Stop, Look, Listen: Telling L.A.’s Story

OVER the last few days, I’ve been happy to see some lovely on-line mentions of my journalism students’ group blog Telling L.A.’s Story. (And here too)The class,  a feature-writing course  focused on encouraging students to pause and really think about the narrative that shapes the city, was something I thought would make sense in a place that often is vaguely — and frequently unfairly — defined. 

Los Angeles, as those of us intimate with it know, is many cities, feelings, moods.  The idea was that students  would write reported essays and profiles about their L.A. The assignments  would not just force them into the deep water of Los Angeles but it would help to deepen the  overall narrative. 

The blog, however, was inspired by the first group of students who gathered in those seats. I was quite moved by the complexity of their stories, voices, experiences.  They came from all over the country, from different disciplines and perspectives. Some had never written before (feared it, even),  some were “just in love with cities” and wanted a place to think a bit more deeply about the one they lived in, others just needed an upper division elective.  I got to know them on the page. Even the ones who spoke very little on class found a sure and sturdy voice on the page; they were vivid, chatty, questioning, humourous. They took us to corners of the city that we don’t often get to go to; they went to corners of their own histories that they never felt the need to explore. 

As a journalist, I know that Los Angeles can be a tough place to write about. It casts a long, sharp shadow. It’s hard to get the “noise” out of your ears when you’re thinking about writing and even about what it is you actually see. There is a shrill slickness to the narrative that we’re often handed and this is what this particular class worked hard at: they dutifully chipped away and got behind the larger assumptions as well as their own reservations.

They wrote about the past, the present, that carefully handled their family’s stories, they tackled the history of different thoroughfares and city pockets. They wrote of people who helped shape them, songs that were the soundtrack of their childhood and the rituals forever twined with them.  

For a place that is so elusive, a city that wriggles out of quick definition, Los Angeles sat still for them. They were able to slow it down, pause and look inside for “the thing” that makes L.A. L.A. to them — not a joke, not a one liner, not a slick sobriquet — but a place you call home for better or worse.

And while the project continues, I wanted to pause to make sure to thank that first class for their willingness, motivation, curiosity and sense of humor — but most of all the courage to push themselves. 

You set a high bar.

Thank you all. 

top photo: city hall obscured by palm, credit: l.g.
bottom photo: telling la stories, “inaugural” 2010 class — just a portion “on the island” talking about city traffic islands

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