By Guest Blogger, Melanie Unruh
Apparently this is the weekend to write about the sky! By sheer happenstance, Jennifer Simpson and I both wrote about similar topics. Please consider it a themed weekend of writing inspiration (and perhaps ponder about writers and synchronicity, as I am now…).
I recently met a western writer I greatly admire and envy at the AWP conference (I was really nervous to speak with her after her panel so I grabbed a friend, who ended up doing a half-curtsey when we said goodbye, so for once I was didn’t feel like the most awkward kid at the party). The panel was about writers whose work is set in and focuses on the West. As we talked I found it interesting that she’s from Nevada but is now living in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and I’m from Pennsylvania, went to college in New Jersey, and am now living in New Mexico. She didn’t seem overly impressed with the East Coast and one thing she said really struck me as interesting. She said, “I miss the sky. It’s too closed in there.” Funny, I thought, I often have the exact opposite feeling. Let me clarify: I often like and enjoy the desert sky. It’s pretty. Some days it seems bluer than possible. It’s constantly changing. Sunsets here can look like elaborate paintings. However. I desperately miss the trees, the way (and I never really paid much attention to this at the time) they cradle and anchor you.
Maybe it’s a cliché, but I don’t think I ever really appreciated the region where I spent the first 25 years of my life. When I moved to the desert to start graduate school, I developed a longing for dense forests of mature trees, fields of green grass that weren’t the product of vast sprinkler systems, winding back roads that followed creek beds, and winters that were both cold and filled with snow*. I know some people can’t abide overcast skies and interrupted vistas, but to me they are familiar and comforting. Within a year of moving here, I was off and running on my first novel, set in a fictionalized version of my hometown and my grandparents’ house. I’ve often heard it said that the best way to write about a place you know well is to leave it. For me, this turned out to be true.
Right now I’m watching a spring storm roll in across the desert. Because rain is rare here, it gives me pause. But then I look off into the horizon and I can see patches of blue, distant parts of the city that remain untouched by rain and shadow. This still seems strange to me. Growing up, one of my favorite things about rain and thunderstorms was how creepy and all-encompassing they were. Imagine yourself in a clearing, surrounded on all sides by trees. When the storm clouds appear, you can’t see beyond them; all that’s visible is trees capped by a dark, purplish lid of clouds.
I’ve set some pieces in the desert, but I find that I tend to do what that panel of Western writers called “window dressing.” I bring in details of the setting and I make it clear that it’s taking place in Albuquerque, on a desert road, etc., but I have yet to write anything where the desert setting feels absolutely essential and integral to the story.
Maybe I’m “in between” on this landscape. The first week of grad school one of my professors said that when you move to a new place, you should write about it as much as you can in the beginning so that everything seems strange and nuanced to you. Then, if you stay long enough, it becomes so second nature to you that you can write about it from the perspective of home. But after six years, I feel both comfortable and antsy here. I wouldn’t be surprised if I move away one day and this place haunts me the way the woods of my childhood do.
We’ve all likely heard the saying, good writing is supposed to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” With this in mind, write about a place you know well and try to imbue it with strangeness. Then write about a place you’ve only been to once or spent very little time in. Try to describe it as though you’re completely intimate with it.
Consider “your” sky. What does it look like? How do you feel about it? Is it simply part of the background of your life or does it inform your existence in important ways? Think of a character or persona you’ve been working with. How does this person perceive and interact with the sky?
*And yes, there are places “Back East” where you do have uninterrupted site lines and there are places in New Mexico that are quite wooded, snowy, etc. But I’m looking at the majority of my own personal experiences with these two landscapes.