Finding Your Artistic Community: Reviews of SF, LA, NY, Paris and Berlin

Yesterday I finished my final class of my final creative writing workshop at UCLA. My professor, Mona Simpson, reminded us as always to begin cultivating a community of writers, and the words rang true this time more than ever because a few of us were facing the reality of a writing world without due dates, without check-ins, without peer support. I think a lot of creating good work comes from the community you find yourself in. What do you want people to say when you meet them at parties and mention you're a writer? Who do you want to look up and see when you're typing away on your novel in a coffee shop? These are the questions you have to ask yourself when you're thinking of where you'll land, and where you'll make a home for both yourself and your work. Work can thrive on being placed in the right conversation. Although not everyone can live in a major metropolis, I'm taking it upon myself to review the artistic cities I've flirted with.

I did my first two years of undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. Nestled into the central coast I was surrounded by natural beauty but did not get much work done. When I studied abroad in Berlin before coming to UCLA, I felt like a starving person being force fed pate and caviar. The city was teeming with inspiration. From there I spent some time in Paris, and in the following years I have lived in LA with a brief sojourn to Manhattan in the middle. These are my impressions of doing creative work in these places, starting with a reflection on my home city, San Francisco.

San Francisco (For the record, LA hipsters, you're the only ones calling it Frisco and hoping to be lauded as in-the-know natives)

Taken in San Francisco

While full of coffee shops and views, SF always makes me feel like I've gone rogue when I'm writing in public. Its history as a bawdy, brawling mining town is fast dissipating as it becomes the bourgeois capital of fair trade farmer's markets and scrumptious artisanal coffee. It's becoming quite cost prohibitive to live right in the city, but the East Bay is getting more and more vibrant with an artistic scene. San Francisco is also home to a literary culture that says "we don't need your approval." The Rumpus is a killer and unpretentious publication, and it goes without saying that McSweeney's is the ultimate in creating a new literary conversation and community. Not to mention the long legacy of Zyzzyva as the "last word in West Coast fiction." My most persistent qualm with my home city is that I'm a writer that prefers a more present underbelly than I've been able to perceive in SF on my last few visits. What with the all the tech money being funneled in I wouldn't be surprised to find that the Tenderloin will be nothing but a memory within a decade or less. It feels very much like a war of gentrification is being waged, but regardless you can't beat the romance of a jingling trolley car or of eating cannoli in North Beach.

New York

"Double Exposure" - taken in Morningside Heights

"Double Exposure" - taken in Morningside Heights

Comparing cities to stimulants is so passe I want to cry, so instead of telling you NYC is like caffeine, I'll do my best to describe the city's effects. Simply sitting in the Hungarian pastry shop in Morningside Heights or grabbing a bite next to the Strand Bookstore I felt that helpless hysteria you get when you see your favorite celebrity onscreen or walking casually past you in a mall. I sat with my notebook and a copy of Principles of Uncertainty in Greenwich Village and listened to a jazz quartet, feeling the lineage of the many, many artists who'd come before me. While New York is always giving you new faces, scenarios, and weirdos to treat as artistic subjects, it's also continually bringing up your lack of accomplishment. Do you know what Allen Ginsberg was doing here at your age on this very street? it asks, impatient. While we all need a boot now and again, this is underscored by the general conversation that everybody's "an artist," a term unparalleled in the lack of work needed to legitimize itself, so there's the ever-present illusion that everyone around you is succeeding and in spades.  

Berlin

My drawing spot on Savignyplatz in Berlin

My drawing spot on Savignyplatz in Berlin

My artistic experiences in Berlin can be summed up by two episodes. The first took place at Suicide Circus, a nightclub just on the Friedrichshain side of the Oberbaum Brucke. One drops below street level to enter the club, which is perched just next to the train tracks. It is divided into two rooms, one partially outdoor, and filled with quirky furniture and an assortment of colored lighting. If you order a cocktail they give you a confused look, wondering why you didn't simply take care of this at one of the many cozy bars within a stone's throw of the club's entrance. The night I was there in August of 2012, in the indoor room they were showcasing some brand of electronic music that didn't yet have a name in English, but what it amounted to was slow-motion mechanical grinding along with a throb so lackadaisical if it were a human heartbeat that human would be experiencing an agonizing hypothermic organ failure. On a large screen were various objects caked in fresh mud being hosed down, but of course the film was artificially put into slow motion so ambitiously plodding that as each droplet of water struck the mud-covered shoe or hydrant it felt like a major event of epic proportions. Because our culture doesn't exactly foster the same attitude of severity about such artistic endeavors, my only available reaction was steadily worsening laughter to the point where entranced couples in matching ray-ban eyeglasses would turn around to shush me with a vigor only paralleled by the desperate twitches of the metallic insect now drowning in the muddy water onscreen. So that said, Berlin takes art very, very seriously even if, in my opinion, it's not great. 

The second incident, which was much more charming, was the afternoon I sat at the Italian restaurant by the S-Bahn on Savignyplatz sketching everything in front of me. The air was thick and humid with imminent rain, I drank a pristine Riesling, and nibbled on panna cotta. An old man, stooped but marching on, stopped a moment to adjust his tweed suit and caught sight of what I was working on. He shuffled over, stood silently next to me, looked at the drawing, up at my view, and back to the drawing. He moved back into my line of sight, nodded happily, and moved along. In Berlin, you'll find nothing but tacit approval for your work. Not everybody's an artist, but reverence for art appears to supersede even religion in Berlin. And as an added bonus, I knew an upright bass player there who made decent money playing music on the street with his band.

Paris

A sketch I did in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris

I said above you want to consider people's reactions when you say you're a writer. The answer in Paris is, "Hmm, of course you are." I felt in fact that I needed to clarify my artistic intentions in order to legitimize myself, even in a social setting. Not only that, but I had to be clear too about what I dabbled in: "Oh, I'm a writer but I have tried visual art and I play guitar." This was always met with more nonplussed nodding. Art intersects in Paris with the political as well. I can't count the number of times in just a few weeks that I was asked what Americans think of Sarkozy. That put me in the position of choosing whether to pretend "Americans" in general even knew who he was, or admitting there are quite a few in our population of 300 million who couldn't find France on a map. But Paris is an atmosphere that welcomes you in as an artist without chiding you on your accomplishments. Countless times I'd settle into a cafe, watch the passersby while scarfing down a Jambon Paris, and indulge my own ruminations on existence until it was time for the next meal. And I found there was an unparalleled availability of people willing to discuss such matters with little to no preamble, just an attitude of "here's some wine, here's some cheese, what else do we have to do other than evaluate the Sisyphean nature of our own lives?"

Los Angeles

An Instagram from a recent sojourn to Bricks and Scones--a west-LA writer's haven/coffee shop

An Instagram from a recent sojourn to Bricks and Scones--a west-LA writer's haven/coffee shop

Ah, my lovely City of Angels. You get a bad rap. But the reality is you suffer the slings and arrows of all this abuse because it just gives you more to smirk about when confronted with people who don't get it. Yes, we're a capital of spray tans, sure our congested freeways are teeming with Kardashians in their Range Rovers, but what few people stop to think about is that the movie business is a place where artistic people can do creative work AND MAKE MONEY FOR IT. If you want to spend your day in a coffee shop, everyone will be working on their screenplays. At the first day of my internship I found out this was a place where binge-watching Netflix was not only encouraged, but necessary to do your job well. You have to know what's going on because everybody's a film and TV nerd. My dad, whenever he visits, reminds me that the best thing about LA is, and I quote, that "nobody gives a shit." It's truer here than anywhere. You want to be an artist? Fine, go for it. You want to have a mohawk and be covered in tattoos? You'll probably get hired to a studio no problem as long as you're talented. Everybody does their thing unperturbed. And while inspiration isn't just hitting you in the face like in New York, and the pubic transportation leaves quite a lot to be desired, you're within driving distance at all times from every world cuisine, every oddity, every book reading or concert you'd ever want to consume. Because what is a tour if you don't stop in LA? The literary scene is blossoming here, too, and we're all about subverting the norms. LA Zine Fest is one event that proves we've got a lot going on, as does the scene at such gems as Skylight Books in Los Feliz. So if you want to do your thing in peace surrounded by an unpretentious community, LA's your spot.