I always told myself I wasn’t the kind of person who travelled.
It was difficult and stressful and unsafe and… the money. I’ll be honest: I found the idea a little scary.
Where would I even visit?
I was single, I didn’t need to “find myself”; I’ve known since age 14 what I wanted to do, and that was be a novelist (I’d been writing, editing, trashing and rewriting every week of my life since).
In fact, I’d been working on a novel for three years – writing from a laptop on the back seats of buses, leeching the wifi in cafes, and somehow fitting another 1000 page first draft into that time. First drafting was a joy, but editing was torturous; I realised I needed a final push, and a block of time off from my day job to finish it properly.
After some persuasion and eventual planning, I booked a flight to Los Angeles. I’d swap British autumn for West Coast sunshine and, fuck it; allow myself two months working on my novel.
The day I flew I was unusually calm. I knew I was gonna learn something, but what? The weeks ahead felt like this crazy, unmappable thing, a set of invisible steps. I deliberately kept my LA research light; I wanted to be surprised.
I arrived at LAX and found out the place had traffic and motorways and moody taxi drivers and people: much like Britain. After a week of adjusting, I established a routine and a sense of stability. I succumbed and acclimatised to the vastness of the city, the walking everywhere, the finding out where to get everyday stuff.
I started to explore.
Then I had a moment which feels best summarised by a single word: verklempt.
Maybe you have your own word for it. I think of it as a clear-eyed, lucid feeling of happy sadness. A sense of loss for something you’ve never actually had. An almost pleasant heartbreak.
Our apartment was just off Sunset Blvd, a couple streets parallel to Echo Park, which I couldn’t believe when I first saw. In the U.K you forget what parks can be like; Echo Park surrounds a lake with three tall fountains, a little lighthouse, boats, vendors selling fruit salad, and people sitting, running, talking, sunbathing with the 25-30 degree heat and blue sky. Sat in the park, with my laptop balanced on my knees, it dawned on me: I couldn’t believe I’d lived my whole life never seeing this amazing place.
What the fuck else had I missed in my thirty-one years?
I felt that same verklempt-ness so many more times on my trip. In Stories, the local bookshop full of freelancers and coffee, in its backyard lit by fairy lights; in LACMA, discovering an Yves Tanguy painting that inspired a complete changed of approach in my writing; and most of all, in the LA Central Library, with its mosaic tower, arcane sculptures and church-like, carvenous proportions.
I cried the first time I worked there (don’t judge).
Half-living, half-touristing through the city I had to force myself to do new things; I filled time with trips to weird-looking areas and remote galleries; attended talks, walked down every road that looked interesting, took a different approach to even the fundamentals of everyday life. My empty L.A. map filled up.
I made the decision to not be on autopilot, or be lazy, or preconceive anything about my surroundings and what they could offer me.
Weeks later, back in freezing London and a million miles away from sunshine and blue skies I listened to a podcast about the power of that moment when someone tells you ‘why don’t you try this?’, or ‘maybe you’d be good at that’, and how you can apply that permission to yourself.
I realised that this was what my time in LA had taught me, and I had to continue it.
I’d somehow told myself ‘You know what you need? You ought to go live in another country for two months’.
It’s tough and feels weird to step outside yourself and conduct, basically, an intervention. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I learnt that even a new commute or asking advice from your wider circle opened up possibilities.
Walk that invisible path, be a tourist in places you know too well, question the spaces around you, treat a city, a routine, even a relationship, like an adventurer or detective.
I had to come back to London – the city which my novel is a kind of love/hate letter to, my hometown – and treat it like a complete stranger.
The verklempt feeling fades each when you’re actually discovering, not just wondering about all the times you didn’t.
Then you start to cultivate this sense of wonder, and then that becomes routine and it changes you. And then you think how did I cope never acting like this before?
Maybe this is all obvious to you, but I keep thinking, what else haven’t I found that I know I’ll always miss?
My book still isn’t finished. My time in LA only gave me more ideas to add to the finished thing. But oh my, it’s better than it would have been.