These are my Philadelphia stories, mapped from North to South along the Broad Street Line. The stops I’ve chosen mean something to me. They’re the streets and parts of the city that hold my Philadelphia memories. They have been the sites of some of the most beautifully ordinary moments of my life.
I recently completed my master’s at Penn, where my focus was on communications and urban studies. My grad school experience was pretty transformative – intellectually, personally, and creatively.
It culminated in my experience as a Research Fellow for Monument Lab. My immersion in this citywide art and history project led to my master’s capstone, which I completed under the guidance of Paul Farber, historian, curator, and Monument Lab Artistic Director.
The themes of my academic paper (“Monuments: How we define them, why we create them, and the meaningful role of our personal histories”) supported my personal writing project: a collection of creative non-fiction essays titled Southbound Local.
A reflection on the writing process
I’ve never really allowed myself the space to write for myself.
This probably sounds a bit strange, as I’ve spent the better part of a decade behind a keyboard – writing articles and headlines, stories and speeches. Stringing together words and studying how they work. Devoting so much of myself to a craft I’ve never really devoted to me.
Well I suppose that’s not true. I started journaling around the time I first learned how to operate a pencil. As a kid, I went through stacks of notebooks and diaries over the years. I wrote for myself, not for anyone or anything. I just wrote.
Sometime during high school this would taper off, and by college I was only writing for assignments and papers. It was in journalism school that I discovered my knack for writing about others – for figuring out a person through questions and observation, and then capturing them on the page. I loved this type of writing, and I still do. My portfolio of experience would grow throughout my twenty-something career. Newspaper articles, TV news scripts, magazine spreads. Always with a purpose and (usually) something I was proud of.
A few years ago, I found myself in an all-writing-all-the-time job at Penn, and enrolled in a creative writing course to help strengthen my skills. What I quickly realized was how incredibly far outside of my comfort zone this was. It’s not that I didn’t have the chops, technically speaking. But on a personal level, I was nowhere near ready.
Writing from my own personal experience – my own truths, my own stories – was something I was not comfortable with. The closest I got was an essay that actually made its way into this collection. It’s the City Hall chapter, which sits at the physical and metaphorical center of Southbound Local.
After that class, I would go on a pretty world-rocking journey of self-reflection. Trying to figure out who I am, who I want to be. (I cringe at how terribly trite and self-helpy that sounds… But it’s the truth.) All of the grisly details aside, writing became an instrumental piece of this ongoing process. And it’s a gift that I’m so happy to have given back to myself as an adult.
What also feels liberating about this project is that it is just for me. To my own personal shock, I’m not worried about who might read it, who might like it, or who might hate it. The joy I’ve experienced in writing, creating, and now holding this piece of my work is enough.
So why share it? One of the biggest takeaways I had from my Monument Lab experience was our human need to be heard. To be understood. To have our stories and meanings connect us. I struggle with this whole thing feeling super self-important or self-indulgent. But I also struggle with allowing myself this joy of personal expression.
Forever a work in progress, I still have plenty-a-ways to go when it comes to writing from a place of vulnerability. While I tap into some personal pains and triumphs in Southbound Local, I’m definitely selective. There are many things I’m not ready to write about yet – and certainly not ready to share. But this project feels like a start. Like a great first chapter to build on.