Saturday, November 15, 2008

Description of Place

I am reading this novel right now that isn't really the kind of thing I'm usually into, but I can't put it down: Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. It's set in the near future, the story of a seventeen-year-old tech geek kid who gets in trouble with the Department of Homeland Security after terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge--and the BART tunnels underneath the bay, & the thought of that made me cringe for real. You can see why I can't put it down. But anyway I am thinking about place. Writing about it, having students write about it. Reading about it, and how when it's done well, it can be one of my favorite things to read about, and done well it can nail a piece, done wrong it can damage everything around it beyond repair because you get stuck in the wrongness. I liked this one a lot. It's Doctorow's first-person narrator describing his walk home from Van Ness and Market Street in San Francisco to his home in Potrero Hill:

The walk back to Potrero Hill has an easy route and a hard route, the latter taking you over some of the steepest hills in the city, the kind of thing that you see car chases on in action movies, with cars catching air as they soar over the zenith. I always take the hard way home. It's all residential streets, and the old Victorian houses they call "painted ladies" for their gaudy, elaborate paint jobs, and front gardens with scented flowers and tall grasses. House cats stare at you from hedges, and there are hardly any homeless.

It was so quiet on those streets that it made me wish I'd taken the other route, through the Mission, which is ... raucous is probably the best word for it. Loud and vibrant. Lots of rowdy drunks and angry crackheads and unconscious junkies, and also lots of families with strollers, old ladies gossiping on stoops, lowriders with boom-cars going thumpa-thumpa-thumpa down the streets. There were hipsters and mopey emo art students and even a couple old-school punk rockers, old guys with pot bellies bulging out beneath their Dead Kennedys shirts. Also drag queens, angry gang kids, graffiti artists and bewildered gentrifiers trying not to get killed while their real estate investments matured.


On a related note, I am thinking about how teaching helps my writing, helps my reading. I am still extremely dubious about how much the MFA in creative writing helped my writing, though it did help my reading, which you could argue is the same thing as helping my writing. But as I've said before, teaching keeps complicating the ways I see the world. Which helps everything.

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