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The Landscape of Memory, or, My Characters Keep Getting Lost in The Desert

01 December 2017 on Blog, Fiction, Storystorm   Tags:

“[E]very pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.”

-Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

I close my eyes and try to conjure up the desert. I get a faint impression of openness, of a blurred horizon, of the sound boot soles make on pink sand. The sound of the desert: a humming pregnant with unseen life. If I concentrate, I can almost taste the sharp tang of sagebrush. The white lines of sandstone, the haze beyond glowing red cliffs, the way the light falls a few hours before sunset.

My characters are currently stranded in the red rock of Southern Utah. Me? I’m in a New England living room, surrounded by deciduous forests and biting winds. I am trying to reach across the abyss. I am trying to describe from memory what it feels like to stand in that other space. None of the words I’m stumbling across are remotely sufficient. None of them come close to translating the desert onto paper.

I grew up in Utah, the red-rock country just a few hours away from Salt Lake City, and although I haven’t lived there in years, that environment continues to haunt me. This is not my first set of characters to strand themselves on a dusty desert road. This is not the first time I’ve faced the challenge of writing about a beloved landscape from far away. I know it won’t be the last.

So much of what writers do involves memory. It’s a kind of magic, really—writing offers the possibility of resurrecting the dead, collapsing time and space. It provides a temporary visitor’s pass to places we can no longer access physically, places that often no longer exist. A childhood house, long since demolished or sold; a 1960s town, now changed beyond recognition; a sacred desert you haven’t laid eyes on in years.

Of all the many impressive things to me about Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” perhaps the most impressive is the knowledge that she wrote it while living in the Eastern United States. I am awed by her ability to recreate in such perfect detail the world of her childhood in Antigua, to reach across decades and thousands of miles to bring life to an environment that is no longer part of her day-to-day reality. I imagine this ability must stem at least partly from a writer’s self-awareness—from her relentless insistence on understanding who she is and where she came from.

I spark my own memory through every mundane trick I can. I change my computer background to reflect the landscapes in my stories, search Google Images for pictures that will sharpen the vague shapes in my mind, create playlists of music that evoke moments or environments, flip through old diaries in search of a single entry from ten years ago. My memory is fickle, prone to lying about specifics. Perhaps that’s okay. Fiction writers tend to have a strange relationship with the truth.

Truth is a slippery concept, anyway, as it applies to memory. Each environment we move through is coated with an invisible veneer of associations. The cactus perched on my coffeeshop table means something different to me than it would to you.

So perhaps my challenge is not just writing the desert, but writing my desert. Trying to translate into words what that environment means to me, and why it haunts me.

When you sit down to write, what are you trying to capture? What are you trying to immortalize? What disappeared or far-off landscape haunts your writing? Or, put another way—when your characters get lost, where do they go?

Kaely Horton is Barnstorm's fiction editor.

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