Gary Kamiya on San Francisco and Writing Well

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Gary Kamiya, a taxi-driver turned writer and romantic, visited class last week to discuss his celebrated book, Cold Gray City of Love. His love-letter to San Francisco takes form in 49 chapters, each exploring a different and often forgotten street corner, neighborhood and nook of the city.

Kamiya discussed  the choices he made in piecing his stories together while keeping the reader engaged throughout the chapters. He also advised us on how to strengthen our writing to highlight our neighborhood and how to enjoy the process.

The Berkeley native finds fulfillment in San Francisco’s history, achievements and faults. His book became the medium through which he expressed his fascinations.

“This was home. This was a passion. This was something I know about and wanted to know more about,” said Kamiya.

The majority of stories included among the 49 delve deep past the surface of San Francisco as most of us know it. Kamiya uncovers entire histories, including archaeology and anthropology.

Kamiya admits that book could have easily reached 600 pages. However he needed to remember to strike a balance between quality and quantity. He also had to keep the reader engaged.

I was greatly interested in how he decided to put his stories together in an interesting way that kept the reader motivated. I wanted to know how he decided the order and what he wanted the reader to feel with the shift, for example the first two chapters which are complete opposites.

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The author wondered what would be “the most striking, interesting sides of the city.”

“I wanted to open with the Farallons because this book is so much about the city’s terrain. Because that represented the essence or nature of San Francisco as a wild place. I opened with the unexpected,” said Kamiya. “The second chapter is the Tenderloin. I wanted to have an extreme juxtaposition.”

During the editing process of Kamiya’s manuscript, he said he started to write an eccentric history and needed to return to the original writing plan.

“I intuitively shielded away from bringing myself into the book,” said Kamiya. When that didn’t work, Kamiya decided to write himself into the book and it was revealed how writing more personally made the stories successful.

Concerning our final pieces, Kamiya gave us advice on how to engage the reader and what to include or leave out.

“Write more personally,” said Kamiya. “Take the reporter’s hat off a little.”

After listening to Kamiya’s story and advice, I have a stronger sense of where I’d like my final piece to go. I was inspired by his use of chapters, which I think will translate well to the story of the Noe Valley Town Square project since it has happened over a longer period of time. His use of organization also makes me think that organizing topics will make it much easier for readers to digest contrasting topics.

As for descriptive writing, Kamiya is a master of showing, not telling. This is something I’ll also be working on. Since it will be a news story, writing in a very personal way isn’t acceptable. However I’m going to try to use more of my experiences and observations to paint a better picture of scenes or people for my readers.

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