Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Route 66 of the Mind


The more energy you put into casting a complex and weighty net about your primary characters, the greater the likelihood some of the weight and complexity will spill off onto you.

Modern story requires nuanced and unending stress as a landscape on which the flawed, the wounded, the pompous, and those in some form of recovery from something are scrambling to stay even with themselves.

The weight of this awareness piles onto your vision of what a story is, where it ought to go, which details to pluck from the reality you see about you to remind you of what you have left behind to come here.

You give yourself a few paragraphs of comfort to warm yourself to the task, whatever it might be.  Today, it was a few thousand words of edits and additional materials for the revised edition of what was once The Fiction Lovers’ Companion, transmogrified into The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, which did not require much warm-up before you were able to complete drafts that stand up to some inspection.

Then into the off-roads, the side roads, the metaphor becoming highway related because you believe the momentum—whatever the project at hand—comes best from a sense of straying from the freeways and onto dirt roads, little traveled.

Once, when you were eight or nine, you, your mother, and sister drove from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., passengers in a car driven by a man you remember only as radiating impatience, now that you recall him, impatient at his wife, Hazel, and what he referred to as her timidity while at the wheel.  You took the then operant Route 66, the stops and sights so burned into your memory banks that you have occasional dreams of those places on Route 66 as they were, then, a series of gas stations with adjunct zoos featuring a few down-on-their-luck coyotes, armadillos, snakes, and Gila Monsters, red soft drink coolers in which twenty or thirty bottles of Royal Crown Cola and Hires Root Beer and Bierley’s orange soda sat, up to their necks in the melt from large chunks of ice.  You recall eating at a series of truck stops where the waitresses called everyone but you Honey; they called you The Little Man because you were little then and because your horn-rimmed glasses gave you an expression alternately studious or mystified.

You mention this trip because you have ever since experienced a sense of having some sort of transformation in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and the locust-filled streets of Amarillo, Texas.  No, not mystical, certainly not religious, rather a sense of genuine affection for the decay and sun-battered landscape, the garnet-red dusty awfulness of it to the point where it becomes the default landscape when you set forth into the unknown.  Until the time of that eastward trip, everything about you was familiar and known.  Of course you couldn’t know that it was not known or even knowable, but you did know it was familiar.

At that time, the farthest you’d been away from home was to Pismo Beach, which you remember as being more Western than coastal, thanks to the fact of wooden plank sidewalks instead of the familiar concrete.

You revisit the Route 66 of your mind in metaphor when you set out to discover a theme, a handle on a scene or story.  You are a traveler back when you were small, too frightened to be scared, vulnerable, watchful.

Indian trading posts, pawn shops, gas stations that gave free maps, signs promising exotic experiences or authentic arrowheads or the best hamburgers in the world, or the ubiquitous Burma-Shave roadside signs defined the entrance to what you have come to think of as The Haunted Theme Park.

The haunted part was because you moved farther away from the familiar on that first trip, past the point where you could not see West any longer, and for the next years, it seemed you might never return.

During those years, you did well in school, but that was no payment for being away.  In more recent years, you returned to Arizona, to New Mexico, to Indian reservations, to adobe and stucco monuments in the desert.  Route 66 was all but gone, yet the lure and mystery of it seemed to bounce off the mirages and buttes and mesas.

There was one other place, more or less in midtown Los Angeles, that held similar feelings of mystery and adventure, the right field bleachers of a vanished baseball stadium.  But that is another story, another time, and another landscape, one that has less to do with baseball and more with people; you revisit it when you need to explore the inner terrains necessary to produce story


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