WRITING LIFE: Writing Home by Jamie Beth Cohen

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Those of us who left our hometowns as teenagers often feel a pull to return. Sometimes it’s family, or an old flame, other times it’s the place itself: the rhythm of the wheels on a bridge, the way the leaves light up in fall, the place you had your first kiss, even if you can’t bring yourself to drive by it, knowing it will likely be unrecognizable.

Sometimes the pull is long-term: a family business in search of a new leader, an elderly relative in need of care. Other times it’s a blip: a midnight craving for greasy fries from the gritty hot dog stand that has stood the test of time on a block that has succumbed to glossy chain stores, or the thought of hotcakes that distracts you on your morning run, wherever you live now. The ones from the place you swear you discovered in high school, even though people a generation older than you claim it as their own.

The pull I felt to return home, to Pittsburgh, in January of 2014 was so strong even a wintery-mix of precipitation couldn’t keep me from braving the mountains in a car not meant for that terrain. My destination was mother’s empty apartment. The internet and cable had been turned off for the winter. The thermostat was set high enough to prevent frozen pipes, but not much higher. My mother, a “snowbird,” wintered in Florida to avoid the kind of road conditions I drove into, but navigating the icy turnpike to visit a place susceptible to lake-effect snow is a particularly “Pittsburgh expat” thing to do.

That weekend, it wasn’t the thought of family or friends, or even a craving for the city’s signature sandwich — piled thick with fries and coleslaw on bread that falls apart before you’re half through — that brought me “home.” I was in town to do something I couldn’t do anywhere else.


I had completed the first draft of what would become my debut novel in the summer of 2013, but something was missing. By that frigid weekend in 2014, I knew what the book needed, and I knew I could only write it in Pittsburgh.

Wasted Pretty is a work of fiction, but like the main character, Alice, I was once a sixteen-year-old attending an all-girls’ school in Pittsburgh, pining after boys who didn’t seem to notice me. Like Alice, everything changed for me when my body changed. After that, I wasn’t pretty, exactly, but parts of me got noticed.

Just after junior year of high school, while working a part-time job, I was sexually harassed by a professional athlete. I’ve taken that part of my life, heightened it, and put it in the book. The assault scene — the linchpin of what started as a subplot and then became central to the book — not only needed to be written away from my comfortable, suburban life in South Central PA, it needed to be written in Pittsburgh.

By that point, I had spent three years crafting a story set in my hometown, but all the writing had been done from a distance. I didn’t need to be in the city to write the story, I needed to be in my own head. My memories of my teenage years are still raw and visceral, exciting and vivid, and well documented in various spiral notebooks and diaries that date back to the 1980s. First crushes and first loves, learning to drive stick-shift and navigating a world before smartphones, it all took place where I grew up, but more than that, it took place in me. I pushed through those formative years with some help from friends, but often alone, hoping to survive, never imagining I would thrive.

When it came time to write the pivotal scene, I knew I had to immerse myself in the place I was most vulnerable and most safe. The place I still call home even though I haven’t lived there since 1993. By surrounding myself with the brutalist buildings I passed every day on the way to school — the ones that taught me how to find beauty in squat, solid structures that others overlooked — the sounds of the trains at night — the ones that disturbed my slumber and then lulled me back to sleep all the same — and the specific shade of a Pittsburgh-grey sky that brings with it a dampness no matter what the temperature, I was able to expose myself to feelings I had long pretended I never felt.


In the cold, empty apartment, I let down my guard and wrote what needed to be written: Girls don’t get to choose when men start looking at them, but if they’re lucky, they get to choose how they respond. It was a lesson I was taught at my summer job on Walnut Street in 1992, in a store that’s not there anymore, by a boss I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find and thank, but I didn’t really learn the lesson until I wrote that scene.

Each of our hometowns ask something different of us. Mine asked me to accept that rust is proof of hard-earned wisdom and Brutalist architecture holds a secret allure. Pittsburgh taught me if you can’t recognize beauty where it’s hiding, you don’t deserve to behold it, but it’s always worth looking more closely, because the hidden beauty may be in you.

Jamie Beth Cohen writes about difficult things, but her friends think she’s funny. Her writing has appeared in TeenVogue.com, The Washington Post/On Parenting, Salon, and several other outlets. Her debut novel, Wasted Pretty (Black Rose Writing, April 2019), is a coming-of-age story about a sixteen-year-old girl who faces wanted and unwanted attention when she inadvertently goes from blending in to standing out. Order here or wherever you get your books. She tweets @Jamie_Beth_S


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