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Letter from L.A.

animals

Hello from Los Angeles. Does it seem weird that I’m blogging for Lighthouse when I live so far away? It does to me too, but only a little. I’ve taught for Andrea and Mike for seven years now, at Litfest, Fairplay, and Grand Lake. I was initially drawn by the opportunity to get back to Colorado to visit friends, but now, whenever I return, the good people at Lighthouse are among the friends I most look forward to seeing again.

For much of those same seven years, I worked at shaping autobiographical material into what was supposed to be my third novel. But I could never get the story to live. I switched setting and characters, added plot, changed POV. Last October, I finally saw that it would only work if it were told true. So I switched to memoir. This meant a new set of problems. First person is not my natural voice. I fear exposure, and the narcisissm of navel-gazing (see Andrea’s post), which is probably, ironically, narcissitic. All I can do is have faith and proceed.

To jog my memory, I drive around Los Angeles, which is my hometown. I take a lot of pictures. Photos are a particular form of memoir. There it is, the crucial thing. You can’t deny it or manipulate it or wish it away.

Remember the old Soviet Union, when a change in regime might result in the removal of persons from official photographs? Here, in a 2007 issue of Wired, Lenin’s had Trotsky plucked from the scene. Here Stalin’s commisar of water transport vanishes from his leader’s side.

These days we have Photoshop. Anyone can turn truth into fiction.

The photo above is of a small house on Doheny Blvd. A red-tiled roof and African wildlife on the front lawn — very L.A. The image is irrelevant to what I’m writing, but it’s pinned up in my workspace to remind me of the memoirist’s obligation to truth. See that blue and white security sign, the one nestled up against the gorilla? To my eye it winks too hard. Who needs Westec when you have a gorilla? I’d like to Photoshop it right out.

Sometimes I want to tweak the memoir, adjust an inconvenient timeline, alter details to make a better story, as I would with fiction. But photoshopping a memory is a cheat. Better to expand the frame, look at things from a different angle, concentrate on the something other than the obvious subject. If I can just sit with it long enough, the truth becomes more compelling than whatever lie I was tempted to tell.

3 comments on “Letter from L.A.

  1. andreadupree
    October 13, 2010

    This post rocks, Karen, and underscores why we miss you so! Anyone who can weave together a salient thought out of the former Soviet Union, lawn ornaments of the African animal persuasion, and, well, my very own blog posting is a person I want to hang out with. I heard part of your memoir in Grand Lake, and navel-gazing IT IS NOT. You’ve captured the perfect voice for your story, and while the photoshopping of memory might be one of your subjects, it’s not an ailment evident (at all) in your work.

    Thanks for this.

  2. mjhenry
    October 13, 2010

    Well said, Karen! You have to keep staring at that photo until the truth appears. Even though it’s always there, most of the time you never see it.

  3. Lane L.
    October 13, 2010

    Great photo KP. It looks like feeding time.

    Perhaps a photo-shopped sign might be appropriate:

    “Please feed the writers”

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