhere. Both of us turn up at book parties or festivals, but for the most part we lead quiet lives, off the literary grid, Scott in his sweatshirt, I in my shorts. Being isolated also keeps us from chatting too much about what we are working on, a fatal temptation. Ideas are so fragile, so pierceable until they’re put down on paper. Talking about them can make them seem silly, hackneyed.
I might have grown lonesome for other writers if I didn’t have one in-house. If I want a listener to whom I can read a paragraph, I have a first-rate editor at hand. I still go to New York a couple of times a year to see my agent and various book and magazine editors—to get my fix. The visits are intense, and I become intense. I’m sure I would settle down if I lived among the scribe tribe, but the truth is, after every stay I am happy to head west.
What I didn’t do for a long time was write about Los Angeles. I didn’t want to be identified with this city while I was trying to make my way. L.A. was perceived as too softheaded, too sunny and kooky to be the home of a real writer or to be the grist for any serious literary effort. Such was the prevailing prejudice among those I encountered on my sojourns. The authors who had gained fame writing about L.A. had often portrayed it in a dark light, as a region filled with arsonists and hedonists and other unhinged folk. I dutifully read the L.A. canon, which struck me as anti-L.A. I simply left the topic alone because my take was different, so umbilical, so joy filled. I feared being dismissed as a lightweight. The assignments I sought took me away from here. When I added a television piece to my career, it was for PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, based in Washington and New York. In short, for decades I more or less ran from my roots, as much as you can when you turn up in the February chill in the heart of Manhattan with (natural) sun streaks in your hair and a pretty good tan.
Eventually I was secure enough to stop pretending. I had earned my stripes, paid my dues, amassed my “serious” bylines. My city had also grown up in the eyes of the rest of the country. I started traveling less and bit by bit began to write about Los Angeles, in my way. It has been an unexpected turn, a homecoming.