There are things I love about the desert. It's close to the bone, a lean landscape pulled taut. Hills rise like a knobby spine. Joshua trees dance their arabesques, luring you away from concrete into still stretches of sand. Here and there you find ocotillo, palo verde, maybe a ghost flower. There is space to breathe, to think, to imagine.
So with anticipation, I attended an author event, featuring NO PLACE FOR A PURITAN: The Literature of California's Deserts, during UC Riverside's Writer's Week.
The writers talked about the desert as a place that has a profound effect on themselves and their writing.
That sense of place is crucial to any piece of writing. It doesn't matter if it's a suburban sprawl, a city slum, the tundra or forest. The reader needs to feel settled in a particular place and time to be grounded.
The desert, of course, brings baggage with it into any story. It is fearsome--widely-known for killing heat, sparse water and poisonous creatures. It is sometimes an outpost for eccentric loners and a seasonal playground for the rich and famous. But it also overwhelms with stark beauty.
Ruth Nolan, who edited the anthology and is pictured here (photo courtesy of Ruth), wrote in the introduction of NO PLACE FOR A PURITAN about her first sighting of the desert when she was ten: "We descended toward the small town of Victorville, racing past Joshua trees whose thick-needled fists etched the sky gracefully and fiercely against the sunset. I knew then and there that I'd found my place, my calling, my landscape."
Ruth, an associate professor of English at the College of the Desert, has several published collections of poetry and is working on a novel.
I asked her later why it's important to have a sense of place in writing, what it imparts to the reader, how it enriches the work. Here is her answer:
"Connecting to, and evoking a sense of place, which in my case happens to be the Mojave Desert and neighboring Inland Empire, is essential to everything I write. My deep, lifelong bond with these geographies and their many variations and nuances forms the heart and soul of my poetry and prose. I'm particularly inspired these days by the Salt Song Trail of the Chemehuevi Indian people; a mapped-out, geographical circle of places and locations in the California desert near and along the Colorado River. These ancient "bird songs," sung to this day, trace the actual and symbolic seasonal migrations of birds in the region, and form a continuous circuit of stories that sustain and inform the culture. For me, long hours, days, weeks, and years spent circling the vast and imposing Mojave...has given me an anchor on which to roam an ocean of worlds, a dry lakebed of sight and sound and metaphor that helps me make sense of an erratic human world and create my own storied landscape...Place is a canvas on which a writer sets their world, be it literal or abstract, or both, and invites the reader to step in, to share the journey, learn the song, feel the words, open the heart, feel the pulse."
Now that's a poet's way of talking about place, for sure. I also jotted down some quotes from other panelists.
One thing you need to understand about Tod Goldberg is he is a funny man. The author of BURN NOTICE, LIVING DEAD GIRL and director of the UCR/Palm Desert MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, sprinkles quips into most everything he says. Here's a sample: "You're always ruled by the politics of place. What the desert provides me as a writer is a blank landscape to write about regret and mental decay and loss." (When he needs to think about a story) "I drive with the top down on the convertible--cuz I'm that guy. Place becomes the jumping off point in my work." Goldberg doesn't, however, let actual place straight jacket his work. For instance, he put a non-existent oil company in "The Salt," a story set at the Salton Sea. "What is wonderful about being fiction writers, we have the license to do what we want. You are allowed to make stuff up. Fiction writers can not be beholden to telling the truth."
Deanne Stillman grew up in Cleveland but never felt at home, she said. The author of TWENTYNINE PALMS: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER, MARINES, AND THE MOJAVE and a faculty member of the UCR low-residency MFA program, said that changed when she went to New Mexico to study with Tony Hillerman. "I could see in person how place shaped story and characters. As soon as I saw my first tumbleweed, I knew I'd come home."
Also on the panel were Michael Jayme, author of THIS TIME TOMORROW and assistant professor at UCR, and publisher Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books, which specializes in California history and culture.
NO PLACE FOR A PURITAN, features dozens of writers including Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Susan Straight, Gayle Brandeis and Barry Lopez. It is available from Heyday Books and is co-published by the Inlandia Institute and Santa Clara University, made possible in part by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming interview with Gayle Brandeis, whose MY LIFE WITH THE LINCOLNS, is set in Chicago during the Civil Rights era. Gayle and I will give away a signed copy of the book.
What about you? Has place been important in any of your writings or dragged you into something you read and left you breathless?
My plan was to wish you a spectacular weekend with this sunset photo I shot. I thought I'd write a haiku. But then Mark McVeigh shot my plan out of the water.
The fabulous editor with his new agency is offering a 15-minute chat with people who send ten new followers to his blog. How spectacular is that? Certainly right up there with sunsets.
So click on over, mention me if you like, and post the link yourselves. Please leave me a comment if you follow him so I can count you. I leave you with pretty skies and best wishes, as well.
Monday addendum: I've got my interview time with Mark! *gulp* But while I don't need anyone to follow him for me, there are other bloggers still looking for ten. So you could give someone a helping hand. And if you have any ideas for questions, leave them for me today. I'll probably think of the most important thing I need to ask after it's over. No, no. I'm a professional. *small squeek*
Writers-who-blog are popping up in the thousands, which raises questions. Why do we blog? Who reads us? How can we possibly interact/comment on all that's going on? How do we know we're doing it right?
After reading sorry-I've-got-nothing-to-say blog posts or sorry-I-haven't-time-to-comment posts, I think we should cut ourselves some slack. And whatever you do, don't throw any old thing up there because you think you must post or comment; it's a public forum and will be noticed and, perhaps, noted.
I'd like to make a modest proposal. Nobody must post every day. If you post at least once or twice a week, you keep your blog presence and give your readers something worth the visit and time to drop a comment. Since our Google reading lists show when new posts come in, there isn't any need to remember that somebody posts on certain days of the week, either.
How often do you post and why? Do you have any ideas for how to deal with the volume of blogs you follow? Is it worth it? And, for the record, I think it's worth it. I love the people I've met and the things I've discovered. But sometimes I'm stretched as thin as a piece of gum starting to shred.
Squelching through a muddy patch in a river bottom, my friend and I discovered the tracks of previous visitors. They're sort of ghostly, don't you think? Does this not raise speculation about who passed this way? Or warm fuzzies about springtime and baby feet? I think this photo is a great writing prompt if anyone is inclined. Thinking about the steps we take brings me to a most-awesome contest. Really. This tandem affair offers prizes that should propel any writer along the journey. Two fantastic bloggers Elana Johnson and Shelli Johannes-Wells have week-long contests underway. First requirement is to follow them both. At stake in Elana's is a query critique by one of five literary agents. Five more winners will receive a query crit from Elana and a copy of her eBook, From the Query to the Call. Shelli is offering a query and first chapter critique from an agent, marketing consultation and books. For details, read their blogs and enter! Even if you don't win, contests like this are an excellent kick-in-the-pants to polish your query and first chapter. Be ready for any steps towards living your dream. Good luck and great journey, everyone!
FAT TUESDAY SURPRISE!
The mailman came to my door, wiping his brow, and saying, "That's a heavy one."
The parades are rolling on the streets of New Orleans, and I'm rolling in beads and pralines and chicory coffee and gumbo mix and hot stuff! It's the best thing, other than being there. Thank you soooo much, Tere. My day is made.
This is an excerpt from an adult urban fantasy, currently "shelved." I've never put up such a long scene before but it's the best I've got for this fest. Brief background: A day before this scene, Felyne was beaten by unseen assailants, likely of the supernatural kind.
Felyne wandered on the pier, past the steel roller coaster. She glanced up at the Ferris wheel, the first solar-powered one in the world, according to the sign. The sun was low, a golden backdrop to the amusement rides.
"You like Ferris wheels?" asked a male voice close to her ear.
She whirled to face a guy, who had a shaved head, muscular neck and eyes so blue they reminded her of periwinkles.
"Sure. Doesn't everyone?" Had he followed her? Was he a threat or just a guy with a strange pick-up line?
"I had a girlfriend once who said they make her dizzy. Me, I love looking down from nine stories high, seeing the coast as far as it stretches. Best part is when it stops at the very top." He tilted his head back to gaze up at the giant wheel.
Felyne snuck a better look at him. He wore a gray sweatshirt, faded jeans and flip-flops. Like a surfer. No neck tattoos or piercings. He had really defined cheekbones.
He caught her checking him out. "Wanna ride with me?"
It was a simple question but unexpected. Her heart increased its tempo. She stuttered a lame excuse about getting home.
"The sun's about to set, best time to go up," he said. "It doesn't take all that long, and, hey, I'm paying."
He dazzled her with a smile that seemed to light his entire face.
She didn't protest as he led her to the ticket booth. In a hazy mix of confusion and anticipation, she climbed into the grape-colored gondola with him. The ride operator shut the small door. The gondola inched off the platform and stopped a few yards off the ground as an older couple settled in the next car.
"I'm Bryan." He looked at her expectantly.
"Oh, hi, I'm Felyne."
The Ferris wheel jerked and swept upward. Then it hit her. She had gotten into a ride with a stranger, and they would soon be at neck-breaking heights. What if his dazzle was just that, a means to catch her off guard?
She clutched the seat, white-knuckled, and looked around, wondering if she could escape if necessary.
He stretched out a foot and nudged her tennis shoe. "You seem really tense. Scared, even. You sure you like to ride these things?"
Make him talk. Find out who he is.
"I'm fine. So what about you? Surfer or party DJ?"
He laughed. "DJ? Not ever. I do surf. Grew up here," he gestured at the town that sprawled along the shore. "I run my own landscape business so I can surf when swells hit."
"I always wanted to try it. Surfing, I mean."
The sun was just a sliver of red on the horizon and quickly gone. In its place, the sky glowed like a huge crimson curtain. The ride stopped. All was still. Then a seagull shrieked.
Bryan said abruptly, "Come here."
She was only a few feet from him. What did he want?
She slid over a bit. He pointed up the coast to the Santa Monica Mountains. A line of pelicans glided close to the water with the grace of dancers and the precision of pilots.
She pulled off her sunglasses and leaned closer to Bryan to watch them. He smelled salty like the sea and fresh as a morning after rain. It made her want to inhale deeply, and she inched a little closer.
When he turned to look at her, flashing that bedazzling smile again, he was so close she noticed one of his teeth had a chip out of it and his chin was bruised, as though he'd been hit hard in the mouth.
Had he been in a fight?
She slid away from him, wincing from her own bruises.
"Man, you are as skittish as a stray cat," he said. "You know, I'm the one who should be nervous, approaching a looker like you."
Her heart sped up another notch. A lot of people found her looks more unnerving than attractive.
His long fingers drummed against his denim-covered thighs and then began to fidget with a woven Tibetan bracelet on his wrist. He had big, strong hands.
The Ferris wheel moved again. The fading sunset and carnival lights whirled.
Bryan studied her. "You have the most amazing eyes I've ever seen. Amber like a lion's but with golden depths."
Damn. She wasn't wearing the contacts and had taken off her sunglasses without thinking. She pulled them out of her pocket and put them back on, dimming what light there was.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she blurted, ready to defend herself.
The smile vanished from his lips and eyes. "I wanted to ride the Ferris wheel with you. I guess that was a fatal error."
The rode in silence until the gondola came to a halt. The operator held open the door.
She got out, knees wobbly, body aching. She'd been more scared than she realized.
"I don't know what your deal is, but good luck with it." He stared at her a moment, shook his head and walked away.
She watched him go with relief. And regret, she had to admit, as she saw his back disappear in the crowd.
Out of rain-soaked, black earth this plate-sized mushroom popped in a wooded part of a river trail. I have no idea if it's edible, psychotropic or poisonous since I'm neither a mycologist nor a hunter-gatherer of wild 'shrooms.
I just like its substantial presence, porcelain-like cap and those orangey gills. And I thought it would be fun to follow the toadstools of my last post.
It's almost Valentine's Day and folks would be better off not serving their lovers a platter-full of wild mushrooms, unless it's a fatal attraction. However there are two blogs where you can get yourself a swoon-filled serving of romance.
As prep for this, here's a peek into one of my favorite books, AWAY by Jane Urquhart. In this story, the women of a certain family have always lived in northern latitudes near icy waters and are haunted by the tale of an ancestor who lost her heart and her name to a dying sailor. She had pulled him from the wreckage of a ship--from whiskey barrels, bobbing silver teapots and cabbages. Here are a few of Ms. Urquhart's eloquent words:
Clearing a path through cabbages and teapots, she had dragged her treasure up onto the beach to let it dry in the sun. She had put her two warm hands on either side of his cool face and ran her thumbs along the bones above his eyes, the delicate skin of his eyelids. She traced his collarbones with her fingers and tentatively touched the soft hair on his belly. Disturbed by the chill of the sea that had enveloped his body, she lay down beside him on the beach, loosened her long red hair across his shirt, and placed her head on his chest. He stirred as she did this and spoke the word "Moira" once again. When she dropped her arm lightly across his narrow hips a cold hand came up to meet hers. The sun rose higher in the sky, drying her skirt, his trousers, causing the silver vessels to wax radiant.
Sometimes things pop up when and where you least expect them. It's good, since I've had several interviews pop up for writing gigs.
That's what has been happening last week and this one, meaning I've barely had a moment to read or write blogs. I will be back to visit y'all soon.
I did want to stick my head in for an instant and shout out: I have 150 followers, or blogging friends, which is amazing and awesome and I want you to know it really means a lot to feel the support! Thank you so much.
And I also need to shout out to Shelley, the Storyqueen, who kind of dared me to finish my novel-in-progress in five days. That would have been as likely as turning these toadstools into carriages but I did write about 2,500 new words over the weekend thanks to her nudge. So thank you, Shelley! I'm getting close. I swear.
From this angle, perhaps it's hard to be sure, because it's signature beak, with pouch, is seemingly smaller than in reality.
I found this brown pelican perched on the end of a pier, enjoying the sun and not inclined to find me at all spooky.
Years ago, I had an even closer encounter with a pelican. I was jogging on Santa Monica beach with a friend when we saw a pelican being thrashed in the shorebreak. We waded in, my heroic friend jumped into a wave and grabbed the bird. We saw it was wrapped in fishing line, which had pinned its wings.
Once on the sand, I held the the bird's body, while my friend unraveled the line. Those birds are bigger and heavier than you might image, and he wasn't at all relaxed like the bird in my photo. But eventually, we folded the wings back in place, me still hanging on, while my friend tried to remove fish hooks that were embedded inside that pouched beak.
Oh, my. There were maybe a dozen hooks, some very old and rusty and not easily dislodged. By this time, we had drawn a small crowd. Someone with a pocket knife helped cut line and pry at the hooks.
Bird lice start running up my arms. Eek. Yuck. Freak out. But I didn't let go. I am forever grateful to a woman who brushed them off me as they came.
After we had done all that could be done, everybody stood back, and I released my grip and scooted back myself. At first, the pelican just stood there, shivering. Then he spread his wings. I was astounded at how immense they were. The sea breeze ruffled his feathers. He just let it blow across him. As minutes ticked by, I began to worry that he was too injured to fly. But then in the blink, a heartbeat, he flapped off, straight across the sea. And was gone.
I like to hope he didn't succumb to injuries but lived a long life for a pelican.
Yesterday, I was on a different pier (I get around) and it was dark. I had taken a deliciously mysterious after-sunset walk by the shore and then wandered onto the wooden pier. I was thinking about my novel-in-progress, which takes place in and around the sea. I looked up to enjoy a scarf of clouds and then saw the Big Dipper. Suddenly, I had an idea for my novel and pulled out my tiny notebook and started scribbling, while glancing up. I drew another crowd--or at least I stopped a group of people walking the pier who all stared up to see what wonder I must be seeing. I mean, I was taking notes, right? Ha!
Have you, my eccentric writing friends, drawn a crowd lately?
Oh! and P.S. I meant to thank two wonderful bloggers for giving me awards recently. I received both awards before so I won't do any passing along this time. But if you haven't visited these ladies, please do. Jemi Fraser included me in the Circle of Friends and Carolina Valdez Miller bestowed a Silver Lining. Thanks again!
I'm in a funk. The sky's gray, and so is my mood. I don't like to feel weighted down--lead in my boots, stones sewn in my hem, burdens of a lifetime on my back.
The manuscript that looked so shiny and fun the other day, now lies like a pile of rubbish--shredded scenes, dingy dialogue, pointless plot.
I could use Cher to slap my face and shout, "Snap out of it!" Lacking that, I've looked around for something bright and hopeful.
I found these photos I shot the other day in a bank parking lot. (Sorry to my readers still blanketed by winter.)
Poppies, with their shocking colors and delicate petals bobbing on long stems, are pretty much a pick-me-up.
Flowers of any kind are astonishing. However did such temporary flashes of brilliance, coupled with practical propagation, evolve?
Thoughts such as these always bring me back to the realization that I get to live in this extraordinary world and should damn well make the most of whatever time is allotted me.
I'm going to eat a chocolate croissant for breakfast and run barefoot in my dreams. I'm kicking off the lead boots and yanking the stitches from my hem so the stones can clatter back to the earth where they belong.
And I'm determined to look kindly upon my poor manuscript and see its moments of brilliance (I hope) even as I remedy its flaws.
So what do you do when you need to snap out of it?
B.J. Anderson posed the question: Why do we write? And she turned it into a contest.
I have to say I'm just wired that way. For instance, I was walking on Venice Beach, shooting pictures, when I overheard the gulls chatting. My brain said:
the gulls erupted
in a chorus of laughter,
yelps and whistles
A little later, I noticed that when the tide rushing in met the tide flowing out, it created something new. I wrote in the tiny notebook that lives in my pocket:
The wrestling tide sent up a rooster tail of spray.
I love the sense of wonder I feel when my mind gives me new imagery or introduces me to some fascinating character who sweeps into my life and dogs my steps--even if it makes me loopy in public. How about you? Don't forget to visit B.J. to enter her cool contest.