When I was twenty-nine, I was accepted into the MFA program in creative writing at Wichita State University. With high hopes, a little fear, and much sadness, I packed my Nissan pickup. For two years, I’d lived in the small seaside town of Half Moon Bay, California. Never in my life had I lived in such natural beauty. White-capped waves crashed on white sandy beaches, windblown cypress crowned rugged bluffs, and poppies dotted grassy hillsides. Warm sun relentlessly battled cool fog for control of the sky while farmers grew field after field of snapdragons, artichokes, pumpkins, and strawberries. Amid all this beauty was a gentle loving man who’d shared his life with me, and who would remain in Half Moon Bay.
As I drove down Main Street past Cunha’s Country Store on that sunny January morning, I fought hard not to mourn all I was leaving behind. I instead tried to focus on what lay ahead in Wichita.
Fall semester brought fresh faces and voices from around the country into the writing program. None of the machos was in my second writers’ workshop, so I was now eager to attend. The writing of three young women captured my attention. Each had a gift for imbuing stories with a sense of place. I recall one story set on a ranch in Southern Arizona. Years of driving a rough dirt road had rattled a young rancher’s Toyota pickup until it was about to fall apart. As her truck bounced her and her shotgun around the cab, she was near a breakdown. A javelina had attacked her beloved dog, and she was going to have to put him down. Another story was set on a Greyhound leaving El Paso. A teenager sent alone by her parents to visit her grandmother was excited about her first grownup adventure. But when border patrol agents boarded the bus and arrested a young man, she became terrified they would arrest her too, even though she was an American citizen. A third story was set in a Southern California tract home. Seven-year-old Becky Green moved there with her mom. In order to cope with the alienation she felt around her Mom’s new boyfriend, Becky fantasized that aliens would abduct her. However, when a space ship hovered outside and shined a beam at her bedroom window, she raced for safety in the arms of her mom’s boyfriend. He comforted her and explained the space ship was only a helicopter searching Los Angeles for criminals.
My new friends’ stories inspired me to change course with my own writing. I began exploring the place where I grew up--Las Vegas, Nevada--and a wicked new character emerged. Clad in searing neon colors, Vegas enticed, oppressed, seduced, battered, tortured, and tickled. A dollar played in the right slot machine at a grocery store could win next month’s rent. A bully would black your eye if you got on the school bus at the wrong time. A shady man met in a smoky casino might slither his way into a single mother’s life. Alcohol flowed 24/7, and so did terrible violence. Poor casino workers living in run down apartments and trailer parks scrimped from one meager paycheck to the next, year after year.
Yet somehow the people who populated that trickster city kept a sense of humor and prevailed, especially the independent women I was fortunate to have in my life as a child. They showed remarkable strength in the face of adversity. In Secrets of the Other Side, Neil has a penchant for comic book superheroes. But in the stories he tells, the true superheroes are his mom, aunt, and grandmother. These women refuse to back down from a challenge and always fight for what they believe is right. They brighten a dark world, and they reminded me as I wrote about them that place not only shapes characters, but characters shape place.
My days in writers’ workshops in Wichita are behind me now, and I’m back in California. However, whenever I sit down to write, I keep close the lessons I learned on the prairie, and I springboard into a story by conjuring a familiar world in which to immerse characters and readers. The next time you sit down to write and find yourself staring at a blank page, I invite you to get in touch with your own sense of place and explore worlds that you know, real or imagined. I bet in no time you’ll discover vivid characters coming to life, clamoring to tell an interesting story.
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