Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In a time and place

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?


Laura Canon said...

Sounds like a fascinating weekend. As you probably know I live in Las Vegas, but I'm not a native -- I moved from back east. I have kind of a love-hate things with the desert. I pretend to sneer at grass but sometimes I'm a little envious, too. But it is always a source of endless fascination.

Julie Dao said...

You must have learned so much at this event! It sounds fantastic. Nature is incredibly inspiring... the wild beauty of the desert definitely seems like a perfect novel setting.

Yvonne Osborne said...

It sounds like you learned a lot at this event and what an opportunity to meet other writers.

As a writer, poetry was my first love but fiction has steadily gained ground. I love how it "lets you make stuff up", it opens up possiblities and loosens the cuffs of gravity. As they say....there's nothing truer than fiction.

As a writer, place is everything to me, as important as memory and ideas.

My sister lives in the desert and I still consider her and the view from her patio to be my #1 muse. I look forward to your interview.

Thanks for an inspiring post!

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. It sounds like a wonderful learning experience, and your write-up is beautifully done. Thanks, Tricia. :)

Unknown said...

The desert has a warm spot in my heart. What a great weekend that must have been. You have such a way with words!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Laura: Fascination is a perfect word for the effect of the desert. I need my green fix, too!

Julie: Yes, I think the desert's wild beauty is a particularly potent setting.

Yvonne: Thank you. The desert is an extraordinary muse and opens up endless opportunity for imagination to run.

Shannon: Thanks! I enjoyed musing on the concept of place and writing the post.

Nisa: Thank you so much!

sarahjayne smythe said...

i love this post. It gave me such a sense of feeling, of being there.

It sounds like you had a great time at the conference and came away with a great new perspective. Thanks for sharing that with us. :)

Tamika: said...

Breathtaking post. I've never been an outdoors person, so writing about places seems like a struggle at times. Through reading I'm learning to embrace the impact that place is suppose to have.

I really appreciate this post!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. Sounds like an amazing weekend! And you've introduced me to some new desert writers, thanks!

One of my books is set in Prince William Sound, Alaska, a place I've spent lots of time in the last twenty years. The place inspired the novel.

Thanks for a peek at the desert. When I lived in CA, I spent lots of time in the desert. In 2007, I was fortunate enough to travel back to Anza Borrego and hit the peak of the flower bloom. I'm guessing it'll be amazing this year with all the rain.

Tere Kirkland said...

Setting is always important in my writing, maybe even too important. I've received lots of compliments about how detailed my settings are, but I have much more trouble with characterization.

Beautiful photo!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

sarahjayne: I'm so pleased the desert edged into the post. :D

Tamika: Glad if it's helpful. Place doesn't have to be outdoors. It just needs to be a setting that's real to the reader. It could be inside a room, a church, a cave, a spaceship. It could happen on one city block.

Paul: I look forward to reading the Prince William Sound story. That's very cool that the place inspired the novel.
Ah, yes, Anza Borrego should be stupendous this year. It's amazing how much color and bounty can spring from the desert.

Tere: I just know you've got New Orleans covered. Can't wait to read your books somedeay.

Angela Ackerman said...

Oh wow--sounds like a wonderful experience. The desert is one place where I haven't had much up close experience, but I agree, there's something beautiful in the sparseness of it all. Less is more, and you have room to think about what is around you.

Liza said...

This is my favorite line in your entire post: "It's close to the bone, a lean landscape pulled taut. Hills rise like a knobby spine." I know that I am in love with where I live now...it comes out all the time in my sense of awe, and as I am beginning to understand, in my writing too. I've never been to the desert though, and think it might inspire a similar sense of wonder.

Jemi Fraser said...

So interesting!

I've never been near a desert - but the beauty I've seen through film and photos is haunting. Don't know if I'd survive the heat though!

Unknown said...

Yup and it just happened to be the dessert (sort of). My first novel takes place in Sedona AZ because I am in awe of the beauty and magical energy of that place.
My current WIP takes place in small islands surrounding FL and of course, in the water.
Can you tell I love nature? :)

Davin Malasarn said...

Wonderful post! You put a lot of work into this. Living in southern California myself, I hated the desert for a long time. First, it felt too boring because I was so used to it. Then, it felt so dead. But, as a young adult I met a scientist/painter who absolutely loved the desert. She took me out with her on painting excursions and slowly I began to love the desert too. It definitely has its own breathtaking beauty.

I was going to mention Joan Didion when I started reading this post, so I'm glad she's in the anthology!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Angela: That's it exactly--less is more, and its very sparseness is what lends it beauty.

Liza: Thanks for liking my lines! I actually first noticed that imagery years ago on a trip into the far reaches of the desert.

Jemi:Yeah, for half the year, it's dang hot. But the other half? It can be gorgeous, sometimes quite chilly.

VR Barkowski said...

Beautiful post, Tricia. Your opening paragraph is a stunning, reflection of the desert's own stark beauty.

Place is integral to my writing and my reading. I want to be swept away when I read, regardless of the destination. And that how I try to write. I want my readers to smell the briny salt marsh and feel the Bay Area fog wet against their cheek.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Karen: I KNEW you would have strong places in your work. Yeah, I've picked up that you are drawn to nature like I am. I don't know if I could write without it.

Davin: You're right. I did put a lot into this one. It's more like what I did as a features reporter, only that would have been even more in-depth.
I'm so glad the desert came "un-dead" for you. For me, it was always magical. I think the light has a lot to do with it. The colors at dawn and dusk are extraordinary as the hills and boulders turn gold or rosey. Then there is the night sky, which I can never get enough of.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

VR: Oh, thank you so much for liking that opening. It is precisely how I feel about the desert. And, from what I've read of your work, I'm sure your readers are going to feel the fog and smell the brine.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Your desert description is fantastic. Joshua trees dancing, sand stretching into concrete. Beautiful.

A sense of place is very important. I'm going back to mannie to make sure I'm establishing it. Thanks for the reminder. ; )

MG Higgins said...

Next to the coast, the desert is my favorite landscape. (I don't think that came out quite right, but you know what I mean.) thank you for this incredibly detailed post. So informative! Looking forward to your interview.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Suzanne: Thank you! :D *happy dance*

Mel: I'm so pleased that you liked it, and I think you'll really like Gayle's interview, too. *more happy dance*

Tess said...

I just love experiences like that. wonderful stuff.

I love the desert at night - with the clear skies and bright stars.

I also like dessert at night - but I digress...

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

This sounds like it must have been an amazing author event!

Place is very important to my writing. I try to create extraordinary characters, but the setting helps to shape them and the situation I put them in. But the desert, well...it is so far removed from my life experiences. So foreign to me. My only brush with a desert was in Las Vegas when I thought a hotel was much closer than it was, and my husband and I walked (without water) in dry, desert heat for over an hour to get there. I nearly passed out with heat exhaustion. There's just nothing like it. But how amazing it would be to know a place like this well, to feel like it is home.

lisa and laura said...

Beautiful! I always love reading your thoughts.

We've definitely tried to breathe life into our setting--have attempted to make it another character. Hopefully readers will agree!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

It sounds like a wonderful conference.

When I am in England I seem to see details more clearly than when I'm in the U.S. I don't know why, maybe it's because I notice all the things I miss or missed out on.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Tess: Starry nights with cake. Sounds good to me. ;)

Carolina: The heat is a character itself, isn't it? But when you spend time in the desert when it's not a furnace, there is so much to explore. It can be stunning.

Lisa and Laura: Thanks, and I can't wait to read your setting and characters!

Sharon: That's an interesting point. What makes us more aware? Is it sometimes connected to the idea something is lost or fleeting? That's worth mulling.

Donna said...

Thanks for introducing Ruth Nolan to your block. I love her desert poetry.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Sounds like an inspiring weekend. I'm a desert lover, but only in the winter :)

storyqueen said...

Hi Tricia,

I commented once last night, but blogger must have eaten it. It was probably just really tasty....?

Anyway, great photos and wonderful insight into place/setting.

The desert spirit likes writers, I think.


Mary E Campbell said...

I love the they way you pull me in with your words. Great post. My story takes place in the forest and I know I need to spend more time in a forest whenever I try to write about the forest. Being grounded in our setting and evoking a sense of place is great advice. Sounds like an awesome weekend. Oh yea - I love the desert too. It's surprising how much color and beauty can be found in a sparse landscape.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Donna: Ruth's poetry is fantastic, so visual and moving.

Sherrie: Indeed. No summer treks for me, either.

Shelley: Oooooo, I like that. I'm going to thank the desert spirit when I go back.

Mary: I have another book, currently shelved, that takes place in the forest. I can't wait to spend time among trees. Research, you know? I love trees.

Jackee said...

What a great event! Sense of place really affects me too. Unfortunately I always seem to want to write about places I've never been! LOL!

Elana Johnson said...

What a great time. I love the desert. I have to get to my happy places through music, mostly. With headphones I can drown out the TV, the wind and snow, everything. And go to my magical writing place inside my own head.

winter hansen said...

Envious! What a great event. When I visit my brother north of Reno, I'm always inspired to write. It's poetry that comes to mind instead of my usual novel writing, so the desert is always a refreshing change. The northwest is a great place to be a writer if you need variety in place. We have everything: desert, mountains, plush valleys, forests, and the ocean. My writing is very inspired by place and each kind of landscape has a different effect.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Jackee: Ha! I do that, too, and it sure is hard. But, as I recall, you've been some pretty great places so maybe it's time to let them in the spotlight.

Elana: I should have guessed you'd have a perfect place tucked away. ;)

Winter: Landscape really does affect the writing, and can be used to enhance so many moods. SoCal has all that variety, too, which is great for a writer!

Linda Kage said...

I know I need to focus more on setting and sense of place when I work on my stories. Usually, I'm so focused on characters and dialogue, the rest of the scene fades away.

Thanks for reminding me I don't want a floating-head story with just people talking back and forth in a white room!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Linda! I'm quite sure you don't have floating heads in a white room, but that's such a strong image I'm going to remind myself when revising to be on the lookout for any such place and promptly decorate it!

* said...

What a fab conference that must have been.

I'm adding "NO PLACE FOR A PURITAN" to my Goodreads list. Thank you for the nudge on that one.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

That's great, Terresa!

cleemckenzie said...

The desert is indeed a complex place where the canvass is starkly naked and teeming with possibilities. It's one of my favorite literary settings and also one of my favorite real places to visit.

Your Mojave is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Patricia: thank you for the generous and inspiring blogpost featuring No Place for a Puritan! I am also so thrilled to see all of the favorable comments by your blog followers toward the California desert, and positive comments about some of the writers featured in the anthology! I hope to cross paths with you again soon! --Ruth Nolan

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lee: Teeming with possibilities! Yes, that is it. I think people who don't explore the desert perhaps see emptiness where there is so much more.

Ruth: You are most welcome. It was a pleasure, and, yes, hopefully our paths will cross soon.