feature image via shutterstock
The plane engines changed tune as we tilted downward, two hours after we’d taken off from the Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana and my anxiety started to rev.
Seeing the Los Angeles River out my plane window plane smacked me in the face with a sudden bone-deep feeling that I wasn’t in Montana anymore as we made our descent into LAX.
Despite living in a place where rivers run everywhere, defining small towns and property lines, I’d never seen anything like this one: The riverbed encased in cement and running in straight lines, a big human manipulation seeking to fit nature into the human world built around it.
It was then I knew I was in a completely foreign place. I was headed into LA for the first time in my life, and I’d never seen that much contiguous concrete, or that many people trying to drive on it all at once. It was spring 2016, my first BinderCon, and I was slightly panicked before the plane’s wheels even hit the tarmac.
I had been dabbling in freelance writing as a side hobby to my full-time job writing for a newspaper, and this conference was my first foray into (pardon me, Princess Jasmine) a whole new world.
This was true on several levels. First, the physical difference of southern California and Northwest Montana is striking, as you may imagine. The socks I wore as the plane descended felt extremely unnecessary in the face of palm trees, and instead of open space or mountains to get my bearings, I just had to hope the Lyft driver was taking me in the correct direction to my hotel.
But in a deeper place in my brain, LA also represented everything I was not, everything I was supposed to be but couldn’t seem to get there. As I wandered around the UCLA campus that first night – short sleeves and sandals in April! – I looked at the perfectly manicured lawns and humans of Westwood and felt rough, like if anyone brushed their hand along my arm, they’d get a sliver because I wasn’t finished or refined. It was a whole-being feeling of FOMO, and I couldn’t even be sure what it was I was missing out on.
Also, the billboards in LA freaked me out. Every single one is for either a movie or a TV show, and to me that only compounded the eerie sense that this place wasn’t real, that it was more like a video game and I was the player walking through it.
The entire place is also designed to make you feel badly about your body, no matter what your body looks like or its capabilities. There’s a feeling hanging over the city of expectation and becoming, like everyone within the city’s borders is fervently trying to evolve into something different or better or more.
At that point in my life, I was also trying to become, to evolve. I wanted to immediately know everyone at BinderCon, because I felt out of sorts. When I’m alone in the woods, I feel content and whole. But when I was alone in LA, I felt alone. Having so many people around you who seem like they know what they’re doing, they’re on their way, they’ve got it figured out and you’re going to be left in the dust – it was overwhelming.
But luckily for me, that feeling didn’t have to last past the weekend. By the time Sunday came around, I was scheduled to pitch book agents and magazine editors, face to face, for 10 minutes at a time. And I have to say, the first one I went to was a spectacular failure.
I approached the meeting with this agent as if I was Westwood landscaping: All leaves in their place, growing perfectly to fit in with the whole scheme of the yard, and ever so unnatural.
I pitched my book idea and I could feel it falling flat, even though the agent was perfectly nice about it. I tried to follow the script I’d found online about how to pitch, how to write the query letter, all of it, and it wasn’t working for me. It wasn’t me, and neither was this place.
Walking outside in the heat of April, I called my wife and tried to explain how rootless I felt, how this city made me feel sad for a reason I couldn’t articulate, how I would fail here because this world of publishing and writing was too different and beyond me.
In that moment, however, I had an epiphany that I assume most successful Los Angelenos probably have: The LA I assumed existed actually didn’t, not really. The real LA is just a huge collection of people, and they’re peopling all over, trying to make it seem like their style of peopling is the best.
And that’s fine, that’s exactly what most regions do. I realized that LA might be intimidating, but it was made up of individual humans, and I believe I can find common ground with pretty much every human I encounter.
With that in mind, I went into my next set of pitches with a different attitude. I’d already flopped, and it was because I hadn’t been myself, so how much worse could I make it by doing exactly that?
My next pitch lasted 20 minutes, even though it was only supposed to go 10. I sat down with the agent not like she was an agent, but like she was someone I sat next to around the campfire. That was it, easy breezy beautiful, and it ended up getting me further with a few editors; they’d expected plastic polish, but seemed relieved when I wanted to tell them about how sweaty this city made me, and how beautiful all the dogs were.
Relaxing like this helped me chill out in all respects, and suddenly the conversations with other attendees were about getting to know them and their talents, rather than trying to network, trying to get ahead.
I just got back from BinderCon 2017, and revisiting this city was as fun and unnerving as I thought it would be. It’s still a very unnatural place for me, with the cement riverbeds and freeways bigger than my neighborhood, but the people I met up with again, those who I’d connected with the previous year, made me feel something different, something more.
Surrounded by these smart, capable, generous women the night before we flew back to Montana, I had to catch my breath in the lulls of laughter and had to keep from shaking my head at myself, at my fears and worries the year before.
I’d made friends, not just contacts, and that was what I needed to feel at home again.