Thursday, March 08, 2007

Walking Tour of a Writer's Life

by Kristine Coblitz

I read an article this week about the famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft that interested me. I must admit that I've never read his work nor do I know much about him. It appears, however, that he has somewhat of a cult following.

The article stated that Lovecraft had the words "I AM PROVIDENCE" engraved on his tombstone because he identified so much with the New England city. He grew up near Brown University. Some of his books were set in downtown Providence. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Lovecraft's death next week, visitors can participate in a festival and walking tour of places the famous writer frequented in Providence during the time he lived there.

The walking tour is what intrigued me, and I began to think about it in terms of my own existence. What would a walking tour of my life consist of? Hm. Most of us know that writers don't exactly live glamorous lives. Well, unless you're Janet Evanovich or Stephen King, I guess.

Most of my life is spent inside my home office, where I laboriously write articles and plug away at the pages of my crime fiction novel. A tour of my working space would reveal piles of magazines, a portable filing case that serves as my technical writing organizer, a filled bookshelf that covers an entire wall, my desktop computer (used for editing) and laptop (used for writing), some pictures of my husband and dog, and a half-empty cup of tea. Oh, and also my candy dish of emergency Hershey Kisses (but that's our secret, okay?).

A tour of my neighborhood haunts would include the local Walmart for supplies, the Starbucks where I occasionally go to write, and the Giant Eagle where I go grocery shopping every Friday night. Every month I travel the turnpike to Mystery Lovers Bookshop. I suppose visitors could tour the Shop 'n Save in Shaler where I worked after high school and met my husband, the University in downtown Pittsburgh where I went to college, or the nightclub in the Strip District where I got really drunk in public for the first time. Wait, that nightclub isn’t there anymore. Well, it is but under a different name. I'm sure the bathroom where I met my alcoholic demise is still in the same place, though.

Not exactly worthy of a festival or paid walking tour, I know, but kind of fun nonetheless. This exercise works well when creating fictional characters, too.

I invite all of you to brainstorm with this idea. Take us on a walking tour of your life. What would we see?


Annette said...

I guess we could go on a hike around the overgrown farm that long ago belonged to my grandparents. Or I could lead you on a walking tour of downtown Burgettstown to the newstand where I used to buy books and magazines and to the rundown hotel where I saw my first dead body when I worked on the ambulance service. Oh, wait. Both those places are gone. OK, how about the library where I discovered my love of reading? It's still there.

As an adult, I don't "haunt" many "local" establishments. I have to drive at least a half hour to get anywhere worth going. I guess we could include the Staples in Washington in the tour. And Lowry's Western Shop, my first place of employment and the place where some guy came in and picked up the salesgirl (me) and eventually married her.

Beyond that, my list of places I frequent pretty much mirrors your, Kristine. Giant Eagle, WalMart, Starbucks. Oh! And Panera's! Free wireless at Panera's!

lisa curry said...

What fun, Kristine. I think I'd make my walking tour a cemetery tour. I know, sounds morbid, but still more interesting than Giant Eagle and Staples, I think. It would cover five cemeteries in and within about a five-mile radius of Chicora, PA, and include stops at the graves of all my ancestors back to the ones who first got off the boats from Ireland, Germany and England in the early to mid-1800s and for reasons unfathomable chose Chicora as their final destination. It would be appropriate, because I think it was looking at those old tombstones and wondering about those people that sparked my earliest interest in history and made me want to write about it. And it's not a bad tour -- even my kids like it. Their favorite is the grave of Jacob Frederick, their great-great-great-great grandfather who came from Germany with his family when he was five and was the blacksmith in Chicora in the mid-1800s. He does have a very cool, big tombstone -- blacksmithing must have been a fairly lucrative occupation in those days. Anyway, this hypothetical tour would, of course, end at my own grave, because I insist that my bones have to end up back in Chicora where they belong.

Joyce said...

I'm afraid my tour wouldn't be very glamorous either. I lived in a quiet city neighborhood, but all the landmarks are long gone--like Stratmore Market where I used to buy penny candy. Then there would be St. Philip's Church and school. Both are still there. I toured the school at my grade school reunion a couple of years ago. It still has marble floors and is as spooky as ever. Sr. Anina is even still in charge of the library (she's close to 100 by now), and she recognized us "Oliphant girls." Then there would be Canevin High School. I wonder if they still wear the same uniforms?

Then we'd go on to the West End Branch of the Carnegie Library, where I held my first real job, after I dropped out of Pitt. Then AGH, where I worked until my firstborn made me a stay at home mom. Fast forward many years and the next stop would the Shaler Township PD.

Like Kristine and Annette, I have no haunts other than Giant Eagle and WalMart.

Nancy said...

Kristine, I'd have paid the cover charge many times over to see you drunk in the bathroom.

My tour would start in a cemetary, too--with all my relative, including the last sheriff in the county to hang a criminal. (And he kept the noose, which was handed down to my grandfather and then to my aunt, who just passed away. Can you guess what member of my generation would love to have that noose?) And my tour would include a lot ot outdoor spaces----the river where I lifeguarded, the lake where our family summer house is. And horse barns I have loved. Which all makes me wonder how in the world I ended up living in the city??

mike said...

Kristine--what a great idea! But I could never "do" my life in one walking tour. I've called too many places "home," like Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, Easton, MD, York, PA, and Rothwesten in Germany. Talk about an aerobic workout.

Lisa--I would include cemeteries of my favorite places to walk. But to visit my ancestors' graves would require MapQuest. They're scattered all over MD and PA and points west.

Anonymous said...

I'm having so much fun taking part on all of your working tours! You can learn a lot about people by doing this exercise (great dinner conversation, too).

Nancy, as for my nightclub episode...what can I say? I was in college. It was the one and only time I ever drank rum and coke.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Ooh, we'd go by where the Decade used to be; that's the inspiration for the club (called Decade) in my fictional city of Riverview. We'd go by City Limits, or where it, too, used to be, and we could talk about how I used to go to shows there and hung with GWAR and Napalm Death and all the other bands, cool and otherwise...

We could stop by Brave New World and visit Robbie, the owner, who used to play in Eviction. And the student union at Pitt, where the radio station is located. The O, which fed me while on the air every week. Dave and Andy's just 'cause you have to, and then Uncle Sam's to further clog your arteries.

How's that for a start?

Gina said...

I haven't read Lovecraft for awhile, but my recollection is that his characters often confronted unpronounceable monsters. Any walking tour of his real life must seem boring to his fans!

My own walking tour would be doable in a day if we left out Detroit (where I lived briefly as a baby) and all trips taken in adulthood. I'd start at the site of the no-longer in existence Columbia Hospital in Wilkinsburg, when I was born, then move on to the border of East End and Penn Hills, where we lived with my maternal Grandmother. Then to East Liberty for a few years, back to Wilkinsburg for Kindergarten (Semple School), then Lincoln Larimer, although my grade school (Corpus Christi) is no longer in operation. We would visit a cemetery there. None of my relatives are buried in St. Peter's Lutheran, but I grew up in the last house on the left beside it and I liked to walk there (although I wasn't allowed). Someone could recount a tale about the time an angel statue on a grave spoke to my downstairs neighbor. After high school in East Liberty (Sacred Heart), the tour would follow me to Oakland for college, then Squirrel Hill where I live now. We could visit each of the off-campus apartments I lived in--the unheated rooms above the Forbes Field Garage that smelled of motor oil, the building on Melwood where the hallways always smelled of soup, the site of the (also unheated) sleeping room on Fifth Avenue where a Carlow College parking lot now sits, the sleeping room on Coltart where almost everybody in the house but me was busted for drugs and people used to shoot up in the first floor kitchen, the one-bedroom apartment on N. Craig that I shared with twelve roommates, etc. etc. I think the tour would be more than tired of me by then, so we would leave out the shared houses on South Negley and Beacon and McKee Place, and even the apartment on Ward Street, within the yard of which somebody stood to firebomb the Oakland Coop and in which I was questioned by police after the upstairs neighbor was murdered. We'd have to skip the apartment on Bigelow, with its landlady who threw me out, and the tiny house in Greenfield where I crashed with a co-worker while homeless. Or the house of the neighbor who took me in after my house burned down. Enough! Maybe once I've blogged about my former jobs I'll blog about my former homes.

Anonymous said...

Gina: I'm sure you'll never run out of interesting things to blog about.

Tory said...

Interesting idea, Kristine! I'm wondering about a tour of the places I've folk danced: The Brookside School (part of Cranbrook) in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the Wayne State gymnasium, the MIT Student Center, under the dental building at the University of Michigan (only in the summer.)

It could be pretty scenic, but I'm afraid you'd have to fly rather than walk.

Judy Schneider said...

Kristine, I love this exercise!

My tour would begin in my sixth grade classroom where my mean/weird teacher (who used to eat his apple cores, really) held a re-election for class president mid-year, simply because he wanted to oust me. He ignited the first spark that would eventually shape me into the woman I am today, taught me to stand up for myself, to fight back.

I won that unplanned second election by a landslide and was taught a valuable life lesson: Even when life isn't fair (especially when life isn't fair), you have to keep putting your best foot forward. In the end, the good guy doesn't always win. But sometimes she does!