#211: Writing About a City

September 2nd, 2013

Writing about a city is writing about oddness and absurdity. It’s writing about the details rather than the broad strokes. There are no broad strokes here, no skylines that go on for miles of undiluted, beautiful sameness.

There’s no peace, no calm, no even theme really. Just a whitewater of conflicting details. The heart-shaped Mylar balloon floating down the subway tunnel as a little mouse scurries down the track below. The balloon starts to shake and jolt as the train thundering toward it Bernoullis the air pressure around it. Dozens waiting on the platform watch to see which way the balloon will fly in the oncoming wind. Once it dives toward the platform floor, all the commuters look down as one, back to the train as if it never happened.

Writing about a city is writing about torn banners in trees, about little shops you know won’t last the year. It’s writing about men and women who look the same, act the same, talk the same and think they’re the uniqueness that makes a town special. They’re not. Their leavings are, the empty champagne bottle by the bus stop bench, the massive skyscraper next to a curly tan church.

Writing about a city is writing about empty spaces. Buildings aren’t interesting, ask any child. Fenced-off fields with weeds and broken glass are.

Writing about a city is not SEO-friendly. It’s writing about other people and no one wants to read that, no one wants to post it to their Facebook saying “I TOTALLY THINK THIS TOO!!!”

People want you to write about them, not about empty spaces, conflicting details, bus stops and train platforms, empty nights walking under the cones streetlights make in darkness where the sound might be someone who hurts you. They want lists, quick hits, “What does this mean to me?” news you can use.

So I had my face slammed into again and again at a place that just laid off two fifths of its staff. Lessons in success from a crushing disaster.

Writing about a city is sad and lonely. It’s beautiful and fun. I get to run around and ask people why they do what they love and I get to do it three times a week. I have to stay up nights polishing words and phrases for a job no one asked me to do.

But this desperate, disparate city with its beautiful Sundays and tragic Saturdays, with its families and sin and loss and joy, it needs as many voices as it can get. The story of a city is told in chapters lasting centuries by co-authors numbering in the millions. It’s never one person’s story in that SEO way where you TOTALLY THINK THAT TOO!!!

Writing about a city is joining a choir. Maybe someone can pick out your strain for a second, note your voice among the others for a moment at a time, but then your feeble refrain gets lost among the rest.

Your voice might not be heard, but together we sing an anthem.

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