When I say that I grew up in the most boring town in America, I mean it. There is exactly one thing that makes Westerville, Ohio, unique, and that is that it has no unique qualities whatsoever. It was a small town—you always ran into at least two or three relatives at the grocery store—but not small enough to be quaint or charming. It was Midwestern, but not Midwestern enough for us all to have super-cool accents like Frances McDormand in Fargo. It wasn’t close to any big cities, but it wasn’t in the country, either. The country would have been much cooler than what I ended up with; out there, you could farm, and get in touch with the rhythms of nature, and what-have-you. Maybe you could get a pony. In Westerville, we had no ponies. We just had the most boring town in America, slapped onto the side of the most boring city in America, which is Columbus. All of the stores were chain stores; all of the restaurants were chain restaurants; the only all-ages “punk” shows were at the local megachurch, and those were just some dudes who had grown goatees and gotten tribal tattoos so that it sounded less boring when they told us to obey our parents.
Westerville, basically, was Hell. A slow, boring, Jean-Paul Sartre Hell, where you are just locked in the same room, with the same people, for eternity, with nothing to do, ever. Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a tour!
Let’s talk to Lou Reed about this, shall we?
And yet, I survived. I even got to leave, eventually. Lou is correct that there’s only one good use for a small town, or at least for my small town: you do know that you want to get out. But I used to feel very self-conscious about where I came from. Whenever I spent time around people with cooler upbringings—people who’d always lived in big cities, or who had grown up on vegan hippie communes, or just hipsters who had to live in the most fashionable neighborhoods at all times and who made a big point of only hanging out with the Right Sort of People—I felt like a big, boring, bland nobody. I wished I’d had an interesting life. I wished I’d been from anywhere but Westerville.
But that was before I figured certain things out. Yes, it can feel really good to get out of your small town. But before you do that, you have to live there. And there are actually benefits to that experience. If and when you leave, you are going to find that you are, strangely, far more interesting than many people with “interesting” life stories. Because here is the first thing you learn to do, living in the middle of nowhere:
1. Develop Unique Tastes. For a while, it is probably going to feel as if you are alone in the world. If everyone else is into the high school football team, and you are into Lou Reed, or 20th century poetry, or (let’s just say) feminist theory, well: odds are, given the small population size, that you are not going to find many other people who share your interests. And it is certainly going to be hard to find a way to act on them.
This isn’t an experience that’s reserved for people who have “weird taste,” or even vaguely unusual taste. As it turns out, the biggest bands also skip the smallest towns. Nobody is getting Kanye West to play the sticks; his album with Jay-Z is called Watch the Throne, not Watch the Delightful Service at Applebee’s. If you have a small movie theater—one town I lived in briefly only showed two movies at a time, and they were both “art movies”; we took an hour-long drive to see Ocean’s Eleven at a mall—then you probably miss a lot. It’s easier to get clothes and books in a small town now, thanks to the internet; you don’t have to rely on a single far-away mall, or the tiny local bookstore. (Yes, it’s charming and independent in theory, but less so when you see that the only display table is reserved for Harry Potter. And has been since 1997.) But it’s still hard to meet new people who can tell you about what’s happening, in terms of clothes and books. In fact, it’s hard to meet new people, generally. If you ever feel like you’re in a social rut, in your small town, well: I hope you like that rut. Because you have already met everybody, and everybody has already met you, and you are pretty much stuck with them.
But, as it turns out, a bit of isolation is a good thing. People who grow up with the option of joining whole subcultures dedicated to their tastes always have to deal with the question of whether they’d still have the same tastes if they didn’t have those same subcultures. I’m not saying they’re poseurs—they’re not; you’re not; I love you all; etc.—but they are people who have grown up learning about this stuff from others, and have consequently learned not only what to like, but how to like it.
You, on the other hand, are free. No one is going to tell you what to like, or how to like it, or even where to find it. So you figure out how to rely on your own judgment. This is what’s referred to as “taste,” for the record. You’re developing yours—by finding what you like, thinking about why you like it, and standing by that even when people disagree with you.
2. Get Research Skills. The Youth of America have a unique and wonderful blessing, compared with previous generations. That blessing is called Tumblr. When you want to find out about things, you’ve got a billion people talking about what they think is cool, and sometimes posting snippets of it online for your enjoyment.
In my day, we had no Tumblr. What we had was called Factsheet 5, and it was a directory of every more-or-less prominent zine in America. (Also, articles with headlines like, “WILL THE INTERNET REPLACE ZINES? Ha Ha, Never,” and “Factsheet 5: Ten or Fifteen Years From Now, Teenagers Will Definitely Know What This Magazine Is.”) I spent weekends poring through Factsheet 5 with a highlighter, marking zines that sounded interesting, and figuring out how I could get my allowance to cover as many of them as possible.
You guys: this was so much better than Tumblr. Granted, I’m old and cranky. But having to find cool stuff the hard way taught me so much. Aside from that whole “making your own judgments” thing we covered earlier, it taught me things like: Every piece of art has a history, and a context. If an artist that you enjoy mentions having liked something, even just in passing, track down whatever it is they mentioned. Learn the names of people who are in bands you like, and then look to see if any of those people have been in other bands; if you enjoy a nonfiction book, read its bibliography. Track down those related books, and related bands, until you have a whole world of stuff to enjoy, not just isolated pieces. And get a library card. Seriously, this is the dorkiest advice I will ever give you, but: get a dang library card. You would be shocked at how much easier it makes things. My library had an AV section stocked by someone who was really into ’80s and early-’90s indie-ish stuff; I found out what Sonic Youth and Pavement were by just checking out a few CDs with interesting covers every week. That’s how I found out who David Lynch was, too. Oh, and if you are into clothes, let me tell you a secret: That crappy Salvation Army nearby? It’s actually better than 88% of the “vintage” stores in large cities. You can get a dress for $10 that would cost at least $50 elsewhere, and there is far more interesting stuff to find, because it hasn’t been picked over, because no one knows how great it is but you.
Weirdly, it works this way socially, too. It’s a cliché to say that small-town Midwesterners are “nice.” I don’t think we are; we can be as sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain mean as anyone else. But we are tactful. In smaller towns, people will treat you like a huge jerk, but they usually won’t call you a huge jerk. And this is because we know that if we give in to our natural urges and call you a stupid buttmunch, we are going to see you again. We are going to see you every time we go to the grocery store, and it is always going to be awkward, and even if we think we have gotten away from you it will eventually turn out that we are dating your second cousin, so guess who is coming to our wedding, because it’s you. Now: I did not like being unable to call people jerks. So I moved to New York, where I can be a misanthropic judgeypants without reservation until the day I die, peacefully alone, surrounded by cats, as nature intended. But I will not deny that I made closer and more tolerant friendships in Ohio than I have almost anywhere else. Because the same thing applies: If your town has a very limited number of people, you can’t just avoid people because they have unusual taste in music, or slightly different politics, or seem kind of weird. You have to learn what there is to like, about their personal weirdness. And since there’s nothing going on in town, and you can’t just stand next to each other at a concert, you actually have to talk to each other.
Sure, on one hand, there is nothing cool going on in your town, no one cool to hang out with, and nothing to do. On the other hand: are you kidding me? There’s decades and decades’ worth of cool stuff out there, publicly available, and cheap or even free. There are some of the most unique people you’ll ever meet–and you have nothing but time in which to get to know each other. You just have to know how to look. And by the time you find other people who share your interest, they will be shocked by your keen eye and depth of knowledge.
Your only problem, really, is that the new cool stuff isn’t happening in your town. Which brings us to:
3. Get Creative. Oh, there are no cool bands in your town? Nobody is playing shows? You wish you were able to go somewhere, and hear live music, specifically catered to your own tastes, whenever you want? I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you, over the sound of you NOT LEARNING HOW TO PLAY GUITAR.
Seriously. If you want new, cool art in your life, you have three options. One, you can stand around, with a bored look on your face and wait for some cool new art to fall out of the sky. Two, you can locate a supply—which is frequently hard, if you live in a small town with few resources. Or, three, you can create the supply. You can take these amazing qualities of yours that we’ve been talking about—the taste that comes from having to cultivate and rely on your own judgment, the knowledge that comes from having nothing better to do than look, hard, for stuff to like—and you can create what is literally the newest, coolest piece of art you can personally imagine.
I know, I know: You don’t know how to play guitar yet. Or write short stories, or start a blog, or paint, or direct short films, or sew your own clothes, or take photos. Maybe you’ve tried that stuff, and it was really hard, and you did a bad job. You know, I had a friend with the exact same problem, once. Her name was “Literally Everyone Who Has Ever Been Good at Anything, Ever, JEEZ.”
It’s fine to have a rough start. That’s how you learn. Look at Mr. Reed, up there. He was the front man for the Velvet Underground, became a beloved proto-punk icon, and perfected that flat, talk-singy, “I’m so bored and alienated that I can barely force myself through this stupid song I wrote” tone that the Strokes eventually ripped off, and that every hipster boy attempts to affect in conversation. He’s a very accomplished guy, that Lou Reed. And here’s how punk rock he was as a 16-year-old. Who’s ready for a rousing saxophone solo??? You are!
So, yes. It might take you some time to learn your trade. You will probably be bad at first. You will create a few things you’re not proud of. And no matter how good you are, the art you create as a teenager will be very different from the art you create as an adult. And that’s fine. The only way a bad artist ever became a better artist was by making more art. Classes, feedback from your friends, editors, and all of that: they’re nice. But you are never, ever going to get better at something you don’t actually do. And the good news is, if you enjoy creating art, living in a boring small town gives you lots of time to practice. It’s not like there’s anything else going on tonight, right?
So, let’s take a look at you! And all of these awesome skills you picked up, living in a terminally uncool small town. First of all, you learned to be an individual, with individual tastes—and to analyze and defend your tastes. Seems like it might be useful in conversation! Then, you learned how to dig up new, cool stuff—even stuff that’s relatively obscure—so it seems like you probably know a lot. Another fun quality to have, in a friend or companion! And then, finally, out of sheer desperation, you learned to practice an art form your own damn self. Which is relatively rare. And, given that you’ve done nothing but practice since forever, you’re probably pretty darn good at it by now.
Yes, Small Town Girl: Hang your head in shame. For lo, due to your not having grown up on a hippie commune and/or in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you have turned yourself into that least interesting of all things: a unique, articulate, knowledgeable person with great taste who can spot cool things before they’re popular, and is also a talented artist. DAMN! Who’s going to want to hang out with you now? ♦