Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Outside, In My Head

Rolling the garbage and recycling bins back to the garage yesterday, after the recycling truck lumbered through the neighborhood, there was a slight wind, and I looked around, wondering if Southern California had been better before all this had been built, these houses, these streets, these street lights. Was there more of a sense of adventure on blank hillsides? It felt like the wind was a lament, missing that past, if there was such a past (and some history I've seen of the area suggests that), and mourning a future that can never be. A year after we moved to Southern California, when we were moving from Valencia to Saugus, Dad and I made multiple trips from our old apartment to our new house and back, hauling in boxes that didn't need to be packed in the moving truck. At the intersection before turning right to go up that hill and then back down to Copper Hill (or whatever the name is, since I've only paid attention to such things when I need to take the bus somewhere), I looked to the left and those mountainsides were completely empty. No lights. Then gradually, one housing development popped up, and then three, and then what looked like 40. It's prevalent throughout the region. Build and build some more and build again until you're absolutely sure you can't put another apartment complex in the parking lot of a 7-11. You'll find the past in books, but not in front of you. The museums are tucked away, hidden from view, where they belong.

I didn't begin to think about Las Vegas or Henderson after mulling over all that. In my mind, I went to Baker, to the true beginning of the desert in Southern California, to the Grewal Travel Center, with the gas station out front, the convenience store on one side on the inside, and the small food court on the other side. I thought about that night on the way to Henderson when we found that the food court was closed. Fortunately, we had eaten at Wienerschnitzel in Santa Clarita, and it's lucky we didn't wait until we got to Baker. I'd never seen the place like this, with the counter areas dark, the lighted signs and menu boards turned off. I stared longer than anyone probably should stare at A&W, TCBY, Pizza Hut and Subway signs. Actor/playwright/short story writer Sam Shepard, one of my heroes, has lived in the desert and has it so deeply ingrained in his soul that I thought about him as I looked around, and also thought about the distance outside this food court/convenience store. Who could live in Baker? Who could find enough in the businesses and the landscape to want to live here? This could be where one settles if there's nowhere else to go, but then it has to be a pretty desperate situation.

This is all that Baker is. The 2010 census pegged the population at 735. Those people may have their reasons, and I'd sure like to know what they are. But I never will because I don't think I could stay for that long. I need a library, I need things that I love surrounding me. I love desert landscapes, but give me something more to them. I'm not talking about the overgrowth that Southern California has experienced over the years. A desert town is fine with me if there's a connection there, reasons that a population has to keep its town vibrant. That may not be fair to Baker, because maybe it does have those things that I don't see since I don't hang around long enough. But middle of the evening at 9 p.m., getting out of the car and feeling that fierce chill, like opening a freezer door in the frozen food section at a supermarket and stepping inside, how could anything want to thrive there?

But I still feel something. I don't have the desert experience that Shepard has, that compelled him to also write three masterful short story collections that I go back and forth on buying for my permanent collection, but I want to try it. I want to write a play, and I want to set it in the Grewal Travel Center. I have one character sketched out, and three or four more I don't know well enough yet. You would think that it would be useful to take photos inside the Center, but I haven't for three reasons: One, when I looked around, I wasn't thinking in terms of a play, until I was back in our rented Kia Soul, writing furiously in my composition book. We had to get to Henderson, so I couldn't go back inside to take photos.

Second, Dad's reconsidering his strategies in looking for a job in Las Vegas and Henderson, which may include going back there for a few days while he and Meridith are off for spring break, so he can actually meet people, have them see him face-to-face, instead of seeing about jobs from a distance, which is the way it has to be for now since he's working here. I may get my chance to take photos.

And third, I have the full layout of the Grewal Travel Center in my head. I know where both claw machines are, I know where chips and candy are on the convenience store side, I know that there are two regular restroom stalls in the men's restroom and one handicap stall, and I know that on the food court side, A&W comes first on the far left, TCBY in the middle, Pizza Hut near the far right, and the restrooms are near Pizza Hut and to the left of Subway. I also know that there are those coin-operated machines with stickers and temporary tattoos and other cheap doodads, one next to the food court entrance in the back, facing A&W, and another directly across from A&W. I've not found any stickers I want from either of those, but I like seeing what there is every time.

When I began thinking about writing plays in 2008, I had so many fanciful ideas, and I filled up a folder on this computer with every idea I could think of in 37 Microsoft Word files, believing that one of them had to lead me to fame. They would be filled with such dramatic ideas, and monologues that had the power to keep audiences in rapt attention. I would be lauded for my artistic choices and wordplay that goes down so easy, yet gives audiences a lot to think about.

I was full of shit.

One thing I completely ignored back then was timing. No skilled actor could have memorized the monologues I wrote without fainting from exhaustion. An actor has to breathe and so does the audience, yet the audience still has to be engaged enough to want to know what happens next. There are fellow human beings performing in front of them, completely inhabiting their characters, and the audience needs to relate to them by some glance, some line that rings true, some action that might make them look inward, see themselves in any of the characters on stage. And if a character is pure evil or has bad intentions, there still has to be a glint of humanity there. They can't just be faceless like so many bad guys in an action movie. It works for an action movie. It doesn't work for a play.

After What If They Lived? was published, I took a break from my aspirations of playwriting fame to figure out what book I wanted to write next. With that figured out now, I calmly went back into that "Plays" folder and looked at what I had hurriedly written many times over. I couldn't be doing this because I wanted fame in some artform. It's nice, and so is money, of which I still hope to make a decent amount one day (decent, not obscene), but I have to want to write a play because it defines me, it helps me grow as a writer, and it makes the world seem new to me every day, with something different to explore.

Another idea I've had has been done once or twice before, but not how I've thought of it. I researched it and even bought one of the plays that takes place in the same setting as mine (Three one-act plays, actually, making up an evening of theater) to see how it was done. I wanted my play to be two one-acts, with two different sets of characters: A teenaged boy and girl, and a man and a woman. I wrestled with the timeline and originally decided that they'd be an hour and a half to two hours apart, which wouldn't seem to matter in a play, but where these characters are, it does, since one pair meets at 11 p.m., and another at 1:30 a.m., and the event they're at only happens once a year, and just once for the teenagers.

The major problem I had was my initial insistence that these characters be connected somehow, that the audience finds out through one pair that both pairs are related. I wanted to keep the conversation between one pair mysterious enough that when the other pair talks, the audience puts it together. I don't think there would be gasps throughout the theater. Just murmurs of understanding.

But at what expense to the characters? Would I be spending so much time trying to set up the slight puzzle that I ignore the traits to be established in each character to make the audience want to know more? Would the characters just be puppets to my intentions? That can't happen. If the audience doesn't connect with the characters, that's it. You close after one performance, if you're lucky.

Last week, I figured out what to do. I don't want to spend time creating this puzzle for the audience to gradually figure out. I want to spend time with my characters, getting to know who they are, what they believe, what they want, what they still hope for even as regrets pile up. So now there's only one pair. I won't say which pair because I'm still working this out. But I do know that the first act is set at one of my most favorite places in the world, and the second act is at a place that I don't have quite the huge love for that I do for that first place, but which I admire just the same because without it, that place I hugely love would not exist. Obviously, there won't be faithful sets of either one because that would be insanely expensive, but it will be described enough in the dialogue, and have a few props to represent it, that the audience will get a sense of where they are.

Even without characters fully created, I already have the title of this play. I worry about whether the first part of it sounds sarcastic, but I can only answer that once I start writing this play. I know that it works, though. It covers both acts, the crux of the plot, and even suggests hope where there wouldn't seem to be any in light of years that have passed and disappointments that have been experienced.

In my mind, as I watch the trees rustle from the wind, I'm at both settings for this play, and I'm also thinking about what I can look forward to: Months spent reading two-character plays. I love the thought of it, particularly because I bought a few when I had thought up this play in its previous form. I hadn't opened them then, just stored them away, but I had a good excuse since I was co-writing What If They Lived? at the time. Even while working on my second book, I want to start on this, and try simultaneous writing projects. I'd like to be surrounded by words all the time, and not just by reading.

So maybe Southern California preferring to ignore its past and make a future full of endless housing developments isn't so bad. Until I'm gone from here, it lets me dream widely just by spending a bit of time outside.


  1. If you accidentally end up with an obscene amount of money, I'll help you invest it. I don't know how you are about handling money -- maybe you're fine on your own -- but I know how to take good care of money so it makes more money. Just like rabbits. Have you read Just Kids, Joni Smith's memoir? You'd like it.


  2. I'm sure that there are some silver linings and star-sparkles in Baker. Maybe I'll research it and blog about one. Always more ideas to take hold and run with.

    Your play sounds intriguing! You're right in keeping up with how the audience is perceiving the characters. There are no walls at all if there is not a fourth.

    1. There must be something like that if there are people living there, someone who maybe likes to dance in the desert or something like that.

      I'm still debating the location of the second act of my play. Initially, I wanted to have it at that not-so-favorite place, but what about keeping it in the same truly favorite place and just letting the years elapse? To me, it's more creatively economical. Then I'd have to explain how they got from one coast to another. But maybe that would be better. Passage of time and passage of place.