I often wonder how people who live in big cities write. Not how they write, since writing can be done anywhere (I wrote a passage for my first novel Dolls Behaving Badly on the back of receipts propped up against a cantaloupe at the supermarket) but how they find the inspiration to write when they’re surrounded by pavement and concrete and the constant hum of traffic and noise.
I need to be around the mountains in order to write, need to see them rising up against the background, need to know that there are open spaces with nothing but land and mountains and water before and behind and beyond me. Ideally, I need to be up in the mountains.
A few days ago my partner and I took the dog for a walk up the Middle Fork Trail, out by Prospect Heights. It was partly sunny and the trail was a sheet of ice; for the most part we traipsed through the brush along the side. Still, we were out of the small city where we live and the air smelled cold and clean, and the mountains rose beside us, opening up as we walked.
There’s a place on this trail about a mile in, right before a curve, where I was hit with the idea for my second novel. This happened one winter about five years ago as I ran with the dog. It was dark, the moon almost full so that everything was bathed in a dim light; I didn’t even need to turn on my headlamp.
On the way back to the trailhead I stopped to go to the bathroom. I hadn’t passed anyone the whole run so figured it was safe. As soon as I pulled down my tights, with my bare behind pointed right at the trail, a mountain biker blared through the darkness and screeched to a halt inches from my half-frozen butt.
Right at that moment, a scene from my novel crashed into my head. I didn’t know it was a novel at the time, of course, but it was a scene and I stayed with it. I barely blinked at the biker, I stayed crouched down in the snow, my tights around my ankles, my eyes straight ahead as I concentrated on these people who had suddenly and mysteriously entered my life: A man named Dillon and a woman named Sasha. They were out in the desert where it was hot and the landscape was brown and dusty, and the woman wore expensive shoes, so unlike my own scruffy running shoes.
Almost four years later, I’m putting the finishing touch on this novel and it seems impossible that there was a time when I didn’t know these characters, when they didn’t fill my life; I’ve spent so much time with them they are like family, bound not by blood but memory and imagination.
I’ll have to let them go soon. It’s going to be painfully difficult. Yet each time I run the Middle Fork trail, as I round that corner, I hope that I get a warm feeling beneath my skin, the way I always do when remembering old friends.
If I had been living in New York City or Chicago, would these same characters have still come to me, were we fated to meet, was it inevitable. There is no answer, of course. But still I wonder.
P.S. I’ve stumbled across a blog post I must share: When Bad Books Happen to Good People: The Goldfinch. And yes, the post is as good as the title. It’s by Jackie Mallon, of course, a blogger I’m slowly falling in love with. Her novel Silk for the Feed Dogs arrived from Amazon and I can’t wait to start reading. It’s a thick book but not too thick, just the right weight and bulk to keep one’s hands happy.
Happy reading and writing, everyone.