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?