Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Off the map

(Written January 18, 2011)

Last summer, I had to make a last-minute trip to the East Coast. I don’t particularly like flying—I’m not phobic or anything, but it will never rank high on my list of favorite activities—and I remember staring intently down at the scenery to distract myself from the noise of the engine and the activities of my fellow passengers.

As we left California and flew over the western United States, I found myself studying the landscape. I was fascinated by the places where human civilization just seemed to stop—the solar farms and suburbs that suddenly gave way to mountains and desert, which just as suddenly gave way again to something manmade. It was as if the landscape below me had been constructed according to incomplete map—in this place everything should be as built-up as possible, but this patch is missing from the map and so we’ll leave it as it is. I stared at those off-the-map spaces, trying to burn them into my brain because I knew they wouldn’t be as common once we crossed the Mississippi and entered the land of trees. I could see the coyote coming from those places, and some of the wilder and more unpredictable elements of my stories. It’s always good for a writer to go off the map from time to time.

Well, I’m off the map now.

I’m in Arizona. I just finished leading the first day of workshops as I type this on Tuesday afternoon (no telling when it’ll upload). The kids were enthusiastic, and the teachers seemed doubly so. Several students came up to the edge of the stage when I finished my presentation to ask me questions about writing and getting published. One cautiously pulled out handwritten pages and told me about a series of novels that sounded quite promising. So far, so familiar, and it’s the reason I’m here.

But I only have to step outside the auditorium to remember I’m out of my territory. Sliding through the desert on a train crossing the California border, I got a close-up look at country I’d previously flown over. I didn’t recognize any of the plants. The earth was a different color. The jagged mountains looked different from the rumpled foothills and worn coastal ranges of my native terrain. It seemed alien, maybe a bit hostile. I could see the beauty in the harshness of the environment, but I couldn’t escape the nagging sense, every once in a while, that I’d landed on the moon.

But it’s good to go off the map. I can’t wait to see what I’ll find here …

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