Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Bakersfield of the Mind

 Among your many notebooks is one devoted to places rather thing things or ideas; it is an annotated list of places you would go to great lengths to avoid.  These places are mostly physical, such as Bakersfield and Tulare, off in the enormous California Central Valley, Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; and Farmington, New Mexico.

Driving through Bakersfield one hot, soggy afternoon with sometime collaborator Leonard Tourney, the idea of the notebook first came to you.  As you were driving past the campus of California State College, Bakersfield, on your way to auditioning for a job in which you and Leonard would produce, direct, and write a mystery play, you indulged a whim. 

"Wouldn't it be awful," you said, pointing at the campus, "if we were offered teaching positions here of such variety and pay that we could not refuse?  This, of course, would mean moving here, to Bakersfield."

Year later, perhaps as many as twenty, you were reminded of that moment with you and Leonard in his dented and nasal old Volvo, when you were watching the first installment of the TV series True Detective.  Marty, and Rust, portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, are driving across the stark bayou country of southern Louisiana, reflecting on a potential serial killer, when Marty tells Rust the equivalent of "You've got to stop talking that kind of shit when we are alone in the car like this."

Rust's dialogue is certainly existential, cynical, devoid of any hope for the species, suspicious of the potential for happiness.  Leonard Tourney doesn't talk with that life view, but his response has remained with you longer than his words, reminding you how similar to Bakersfield was the Tulsa he left, along with a full professorship and tenure.  You felt his discomfort at the thought of your worst-case scenario developing into a real prospect.

For the rest of the trip, you began thinking of other places you disliked for having been there or from some association you had with the place that caused you to think of it in the first place, then form some negative association.  Say Farmington, NM.  You mostly like all of New Mexico, but your experience finding a doctor of veterinary medicine there who would remove porcupine quills from the snout of a blue tick hound  Your first two attempts met with the observation, "That isn't a local dog," as though that were relevant.  

The notebook was born, first as a list of places on a single sheet of legal pad, but then, as the number of places increased, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for instance, or Saugus, California, or Pahrump, Nevada (Nye county), so too did your vitriol when you thought about such venues and your growing antipathy to them.

This reminded you of an amusing incident between you and a long-time writer/publisher friend, Sol Stein.  During one of his visits to the Santa Barbara Writers' conference, he was visiting your late night fiction workshop.  As a part of your opening lecture, you quoted him and what you considered to be his splendid advice.  "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go."  By that time in your life, you interpreted the mantra to mean as well, take the reader somewhere else, somewhere he does not wish to go.  This could of course be an emotional destination as well as Bakersfield or Perth Amboy, or Victorville. Take the reader somewhere away from the safety of confidence and the comfort of believing you are right.

Stein stood to address the crowd.  "Although I agree with the sentiments, Shelly, it was not I who told you that, it was you who told me."

Curious, surprised by the unexpected turn, and almost completely unaware of the hundred or so persons in the audience, you wondered aloud what it was that you learned from him.  "Ahh,"  he said, still standing, for Sol Stein does not relinquish an audience until it suits his sense of timing.  "Perhaps it was the need to withhold information."

This, you realized, could have turned into a tug of war because of your belief that you had, in fact, stressed the need to not give the reader the information he wanted at the moment the reader wanted.  But once again, you were taken with the wisdom of not taking the reader where the reader wished to go, and once again, in that perverse way of yours where you turn things to point them at you for possible effect, you were off and running.

By thinking of places and circumstances you would not ordinarily visit, you are forcing yourself to look at feelings of discomfort, possible bigotry, and contrariness, certainly three significant conditions to evoke during the arc of a story.  If you had to live in Bakersfield, you find yourself thinking, what great steps would you take, what potential crimes would you commit, what differences would appear in the way you present yourself to yourself and to the world?

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