I Couldn’t Write About My Hometown Until I Left

This August marks my four-year anniversary with Chicago. It was my first time living outside of my hometown of Chico let alone outside of California. Chico is a college town, and I had gone to college in this college town. I was on the verge of becoming a townie. I frequented the townie bar to drink with members of the community theatre scene, the music scene, and Chico’s burgeoning comedy scene. I didn’t think of these people as townies though. They were just people who lived there.

Like many young writers, I had the idea to write a book of interconnected stories about my hometown and its people, my own Dubliners or Lost in the City. I’d call it, I don’t know, The Avenues after the series of parallel streets intersecting the Esplanade. Each story would be like each row of homes like broken teeth hidden under a canopy of oak.

My final semester at Chico State, I wrote two of the stories that I envisioned would be part of the collection, but I didn’t get any further than that. In some dark and forgotten corner of my Google Drive, there exists a folder of false starts, scenes that didn’t make it past 250 words.

But even with the stories that I completed, there was something hollow about them. This is partly because I just wasn’t as good of a writer five, six years ago. I wasn’t as disciplined, I hadn’t read as widely, I hadn’t written as much, I hadn’t discovered my own process. I’m simply a better writer than I was when I tried to write that book.

More importantly, I couldn’t write about my hometown, because I didn’t understand it. The eccentricities of the people and the environment did not present themselves to me until I had something to compare it to. My family didn’t travel much and when we did, we stayed within California’s borders. I had yet to see Chico from a distance. Only when I was able to step 2,000 miles and several years away from it, did the image of it reconstitute itself into what it truly is. I didn’t appreciate the Sierra Nevada forming the horizon until I drove along I-65 through Indiana where the only thing to look at are the windmills. I couldn’t see the geological history carved into the fractured earth until I had spent months encased in a concrete jungle. Even the messiness of Chico’s map didn’t become apparent until I moved from point to point along Chicago’s grid, where everything is a square.

The Avenues has been thoroughly abandoned as a project; I hadn’t thought about it until I began writing this. I haven’t given up on writing about Chico. Before, it was the only place I had spent a significant amount of time in, so it wasn’t a unique place. It was just a town. I realize now that those two stories could have been set anywhere because my characters just lived there. The setting didn’t affect them. Now, for better or worse, it’s home.

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