My fellow Debs and I are blogging this week about our favorite types of scenes to write, and it made me think of something George Saunders said once about how you should always write into your strengths. Saunders claims he’s not great at plot (methinks he’s being a touch humble), and so when he writes, he emphasizes his characters, or setting, or whatever, in order to make up for the fact that he believes his plotting is weak.
I think my strength as a writer is setting, building a mood by building a world. I think, even before I read George Saunders’ advice, that I was unconsciously foregrounding setting in my work, and in that way,
I think that my favorite types of scenes to write are the establishing shots, the ones that locate the audience in a place, a time, a frame of mind.
A lot of writers have locations that they go back to again and again in their work. For Jess Walter it’s Spokane, for Faulkner it’s Oxford, Mississippi, and for me it’s my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas.
I lived in Corpus Christi from the age of 10 until I left for college at 18. My parents still live there in the same house I grew up in, and so, with apologies to Thomas Wolfe, some of us can go home again. Corpus Christi is like every other city in that it has its virtues and its faults. It has a beautiful beach, the weather is great, people there are friendly and helpful, and it’s a fantastic place for kids. But it’s also polluted, plagued with health problems, and subject to the precarious whims of the oil economy.
To truly love a place, I believe, is to see it for what it really is.
And it’s the darndest thing, and something I didn’t realize until after I’d been writing many years, but all of my writing takes place in and around Corpus Christi. All of it. Even when I say I’m writing about other places, I’m always writing about Corpus Christi. My novel, MONA AT SEA, is set in Tucson, Arizona for logistical and practical reasons, but when I was writing about the heat slicking the small of Mona’s back, or the dough-colored strip malls scrolling endlessly along the highway, I was writing about Corpus Christi. Like a lovesick kid scrawling bad poetry in their Trapper Keeper, I can’t get Corpus out of my head.
And I think that when you love something, or someplace, it becomes a pleasure to write about it, to endlessly excavate it in all its beauty and ugliness.
My favorite scenes to write are when I get to unfold a long, rolling view of the landscape, and imbue it with subtext that will set the stage for the action to come.
Here’s a passage from MONA AT SEA that lays out Tucson during the Great Recession, but could really be any American city in 2009:
“I pass entire housing tracts aborted and forsaken, model homes proud and erect near the main road and sadder, lesser homes trailing back into the foothills, diminishing block by block so that some lack roofs, some walls, some no more than concrete slabs marooned inside pools of compacted brown dirt. CASH FOR GOLD!! I pass a dozen yellow signs fronting a dozen different pawn shops, spun by lackluster people with sunburnt hands, and I wonder if they, too, lost amazing jobs, now forced into the role of human billboard. At a stoplight I watch a man crawl into the narrow space between a highway overpass and a retaining wall and settle in for a nap.”
The bleak picture of empty model homes and human billboards mirrors the desperation Mona feels as she faces her own financial crisis. The image of houses standing empty while a man prepares to sleep under an overpass also prepares us for Mona’s strong opinions about late-stage capitalism.
In my short story, “Islands,” published last summer in [PANK], an unnamed protagonist wanders through her suburban neighborhood in search of a cold drink on a hot summer day.
One, two, three, four—red vinyl yard signs dotted the road, BUSH COUNTRY ‘94 declared in tall white letters like church steeples. This was a neighborhood that loved signs and sigils, banners proclaiming Spring, another SuperBowl win for the Cowboys, a daughter on the JV cheerleading squad, love of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, mini billboards advertising the dearest identities uniting the people inside all the identical brick houses. Corpus Christi, body of Christ. Something about living in or on Christ’s body made people wish to declare themselves.
The rigidity implied in church steeples, and the emphasis of the all-caps, BUSH COUNTRY, conveys a very specific conservative identity of the people in the houses. The narrator feels estranged from this identity, which is why she is able to take so close a look at the signs decorating her neighbors’ yards. She’s like an anthropologist studying a foreign tribe.
Writing setting may not feel as sexy as action, or dialog, or, well, sex, but all action and dialog and sex have to take place somewhere, and readers have to get an understanding of whether this somewhere is a happy or sad place, and what they should expect from what will take place there.
I mentioned an establishing shot earlier, which is film parlance for a shot that sets the context for what’s about to happen. One of my favorite movies is, There Will Be Blood, a film about a ruthless oil speculator. The opening shot shows us hills in New Mexico, scored against a crescendoing symphonic drone that becomes almost unbearable. The parched landscape and the unforgiving sound sets us up for a film about a parched and unforgiving man.
And that’s what I’m trying to do when I write scenes: paint a picture that’s as vivid as these hills under the intense glare of the sun, and that carries the foreboding of that sustained note.
But for me the landscape is always Corpus Christi. From the beach to the potholed roads to the fallow cotton fields, for better or worse, forever and on, it’s where my heart is.