Thursday, April 18, 2013

My Next Big Project: The Move to Seattle

One week ago today, I finished the first draft of The Grief Book. It's in my agent's hands now and I know there will be revisions to come before it is shopped to publishers, but then it will be time for my next project, and that will not be writing-related.

If you've been following my blog, Facebook, or Twitter, you know that I've been visiting and dreaming about moving to Seattle for a long time. Nine years this month actually. In July of this year, my husband and I are finally taking the plunge. It's beyond exciting! It's totally fucking terrifying! And being A Writer Person Who Must Document Everything, I feel the compulsion to document it. I'm doing this for me, but also because as I've worked to make this dream become a reality, I've had so many questions and worries and I'm so thankful for the advice I've gotten and the internet resources I've found (like this awesome blog), that I hoped my documentation might be useful to others looking to make their way to their dream city--or heart city, as I call Seattle--especially those dealing with any of the crazy circumstances that we are, which I will get into later on in this entry and in future entries.

I call this oft-neglected blog 'o mine Life, Words, and Rock 'n' Roll. Most of my posts are about the words--my writing process, projects, and woes, as well as author interviews. I've done series of posts on the rock 'n' roll (Music Tuesdays and Women Who Rock Wednesdays). And occasionally I get personal and do the life stuff. Over the next couple of months (if all goes as planned, I do tend to take on too many projects), my Seattle Bound series of blog posts will really bring you into my life. I hope it's vaguely interesting to my readers. I considered posting this solely on Tumblr (and if you are a Tumblr user, my new all-about-moving Tumblr is, but since that would mean this blog remaining quite neglected, I've decided to cross-post. The Tumblr will probably have additional Seattle-y things on it if you are interested (and if I do a better job than I have with my Muses tumblr and my Bartending tumblr ).

Anyway, I will start by answering the question that I get the most when I tell people that I was dreaming of/am now planning to move to Seattle. Why? This is almost always followed up with some sort of comment about the rain, either that I must like it or that the question-asker could not stand it.

The short answer is, "Seattle is the city of my heart. I've loved cities--New Orleans and Los Angeles, for example--but I've never gone some place and thought, I belong here until my first visit to Seattle."

This answer usually gets funny looks from people who've either never thought too hard about feeling like they "fit" where they live or loving a place like a person. If I don't think like someone will get it, I often just give them the more simplified "because I love it." But now I will elaborate the way I have been to my husband, my best friends, and my family for too many years.

As a writer, I think about place a lot. I worked very hard to develop the fictional place of Carlisle, Wisconsin in my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and capture the Oak Park, Illinois that I grew up in in my second book, Ballads of Suburbia. I love stories with a deep connection to their environment--my all-time favorite YA book Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block for example. The way Weetzie's Los Angeles is painted in those opening pages.... *sigh* When I read that book in high school, I was jealous of Weetize for many reasons--she had great style, an amazing makeshift family, a freakin' lamp with a genie in it, and above all else, she loved the place where she lived. It was a part of her. It was her heart.

I'd never felt like that. My family moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, when I was eight. My younger brother had a strong attachment to our original hometown and would go back there for college and law school. I liked St. Louis, but I didn't feel particularly connected to it. I hated Oak Park. I'd never felt so out of place in my life. Being bullied in grade school and junior high didn't particularly help, but even when I found my own group of friends in high school, I still ached to get out. I graduated high school a semester early and moved to Madison, Wisconsin. That was my almost-heart city. I will always have a special love for it because it was the place I found freedom and started to find myself. I was more attached to it than any place I lived, but I still didn't feel  that Weetzie-L.A.-level of connection. Also, before I could really find myself there, I started to lose myself. I was in an unhealthy relationship, drinking heavily, I'd dropped out of college and was going nowhere fast. So, at 21, I went home to Oak Park, to live with my mom and get back on my feet while enrolling at Columbia College Chicago. I ended up getting both my Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Columbia and because of that and other reasons that I detail in this Rookie essay about my relationship with the suburbs, stuck around and bought a house in another Chicago suburb, Forest Park in 2004, when I was 24.

I didn't want to stay in Chicago. I've never been particularly fond of it. But my school was here. My family was here. And I'd resigned myself to thinking it was my place even though I didn't have the feelings for it that Weetzie had for L.A. That was a fictional story, after all. Maybe those kind of feelings didn't exist in real life. And then, six weeks before I closed on my house in Forest Park, I went to Seattle.

The reason for my first trip to Seattle was equal parts dorky and incredibly personal. Music is a huge part of my life, probably about the same size as writing since it is what inspires me most. And my biggest inspiration of all was Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I discovered them in junior high, while being bullied, while feeling like a freak who didn't deserve a voice. But then there was Kurt, also a freak and an outcast, and in the early 90s, his was one of the loudest voices in the world. Nirvana's music helped me break out of my shell and become an artist. I was fourteen years old when Kurt Cobain killed himself. It was totally devastating because I related to and admired him so much. In some ways, it marked the end of my innocence. After Kurt Cobain's death, I discovered drugs and sex and sex with the wrong people. I was depressed. I was abused. It was an ugly, ugly time.

But I still loved his music and I loved talking to other people who loved his music. I met two girls online, one from Denver and one from St. Louis, who loved the music the way I did, who in April of 2004, ten years after Kurt's death wanted to pay their respects like I did. When Kurt died, I planted myself in front of my TV and watch peopled gather in the Seattle Center and the small park next to his house in Seattle. I wanted to be there. I seriously considered running away, but I didn't. Taking the trip ten years later seemed like a fitting tribute as well as a way to give myself closure. I was 24, about to buy a house. I wanted to say goodbye to that fucked-up teenage girl I'd been in the years right after Kurt died.

Though I was a Nirvana geek and a music geek in general who loved a lot of the Seattle area bands (I did almost go to Evergreen State in Olympia because of my connection to the Riot Grrrl movement), I didn't see Seattle as some sort of Mecca like some of my friends in high school and in the online music community did. It was just a place. I was going there to honor the man who'd been a huge artistic influence on me, to have closure with my teenage self, and mainly because it was spring break, and as a college kid hanging out with my internet friends in a hostel seemed like a fun way to spend it. I did do and enjoy all of those things. I even documented the tribute/closure thing in this essay on Fresh Yarn. But something else happened, too. Something I had not expected at all. And it happened in the course of an hour.

I got off the plane, met up with my friends and we went outside to find the bus that would take us downtown to our hostel. The smell of the air was so fresh and clean. Rain, the woods, the green, green earth even though I though I was standing outside of an airport on a sunny day. Then, once on the bus, my friends talked and I just stared. All that green. All those trees. The mountains in the distance. The water and this:

I could feel it in my heart before we even reached downtown: I was home. The home I'd stopped believing I'd find. My version of Weetzie's pink-smog-drenched, glittery Los Angeles was this cloudy, gray and green-green-green paradise. I felt even more sure of it as I walked from 3rd and University to First and Union, down an insane set of steps to our hostel, and from there to what would become my first and final destination on each of the ten trips I've taken to Seattle since 2004:

I spent ten days wandering the streets with my friends. We stayed downtown, but also went to Capitol Hill, Belltown, Queen Anne, the U-District and of course Madrona, since Viretta Park was an essential part of the tribute portion of the trip. We only rented a car to drive around outside of the city, but in Seattle itself, we walked and took the bus everywhere. I was more aware of my surroundings than I'd ever been, wanting to take all of it in. It only rained on one day, which I knew was rare for April, but I already had plans to go back and experience more of the city, preferably on gray and drizzly days because as I tell all the people who ask me my feelings on rain, "I like it. I always have, except for crazy, scary thunderstorms and tornadoes. And I much, much prefer cold and rainy to snow in the winter."

I cried in the airport bathroom when I had to leave, but I went home to Chicago. I closed on that house in Forest Park because I thought I had to. My boyfriend was there and he'd made it clear that he'd never leave the Midwest. I was still in grad school. And maybe, maybe it was fluke. Maybe it was just a vacation I'd really needed and really enjoyed.

But I missed Seattle like a person. I started watching a certain soapy hospital drama just for the stock footage of the Space Needle, for a peek at Puget Sound. I planned my next trip with my Denver friend, who understood my feelings for the city. We went back again in April, experiencing more proper rain and gray that time, exploring more neighborhoods and places: Fremont and Gasworks Park, Alki Beach and West Seattle, Magnuson Park to the Northeast. We got drenched. We got cranky after losing sleep at our much shittier hostel. But I was still in love. It made sense in a lot of ways, why I fit there. When I talked to my Madison friends who'd been, they said it's like a bigger Madison. The people are laid back, and even though I've heard people talk about the "Seattle Freeze," my friend and I never had trouble making new friends--chatting with random people on the bus, being invited to a concert on the street. And, the food! For most folks it's the seafood, but as a vegan whose been stuck primarily in the Midwest, it was paradise. Pizza Pi in the U-District with vegan pizza; Bamboo Garden in Queen Anne with its fake meat everything; Plum Bistro in Capitol Hill with its exquisite yet affordable gourmet cuisine; Highline also in Capitol Hill, which not only had vegan bar food, but homemade infusions of vodka that this experienced bartender adored; Cafe Flora in Madison Valley for brunch, Georgetown Liquor Company with its sandwiches with sci-fi inspired names that made my geeky heart sing. I'm sure there are more that I'm forgetting, but that is just my list of must-eats every time I'm there.

I've visited every year since 2004. In 2005 and 2011, I even went twice. I've been in the spring and the fall. I've gone for New Year's to experience those gray, frozen winter days, and in July and August so I could take the water taxi to Alki Beach and take a swim in the saltwater Colman Pool. I've basked in the sun in Golden Gardens Park and hiked through Discovery Park in the rain. I add a new neighborhood or place to explore every time I travel--Georgetown, Ballard, the Washington Park Arboretum, and the Japanese Garden. I spend as much time as I can by the water. I'm a Cancer girl, so having water on three sides makes me happier than I can express.

Every time I came home to Chicago, it seemed gray, and not pretty rainy gray, just dreary and most definitely flat. Every winter seemed to be colder, snowier. There were too many of those awful thunderstorms that scare the crap out of me. I was more and more miserable, more and more uninspired.

In addition to writing books and essays and teaching writing, I bartend. That's my main source of income here, though it wasn't supposed to be. That was supposed to be a temporary job until I found my niche creatively and found more artistic and fulfilling work--the kind of work that seems more plentiful in a such a creative and literary city like Seattle.

The idea of moving all the way across the country without knowing exactly what I would do there--the logistics alone of a cross-country move with two cats and a husband, out of a house I've lived in with too much stuff for too many years, have always held me back. I've spent years kicking myself for not taking the leap when I was 24, when it was still acceptable to take such daring leaps because you have time to fix it if you fuck up. But I can't kick myself, staying in Chicago at 24 meant finishing my MFA. It meant getting out of the unhealthy relationship I was in and meeting and ultimately marrying my real life partner. Fortunately because he is my true partner, because he gives me strength and feeds my dreams and is willing to take risks and adventures with me, he has agreed that it's time to take the leap, to go to the city of my heart and make our home there.

The plan as of now is to depart on July 2nd, to drive across the country in our Honda Accord with two cats in the back. I'm still terrified of the logistics, still terrified that I'm risking everything--our savings, our careers--for this dream. But I'm also excited about the adventure, the new challenges we will face. I know this post, explaining the why, which I probably still didn't do fully, was long, and I thank you for bearing with me. I don't expect all of the how posts, the specifics of those challenges, those fears that come with moving across the country will be nearly as long as this. But, to talk about where I'm headed, I had to explain where I was coming from. 


Katherine said...

Started reading this just as Courtney was singing "You should learn when to go" on the radio! I'm lucky to live near and work in my heart city. Best of luck to you!

Kristi said...

Good for you following your dreams. L.A. is that city for me and always will be. Now, I'm off to read Weetzie Bat. Best to you,
PS When I send my agent my latest ms next month, I'm including "I wanna be your Joey Ramone" as one of the comp works.

M said...

I'll come visit you in Seattle! I've been wanting to go up there and visit the Experience Music Project (EMP Museum). It sounds awesome.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Your description of Seattle makes me want to go there, even though I do love Chicago and have been rooted here for years. It sounds like you are making the right decision, because it's not like this is a spur of the moment decision; this is something you've thought about and wanted to do for years.
By the way, I took a class that you taught at StoryStudio a couple years ago, called Digging into Character. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed it, and that you are a good teacher. :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you so much, everyone!

Kristi, I do love L.A., too and so exciting you are using IWBYJR as comp title.

Neurotic Workaholic, thank you so much for what you said, especially about my teaching. That means more to me than you know. Teaching is up there with writing for me, a true passion. I'm looking for teaching jobs in Seattle, so this gives me a vote of confidence :)

missworld27 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
missworld27 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
missworld27 said...

I moved to Kansas City from Seattle when I was 16 and have been looking forward to moving back ever since. Seattle has an awesome art/music scene and a creative vibe throughout the city, so I'm sure you'll love it! I'm actually moving to Chicago to go to the Art Institute next year but I think I'm gonna move back to Seattle after I graduate. Also, if you haven't been to the Nirvana exhibit at EMP, you should go. It's really cool! Good luck with the move!!

Denise Jaden said...

I love Seattle too, though maybe not quite like you do. I'm only a couple of hours away, so maybe we will get to meet in person sometime.

Denise Jaden said...

I love Seattle too, though maybe not quite like you do. I'm only a couple of hours away, so maybe we will get to meet in person sometime.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Missword27! I actually love that exhibit at the EMP, I was there when I visited last year, but I want to go again! Good luck at the Art Institute! It is a great school :)

Denise, yes!!!!! I would love to meet in person! We will make it happen!