Maggie Shipstead graduated from Harvard in 2005 and the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2008. At Harvard, she co-authored the Hasty Pudding burlesque musical "HPT 157: Terms of Frontierment," and, at Iowa, she was the recipient of Truman Capote, Teaching-Writing, and Leggett-Scupes Fellowships.
I was born and raised in Orange County, California, and I left as soon as I could. There are people who go away to college as a fun experiment in geography, and there are those of us who flee as cultural fugitives from one part of the country to another and step into our dorm rooms with the same seriousness and relief as Soviet defectors taking their first breaths of West Berlin air. I went to Massachusetts. I went native. I went WASP. By senior year, I had a closet full of Lily Pulitzer and a boyfriend from Greenwich whose housekeeper actually spray-starched the collars of his polo shirts to make them stand at preppy attention. I had begun to grasp the nuances of prep schools and social clubs (clubhouses! for adults! who knew?!) and to learn that patchwork pants and bowties are worn not only by clowns but sometimes by very successful men. I was trying to be a character in a Cheever story before I had ever read Cheever. It was a natural fit, really—I was a competitive horseback rider with an Ivy League education who also enjoyed racquet sports, gin, and passive aggression. In my adopted world I held my own better than I could in my native one, where the qualities prized in young women are light-heartedness, flirtatiousness, bubbliness, and blondness. I bubble, but less like champagne or Crystal Pepsi than some sulfurous, primordial upwelling of mud. My hair is the dark and dingy sort of strawberry blond that might grow in a mouse's armpit.
Feeling like a fish out of water in high school is nothing new, and I flopped and gasped with the best of them. Nominally Episcopalian, my high school, like much of Orange County, was overrun by a vocal crowd of Evangelicals. My calculus teacher got up at a senior banquet and told the class of 2001 that he might not witness the apocalypse, but we certainly would. We would see the rivers of blood and the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men and the Whore of Babylon and everything. Girls wore rings symbolic of promises to remain virgins until they married. Students were encouraged to leave Post-It notes to God in the chapel. Intolerance was tolerated. Conspicuous consumption was exalted. No one could be bothered to recycle. As a smug adolescent agnostic, I found these beliefs and practices both laughable and infuriating. So I left.
Orange County followed. Orange County, right around when I went to college, was suddenly everywhere: in the movie Orange County, the TV series The O.C. and Arrested Development, the reality series Laguna Beach, and so on. The flurry of interest still hasn't entirely died down. Surely the gold-crowned locusts with faces of men must now be upon us because we have witnessed the Bravo reality series The Real Housewives of Orange County, which, coincidentally, takes place in the very same gated community where I grew up. The series is a useful Exhibit A when I'm describing my teens because it showcases the oblivious, self-righteous decadence that kept me in high dudgeon during those years. Just watch one episode, I say. You'll see. Recently, while passing through my old stomping grounds, I saw the O.C. distilled to its purest form: an enormous black Hummer H2 weaving in and out of traffic on the northbound 405 with the license plate "4BLSSD1."
This is all an elaborate way of saying that when I chose a gated community in Orange County as the setting for my story "Via Serenidad," it wasn't at random or without attendant baggage. I keep having an impulse to say that "Via Serenidad" is my first SoCal story, but that doesn't happen to be true. At all. Six or seven of my previous stories were set there. "Via Serenidad" is, however, my first story about the place where I grew up, my first in which Orange County isn't just a backdrop with a nice climate but is a medium for my ire, ambivalence, wistfulness, and affection. Now that I've moved away, and my brother's moved away, and my parents too, and all my friends from high school, I've developed a soft spot for the place. From the vantage point of Massachusetts in February, I can hardly blame people for thinking that a strip of coastal land where winter temperatures hover in the 60s is indeed specially blessed by God. That distance was necessary for me. I needed a time out before I could follow the ancient and incomplete advice to write what you know. I had to go away and stay away until I could write what I think I know but suspect I don't know at all in a way that took advantage of my complex feelings about Orange County rather than using it as an easy target.
As far as the craft of writing, all my blathering about my hometown and high school boils down to this: don't write angry. Sleep on it for a few years or a few decades. If you're writing about someone or somewhere only to prove how silly and despicable that person or place is, your written world will have the flatness that comes from small-heartedness. A story should not be a means of carrying out a vendetta, but perhaps a story might be a way to lay one to rest.
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