Before I moved from Portland to Tucson (a surprise last year to accommodate my husband’s job relocation), I had a litany of reasons why I couldn’t. None of them were very good. But perhaps the worst was saying, “I’m really not a Southwest writer. I’m a Portland writer. I can’t have a headshot wearing a bunch of turquoise against red rock. It’s not me.”
For some reason, this didn’t stop us from packing.
This was the identity I chose, the mantra that meant something when I said it: I Am Portland. I claimed the words in 2003, when I moved to the city for college and gave up being the begrudging I Am a Girl Trapped in a Mt. Rainier Logging Town. To swear allegiance to a city’s stereotypes meant not having to flesh out all of the holes and white space in my actual personhood. I could “be” all of the same things that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Progressive! Urban! Winter accessories!
Several years ago, when I started my MFA, I expanded the moniker to “I Am Portland Writer.” The kind of writer whose Outlook calendar was crammed with reading and signing dates, who drank Peet’s Coffee and wore infinity scarves, treasured a Multnomah County library card like those New Yorkers treasure their MetroCards. You could brag on Twitter that 340 days out of the year were cozy and streaked with gray–time to snuggle in and #amwriting like a fiend. Being a Portland writer meant aligning with the region’s luminaries because, hey. You might end up down the same aisle at New Seasons. Why not compare your work to Monica Drake and Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed out of sheer geography?
When the costume vanished, identity crisis set in. How would I make anyone care about my work if I couldn’t package it in preconceptions? Would everything I’d been working toward wither away and die? I was fairly certain it would.
One of my mom’s favorite stories to tell about me is how, in first grade, I came home from school close to tears. Over my afternoon snack, I lamented about what an outcast I was. “No one wants to be my friend,” I insisted. The next day, during our recess, she drove by the playground to see who was ruining her daughter’s tiny life. She scanned the yard for the odd girl out, but came up empty. She finally spotted me in a group of my classmates, running in circles and laughing like the kids we were supposed to be.
Maybe there was an ever-so-slight I caught from a friend, a moment of feeling left out or forgotten, that I inflated into a reality. Wherever it came from, it was a delusion.
And two decades later, here’s the thing:
I was never Portland.
I barely even lived there. Two years in a college dorm off of an extremely not-gentrified Alberta and Killingsworth streets, long before Beast and Salt and Straw and La Provence (to be fair though, Alberta St. Co-Op was still there). The rest of the almost-decade I spent in Oregon was in the southern and western suburbs of the city–Portland’s Staten Islands and Pasadenas. I always felt grossly inferior in the company of “real” Portland art types and their long, thick bohemian hair and mastery of layers and cuter glasses frames and tiny waif bodies. I never lived in a split bungalow or craftsman house. I only attended one concert in the city, ever (Fiona Apple at the Schnitz). Even my words don’t seem to fit in with the lyric grit that is lazily associated with the region. One of my essays, interpreted by modern dance for a curated showcase in an experience that reads like a Portlandia outtake, was described by a critic as “suburban.”
My insecurities are stereotypes, sure, but they were the tropes I settled comfortably behind.
At first, the loss of the affiliation was terrifying. But the further I get from it, the more I can see how little it represented me or my writing. It’s freeing, after the shock, realizing that all I need to fill the empty space is pure, authentic self.
Without a city to speak for me, it’s me and my voice. The image is mine, without a backdrop. I’m still sorting out what, precisely, that looks like. I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t include turquoise.
Tabitha Blankenbiller, a Pacific Northwest native, recently relocated from Portland to Arizona. She graduated from the Pacific University MFA program in June 2012 and currently works as a staff writer at PDXX Collective and Spectrum Culture. She write The Wordstalker column for Barrelhouse Magazine, and her personal essays have been featured in journals including Hobart, Sliver of Stone, and Brevity.